The Big Issue : Edition 480
THEBIGISSUE20MAR–2APR2015 19 I HAD TO renew my passport recently. It had expired because I had not made any trips overseas for a while. I thought it would be a fairly simple matter to redress: present the old passport, fill in some more paperwork, hand over some cash and bingo, international travel beckons... Obviously I’d forgotten about the creaky wheels of bureaucracy. And something else, too: the difficulty that verifiable Australians can have securing the paperwork required to leave it. The contentious issue of asylum seekers trying to gain entry to this country has attracted much more attention than the problems you can have getting out. Because I am not native-born, I had to present the original immigration papers again (a photocopy was not acceptable) to prove that I am indeed a legal, law-abiding citizen and not some ne’er-do-well who’d managed to sneak through the heavily fortified Team Australia fence. Never mind that I could present my old passport (which, by its very existence, represents evidence of legal residency), or the fact that I had not changed my name or appearance in any way. I was still required to prove my identity, yet again. Over 30 years of residency (with all the accoutrements of tax file numbers, Medicare card and driver’s licences) is treated as irrelevant. Each time I have to apply for any official document I am asked to present my original immigration papers. Am I being over-sensitive at the demands of departmental pen-pushers? Perhaps, but it is galling to be made to feel like an outsider who has to constantly re-affirm her citizenship. But growing up bi-culturally presented its own challenges for the second generation of new Australians. Fitting in with the dominant peer group is the goal of any young adult. During the spiky period of adolescence, when the pulls of home and family wrestled with the more attractive influence of friends and social environment, I toyed briefly with the idea of changing or even Anglicising my name. (For the record, it’s roughly pronounced ‘Twe’ with an acute inflection on the vowel). After all, there have been innumerable refugees who have kept their Asian surnames but – in a concession of sorts – dropped their first name in favour of ‘Michael’ or ‘Linda’ or any number of easily spelt, easily pronounced alternatives. In the end, I resisted a name change. I was reluctant to wear an ill-fitting garment. I didn’t think I could answer to, say, ‘Tina’ after spending my formative years being called Thuy (or, in the playground at primary school, ‘Tweety Bird’). Even after marriage, I categorically refused to take my husband’s surname. I suspect there was also a latent reluctance to change a fundamental part of my identity – a name bequeathed to me in my original mother tongue. Despite being of Vietnamese descent, I am nonetheless an Australian. Which is why, more than three decades after arriving here, I sighed as I scanned the new passport forms. And then, once again, I presented the supporting migration papers to stake my righteous claim. » Thuy On is The Big Issue’s Books Editor. Having to prove my identity over and over again is not only unnecessary and time-consuming. It is also insulting. At the same time I was wrestling with passport paperwork, there was yet another racially targeted altercation on public transport. The details change but the protagonists remain unerringly similar: a Caucasian (and, by implication, ‘Aussie-born’ native) screaming obscenities at a hapless non-white fellow passenger, telling him or her to “go home”. It matters not to the Australian Government or racist bigots how many years you’ve lived, worked and paid taxes in your foster country. If your skin doesn’t blush naturally, you have to fight to earn admission status. The issue of race and belonging is a fraught one. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and came over with my immediate family when I was six. We were some of the original ‘boat people’ refugees. It was, to say the least, a more embracing government under Malcolm Fraser. Instead of being demonised, as they are now, the refugees of the 1980s were offered sanctuary. My parents worked in a succession of badly paid, blue-collar and outworker jobs to support their children through school. We grew up in high-rise housing commission flats and eked out a living with supplements from charities and neighbourhood goodwill. Our immigration story echoed millions of other tales from the Vietnamese community. Gratitude for being allowed entry into a free, democratic country translated into an ethos of hard work and humility. PHOTOGRAPHBYiSTOCK YOUR PAPERS, PLEASE EVEN AFTER MORE THAN 30 YEARS IN AUSTRALIA, THUY ON HAS TO PROVE WHO SHE IS.