What do you believe?
I believe in God. I believe in the God of all religions, the goodness, the love.
How do you feel about being in Australia?
I feel blessed. I feel gratitude. I feel a really strong desire to share this with people. First it starts with my clinic and my staff, and the practice of changing myself. It’s so clichéd! “I want to help people.” But I want to build authentic connections. Medical training is so black and white. No one teaches you business skills or how to relate to people. ‘That tooth? There is an attachment to that.’ They don’t teach you that.
You can make big business from dentistry. But that’s unsatisfying to me. I don’t want to be in that rat race. For me, success is not defined by how much money my clinic makes. Some patients in the last year or so have been some of my biggest teachers. I just want to send this message to medical practitioners: We are in the truly privileged position to make a difference. Not just with the alleviation of physical pain, but a whole lot of stuff.
It’s really exciting! Because it gets boring Berry. Drilling and filling gets boring after a while!
Which brings us to your work with women refugees. It feels like you’ve come full circle.
Yeah. In 2007 I went back to Vietnam for the first time to do some volunteer work. We went to really poor primitive places. For so long I felt a little bit fragmented because I didn’t fully belong in Australia, but then my parents’ culture was foreign to me as well. When I went back to Vietnam for the first time I realised, Oh God, these are my roots. Simple things—like yoga classes where I could squat easily. I’m like, Okay! These are my genetics!
When I handed over my passport, some communist customs officers started questioning me in Vietnamese. “Why are you here? How long are you going to stay for? What are you doing with this group?” That was my introduction to Vietnam. I’m like, Maybe they still have my name in a black book somewhere.
Anyway, it was probably the hardest I’d ever worked in my life, treating kids in really poor areas for two weeks. But enriching too. I felt like it was just so insignificant, that little dint I made. There are a lot of politics surrounding volunteer work. I just didn’t really know how much of an impact it had on anyone. Then I started to think about my mum, and about myself as a woman, and I started to think about asylum seekers, of course; people who’ve been traumatised. Next year we’ve decided to go out and use our skills in dentistry to promote health for these women and children. There’s a little bit of political stuff involved in there but ideally what I want to do is take on families and look after their dental health. That’s the goal.
And listen to their stories…
Listen to their stories, and try to give them hope. To be able to tell them, “Yep, that was me.”
You’re an amazing story of hope. Even though it seems you sort of didn’t look up for 28 years.
It’s really humbling to hear you say that. I guess the full impact hasn’t hit me so much because it’s so overshadowed by what my parents went through. Because of my upbringing, I feel that everything I do has to be wonderful! It has to be done a certain way! I’m a perfectionist I guess.
What did you learn from your parents?
Persistence and courage. The biggest things. I guess people look at me and go, ‘Oh you are so driven.’ But I think, No, I’m not. I’m taking it easy. You think this is so hard? You should have seen what my parents went through! And they are thinking…
Yeah, ‘If we had the opportunity to be dentists, we’d be there seven days a week!’ And you know what? They probably would.
Yeah, you must have so much guilt when you do anything recreational.
Well I used to. Holidays? God. When I was growing up I remember my parents watching Wheel of Fortune. At the end, you get to pick whichever prize you like. Everyone chooses holidays and my parents would say, “Why would you pick holidays? What is wrong with these people?” [laughs].
“A car! A dishwasher!”
“Just keep working.”
“Keep building, keep protecting, keep growing.”
“Keep surviving.” Yeah.
Every culture is afraid of what it doesn’t understand, Have you ever experienced racism in Australia?
Well there have been times… I can just sense sometimes by the look when I walk into the room that a patient was expecting someone else. Until I start talking to them, of course, and they realise I don’t have an accent! But one lady said to me, “Oh! I was expecting you to be tall and blonde!” You know, she thought my nurse—tall blonde lady—was a dentist! I said, “No, I’m Fern White.” And I say it with pride. Because I am. That’s me. I used to care because it used to dredge up memories of Adelaide. “Asians Out” and that type of thing.
There were signs saying “Asians Out”?
Yeah. Graffiti. A lot back then.
I feel we’re all probably more sensitive to those that hate us, but when I grew up I realised, Oh, everyone hates everyone!
Hatred doesn’t discriminate, does it?
How would you sum up your purpose?
My purpose? [Laughs] I have to think about that. My purpose is to inspire and share authentic connections with people And, you know, leave somewhat of an impact behind.
That’s a good purpose.
Do you reckon?