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Fern White came by boat
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Fern White came by boat
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"It’s not just about treating the pain, but about having an authentic connection with them first; seeing them as a human being."
Conversations
7 January 2016

Fern White came by boat

Interview by Berry Liberman
Photography by Lauren Bamford

Berry Liberman on Fern White

Dr Fern White is my dentist. I love my dentist. Most people couldn’t say that. When you arrive at Beacon Cove surgery you enter a thoughtful and calm world. No screams of anguish or whirring drills. From the moment I met Fern I was impressed with her strength, professionalism and excellence. Fern makes you feel well looked after.

On your patient form you are asked to fill out how you generally feel when going to the dentist—are you calm, comfortable, uneasy, high stress or fearful? What kind of a dentist wants to know the answers to these questions? A holistic one. Fern sees it as her job to treat the whole person, not just their mouth.

Dr Fern’s birth name is Phuong Xuan Trinh (pronounced Fuhn Swan Trin) but on arrival in Australia some 30 years ago the desire to “fit in” began a process of assimilation and identity transformation that is typical of the refugee experience. With the enormous pressure from her parents to survive and thrive, Fern and her five siblings were raised to succeed. To make their parents’ struggles worth it. To make all the sacrifices mean something. It’s a familiar story.

All six children have become successful professionals—two dentists, two physiotherapists, one analyst and an optometrist. Pretty impressive for a family who arrived on a leaky boat with no engines, having been robbed by pirates twice while floating helpless in the ocean. Constantly propelled forward by a feeling of having to be the best at everything she did in order to be accepted, indeed loved by Australia and her parents, Fern has reached a point in her life now when questions of happiness and purpose are changing.

I arrive at Fern’s house to find her husband Alex loading up a trailer. They’re going on a yoga retreat after our interview. Fern sits waiting for me, relaxed and beautiful as always, with a huge photo album sitting on the kitchen table. It’s full of wonderful, old family photos from the 1970 and 80s—classic round corners and happy faces. Fern is feeling nostalgic and contemplative. For someone who has spent her life moving forward, it is difficult to stop and look back. From appearances you would never know that Fern arrived here on an old fishing boat, a stranger in a strange land.

This story originally ran in issue #38 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

BERRY LIBERMAN: I’m very moved by your story, and quite shocked by the fact that it is a young person’s story. How old are you?

FERN WHITE: Almost 33. I think the first time it really hit home, what I’ve been through, my past, was with Alex, my husband—he’s the first Caucasian guy I ever dated. All of my other partners had been Asian. They’d all been, you know, your typical doctors, dentists, lawyers, blah, blah, blah…

[Laughs] your choice, or your parents’?

I think I’m coming now to realise what my parents are about. You grow up in Australia and you’re caught between two cultures… All you want is freedom as a child. You grow up at school with Anglo kids and your parents are desperately trying to instill in you this other cultural background that you don’t really relate to so much…

This story originally ran in issue #38 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #38 of Dumbo Feather

How old were you when you arrived?

I was little, almost two when I hit Australian shores. It was 1981 when we came from Vietnam. Dad was pretty instrumental in the whole thing—he was actually the captain of the boat. He was a fisherman by trade. He’d just escaped from a re-education camp after the fall of Saigon in the late ’70s. He’d been put in prison for orchestrating an escape on another refugee boat. I was born around that time. We didn’t know where he was, and then he came back with his fishing boat—which was about 12 metres by three metres wide—and orchestrated escape again for 76 refugees.

On a boat that’s meant to fit how many?

Probably about 15 fishermen.

Why did he organise for all of those people to come?

They paid him to build the boat and organise it. It was this huge movement. They needed to leave. The communists were taking over and destroying their life. It was out of desperation.

What does desperation look like?

His father had fought for the South Vietnamese government. And from what I heard when I was growing up (I only heard one side) the Communist Party were completely controlling, dominating. There was no freedom. This is what they were fighting for so long with the Americans.

Your grandfather had fought against the regime that won political power in his country, so your family became a target?

Yes. They were blacklisted, completely. Dad was put into a re-education camp. Re-education…

It was a forced labour camp, an indoctrination camp where everything they had ever known was to be brainwashed out of them. They were abused. Dad was telling me the other day that one of his mates who escaped was brought back and shot in front of all of them. Anytime anyone tried, the whole camp would suffer and be deprived of sleep for two days.

When I think of what we see in the media, news, movies, on the internet—there’s a desensitisation to violence. There’s an idea that Paul Newman is somewhere in this labour camp; that this is a hero’s game.

My Dad suffered a lot. And growing up, I never understood that. I never understood post-traumatic stress, and he would deny he had anything like that.

You just kept going and struggling and surviving, right? That’s all you have.

There was no time to stop and smell the roses. He was quick to erupt into anger if we weren’t in line. Yeah, so he was really strict, he just looked at us and we knew where our place was.

