How did I come to Australia?

On this Australia Day (26/1) exactly 39 years ago I came to Australia as a refugee. It has been a long and winding journey, but I have survived and made meaningful contributions to this beautiful country that I call home. On 26/1 people are talking about ‘invasion day’, but I am talking about a personal Thanksgiving day. My story started with a hilarious interview in Songkhla Refugee Camp (Thailand) 40 years ago.

Leaving Vietnam

On April 16, 1981, my elder brother, my sister, I and 20 friends left Vietnam in a wooden fishing boat heading toward Thailand. Some friends were former army officers of the Republic of Vietnam, and they just finished their years in ‘reeducation camps’. We were determined to get out of Vietnam even if we had to pay the ultimate price of death.

None of us was a seafarer. My brother who captained the boat had not had any experience in sea navigation. He only looked at the compass and the star, and with some guesswork from others, to determine the direction to Thailand. An engineer and I were assigned to take care of the engines and petrol.

Landing in Budi (Thailand)

After 3 days and 4 nights at treacherous sea, we randomly landed in Budi, a small fishing village in Southern Thailand. We were sea sick, extremely exhausted, and hungry. We were so lucky to be alive at the time when all of us were ready to die.

We were warmly welcomed by local villagers who did not know what to do with us. A village official found a large, open garage where we could temporarily stay while he would inform higher authorities of our arrival. Two days later, an American mission came to interview each of us and to fill a number of United Nations forms. They were very kind to us, and promised to help us through hard time ahead.

We stayed in Budi for approximately one month. During that short period, each of us went out to find jobs to get money for basic needs. I worked as an assistant for a local fisherman, and had chance to learn how to catch squid. Every day, I was given a few bahths, rice, fish, and fish sauce which were quite enough for a tasty meal.

We were then transferred to the Songkhla Refugee Camp, a larger and more organized refugee center managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The camp was temporarily constructed on a deserted beach in 1976 to provide temporary shelter to thousands of refugees who had flooded southern Thailand for more than 2 years. At the time I arrived there the barbed-wire camp housed 6,000 Vietnamese refugees!

Songkhla Refugee Camp (in Songkhla Province, Thailand). Photo:

The memorable interview

At Songkhla, each refugee would apply to resettle in a third country, usually a western country. Based on a friend’s advice that Australia is a peaceful and beautiful country, I decided to choose Australia as my future home country. With the help of an English — Vietnamese dictionary, I penned down my application and was ready to see an Australian officer to make my case. I was subsequently offered to be interviewed by an officer from the Australian Embassy in Thailand. The interview was conducted through an interpreter, because my English was not good enough for such a serious conversation. Here is part of the interview:

– Who wrote this application? The officer was reading my application and asking the question without looking at my face.

– I did, sir. I replied.

– Did you learn English in Vietnam?

– No sir! I learned French in high school and university.

– I see. Why do you want to go to Australia?

– I want to go to Australia because I want to further my study and become a scientist.

– Well, with this level of English, I am afraid that you cannot study in Australia.

I was tongue-tied. I did not know what to say, because he was quite right: my English was not good enough for high school, let alone university study. However, I thought he should know that each of us here would be able to learn English as long as we are allowed to settle down. We are Vietnamese, and we have a long long tradition of respecting academia. The officer then asked:

– Any other reason?

– If I cannot study in Australia, then I can work as a farmer. I replied in a rather hesitant voice.

– Well, you don’t have enough money to be a farmer in Australia.

I was dumbfounded! In Vietnam farming is considered the lowest form of occupation, because it does not require any particular expertise or a lot of money. However, in Australia, according to this officer, I must have a lot money to be a farmer! I was silent again, because I was running out of reasons to go to Australia.

I thought my application would be turned down anyway. I was ready for a next interview by the United States mission. I would go to the United States to reunite with my relatives. Just as I was about to say a final word of thankyou for the interview, the officer suddenly asked me again:

– You don’t have any other reason to go to Australia?

