In memory of Diep Nguyen (1956-2013)
After the service was over, many of the well-wishers stepped outside for air. They hung out the front of the lodge and chatted quietly, drinking from well-used mugs. There was a slightly somber mood – but maybe I thought that as I walked past them all because I knew there’d just been a funeral.
The day before, a friend of mine working at the Migration Heritage Centre had received an email:
I saw on the web that you did a piece on Vietnamese community and history and thought I would contact you.
I work at Edward Eager Lodge which is an emergency accommodation facility in Bourke Street, Surry Hills.
Unfortunately we had a resident named Diep Nguyen who passed away recently and we are unable to trace any friends or family members. Tomorrow we are having a memorial service for Diep and was wondering if you know of anyone from Vietnamese community would be willing to attend?
I have attached an invitation and please feel free to pass this onto others.
Diep arrived into Australia from Vietnam and has had a transient life since, this had made it difficult to trace anyone. If there is anyone who would like to come, we would appreciate that greatly.
Also, we are just putting the word out to see if any family members would hear and contact us, we appreciate any support or if you know of Vietnamese community members you could forward this email to.
I read the email with a profound sense of sadness that someone from a Vietnamese background in Sydney had become so completely friendless and homeless. The email from the kind-hearted social worker was an eleventh hour plea. But it was too late, impossible to undo decades of disconnection. So Diep Nguyen had an almost anonymous Christian funeral with no one from the Vietnamese community in attendance.
Diep Nguyen was born on 14 May 1956 and died on 18 July 2013. The funeral took place a month after his death because his body lay in a morgue waiting to be identified by family members. They never materialised.
The staff knew exactly who he was because among the few belongings in his old backpack was a brand new passport with its virgin pages untouched by any stamps or visas. He knew he was dying and wanted to die back in Vietnam – well, that’s the best guess anyone has. It’s exactly the sort of thing my dad used to talk about, though he hasn’t mentioned wanting to be buried in Vietnam for a long time now. But unlike my dad, perhaps Australia never became a real home for Diep. Instead, drifting outside its margins for so long, the only place he felt a sense of belonging to was Vietnam, the country of his birth.
Diep came to live at the lodge in the last month of his life. He was in a horrible amount of pain at the end and eventually died from an incurable and undiagnosed cancer. He bore it quietly, slowly losing his grip on life after clinging on for so long.
At the funeral the only Vietnamese person in attendance was a social worker at the lodge. She didn’t write the email but had been with him during his short stay, comforting him right until the end. Speaking to Diep, she learnt that he had a brother somewhere in Australia that he’d long lost touch with. So he had had connections once upon a time.
If I had arrived earlier that day, I would have been the only other Vietnamese person there. But I had only heard about his death by chance and had come along out of curiosity. I wondered how someone could become such an outsider in the community – unresolved trauma? Mental illness? But going beyond that, it made me wonder whether I’m even really a member of the Vietnamese community these days. Apart from my parents, I have almost no connections to it, aside from a handful of Vietnamese friends my age. I’m not sure what it even means to be inside the Vietnamese community now, though it was once a much bigger part of my life. These days I have a better idea of what it means to be outside of it; though ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are constructions that only make sense in the context of social interactions and relationships.
Many migrant communities begin tightly enmeshed and people make convenient friends with others who have similar origins. It’s natural to socialise like that in an alienating new place unimaginably removed from the old country. But over time, the connections will unravel as people become more integrated into the wider community and create their own lives.
After more than thirty years in Australia, the Vietnamese community has been changing so that it’s become big enough, maybe even acculturated enough, that someone like Diep Nguyen can easily disappear like a small stone thrown into a vast lake.