As she was ladling the rest of the stock into my bowl of Pho, Mrs Nguyen said, ‘I like Singapore. It’s very beautiful. We see it from the boat’.
I was at my first dinner over at Julie’s parents’ in the south-western suburb of Lakemba, where from then on, I was always guaranteed a bowl of the best MSG-free Pho in Sydney because Julie herself hated the stuff. As far as possible, Jules would sneak out for a sandwich or felafel or anything, as long as it wasn’t Vietnamese. Jules and I became friends at law school only because I loved Vietnamese food and she hated it, and she had brought me home that first time so I could finish everything her mother cooked.
It’s no surprise I was 10kg heavier than I am now when I hung out with Jules. Her mum cooked the tastiest Vietnamese food I’ve ever eaten. Apart from that, Jules was really fun to be with, especially when she was with her best friend, Nu, and the two of them would often put on Spice Girls skits on the train to Uni. But it was Jules’ hilarious ignorance of all matters Vietnamese that made it even more fun.
Once, when it was reported that one of the members of the notorious 5T Gang had been killed, she had said very innocently, ‘Now, they have to call themselves the 4T Gang’.
Things only got a little closer to home for Jules when Nu’s brother was arrested in connection with the murder of a NSW State MP. At that point, I felt that it was the first time either Jules or Nu had to confront anything Vietnamese. But Jules simply said, ‘Crime’s just crime and it’s got nothing to do with whether you’re Vietnamese or Lebanese’.
Of course, the popular sentiment at that time was that ‘ethnic groups’ caused crime, and children of ‘non-english-speaking-background’ were industrious and scored the best places at the best universities. Such that one of the jokes bandied about at that time (and bandied about by a stand-up comedian of Vietnamese origin called ‘Hung’) went:
How do you know when your house has been burgled by a Vietnamese?
Your dog is gone and your kids’ homework’s done.
It was at another, later Pho binge at Jules’ parents’ that Mrs Nguyen again said, ‘I like Singapore. Very beautiful. We see it from the boat.’, and I had looked up (from placing my face directly over the bowl) and asked what turned out to be the question that opened the can, ‘Oh, how long did you stay in Singapore?’
‘We did not go to Singapore. We only see from boat’.
‘Why not?’, I ventured further, realising only at the end of my question that she had meant seeing Singapore from their refugee-filled boat.
‘They did not allow us. They give us oil (fuel), give us food, give us water, then they pull the boat away from Singapore. Julie will not remember. She was only 18 months old’.
Further conversations with Jules’ brother and father revealed that their boat had been towed out to international waters, where they were picked up by Malaysian coastal police boats, and the refugees were placed in a camp somewhere on the east coast of Malaysia. The Nguyens were later accepted under an Australian resettlement initiative, and have been living in Sydney since 1977.
The last time I spoke with Jules, she had just quit her job as a tax lawyer and had taken on what she felt was a more fulfilling job as a family lawyer in a smaller firm. Over the phone, I could hear her mother interrupting her now and again, and she had shouted back in her typically Australian-accented Vietnamese. I wanted to ask her how her mum’s Pho master stock was doing, and whether she was still making Pho feasts from it, but I figured Jules wouldn’t have cared the least for it, and she’d have talked more about how the damned Starbucks and Borders outlets were taking over Sydney.
Jules eating Tom Yam soup because it’s Thai and not Vietnamese. Sydney 1997.