I thought he tried to help me out, but I was indeed running out of justifications. Suddenly, in a flash of a moment I remembered reading about the kangaroo in Australia in high school geography book. I very much wanted to see the animal with my own eyes. So, I simply said:

– Sir, I don’t have other good reason to go to Australia. However, I have always longed to see a kangaroo in Australia.

The officer was now stunned! He stared at me for about a minute, then laughed uncontrollably. I did not have a clue of what was happening. Why did he laugh so loudly? Did I say anything stupid? I was absolutely honest: just want to see a kangaroo. I noticed that his right hand was searching a wooden stamp, and then stamped on my application. I thought he had rejected my application. But then, he signalled me to move to the next table to do paperwork. He was still laughing.

In the next table, a female officer had probably overheard the interview, looked at me with a smile, then quietly said something like ‘Congratulations’. I even did not know what ‘congratulations’ meant, but the interpreter said that I was being accepted to settle in Australia.

I was elated. At that moment, I felt like being reborn.

I ran back to my barrack to proudly announce the wonderful news. Hi guys! I am going to Australia! Everyone was happy for me, and we went for a coffee to celebrate the occasion.

Refugee life

After 3 months in Songkhla, I was transferred to the Panatnikhom Refugee Camp in Chonburi. The large camp could house more than 10,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Life in the Panatnikhom camp was harsh. A group of about 10-15 people was allocated to a 5×10 m unit without any amenity. We all slept on concrete floor which was awful for our back, but we were happy. Each person was allowed to have 20 (or 15?) litres of water per day for hygiene and basic cooking. We were not allowed to go out to mix with the local community who was keen to sell things to us. However, almost all of us did not have any money to spend anyway.

Panatnikhom Refugee Camp (Chonburi, Thailand). Photo:

While in the camp, I got a nice job as a librarian in the camp’s library, which was run by a Assembly of God volunteer group. My boss was a lovely Cambodian man, also a refugee like me, but he was very fluent in both English and French. He taught me some English words and showed me how to study English effectively. The library regularly received a lot of books, magazines and newspapers donated by Vietnamese groups in the United States and France. My responsibility was to organize the books in proper places, and to manage book loan and daily newspapers.

The great thing about the job was that I had a chance to self-teach English. Every day, I would get a copy of the Bangkok Post, and scanned for words that I did not understand. I then used the Longman Dictionary to find out about the meaning the words. The wonderful feature of the Longman Dictionary is that it shows how to pronounce a word, and discusses about the origin of the word. I determined that each day I would learn 1 word, but in effect, I learned about 10 variations of the word. I carefully wrote down what I had learned during a day in my notebooks, and by month 6, I had already filled up 500 pages.

One day, the camp’s loudspeaker announced that I was in the list of refugees who would be going to Australia. A group of about 50 of refugees was then ushered into a bus heading to Bangkok. In Bangkok, we were temporarily put in a prison for foreigners! However, we were assured that we would stay here for only 2 days to do more paperwork with the Australian Embassy.

In the early morning of 25/1/1982 we were transported to the Bangkok Airport. We were put in a waiting room of the airport to wait for boarding. We were not allowed to hang around the fancy shops outside the waiting room. Then in the afternoon, we boarded a huge Qantas aircraft (I think it was a Boeing 747) heading for Sydney. We were assigned to sit in the last rows of the plane, but we were so excited and happy. That was the first flight in my life, and everything was new to me. A flight attendant brought us a glass of organic juice and a perfumed handkerchief. “Oh my God, why they are so kind to us”, I asked myself. The cabin was filled with cigarette smoke, because passengers were allowed to smoke during the flight!

New life in Australia

I landed in Sydney on the 26/1/1982. The time was about 9 AM (I believe), and the temperature was 42 degrees Celsius! I have never experienced such a high temperature and humidity. I forgot that January is Australia’s summer time. I sort of said to myself “Welcome to Sydney”. I looked around and noticed that all western passengers looked expensive and elegant with fancy luggages, and we refugees looked so poor and dirty. For me, all I had was a little bag (provided by UNHCR) with two shirts and two trousers. I even did not have a shoe.

