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Sheila Pham is a writer, radio producer, communications professional and public health specialist. Her writing has appeared in anthologies, websites and publications including The Big Issue and Kill Your Darlings.
Sheila Pham*

12 May 2015 - 3:37 PM  UPDATED 18 May 2015 - 4:05 PM

Dad wrote down the name of his friend on a scrap of blue paper. He no longer had a phone number or even address details, but he remembered his friend lived in Salzburg, like in The Sound of Music. Contact details had been lost a long time ago, sometime during the mid90s. I figured it was going to be a long shot to find a sixtysomething year old Vietnamese man living in Austria, a country of more than eight million people…but with Google, it took about 30 seconds. The results came back with just one name. Turns out that Austria only took in around 2000 Vietnamese refugees, a mere fraction of Australia’s total intake.

Austria was one of the first countries I heard about as a child because Dad would often mention that a good friend of his lived there, someone he’d grown up with in Cần Thơ and later collaborated with when organising a boat. As a country, Austria seemed so unlikely though; maybe they’d meant to write “Australia” on their application and gotten the spelling wrong.

I was surprised to learn that Dad had filled in the forms for Austria for both him and his friend. But Dad had been rejected whereas his friend and his family had been accepted. I never imagined that I could’ve grown up speaking German instead of English.

Last year, I arranged to meet with this long lost friend of Dad’s, bác Công, along with his wife, and they met me at the train station in Salzburg. It was a warm encounter, like a meeting between old friends. But we hadn’t met before because it was my first time in Austria…and they had left the refugee camp on Pulau Bidong in June 1980. I was born exactly a year later in Australia. Up until that moment, I’d only ever met people from the boat who were related to me, so that harrowing journey might as well have been a creation myth about how we came to be. This was the first time I was meeting some of the other passengers, which finally took away the anonymity of the others for me. When I met this elderly Vietnamese couple in Salzburg, so many things came flooding out. I’d also barely spoken Vietnamese over the course of a year living in Europe.

“But why Austria?” I asked them.

“The thing is, we’d left two of our children behind in Vietnam so we couldn’t wait on the island,” said Bac Cong. “We wanted to be settled somewhere as quickly as possible so we could bring them over. Austria took us after three weeks.”
They took me back to their modest apartment, in a public housing area of Salzburg. They’d downsized a decade ago because their six children had grown up and all lived in Vienna, only coming back to Salzburg to visit. I could see why their children preferred living in the big city and wanted their parents move to be closer to them all. “I’d be fine to move,” said his wife, whom I called bác Công gái. “But bác Công doesn’t want further disruption to his life.”

Their home looked like every Vietnamese home I’d ever visited: shoes off, slippers on, lacquer panels featuring rural scenes of women wearing non la in rice paddies, a large rumpled map of Vietnam on the wall. But it was the general crowdedness that felt especially familiar – like the oldfashioned cabinets full of useless ornaments and crystal drinking glasses, the bathroom with extra bottles of shampoo and body wash. It was a relief to be in a real Vietnamese home again. Bác Công went to his room for an afternoon nap, and the sound of his snoring soon drifted through the small apartment. Bác Công gai insisted on serving me an afternoon snack. The simple bowl of instant noodles was garnished with a few bean sprouts and crispy fried shallots. She added sliced up cha lua that she made herself because the nearest place to buy the Vietnamese pork ham was in Germany. They went to Munich every few months to shop at the Asian specialty supermarkets and to worship at a large temple. It was actually closer to go over the border to Germany than to go to Vienna.

“I’ve had to learn how to make a lot of the food we eat,” she said, “It’s not like Australia where you can buy all these things so easily.” Yet I’d spent most of my life hearing my parents complain about all the Vietnamese food you simply couldn’t get in Australia.

Bác Công hadn't worked in decades because of his poor health, ailments that stemmed from shrapnel lodged in his body and other injuries sustained during the war. The next day, during his regular medical appointment, I went off with bác Công gái, and we met an acquaintance of hers on the bus, a welldressed older Vietnamese woman. I could hear that her pronunciation of German was perfect, unlike that of my hosts. Bác Công gái explained: “This woman was the only Vietnamese person here when we arrived so she was our interpreter. She was from a rich family and had been a student in Austria during the war, marrying an Austrian man.”

Salzburg’s only modern shopping centre was a little out of town. When we walked through the automatic glass doors, the gust of airconditioning offered immediate respite from the heat of the summer day. “Let’s find something to eat for lunch,” she said, steering me towards a fastfood seafood joint. For ten euros you could have battered fish with boiled rice garnished with a sprinkling of parsley, a lemon wedge and some sort of thick white sauce.

“If you stayed here for a week,” she said, “You’ll find bác Công really pleasant and easygoing. But longer than that, he’s very difficult to please…”

“You should speak to my mother sometime,” I said. “You and her have a lot to talk about.”

Even though my relationship with my own father had greatly evolved over the years to a place of real understanding, in that moment I knew exactly the difficulty she alluded to because it was a distinct echo of what I’d been through myself. And not just me, but so many others I’d met over the years, fathers who were from another time and place.

“I worked fulltime and also cared for our children,” she said. “He helped out where he could but with
his injuries…well, we can’t complain, the Austrian government has looked after us. At the beginning no one
here knew anything about us being Vietnamese. But they understand more now, things are better.”


*Sheila Pham is a writer, radio producer, communications professional and public health specialist. Her writing has appeared in anthologies, websites and publications including The Big Issue and Kill Your Darlings. Her play, These People , was staged in February 2015 by Apocalypse Theatre for its asylum season, and her radio play, The Lonely Planet Guide to New Delhi , was performed at the Sydney Fringe Festival 2012. Sheila was a storyteller in Performance 4a’s production Stories Then and Now , which had seasons at Carriageworks and Casula Powerhouse in 2013. While she was at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, she edited ABC Pool and produced programs for ABC Radio, including the fulllength radio documentary, Saigon’s Wartime Beat.