Anh Do’s funny/sad autobiography won this years Indie Award for non-fiction.
The Happiest Refugee was very easy to read, full of self-deprecating humour and honesty. I grew up with tales of Vietnamese boat people on the news. During the 70’s there was a lot of media backlash against the boat people. Racism and fear about Asian gangs was rife.
It’s not so different now except that the boat people are coming from different countries.
Australians are curious beings. Some of us can say the most obnoxious generalisations and racist comments at the drop of a hat. But underneath, and at a personal level, we can be kind-hearted and generous. Any story that helps Australians tap into this side of themselves can only be a good thing.
Anh Do is so likeable and easy-going that even the staunchest anti-immigrationist must be moved by his story.
Autobiographies can be a cathartic experience for the writer; but Anh Do’s story can also help us to exorcise the ghosts of 1970’s Australian history.
Anh Do nearly didn’t make it to Australia. His entire family came close to losing their lives on the sea as they escaped from war-torn Vietnam in an overcrowded boat. But nothing – not murderous pirates, nor the imminent threat of death by hunger, disease or dehydration as they drifted for days – could quench their desire to make a better life in the country they had dreamed about.
Life in Australia was hard, an endless succession of back-breaking work, crowded rooms, ruthless landlords and make-do everything. But there was a loving extended family, and always friends and play and something to laugh about for Anh, his brother Khoa and their sister Tram.
Things got harder when their father left home when Anh was only nine – they felt his loss very deeply and their mother struggled to support the family on her own. His mother’s sacrifice was an inspiration to Anh and he worked hard during his teenage years to help her make ends meet, also managing to graduate high school and then university.
Another inspiration was the comedian Anh met when he was about to sign on for a 60-hour a week corporate job. Anh asked how many hours he worked. ‘Four,’ the answer came back, and that was it. He was going to be a comedian!