We were then transported to Cabramatta Hostel where we would stay for the next 3 months. During that time, we learned English (again) and Australian way of life. However, most of us was eager to find job rather than to learn English! I was given a ticket from St Vincent’s de Paul that allowed me to get 2 shirts, 2 trousers, and a shoe. They were of course second-hand stuff, but to me the clothes were luxurious. Forty years later I still keep the clothes to remind me of the hard-time and the kindness of St Vincent’s de Paul.

In the ensuing months, I got a job as a kitchen hand at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. I operated the dish washing machine, and prepared vegetables for the chief cook. I can never forget the first day on the job when I was asked to peel onions in a huge bag. I have never in my life seen so many onions. My eyes were already stinging and watery with the second onion, and fellow workers thought that I was homesick! It took me quite some time to work out a way to peel onions without ‘crying’. Anyway, I really enjoyed the work.

Then, I got a second job as a cook assistant at the 5-star Regent hotel (now Shangri-La hotel) which was just opening at the time. During normal daytime hours I worked at the St Vincent’s, and night time at the Regent. I earned a bit of money by working 2 jobs, so I was able to send some to my parents and sisters in Vietnam.

About 1 year later, I then got a job as an assistant in the pathology lab of the Royal North Shore Hospital. My duties were to collect tissues and blood samples from various departments and wards, and then organized them in proper places. I was keen to learn and was taught how to handle blood samples and how to extract plasma from whole blood.

One day, I noticed that a senior pathologist (I think it was Dr Ackerman) was struggling with a calculation for his research paper. I was cleaning things in the lab, but secretly looked over his shoulder and realized that he was working out the standard deviation! However, the method he used was a tedious one, typically taught in textbooks, so I offered to help. He looked at me and said something like ‘This is a complicated thing, young man! You better focus on your job’. Obviously, he thought I could not do that kind of intellectual work. Being a proud young man with top academic records nationally, I was a bit upset at being looked down on, and said that if I could not get the SD for him within 2 minutes, he could fire me. He said: ‘Fine, do it for me!’ Of course, it was an elementary exercise: all I did was to use what he had already done plus some simple manipulation, and I could finish it within a minute manually (at the time there was no personal computer as we have now). He looked at me with amazement, and asked ‘Where did you learn this?’ I said ‘in Vietnam’. He then said ‘Smart people like you should go back to university to get a degree’.

And, that was exactly what I did in subsequent years. Again, I worked during normal daytime hours, and studied part-time at night.

I have wandered through 3 major universities in Sydney: Macquarie, Sydney, and New South Wales (UNSW Sydney). I obtained 2 doctorates in medicine and science from UNSW Sydney. I was the first Vietnamese Australian who was awarded the DSc degree. In 2008, I became the first Vietnamese Australian who was appointed the position of full professor of the Faculty of Medicine of UNSW Sydney. I was also the first Vietnamese Australian who was awarded the prestigious National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Senior Research Fellow and Leadership Fellow (aka Australia Fellow) that have supported my work over the years.

In 1990 (or 1991) I was recruited by Professor John Eisman to work on an important research project called “Dubbo Osteoporosis Epidemiology Study” which was just commenced in mid1989. The Study base is in Dubbo but is coordinated out of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, an affiliation of St Vincent’s Hospital. The principal investigators of the Study was Professor John Eisman, the late Professor Philip Sambrook, and Dr Paul Kelly. I still remember the job interview in which John asked me ‘what are you now working on?’ I replied that I was working on a theoretical model to define the transition between disease states. He was quite interested in my work but did not quite get what I said, so he asked for a simple explanation, to which I said ‘Well, it is like trying to predict a professor’s behavior in the afternoon given that he was in a happy mood in the morning.’ John was amused by the analogy, and mumbled something like ‘I still try to work that out myself’. He then asked ‘Do you know how to do logistic regression analysis?’ I was a bit shocked, because that is an elementary technique for any epidemiologist or biostatistician, but I politely replied ‘yes.’ John did all the talking, while Philip, sitting opposite me , always smiled at me. I did not want to leave Sydney University where I got a hefty salary as a part-time tutor. One day later, John rang and said that he would offer me the position. He even offered me a better salary package than what I got from Sydney University at the time. I still remember him saying that working in medical research could help a lot of people. Anyway, John was a great negotiator, managing to convince me to join his team at the Garvan. At the time, John was looking for an epidemiologist and a biostatistician, but he found out that I could take on both roles, so he saved money by hiring only one — me. I did join the team, and it was a decision that changed my life.

