Cat Thao Nguyen is an Australian citizen who fears for the future of the country. When her family arrived as refugees in 1980, after a long and harrowing journey from Vietnam, through Cambodia and Thailand, they were welcomed with kindness and compassion. There were many difficulties to confront, but they gradually found their feet with the help of government and community agencies, fellow refugee families, kindly neighbours and their own resourcefulness.
Then in 1996, Pauline Hanson was elected to federal parliament. As a teenager, Cat “watched in awe as she (Pauline Hanson) spoke of the ‘reverse racism’ suffered by white Australians as a result of Aboriginal assistance, of how the nation’s immigration policy had led to the imminent danger of Australia being swamped by Asians”. In the decades following, Cat has watched as the country has become increasingly “xenophobic, fearful and risk averse”. Leaders of both major political parties have done little to dispel this and Cat is thankful that her family, like so many other Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 80s are not trying to seek asylum in Australia now.
Cat Thao Nguyen was speaking at the Sydney launch of her personal memoir We Are Here, on Wednesday, February 25, and reading extracts from her book, often through tears. I first met Cat in 2002, when she was a Sydney University law student and co-curator of VietPOP: Emergence at Liverpool Regional Museum, an exhibition of work by young Vietnamese-Australians. I wrote about this experience and her subsequent presentation at a 2009 conference Echoes of a War at Casula Powerhouse, in my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney. By this time, she was an international lawyer working in Vietnam. Her insights about the experiences of refugee families and her clarity in explaining them were impressive and deeply moving.
We Are Here took her seven years to write. Both her parents had suffered almost unbearable privations in Vietnam and on the journey to Australia. Cat knew she had to be very sensitive to their pain as she gathered more of their stories. She traces her own growing up with humour and honesty as her parents worked patiently in an atmosphere of constant struggle and humiliation to provide for their three children and assist family back in Vietnam. After a particularly difficult time for them, she wrote “That day I vowed I would do whatever I could to be worthy of being my parents’ daughter, a daughter of this family – a family that was surviving.” And indeed she has. Inspired by their integrity and commitment to family, she attained a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Law, became a youth representative to the UN General Assembly and an advocate for children’s rights. She is now a director of Ernst & Young, Vietnam, where she lives with her Chinese Canadian husband.
A second event was held in Bankstown, where so much of Cat’s story takes place. April Pham wrote, “A Sunday well spent at my friend Thao’s book launch for friends and family in Bankstown. A moving launch. Am so proud of her and her book about her family’s journey and the importance of living ethically. It speaks to so many of us, not only as refugees, but as individuals trying to live a life with purpose. Highly recommend We Are Here by Thao Nguyen.” Cat Thao took the photo above at Sydney Airport, on her way to Adelaide Writers Festival, March 2. She wrote, “En route to Adelaide for Adelaide Writers Week and saw my book next to Obama’s in Sydney airport! Surreal and emotional.” Click here to order a copy.