Dad retired eight weeks ago and went into adventure mode, which is remarkable for a man who spent decades wanting to go nowhere.
When my brother and I were teenagers, he taught us to drive not because he thought it was an important life skill, but because he didn’t want to drive us anywhere any more.
We rarely visited my grandma (his mom), even though she only lived 16 miles away, and when we did it was only after Mom nagged about it, and when we got there, grandma would nag him about it. When grandma died, we all but stopped seeing his side of the family. No grudges. Dad just couldn’t be bothered going out, going anywhere.
But now: Adventure Mode. Mom says every morning after dropping her off at work, he takes the car home, parks it in the drive way, grabs his back-pack — a freebie from the airline where he worked for the past 10 years — walks a mile and a half to buy the SingTao Daily, hops on a train, and goes wherever. Bankstown, Blacktown, Chatswood — pick a spot on the rail line, Dad will go there.
The last time he went on an adventure, it was forced on him. He was 30, boarding a boat in darkness with his two younger sisters. He had no bag, no newspaper, no home to return to. The boat chugged away from Vietnam to Bidong Island in Malaysia. It took five days, no food, no water. Everyone threw up, and when they had nothing left to throw up, they threw up some more. Pirates attacked, took gold, took women, took lives. Dad and his sisters made it, though.
They spent three months in Bidong living in tents and eating the same rationed tins of sardines every day until their skin itched and scabbed. Delegates from Australia came to accept refugees, and Dad and his sisters raised their hands like their lives depended on it (because they felt like it did). He’d never been to Australia, never even seen a picture, but he’d heard good things. Not as small as Hong Kong, not as cold as Canada, not as competitive as America. Australia was the key. He just wanted to be safe. He wanted his family to be together, to not be scared any more, to eat rice that didn’t have gravel mixed into it, to work jobs that didn’t make his hands bleed, to celebrate Chinese New Year with no Viet Cong coming to his house when everyone was asleep, pointing rifles into their backs and saying, This is government property now, out out, all of you.
He arrived in Australia, in Queensland, with his two sisters, and at the airport he had $US5 left in his pocket. He bought a postcard. He bought a postage stamp. He wrote to his big brother in Hong Kong: We’re safe in Australia — send for the others. And he’d immediately find a job in a metal factory, even though back in Vietnam he worked at a bank.
Over the next year his big brothers and sister and little brother and mom and dad and nieces and nephews would arrive in Australia after god knows how many months in Malaysian refugee camps, and they’d find their way to a townhouse in Cabramatta where everyone and their children would live. Dad met mom, and they married, and the house got even more crowded, but they were together, and the kids were happy, and they even celebrated Christmas one time, although no one really knew how that worked.
They saved up and moved out and my brother was born and they named him Sid, and then I was born and I wouldn’t remember the townhouse in Cabramatta, but everyone else would.
And Dad wouldn’t want to go anywhere any more (except for work and work and work), totally clammed up, rarely spoke, a man of no words. Dad and Mom bought a house near Cabramatta, and one time he came home with one of those big Panasonic box TVs and Mom was like Oh Not Again, and then our house was burgled but we only lost some cash and jewelry (they left the Panasonic). We built a big fence to keep out the burglars, which meant we could finally get a dog, and she was a jerk but we loved her, and then she had a son (mystery father) and we named him Humphrey.
And now Dad goes out every day, with his bag and his newspaper. He’ll pick a place on the rail map and go there, and he’ll come home in the late afternoon and vacuum and pick up dog poop. Then Mom comes home from work and she’ll make rice with meat and vegetables, and the rice will be gravel-free.
Then on Saturdays I Skype them from San Francisco where I now live and work because I had the choice, and Mom will say your dad’s been going on adventures! He goes everywhere! And I’ll ask her what he does and she’ll say I don’t know, you ask him.
First published March 26, 2017