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Statelessness and our search for a home

 Recently, I told my parents that I was moving out of home. I had discussed it with them many times since I was a teenager, but something always got in the way: a scholarship in a distant city had fallen through; the rental market was overheated; I had to finish my PhD first; and then it was my book. Moving out always seemed a little too inconvenient. This time I was going for sure.
Mum and Dad were not disappointed, but needed to consider what this meant for our family.
Van: Son, your father and I agree that it’s time for you to move out. We’ve been discussing it for the last few nights — we haven’t been able to sleep — and we decided that we can’t expect you to stay here any more. You deserve something for yourself. Your father and I know how difficult it’s been for you and your girlfriend, with you living here. We know that we’ve asked too much.
Thiet: You're a university lecturer now, with a good salary. You’ve worked so hard and we’re very proud of you. You should be looking for opportunities to work in other cities and countries. Don't worry about us. If you decide to settle somewhere else in Australia or even on the other side of the world then we can visit. And when you and your brother have children, we’ll find a place to live nearby to look after them. But until then, your mother and I will be fine on our own.
Kim: Don’t lose sleep over this, Mum and Dad. It’s been my choice to stay with you and I’ve always been very happy. But I’m 28 years old and it’s time for me to leave. It was probably time years ago. I won’t move too far away. I’ll rent an apartment closer to the city. You can come over any time. I hate the thought of you having dinner by yourselves every night and watching TV. It’ll be good for us, force us to get out a bit more. And, of course, I’ll come home for dinner once a week.
Van: Twice, at least.
Kim: Okay, I’ll try.
Van: My son, I want to make it clear that we support you and always want you to be happy, but we don’t want you to go. A Vietnamese family stays together even after the children are married and have kids of their own. Look at Mr and Mrs Phuoc. They live in the same house with their adult children, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Three generations in one happy home. That’s the way it should be. We’re Vietnamese, that’s never going to change. But Australia is our home now, and things are different here.
Thiet and Van had heard about Pulau Bidong from foreign radio station reports in Vietnam, but this in no way prepared them for what they saw that afternoon or would endure over the coming months. As they made their way around to the south of the island, the couple saw a cemetery of boats which had been abandoned and only half sunk. Hulls were upturned, or only part of the decks could be seen, as they bobbed up and down with the eerie buoyancy of body parts. Nearer to the island, boat carcasses were bogged in the sand, like massive prehistoric skeletons revealed by the retreating waves. The camp itself occupied a small part of the island, from the southern beaches to halfway up the slope of the 300- metre mountain which dominated the landscape. Coconut palms lined the main beach, behind which stretched thousands of ramshackle huts held together by garbage and filth. From a distance, the settlement appeared to be a festering eyesore, with a putrid odour to match.
The UNHCR and Malaysian government established the camp on Bidong Island in July 1978 with an initial intake of 121 refugees. In the first year of its operation over 52,000 refugees were received from 453 boatloads. Up until the time of Thiet and Van’s arrival, only 10,500 people had been resettled to other countries, so there were over 40,000 refugees living in less than 1 square kilometre on the tip of the island in May 1979. Many people had been on Pulau Bidong for up to ten months, and among these long-term residents uncertainty bred anguish and discontent. For this reason, it was sometimes referred to as the Island of Death. But in the popular refugee vernacular, Pulau Bidong had become Buon Lo Bi Dat, or the island of ‘sadness, worries and lament’.
With news of another boatload of refugees arriving, crowds surged to the jetty looking for friends and relatives. The islanders wore tattered shorts, their ragged hair ran down past their shoulders, and many of the men’s bare chests were as tanned as pearl divers. The newcomers were met by a welcoming committee throughout the afternoon and allocated with a new number, KG—392, indicating that they were the 392nd boatload of people to arrive on the island. While the UNHCR and international donors funded the camp, it was administered by the residents, and there were committees for everything from security and architecture, to health and sanitation, and orphan care and entertainment. After filling in some forms, Thiet and Van were told that they could sleep in an empty administration building for one night, but would have to find their own accommodation the next day, as the 393rd boatload would soon be arriving.
Worried that a bout of malaria would kill his already weak sons, Thiet was desperate to obtain a mosquito net before nightfall. The family had only $200 left, half of which had been hidden in the handle of Van’s bag and the other in the seam of her shirt. After asking around, Thiet found someone who was willing to sell a net for $100. when he tried to negotiate a lower price, the vendor tersely replied that only a few months earlier, nets had been far more expensive. ‘A tael of gold for a saucepan, another for a mosquito net was the going rate. If you don’t want to buy my net for less than half of that, then don’t bother me with your haggling. I’ll find someone else who knows a good deal when he sees one.’ Thiet handed over half of ail the money that they had in the world and took the net back to his family, feeling as if he had not so much saved them but failed them.
Officially, shelter on Pulau Bidong was not bought or sold but allocated by the accommodation committee. However, high demand for real estate and the fact that the anti-communist islanders had little faith in centralisation meant that almost every dwelling had to be paid for in one way or another. The shanties were made from anything that could be collected and erected, including cardboard, blue plastic sheeting, hand-cut timber, bark and hessian bags. The shacks bordering the main beach in Area A were up to three storeys high and highly sought after. Dwellings in Area A were close to the administrative buildings, from where rations were distributed, and not far from the schools, the church and temple. The markets were supplied by bold individuals who paddled offshore on makeshift rafts to meet Malaysian suppliers, and there were a few fishermen who had crafted boats from discarded refuse. Those who had managed to make it to the island with their wealth intact could visit the hair salon and eat Vietnamese crepes, and at night their huts were illuminated using power from car batteries.