As part of 10 Stories from Bankstown, Bankstown City Council’s Community Harmony project, John interviews Chinese-born Lucy Chau who first came to Australia at 23 years of age.
Translator: William Chau
What is your cultural background?
Chinese and Vietnamese.
Was it easy for you to leave your family in China?
No it wasn’t. We have many brothers and sisters, not to mention our parents and grandparents. It was my choice to leave China. My family of course disapproved of this. They wanted me to stay in the family and obviously work for them … to work for the family and each other’s well being.
Did you find your parents loving?
Well, first of all I was brought up as a child in a place where you are shaped by your parents’ beliefs. These beliefs are transferred from their past, which they were brought up with. For example, Mao’s regime made them think that all your efforts are for the well being of everyone in the country. While I could say that my parents were loving in some ways, from my perspective in Australia, I can see that they were not, but we cannot blame them. I still love them.
So why did you come to Australia?
Personally, I was fleeing from the third world conditions in China. I had seen postcards of Australia and its beautiful landscapes. In China I mainly worked at fish markets. Because I was a poor peasant, or close to one, we were forced to work long hours in fish trading and marine life capturing. I met my husband on the boat ride here … we were illegal immigrants. We didn’t know each other but we fled for the same reasons and we wanted to start a new life and perhaps a family.
Were there any degrees of haste or hatred between the people on the boat?
Not really, we all knew we wanted to get out of that place. We worked together and made our trip easier than it would have been if we were all alone.
Whereabouts did you arrive in Sydney?
The first things we saw were the wharves. We were very excited because we had been at sea for a long time. We were then destined to go to some hostel here. We were confused and had mixed feelings about where we had landed. It gave us some sense of unity that there were other Chinese immigrants as well.
Some of these Chinese people, were they also family?
Well, though they were not my blood brothers and sisters, yes I did consider them part of my family.
Where was the hostel that you went to?
Well, since we moved to Australia so abruptly, we didn’t learn English. We didn’t know where the hostel was. I’ve tried to look for it again to see how things were going with the other Chinese people we had left behind but I haven’t been able to find it.
So what did your early days consist of?
Well, first of all they naturalised us, then we went to intensive English courses. It was very harsh but very exciting for us, all these new facilities, luxuries as we saw it.
What do you mean by “luxury”?
Just practical clean clothing, clean beds, even clean food.
When you first came to Australia where did you live?
We lived in Cabramatta first of all.
How was life when you first settled in Cabramatta?
There was a lot that was alien to us. We found it extremely difficult to comprehend what people were saying. I also found it very hard to get around because of the language difficulties. There were Chinese people living in Cabramatta and it was easier for us to relate to them because they were of the same origin.
Did you find it easier to converse with the Chinese people?
Well, it was easier because we were Chinese. What we said, the content of our conversations, was just as difficult though, as if it was a foreign language.
So what made the content of the Chinese hard to understand?
Well, our conversations were stilted because what we were really doing was skirting around the past, that is, why we came to Australia.
What about the people of Anglo-Saxon background in Cabramatta?
I saw them on the streets sometimes. They seemed out of place amongst us immigrants, ironically.
Did you feel that they would look at you differently or suspiciously?
Not at first but I would learn later, yes. I learnt that not all Anglo-Saxons were so nice, or perhaps not even just Anglo-Saxons but all the people who settled here. They saw us as being different.
Do you think that you could have helped (overcome the differences) in any way?
We tried our best to communicate, and tried to fit in. It was the language barrier and the stereotypes that they saw us in, and that we saw them in, that made it hard to talk to each other. That level of stereotyping has decreased. We have actually heard the stories of older migrants and they are virtually the same as ours but they’ve just been here longer.
As time went by, did you consider yourself to be an Australian?
At first we didn’t consider ourselves at all Australian but as soon as we settled into our house and met the neighbours around us and got used to our surroundings, we did feel that we were Australian.
So what does it mean for you to be an Australian?
Well, I’ve been hearing that question a lot lately, everyone’s been giving responses that seem right, as though the answers are being prefabricated. What I believe to be Australian is to accept others and to tolerate the diversity in Australia itself, accept the cultures presented to us.
Would you rather your son grow up in Australia or China?
I believe for my son’s benefit it is better that he grows up in Australia. I did not want him to end up like me. I didn’t want him to slave away like me, on fish trawlers, or perhaps even the sweatshops they introduced in China.
So how do you think it was like for your son growing up in Australia?
He said he had a very hard time growing up. We couldn’t help him with any schoolwork. But I think in comparison with our lives, his life is better. My son read in an article a few days ago that Australia is the second, perhaps even first, most literate country in the world and I am thankful that we did come to Australia.
I believe my son has more opportunities in his life than if we stayed in China.
What were your views about your son interacting with children of other cultures?
I secretly wanted him only to associate with Chinese or perhaps just Asians. I found that he was most happy when he was with children of other cultures. I believe he has learnt more as well.
Do you think your son lost any cultural heritage by growing up in Australia?
Yes, to some degree, the language. He found it very hard to learn the Chinese language. It is a very hard language to learn, especially when you are speaking English first.
Do you have any friends other than Asians?
We kept in touch with the Greek neighbours from Cabramatta, and I also made lots of friends at my workplace.
So for how long did you live in Cabramatta?
One and a half years, then we moved to Marrickville. We found a lot of immigrants that have done pretty well and we stayed there for about four years and we really got to know the Australian culture there. There was a real cultural diversity. We found shopping at a range of stores gave us new foods to taste.
Is the Bankstown region your current home at the moment?
Yes, it is. We have lived here for about 10 years. It is actually more peaceful than the other places we lived. Bankstown seems to be more diverse but less turbulent.
What do you hate about Bankstown?
Well, it just angers me to hear that there are still crimes committed in Australia, never mind Bankstown. There are still these so-called gangs around. They are mostly portrayed as Asian, whereas that is not what we are. That is the stereotype, on television, the mass media and even in conversations. This really does anger me.
How do you see the future of a multicultural society?
It is known that Australia is very diverse already in culture, but I believe it is all about tolerance in a lot of things. So, the future actually directly depends on our tolerance of multiculturalism.
So just finally, how has Australia changed you?
Well, I think I’ve become more egalitarian and Australia has given me many more opportunities than I had once upon a time.
Thank you Australia.