My refugeeness


Beyond Border Control: Rethinking asylum and refugee protection in Australia and the regionAustralia seems divided over boat people. There are those who condemn them as immoral, threatening and un-Australian. Accordingly we have to 'Stop' and perhaps even 'Bomb the Boats!' (as was emblazoned on the T-shirts of two anti-boat people protesters).

Others view boat people as the ultimate underdogs, tortured souls who have been made more worthy by their suffering. The bumper stickers and placards of these advocates proclaim, 'Refugees Welcome!'

Both accounts deserve careful scrutiny. Boat people are, after all, people. There are good and not so good ones; none of them are angels or devils. However because they are human, they are also marked by experience. I like to refer to this legacy of persecution, hardship and displacement as 'refugeeness'.

While the notion of refugeeness is broadly applicable, I first observed it close to home. My parents' earliest memories are of being terrorised by French and Viet Minh forces during the First Indochinese War. They endured poverty and disease. Both were torn away from their homes and loved ones by war.

But these experiences were not all negative. From their dislocation Mum and Dad fashioned radical perspectives on the world. They came to believe that the West offered ideas and technologies that could be fruitfully adopted in and for Vietnam.

My father would harbour a modern sense of can-do-ism and irreverence for tradition throughout his life. It was his vision of a new and better world along with the conviction that his sons had no future in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, that drove us on to that horribly overcrowded boat in 1979.

Mum and Dad's refugeeness — their capacity to make something practical out of practically nothing — also proved valuable after we escaped. During our ordeal in a Malaysian refugee camp they assembled lamps out of loose threads and cans, sieved rice flour using mosquito nets, and maintained our hut with a knife and spoon (both of which are still in the cutlery draw).

Yet my parents' victories were by no means absolute. The stress of secretly organising our escape, of knowing that one wrong move or twist of fate could lead to our demise, also had a lasting impact. To this day they have an instinctive distrust of the state that transcends ideology.

During the months preceding our departure, my parents contracted insomnia so that I have never known them to sleep for more than five hours at a time. Even when he is at rest, my father's fists are clenched. The sound of waves or the sight of an empty suitcase evokes in my mother an unsteady dismay.

Despite their contentedness in Australia and the fact that they return to Vietnam regularly, my parents are still burdened by the loss of their homeland.

Refugeness, then, has is pluses and minuses. I refer to the creativity and resourcefulness that comes with having one's ears close to the ground and eyes fixed on the horizon as a 'seismic outlook'. The less positive aspect of refugeeness, which incorporates a misanthropic dread and profound pessimism about the human condition, can be regarded as a 'phobic outlook'.

I often detect seismic and phobic dimensions in displaced people who I encounter in everyday life and my wider explorations. There's a strong seismic flavour, for example, to Albert Einstein's endeavours. His 'obstinate sense of detachment' (as he put it) was very much linked to his genius. Being apart from others was a prerequisite for his imaginative leaps.

Similarly, the great Italian author and Auschwitz survivor, Primo Levi, prized the resourcefulness and adaptability that he acquired in the camps. Amazingly, he calculated that the sum total of his experiences as a deportee made him 'richer and surer', 'taught him many things about man and the world' and were thus 'clearly positive'.

The Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss reacted to his dislocation in a far more phobic way. Strauss became convinced that Nazi thinking was 'instructive for Zionists' in the sense that if Jews were to survive they had to accept a world that was defined by conflict, prejudice and deception.

There is an unmistakeable phobic refugeeness in Roman Polanski's life and films, both of which are underpinned by cruelty, alienation and the absurd.

I have also detected a vein of refugeeness in me. If so, it would make sense to nurture my seismic side while curtailing the phobic outgrowths.

It perhaps follows that Australia should select 'good boat people' and reject the not so good ones. But it may not be desirable or even possible to vanquish some elements of refugeeness in order to favour others. Moreover, decisions about who deserves asylum should not turn on whether there are more positives than negatives in saving someone's life.

