Monday, June 25, 2007

MORE EXPAT TALES: The Boat People 1 - The Story of Ba

Here's another piece from my high school editor and friend, Rolando A. Lampa, a Pinoy expat in Australia. Here, he tells the story of two Vietnamese men he made friends with in Oz -- former "boat people" who "paid for their visas in blood and tears."

In Australia, most English-speaking migrants gravitate towards the public service. It’s a mini-United Nations. In my time as Customs Officer and later, Tax Officer, I worked with so many first and second generation migrants that we sometimes played a game of spot-the-native-born-Aussie in the Office. I made friends with Maltese, Anglo-Indians, Serbs, Cypriots, Mauritanians, Italians, South Africans and Sri-Lankans. Most came to Aussieland like me under the qualification points system with sponsorship from close kin.

But there were two guys in my first office who were different from the others. They were Vietnamese "reffos" (refugees), and they were young men with old eyes. The routes they took in coming to Australia were different from the rest of us.

I remember two in particular, Ba and Loc.

I first met Ba at the Customs Office when I was the Detained Goods Clerk at Melbourne docks. He was then the Uniforms Officer and we shared an office and storeroom. Ba was a shy, bespectacled, dapper little man with really polite manners and very gentle demeanor. I used to watch him service uniform requisitions, leading officers to the dressing rooms to try the uniforms on and patiently going back and forth to the storeroom to find just the right size for the finicky ones. He was unfailingly courteous, not complaining when officers would walk in even during lunch break or tea time asking to be served.

We used to talk in the afternoons, when work dragged. The accent took a little getting used to and Ba was not very fluent in English but I understood him well enough. He came, he said, from the “camps” – the Indonesian refugee camps. He was born to a well-to-do Saigon family; his mother, he said, owned three groceries and so they were able to afford the boatmen’s asking fees when time came to quit the place.

They were in the second wave, around 1980. They were heading for Malaysia or Singapore and through to the west coast of Australia but didn’t make it and wound up in Indonesia. Processing by the UN took more than five years but Ba and his father and two uncles finally made it.

Foolishly, I asked about his mother. Dead, he said in a flat voice -- and his aunts and an older sister, all dead. Suddenly, I recalled all I had read about the fishermen/pirates in the Gulf of Thailand and the orgy of plunder and rapine that the flotilla of boat refugees from Vietnam had sailed through in trying to get to Australia. I never asked again. Ba must have been a boy at the time. He was only in his mid-twenties when I got to know him.

Speaking to him in private, I understood Ba hated the communist regime in his old country with a passion. Their house and their stores had been expropriated. Communist policy, I commented but Ba shook his head. No, some ranking military officers got their hands on their properties is all, nothing to do with socialism. But Ba was upbeat about things, in that oddly polite way that he had.

There were a couple of younger sisters back in Saigon he was sponsoring, through the family reunion policy at the UN International Refugees Commission. At first, I felt a little envy; if only we Pinoys could work our way through an appropriate UN office as the Vietnamese could, maybe we could get over more of our family members. But thinking like that made me feel guilty; we Pinoys would never have knowingly endured the terrors that the Vietnamese boat people had. Ba and his family had paid for their visas in blood and tears.

A couple of months before he moved on to the Airport (ethnics were badly needed there), something happened that showed me another side of Ba. There was this burly Building Maintenance officer up on the second floor who occasionally came down to greet officers coming in for their uniforms. His name was Digby and he was your caricature redneck, a loudmouth with very vocal views about too many Asians swamping Australia and all that.

One time, I saw Digby at the end of the room, whispering to another officer and turning around to say something to Ba, guffawing and braying all the time. I couldn’t hear from that distance but Ba suddenly stooped down and in one fluid motion scooped up a massive telephone directory and flung it at Digby’s face. The next moment, Ba had jumped up on the table, hands in the standard karate stance and other officers in the room were rushing in to break it up. Break what up…. Digby was stumbling out the door, clutching a broken nose. He never came down to our office again. They hushed it all up and Ba got his requested transfer, anyway.

I haven’t seen Ba for several years now but I liked that little guy. I hope his sponsorship of his kid sisters was successful.

Rolando Agaton Lampa
Melbourne, Australia

Watch out for the next expat tale: The Story of Loc


exskindiver said...

I love this story. Not because of Digby's broken nose but because it showed Ba's decision to refuse abuse.
Ba with his flat voiced resignation about death.
Ba's consistently odd politeness.
Ba's decision to take care of a problem.

Your friend writes very well.
Simply written with much volume.
Thanks for sharing.

Ang dami ko ng nasabi because this story interests me. Not only as an immigrant myself but also because I worked at the UN Refugee Processing Center for two years. Every time I watched the refugees board their bus en route to the airport for their "new life" I always got a lump in my throat. I wondered how they would fare.
(sorry for posting such a long comment)

Jerry said...

This is a simply written but beautiful story, and one that packs a wallop.

We feel and cheer for the Ba's of the world who as Mr. Lampsa says paid dearly for their visas.

I await the next story.

cacofonix said...

Such a beautiful, poignant story that keenly depicts Ba's strength of character as shaped by his experience as a boat refugee, along with the sacrifices and the gut-wrenching losses it entailed. I totally understand where the little brave guy's coming from (re: Digby's abuse and broken nose) being an immigrant myself.