So, I was back to St Vincent’s where I got the first job years ago. A full circle. I could not believe that I now worked for one of the most prestigious research institutes in Australia. The Institute at the time had only ~200 employees, mostly doctors and scientists working on endocrine diseases. Twenty years later the Institute had grown into a world-class medical research center with 6 divisions and 600 staff. Twenty five years later, I became part of the Institute’s history, and an investigator of the Dubbo study.

At Garvan, I worked very hard, day and night. The Study had accumulated a lot of data in thousands of case report forms (CFRs), and it became clear that a computerized database was needed. I did not know much about database, so I learned dBase III software, and designed the first database for the Study. I entered all the data myself. Often, I took the CRFs and the computer to home (not allowed these days) to work over weekends. I conceived research ideas, executed research, and wrote papers for publication with the help of John and other team members. I wrote my thesis based on 14 publications in top journals. My hard work did pay off: the UNSW Sydney and Garvan Institute awarded me The Best Doctoral Thesis Prize.

Professor Eisman whom I consider ‘big brother John’ was the key driver and the ‘soul’ of the Study. He is a very very intelligent doctor who has taught me many things in life (although we argue all the time). John and I and the team (which included the late Dr Philip Sambrook, Dr Paul Kelly, and Dr Nigel Morrison) have gone through some good times and bad times, and we have made many substantive and important contributions to the osteoporosis field globally. We identified the first gene of osteoporosis. We defined the bone loss in the elderly. We defined the relationship between muscle strength, bone density and fracture. We invented the world’s first model for fracture risk assessment. We created the world’s first genetic profile for fracture prediction. The list of our work and achievements is long and still going on. A few years ago, I was elected as a Fellow of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research for my contributions to osteoporosis research internationally. Two years ago, I was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences for my distinguished contributions to Australian medical research. Right now, I am working on exciting projects that I believe will have lasting impacts on osteoporosis research. I consider that my contribution is a way to say thankyou to the country that has saved me, the country that I now dearly call home.

Australia does not have a Thanksgiving Day, but for me January 26 is my Thanksgiving Day. That is the day I thank Australia from the bottom of my heart for giving me a chance to pursue my dreams. Without Australia, I could not have done what I have in the past 30 years. Without the prestige of Australia I could not have reached the heights of medical research internationally.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have worked with many brilliant minds who directly or indirectly shaped my career in my early days at Garvan. I also appreciate many colleagues who have quietly tolerated my stubbornness (and sometimes arrogance) in doing things my own way.

So, what happened to my brother and sister? Well, my brother is now a retired businessman. My sister, also in business, has run a Harvey Norman outlet for years, and she is still going. My sons have graduated from university and have their own businesses. I am the only one who is still working in academia. My mother and father, until the day they passed away more than 10 years ago, had never come to Australia, because they were content with the idyllic life in the village where I was born and where my large extended family has been for ages. My sisters in Vietnam have also never intended to live in Australia, but their children have studied in Australia.

I am getting relatively old now, and I view life in the Buddhist mirror. In a recent article (in Vietnamese) I argue that the phenomenon of ‘regression toward the mean’ can be interpreted by a Buddhist view: everything is impermanent, anything goes up will eventually go down — not necessarily in a bad way. We do not exist as separate beings. Our ‘self’ and our ego are illusional, because they do not exist in isolation. My life journey is real but … not real. I know that statement is hard to understand, but I will explain later — in writing.

In hindsight I thank the officer (from the Australian Embassy in Thailand) who gave me a chance to settle in Australia. If he rejected my application at the time, and he had every perfect reason to do so, I would be somewhere in the United States. After all, I must thank the kangaroo in the geography textbook that unwittingly helped me to get through the interview with a marvellous outcome.

Thank You Australia!