My name is Lan Le-Ngoc, and I am home!

My name is Lan Le-Ngoc, and I am home!

I was born in Vietnam's capital city, Ho Chi Minh, in 1964. The first 14-years of my life were spent in Vietnam, where I was part of a conventional household. We faced war and continuous shelling, but all that was always in the background. While the signing of Paris Peace Accords in 1973 brought hope, things took turn for the worse in 1975, when the Government surrendered on April 30, and the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. [earlier name of Ho Chi Minh City]

All personnel from the South Vietnamese Government and Army – my father being one of them – were ordered to go for “re-education programme”, where they would be taught on how to be a good citizen in the newly unified communist Vietnam. While we were initially told that the programme will last only a month, I didn't see my father and uncles for the next three years. And that is when I left my birth country. In 1978. On a boat.

Those initial years of the communist rule were like industrialization in reverse. Factories closed and everything was rationed. While schools reopened, all we learnt was about Ho Chi Minh and the communist version of history. Moreover, with family in “re-education”, I had no future to look forward too.

Things took an even worse turn, when Vietnam declared war on Cambodia in 1978 against the Khmer Rouge. Lots of people started leaving.

The escape
My uncle, a trained navigator, was approached by a group of Chinese-Vietnamese who had purchased an old boat and bribed some local officials to let them sail into the South China Sea. In exchange for help in navigation, my uncle was allowed to bring his family members. Though not part of the deal, I managed to sneak in by pure accident.

Trouble began as soon as we reached the sea as there were over 250 people on a 21-metre-long boat. To survive, we had to throw all our luggage into the sea and load everyone down under the deck, so as to lower the centre of gravity of the boat.
The refugees were packed in like sardines; there wasn’t an inch of space anywhere. The cargo hold had no lighting – everyone was in complete darkness. I could hear people groaning and retching, and even from the deck we could smell their vomit.

When we settled, I stood at the railing and looked back at Vietnam. I tried to memorize every detail – thinking that one day I’d return. It was strange because although I’d been there all my life I’d never before seen it from the outside. In my mind, Vietnam meant the city of Saigon. But from the sea it looked just like in the movies. I could see banana plantations, and rows of coconut palms; the jungle looked very green against the water. I stood there just watching my country, as night fell, and it slowly disappeared into the darkness. I was thirteen years old.

The camp
On the evening of the fourth day we reached Malaysia, and my uncle managed to navigate the boat into the harbour at Kuala Terengganu. We could see the glow of the city lights, and the head-lamps of cars driving on the road beside the bay. Morning arrived, and the citizens of Kuala Terengganu awoke to find us moored in their harbour. Nobody came out to see us, and we didn’t know what we should do. Some of us got beaten by the Malaysian Police and they towed us out of the harbour into the river.  

We were taken to Paulo Bidong – a deserted island which the Malaysian government had decided to use as a refugee camp. They offloaded us onto the coral reef, and then we all had to wade through a lagoon to reach land. While some of theChinese-Vietnamese families already had relatives living in the refugee camp, we had none. We couldn't manage a proper shelter that night and it was the the first time I’d slept under the stars. I missed my sister and grandmother – I wanted to go back home to them. [I had already lost my mother to cancer few years back before I left Vietnam]

With food scarce and no shelter, the initial days in the camp were very tough, but I soon fell into a routine on the island. In the morning I would collect water from the wells, gather firewood from the forest, and then queue for our food rations. In the afternoon I was free to do whatever I wanted. I made friends with some other kids my own age, and we used to swim at the beach and explore the coast. Later on my uncle found someone who spoke English – so we also had language lessons to keep us occupied.

But all of this was simply marking time. Everyone had applied to be settled in new countries, and we were all waiting for our cases to be considered. I had a relative who had been to university in New Zealand, and when Saigon had fallen he had been able to go back there. So I put New Zealand down as my first choice – but I also applied for Australia and the USA.

I had to wait about five months to hear from the New Zealand authorities, and in the meantime my other refugee applications were rejected – which was quite worrying. Australia had accepted my uncle’s application, so it seemed like our group would be split up. He and his wife and children would be flown to Sydney, and my young aunt and I would be left behind on the island.