I've so much respect for the resilience of the Vietnamese boat refugees, so much respect...

Thanks for sharing the story...

ScroochChronicles said...

The story pretty much summarizes what most of our immigrant Asian brothers are going through all over the world. Actually, I don't think it is appropriate that they be called refugees..dapat..aspiring immigrants. Parang napaka-derogatory ng "refugees". Besides, when they do get in, most of them become useful members of the community. Tignan mo na lang sa Northern Territory ng Oz and sa Honkouver, Canada. Puro Asians and doing very well.

Heart of Rachel said...

Thanks for sharing this story. I'm sorry that Ba and his family went through so much. I admire his dedication to help his family. He sounds like a very kind, courteous and patient man but I'm glad that he has the courage to face people who wants to abuse him.

Heart of Rachel said...

Hi again Anna. You have been awarded in my blog. :)

snglguy said...

Reading this piece made me recall what chef/restaurateur and tv personality, Bobby Chin, said in the Vietnam episode of his program "World Cafe". He mentioned towards the end of the show that the Vietnamese are a "gentle and fun-loving people... just don't go to war with them".

Is it any wonder why the Vietnamese were able to kick out their French colonizers, and later, the Americans from their shores?

diogenes said...

Deeply touching story and beautifully written by you. It has to be moving. Thinking of expats and human migration; What comes to mind is generally tough life; misery some time.

lady cess said...

very inspiring. i wonder where ba is now. must be very successful wherever he is.

Chateau said...

This reminds me of the story of how my FIL's brothers (all Chinese immigrants to the Philippines) made some Pinoy bullies roll out and down a billiard hall in Binondo with their karate chops. :D

Anna, yes Friday will be great for the awarding ceremony hehe. Text you.

pining said...

Oh well, Digby had it coming, so, serves him right!
have to admire BA's gut for standing up to him, but if that happens at this moment in time, it might cause havoc...

Gypsy said...

This reminded me of my time working in the Refugee camp in Bataan eons ago. The stories were tragic and heartbreaking but I continue to be in awe by their hardy spirits--not to let their past define their future. Thanks for sharing...

Toe said...

Kawawa talaga mga boatpeople. The saddest things about the wars in Indochina is that the enemy is not another country. Like in Vietnam, kapwa-Vietnamese din ang nagpahirap sa kanila. Ganito din sa Cambodia. The killings and the tortures are senseless... all in the name of a ruthless brand of communism. If you live in an Indochina country, you see a lot of those young people with old eyes. I know what Mr. Lampa means by that.

evi said...

we have to stand up for ourselves when we have to. that's just what he did. bravo!

niceheart said...

This is the first time I heard of Vietnamese refugees' stories. Heart-breaking what they went through, but inspiring in the end. Thanks for sharing.

Rolly Lampa said...

Hi Exskindiver

As one Pinoy migrant to another, I think what fascinates us about the boat people is the unknown violence through which they fled. Something about the manner of their arrival reminds us forcefully of all the escaped prisoner movies we have ever seen – from Tim Robbins crawling through the muck in Shawshank Redemption to the Von Trapp family hiding behind the tombs in The Sound of Music. With us Pinoys, the process of migration is highlighted with memories of photocopies, documents, show-money, consul interviews, etc. The memories of the boat people are marked by searchlights, gunfire on the high seas, storms and sharks and camp perimeter fencing. Iba ang pinagdaanan nila.

Hi Jerry Hi Cacofonix Hi Heart of Rachel

Yes … a lot to admire in these guys. I think what they went through defines them collectively as well as individually. I think them to be men of substance.

Hi Scroochchronicles

You know what ? I’m very proudly Pinoy but as a migrant, I find myself also proudly identifying with Asians. In Aussieland, the locals think highly of Asians; they reckon Asians are smart, mostly moneyed, very family-oriented, shrewd in business, and very competitive scholastically. Every year when high school graduates apply for admission to university, the local papers regularly publish the names of topnotchers in the entry lists for the prestige courses like Medicine, Law, etc., and it’s so predictable. The lists are invariably dominated by Chinese and Indian names. Hey, they’re Asians, they’re naturally bright! that’s what they say. Well, we Pinoys are Asians too, that’s what we say.

Hi Snglguy

True! I hear even the toughest street gangs in L.A. and New York show respect for the Viet boys. And absolutely no one messes with the Cambodians.

Hi Diogenes

Migration … the buzz word of our times. Over the last 30 years perhaps, and still gathering momentum … we might be witnessing the greatest relocation movement of the most number of people in history.

Hi Lady Cess

Far as I know, Ba is still at Melbourne International Airport. He’s a passport control officer – one of the guys where you queue up to have your passport stamped as you’re entering the country. He’s OK; he’s a survivor.

Hi Chateau Hi Pining Hi Evi

You liked the fight-back episode of Ba’s story, ha? Talagang Pinoy … all the sympathy is with the underdog.

Hi Toe

You said it, mate. Kababayan din ang nang-aapi, that’s the cruellest cut of all. May the Pinoy nation be spared.

Hi Gypsy Hi Niceheart

You’re welcome. Telling those stories was a real pleasure.

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