Belonging Essay

Text One: Review

On home and haven

THE FORUM: Minh Bui Jones | October 18, 2008
FROM the sludge of the harbour to the sparkling water of the sea, there was an endless stretch of blue and red boats.
The painted eyes on the prows, to ward off misfortune, bobbed in the gentle current.

After an absence of more than 30 years, Vung Tau, a fishing town on the tip of a peninsula 125km south of Ho Chi Minh City, appeared as I remembered it. It was idyllic, if you could ignore the baking heat and the pong of rotting fish. At low tide, when the stench was unbearable, the wooden trawlers would lean on their sides. Getting to your boat meant frog-leaping from one vessel to another.
From this spot 30 years ago, my family made a giant leap to a new life. In the early hours of one morning in April 1978, my sisters and I were woken from our sleep. I was nine years old and I remember only the darkness, the whispers and the fear.
Sealed up in a secret compartment my father had built in our fishing boat, we were told not to make a sound while the Customs officers made their inspection. My sister was only three and the fate of the entire family seemingly rested on her. If she had made the tiniest of squeaks we would have ended up in a re-education camp or something worse.
Fortunately we passed the checkpoint undetected and made it out to sea. Not for long, though. Our relief was shattered by the crack of gunfire from behind. Somewhere on the dark horizon a patrol boat was giving chase. But as it gained on us, a thick sea mist descended. Mum maintains to this day that Buddha came down on a cloud to save us.
And that was just the first morning of our long journey to a foreign haven. Sick, hungry, thirsty and lost, we were easy pickings for the elements and the pirates. The latter came twice, took anything of value, but spared our lives. Eventually we made it to Malaysia and beached on a tropical island cum refugee camp where we were fed, clothed and processed. We arrived...