Boat People Memories

Following my last post where I recalled working with Vietnamese Boat People (VBP), a moment of serendipity occurred when a programme about VBP was scheduled that very night. It’s forty years since so many desperate families set sail in leaky, overladen fishing boats to escape the aftermath of that terrible war. I was working in adult literacy at the time when a post came up, created for me, I have to admit. Whether I was the best qualified person was debatable. I was to offer support and language teaching to half a dozen Vietnamese families settled into a midlands town as well as setting up adult literacy programmes.

I visited each family at least once a week, usually when the children were at school and so mainly it was the wives I worked with, apart from one elderly couple of Chinese extraction who often greeted me at nine thirty in the morning with some tasty treat of dumplings or noodle soup and once with beer. VBP2I always tried to decline but was not allowed to say no. Unfailingly polite to me, they had a difficult and shouty relationship with their son. It was a time of recession and with a lack of work, most of the first generation failed to find work. With little English and poor understanding of the society in which they had been dropped, they struggled.

They were lovely people nevertheless. I remember being invited to Chinese New Year at one house which I accepted, but then it became three houses all in the same day. This is just one of the meals we shared. I was honoured that they chose to invite us when they had so little. Notice my big hair and glasses.VBP1

We tried to eat sparingly but at the last house, that of the elderly couple, we were served a feast of Vietnamese food, course after course. The man sat with us nodding, smiling, encouraging, while his wife cooked and served and our stomachs groaned with exquisite food.

Then there was the time I collected a couple of the ladies and brought them to my house after a trip out, where they cooked up a hundred spring rolls, so much more delicious than any bought from a takeaway.

Let’s not forget the reason they arrived in England. One of my families had set sail in two boats. The husband lost all his brothers and their families when the other boat sank. He was a troubled soul and I think he sometimes took it out on his wife, the sweetest and gentlest of all the ladies in my little group. Then one day, they heard that two of his nieces and a nephew had survived. They had been found in China, aged 15, 13 and 11 – they had survived on their own for four years. I wondered how until I met them.  I helped enrol the girls at secondary school and spent an intensive week with them teaching rudimentary English before they began school a week later. By that time every stitch of school uniform donated to them had been taken apart and re-tailored by the girls and their aunt. I spent the first day at school with the girls. The first lesson was cookery. While the English children struggled to chop an onion with a knife, the girls gave a virtuoso performance of onion slicing – so much so that the teacher ordered the rest of the class to take note. I realised that these children had skills we can only imagine. They were self-assured and confident beyond their years. They had ambition to learn and find good jobs. Later I heard that their uncle wanted the eldest to leave school to look after an aged uncle. I hope she didn’t – a single year of education would have short changed her.

The point of my ramblings is that we forget refugees are people with stories of tremendous suffering. They’ve seen things we find hard to imagine. Given homes in our country, they pay us back with the work of their children who are often talented, skilled and industrious – many setting up their own businesses. The TV programme reminded me of those times and of the contribution the second and third generations are making.




About Rosemary Noble

Writer, author, amateur historian and traveller
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3 Responses to Boat People Memories

  1. Angela Petch says:

    Where we live in Italy – in a tiny village in the Apennines – the town host several boat people.(Actually, legally, they accept far more than they should in relation to the size of the local population – but… there is money involved. People are pleased to accept money from the State in exchange for letting out empty holiday properties for them to live in. Then, there’s the issue of cheap labour – especially in the south of Italy and Sicily). They are not allowed to work (officially) because they have no papers, but… They sit around in the piazza looking miserable and homesick and I always try to chat with them. One Nigerian man told me that back home he was a pharmacist, but his qualifications didn’t comply with Italian regulations. He had expected to find work immediately once he came to Italy and wished he had never come. I fear this is the case with many of the economic migrants (those who come from war-torn countries are a whole different discussion). Our world is teeming with the displaced and there should be more compassion, I feel, and more sharing of the burden. Italy has a disproportionate amount of migrants to help – owing to her geography. And it is not fair. It is creating tensions with ordinary Italians who are struggling without jobs, when they see the handouts that the immigrants receive, the places they take up in schools and surgeries. It’s complicated.
    Interesting and thought provoking blog, Rosemary. Thank you so much.


    • I am sure some of the Vietnamese regretted leaving their country. I don’t really know what the conditions were like. I don’t think it was as bad as Cambodia became. Yes, I agree, there is room for a lot more compassion in the world. I did enjoy working with these people.


  2. Gillian Edwards says:

    When I taught “adult tertiary preparation” at TAFE, next door was ESL( English as second lang) classes and it was mostly African students. Every teaching area took its turn to host/provide a whole campus morning tea(not that huge as it was us, early childhood, enrolled nursing and business, trades etc was at the large main campus). The ESL class was almost all Africans at that stage, early2000s, all came in the most beautifully coloured outfits, tall and sender and practiced their small talk on the rest of us! Who knows what was behind their bright smiles….


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