It turned out, however, that New Zealand had been working behind the scenes. One morning some officials turned up and interviewed me and my aunt. The next week New Zealand arranged for the Malaysians to send us to a transfer camp in Kuala Lumpur. So we actually ended up leaving the island before my uncle.

In the transfer camp we met up with about a hundred Vietnamese all going to New Zealand. We were flown to Singapore, and then a delegation of New Zealanders met us at the airport. Life completely changed as soon as the New Zealanders took us under their care. We were taken straight to the New Zealand army camp and given a proper meal – which seemed like an absolute banquet in comparison to our refugee camp diets.

After our meal we were put on a plane to Auckland. The main thing I remember about the flight was the pleasure of being cool after the constant heat and stickiness of Malaysia. When we arrived in Auckland airport I was astonished by the temperature of the terminal, and thought: “Wow, this whole building is air-conditioned – it’s even colder than on the plane”. Then I went outside, and it was even colder still. For a few seconds I had the crazy notion that New Zealand had air-conditioning outdoors – it was so strange for me to be outside and cool at the same time.

We were taken directly to Mangere hostel, and given our own rooms with beds and pillows and sheets and blankets. It seemed incredibly luxurious in comparison to what we’d experienced over the previous six months. We were at the hostel for about three weeks, I think. In the mornings we had English classes, and in the afternoons we learnt about New Zealand culture. We were even given spending money, and encouraged to go to the shops to buy small items for ourselves.

At the end of the English course, my young aunt and I were sent to Christchurch to stay with my relatives. I started school almost immediately. Everything was extremely well organized – people were visiting and donating furniture so that we would have all the necessary items. I even got given a bike, which I rode to school on my first day.

I have some very strong memories of those initial months in Christchurch. The first time I had fish and chips on a Friday night: learning how to tear the top off the newspaper to get the chips out; hugging onto the hot packet to keep myself warm. Or the first time it snowed: sitting in a classroom, and suddenly realizing that snowflakes were drifting down from the sky; watching the students throwing snowballs at lunchtime, and pedalling home through the snowdrifts in the evening. It was just as I had imagined from French stories about winter – it felt like being in a fairytale.

I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed school in New Zealand. My education in Vietnam had been under the French system which involved a great deal of rote learning. I found memorization rather difficult, and wasn’t a great student. But I discovered that the New Zealand system emphasized understanding rather than rote learning – an approach that suited me much better. By fifth form – much to my amazement – I was top of the school in maths, science, and technical drawing.

With scholarships from Rotary Club and Riccarton Trust, as well as doing odd part-time jobs, I managed to carry on with my schooling. I was really determined to make the most of my opportunities during that seventh form year. I worked hard at school during the day, and studied every night. In the weekends I’d get up very early and cycle to Meadow Mushrooms in Prebbleton. I’d put in a full day’s work at the mushroom factory – and then hit the books again when I got home. It was a hard year, but very enjoyable because I had such a clear goal to work towards.

At the end of the year I passed my exams, and also managed to win a university scholarship. With my bursary and living allowance I would be getting almost as much as a real job. I felt incredibly privileged – being paid to study seemed almost too good to be true. By the end of my second year, I was awarded another scholarship for being the top student in mechanical engineering – much to my surprise.

A consolation for the stressful workload was my home life. In my first year at university I boarded with a retired couple, and I lived like royalty. Real kiwi food: lots of meat and vegetables followed by a nice pudding every night. And then a big roast dinner on Sunday with wine and all the trimmings. It was pretty wonderful.

During summer I did my practical work experience as an engineer. The next year I moved into a big flat in Ilam with some of my university friends. We had a very multi-cultural household, and I ended up living with Nigerians, Samoans, Tongans, Fijians, Malaysians, Sri Lankans, Solomon Islanders, and Cook Islanders as well as lots of New Zealanders.