The seismic and phobic qualities of refugeeness can thus be imagined as two sides of the same ever spinning refugeeness coin. The point is not to bet on heads or tails, but rather to explore the history and symbolism of the inscriptions and to underline the value of the metal.

Kim HuynhKim Huynh is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the Australian National University. He has written a book about his parents' lives during and after the Indochinese Wars, Where the Sea Takes Us. This is an edited extract from his contribution to a new volume of RMIT University's Globalism Research Centre journal, Beyond Border Control 

Topic tags: Kim Huynh, refugeeness, Beyond Border Control, vietnam, boat people



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Existing comments

fascinating insight

one point sometimes missed is that the main reason for rejecting refugees is the fear that acceptance will open the floodgates. it is not necessarily personal or racial, or not in every case. i think those of us sympathetic to refugees need to address this point more often. I like this personal insight into the realities of refugeeness.

peter roebuck | 17 November 2010  

Each refugee has an ispiring story that can enrich the minds of young Australians seeking to find the answer to the quetion "What is life?" which my penfriend in China asked me recently.

Ray O'Donoghue | 17 November 2010  

A good article.
Having returned from Lake Eyre to the city last week I am more convinced that Australia should abandon any crazy notion of a big Australia as the country is already over populated for its climate and abilities to sustain.

Never the less I believe it should generously open its gates to all genuine refugees including all boat people.
If one calculates the numbers, it would barely make an over population impact, yet is of such importance to the people desperately seeking asylum. There are many already beautifully established old country towns loosing population to the cities that would do well to accept these people.
It is difficult to believe that Labor and Liberal tend to support such mean spirited platforms regarding this.

Despite all the baggage of the Greens Party, which I do not support, ironically I do see them as being quite humane and sympathetic to this particular issue.

John Whitehead | 17 November 2010  

It's good to read a refugee success story like Kim's and his parents'. But as he writes their success was not unqualified. There is the loss of their homeland and the pain that goes with that, the insomnia, the symptoms of post traumatic stress. And yet their escape does not seem to have been as fraught with danger as that experienced by today's boat people, 30 years later.
In 1949, thirty years previously, my parents migrated to Australia with their large Irish Catholic family from Nortern Ireland. When derided, good-humouredly, for being a ten pound Pom, my father would reply that he was a religious refugee just as much as the Huguenots in 16th century France under Henry IV. Like many a primary educated catholic my parents had a greater knowledge of the religious wars of Europe than contemporary politics. Ulster Unionists would know more about William of Orange than Prince William today.
It looks like we will never be able to prevent conditions in other countries becoming so intolerable that people will go to any lengths to escape them. May those of us who found refuge in Australia treat them in like manner.

Uncle Pat | 17 November 2010  

A gem of an article. The sort of thing that one is deeply surprised by, but not surprised to find in ES. Thanks Kim.

Joe Castley | 17 November 2010  

Kim Huynh's insightful article highlights an issue frequently overlooked in discussions about refugees and asylum seekers- the sense of displacement and grief associated with loss of homeland. The assumption of many Australians is that asylum seekers and refugees merely come for a better life, discounting the push factors which force so many to seek protection elsewhere. Most people actually prefer to be in their own countries and communities, with extended family and friends,and a familiar culture and language. War and communal conflict has made that impossible for so many.

Refugees here have to cope with the traumatic memories of flight as well as the loss of country and sense of belonging, complicating the process of beginning life anew in Australia.

Kate J | 17 November 2010  

The courage and resilience shown by asylum seekers and refugees can surely be an asset to us here in the Lucky Country. Australia has benefited greatly from the skills and cultural richness of migrants for generations. We should encourage the talents and energy of our newest arrivals too.Kim's final point underlines our need to throw away our judgmental attitudes and value what each one has to offer. We can be richer for their arrival.

Anne | 17 November 2010  

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