“It was obviously a big step for Lee to make friends outside of her ethnic circle,” says Asther Bascuna-Creo. “There are some migrants who have been in Australia for many, many years but have not yet made acquaintances outside of their families.”
BY Asther Bascuna-Creo
Lee was a small woman whose eyes disappeared whenever she smiled, which was always. In fact, our acquaintance began with her smiling in my direction a lot, at first shyly as we picked up our daughters from the local primary school, and then becoming more at ease and familiar, until the day she said the words: “They very exciting, ha?”
She was referring to the children who were gathered noisily in the school common area for the monthly assembly.
I smiled generously myself. “Yes, they seem very excited.”
That was the start of our many conversations as we waited for the school bell to ring. It was obviously a big step for Lee to make friends outside of her ethnic circle. There are some migrants who have been in Australia for many, many years but have not yet made acquaintances outside of their families.
I remember reading an article in the local paper about a Vietnamese woman who became the victim of a hit and run driver and was left for dead on the streets. A police investigation revealed that she had no relatives and friends, and that the only people who knew of her existence were the people she had worked with in a Footscray factory. Since there were no relatives to mourn her, the community lit candles one night to mark her passing. It is so easy to slip into oblivion if nobody cares.
We Filipinos differ. I have always believed Filipinos can adjust to whatever environment we find ourselves in and reinvent ourselves according to the situation. We try so hard to adapt that sometimes, we lose our own ethnic identity.
I treated my acquaintance with Lee with care. When I became active in the community I could not overtly invite her to our events. A “no” meant a no; and an “I see, ok?” meant she was not going to come.
So I felt triumphant when she finally said yes to participating in a community survey and then later on in a community-sponsored business course at the local university. We attended these together and our acquaintance grew into friendship.
After some time in the course, Lee’s confidence grew. Four months into the course, she suddenly spoke to the whole class and told her story as a refugee from Vietnam.
She escaped on a boat with her sister and mother when she was a small girl. They only had the clothes on their back and begged for food whenever the boat would reach land. After some time on the boat, they were all taken to a detention camp where they stayed for a few years.
“Very, very hard,” she said in her limited English, a smile ever present on her face. Food was scarce and rationed. At one time her mother hid some bread between her breasts to bring to her and her sister. The guard found out and her mother was gravely punished.
Lee and her family were finally able to come to Australia. Her mum could not speak a word of English. The whole family still lives under one roof, even though both daughters are now married with their respective families.
“How do you sleep?” one student in the business course asked.
“One bed, one family,” she said with that smile you cannot wipe off her face. The students’ eyes widened slightly. But I understood Lee. I understood how “one bed, one family” can actually be like heaven.
Lee failed to hold the class’ attention for long that day. After she told her story, there was a long and uncomfortable pause. It is hard to deal with matters unfamiliar, especially if they are stories outside the ‘no worries’ culture of Australia.
Later on, I asked Lee when her birthday was so that I could greet her on her special day. “Dunno,” she said, shaking her head. “How old are you, Lee?” was my follow up question.
“Dunno. Mum forgot,” she said, a small laughter escaping from her chest.
I very rarely see Lee nowadays. The last time we crossed paths at the local church she seemed happy to see me. A granddaughter in Singapore was undergoing a surgery she said, for an illness that didn’t seem fit for children. “You pray, ok? You tell your mum, pray, ok?”
“Ok, Lee, ok.”
“You different, I see. You good girlfriend.” And she smiled that smile of hers, with a trust that, as everything else in her life thus far, all will turn out right.