I met so many nice people at that flat over the years – they really made me part of their family, and used to include me in all their social activities. I was actually a paid-up member of the Samoan club, the Fijian club, and the Tongan club all at the same time. In retrospect it must have looked quite funny when we were out together. A group of big strong Pacific islanders, and this skinny Vietnamese guy.

After I finished my mechanical engineering degree with first class honours, I was awarded a doctoral scholarship, which meant that I would be paid a generous stipend to study for a Ph.D.

It turned out that I wasn’t so busy during my Ph.D., and so I decided to offer some of my time to coach school-children who were having difficulties with maths and science. I ended up with four kids to tutor every Saturday morning. It was quite hard work, but it ended up being very worthwhile because one of my students had an older sister who was really nice. Exceptionally nice, actually. And one day I plucked up enough courage to ask her out on a date. Six months later we were engaged.

The year 1990 was a real annus mirabilis for me. At the beginning of the year I handed in my Ph.D. Then my father and sister came to New Zealand, and we were finally re-united as a family. Then I got my job as a scientist at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), which enabled me to buy a nice house for us all to live in. And then, at the very end of the year – on Boxing Day – I got married.

Since then we’ve had two children. Our family has a very conventional life-style: typical New Zealand food, and the same sort of day-to-day activities as everyone else. My son and daughter are both very passionate New Zealanders – in fact, my son, when we was young, wore red and black rubber-bands on his braces to support the Canterbury Super-14 team. My daughter is a keen netball player, and studies art, dance, and music in her spare time. I occasionally think it would be nice if they were more in touch with their Vietnamese heritage, but as long as they’re happy I don’t really mind.

Now, I work as a Senior Research Scientist at the Crown research institute Callaghan Innovation. My son has graduated from university, and over the years we have enjoyed a lot of my daughter's musical performances. Luckily, our family was not affected by the Earthquakes of 2011.
Changing face of New Zealand
Over the years I’ve had a lot of pressure to leave New Zealand from my extended family in Australia and the USA. I know that I could earn much more money in these countries – but I’m not a person who is particularly motivated by that sort of thing. It’s more important for me to make a contribution to New Zealand, which I hope that I do through my science work. My passion is to help solve the problems that face all of humanity, and to improve everyone’s quality of life.

The only trouble – and this is very hard for me to say – is that these days I’m not entirely sure if New Zealand wants me. I feel that I’m appreciated in my profession and within the science community, but on the streets I get a very different reception. People who don’t know me will often treat me quite rudely. In fact, sometimes they are actually insulting.

This behaviour is a comparatively new phenomenon – just in the last decade or so. I never saw it when I was a teenager, and I certainly didn’t live in a posh area or attend any sort of exclusive school. I had summer jobs picking fruit in the orchards down in Clyde, and worked with all sorts of New Zealanders; and I don’t recall any incidents of racism at all. But recently it seems to be everywhere. I’ve had people shouting abuse at me from cars. Even children – that’s the worst.

I suspect that part of the responsibility for such attitudes can be laid at the feet of certain politicians. The rhetoric of people like Winston Peters has actually promoted anti-immigrant sentiment. It was probably always there to a certain extent, but when senior politicians start spouting this sort of nonsense then it isn’t merely airing the views of a racist minority – it actually starts to incite racism.

Easily-led people take such political rhetoric as legitimization of their own bigoted views. They think it gives them carte blanche to treat immigrants rudely in shops, or to shout insults from their cars. Of course, I’m not suggesting that this is the intention of these politicians. They’re just doing it to get votes. I’m sure that after elections they forget all about it. But they don’t realize the long-term impact that it’s having on people like me and my family – who can be easily identified as having ancestry from somewhere other than Europe.

The ridiculous thing about being told to “go home” is that I’ve lived in New Zealand more than twice as long as I lived in Vietnam – I’ve been here for nearly half my childhood and all my adult life.

My name is Lan Le-Ngoc, and I am home!

Lan Le-Ngoc had shared an extended version of his story with the Public Address earlier. We are reprinting an abridged version here with his permission.

A walk of hope

A walk of hope

Ethnic communities should get involved in policy-making roles: Shirish Paranjape

Ethnic communities should get involved in policy-making roles: Shirish Paranjape