the happiest refugee

Last night I caught the launch of Anh Do’s new memoir The Happiest Refugee at the Wheeler Centre. Just about everything about the evening was unexpected. I was invited along at the last minute (I had planned on going on my second post-Plague run and having a night in). I didn’t know Anh had a book out, let alone one already as successful as this (Anh proudly told us his book is no. 6 on the Bookscan charts, and the no. 1 Australian title; as recently as six months ago I was a shitkicker at a major publishing house and spent most of my days going cross-eyed over Bookscan charts, so it was shocking to discover books are still becoming bestsellers and all without my knowledge). Most unexpected, though, was Anh’s amazing story and how powerfully he told it, egged on with quips and questions by the droll but oh so endearing Sam Pang.

It’s an incredible story: Anh’s father busted two of his uncles out of a concentration camp by impersonating a communist soldier; as they fled Vietnam their boat was attacked by Thai pirates who dangled his baby brother overboard when they found gold hidden his nappy (he was spared and grew up to become Young Australian of the Year for his community work); after being granted asylum in Australia they nightly thanked God, Jesus and Bob Hawke for their good fortune (although still had to contend with schoolyard racism and his father’s alcoholism and abandonment). Despite everything, Anh has a great deal of respect for his father and still hears his voice in his head, advising him on love (“If you find a woman you love, Anh, don’t waste time. Marry her. You’ll be happy for the rest of your life,”) and game shows (playing celebrity Deal Or No Deal, Anh reckons he heard his father say, “Give it a crack, Anh, see what happens,” before he risked it all to win 200 grand for a home viewer with a heart condition). But this was the bit of Anh’s dad wisdom that most struck a chord with me for some reason: “There are only two times: there’s now and there’s too late.” Anh said it made for a great war hero, but not so much for a great father.

Afterwards we lined up to buy copies and again for Anh to write his name in them. I struggle with the whole autograph thing, I’m not sure if it’s a stubborn aversion to hero worship or just the pressure of thinking of something witty and winning to say while you wait. Maybe it just reminds me too much of being a teenager, when I was no better at this but much more determined. At a Manic Street Preachers instore at Gaslight Records when I was about fifteen I composed interview questions in my head as I inched down the aisle towards the band. The questions, about past gigs and sightseeing opportunities, were pedestrian and no doubt unappreciated by the band who were huskier than usual and struggling to sit upright for long periods after last night’s celebrations in another city. But they gave us something to talk about and it felt better than the usual stand off between Weary Rock Star and Fan Who Knew Too Much. The fellow groupies I came with were impressed, anyway. These days, while I mostly feel blessedly free of the need to amass autographs, I can’t seem to kick the book signing habit.

And it occurs to me that this time I have the perfect opener: I MC’d at a launch in this very room only last month for a book I edited… about refugee experiences… which I had earlier been interviewed about by Sam Pang. Bang, bang, bang! A trifecta of banter, suitable for use on either author (now grinning his familiar grin and writing gushing messages on title pages) or MC Pang. So do I? Should I? Could I? But alas, the intrepid entertainment reporter of my youth went AWOL years ago and is not about to report for duty tonight. Instead I lamely congratulate Anh on the book, spell my name for him and scurry outside, my head still buzzing from his stories, my body exhausted from a long day, my stomach growling, and my internal intrepid reporter cursing my lack of courage. Each sentiment jostles for my attention, until I lock eyes on the overflowing lolly cart still open for business in the midst of Melbourne Central. When I’d hustled past hours earlier on my way to the launch, I’d promised myself if it was still open on my way home I’d stock up. That it is, with everything around it closed, seems like a sign too powerful to ignore. As I fill a standard issue white paper bag (with milk and white chocolate buttons, freckles, jelly beans, gummy bears and teeth, sour cola bottles and tiny chocolate and marshmallow mushrooms) my mind empties. I am consumed by my quest, and it’s not until I’ve paid for my stash, ridden two sets of escalators, checked the train monitors and deposited myself on the appropriate platform, that the voices return. Except this time there is just one, the teenage reporter. She wants to know when, exactly, I became so gutless and lame? Why had I wasted an opportunity to spruik the project to someone with a similar passion? Why didn’t I carry copies of the book with me always for moments exactly like this? What is wrong with me? I shovel a rainbow of glucose treats into my mouth and, as I often do in such moments, try to imagine myself out of this one. How can I redeem this missed opportunity? Maybe there’ll be another event, maybe a chance meeting (it could happen!), or maybe— The maybes are supposed to give me hope, but they are just making me anxious. And preventing me from properly appreciating a nostalgic sugar fix.

I’m staring into the paper bag void, panning for purple jelly beans, when it hits me. Anh’s dad was right! ‘Maybe’ is meaningless, there’s only now and too late. It was as simple as that. I’d missed my chance and now it was too late.

Strangely, this makes me smile. It fixes nothing, but makes perfect sense. The train pulls up then, I still have more than half a crinkly bag of treats left. And I’m not even feeling sick yet.