Dad escaped because he wanted freedom, something better. He didn’t know what was better, but it was better than what he had. So what does desperation look like? ‘Anything is better than this.’

What happened when your dad made the decision to get away?

He was only 22 at that stage and he escaped back home and he hid. They came back for Mum, who had just given birth to me in the house. As you do! [Laughs]. Dad couldn’t let anyone know that he was back, because they questioned everyone. So Mum pretended, crying, “What have you done with him? He’s dead!” They made a big scene. Dad stayed away for a long time, fixing his old fishing boat. A lot of people gave him money because they wanted to be on the boat—young, old, families. Underneath was where all the people would be stashed; where all the fish were. On the way out they pretended it was a fishing boat. They left in the middle of the night—that’s when the fishermen go out. All of these people, huddled down in the bottom. Then they would come up to be seasick

Did your Dad know where he was going?

He had a compass. He knew that he was headed towards Malaysia or Thailand. Somewhere far away. He never thought he could get to Australia on that boat. That’s all he knew. People were leaving by the thousands on these boats. And if you were lucky, you would get on a boat that didn’t…

…Sink.

Or run into nothingness, or pirates. There were a lot of Thai pirates in that time too.

So your dad gets on this boat with 76 people. How many children?

Thirty-six, including myself and my brother. I was 10 months old then, and my older brother was two.

Oh my God. I have a nine-month-old. I can’t imagine getting on a boat like that and going God knows where…

So that God knows where was Malaysia. He was lucky. It took him four days, five nights. Twice he was robbed by Thai pirates. The first time they took the gold. They went through every crack and crevice. Everything that these people had was on that boat. The second time the Thai pirates came, they took all the engines. They left us for dead.

But ours was a lucky boat. On the other boats, they raped the women and took the children.

In Malaysia we were in a refugee camp with thousands and thousands of other refugees where we got checked for disease, processed… We were there for 10 months.

How did you get to Australia?

I asked Dad, “Why Australia?” He said that actually, he’d been offered America during the first month in the refugee camp. The Americans were taking a lot of refugees because they felt that it was their duty after the war. So it was easy to get into America. “Australia was a bit more picky,” he said, “at that stage.” But he persisted. He’d done his research, and he’d heard it was a lucky country to live in.

[Looking through the photo album]. Look at you, you’re so little.

I’m so little. I was made in Vietnam [laughs].

And your dad looks so young.

Dad was 47 kilos there. That’s him and my grandfather in the refugee camp. It is a really strange picture—the sign says, “See you again.”

Eventually we got papers and the plane took us from Malaysia to Adelaide. We landed in Port Pirie.  A little town, nothing much happening there. We stayed for about nine months. Dad couldn’t find a job. We had sponsors. Joy and Frank and their family, who taught Mum and Dad and my brother and I how to live in Australia. We stayed in commission housing with multiple families while our sponsors helped us adapt to Australia. You know, ‘How do you use a knife and fork? What’s cheese?’

We were really poor, so growing up we used to share bedrooms. We were sleeping in single beds foot-to-foot a lot of the time. We thought it was hilarious.

Did you feel like you lacked anything?

Not when I was really young, no. The only thing that I lacked was the freedom to make the friends that I wanted to make.

Tell me about that. You are Catholic Vietnamese?

Yes.

…Which is quite unusual?

A very small percentage of Vietnamese are Catholic. Catholic Vietnamese are extremely strict. Half an hour of prayers every night, going to mass every day during school holidays… At the end of the day, I think my parents were so religious because they believed that religion saved them on that boat. That’s what they clung to.

What was it like when you arrived? Did you feel like strangers in a strange land?

I remember one of our sponsors, Jack, used to come with dips and Coon cheese platters [laughs]. I thought it was the creamiest, richest thing I’d ever had. My parents couldn’t even stomach it.

Did you feel like you were Asians in Australia?

Yeah. But children absorb language so quickly. A lot of the time I didn’t even realise that I was speaking English versus Vietnamese. That just came naturally. I would speak to my parents in both languages, quite quickly. I used to get called “motor-mouth” when I was little, because I would talk really, really quickly [laughs]. So language-wise I had no issues.

But when I went to school and started to be aware of Australian culture; Vegemite sandwiches and Twisties—all of those things and and fish-head soup when you come home. All the food that’s really trendy now [laughs]. You know, that I didn’t appreciate so much! But at the same time, I didn’t feel really bullied or discriminated against. Only on the odd occasion. You know, the white kid swearing in Vietnamese and thinking that was really cool.

Swearing in different language is really cool, right? I didn’t realise at that time, but my father swore a lot in Vietnamese. I was so used to it because that was his language. But at school, the kids started saying the same things as my father. They’re saying, “I know Vietnamese!” “What about this word?” “And what about this?”

What’s a swear word in Vietnamese? Tell me a bad one.

Well, đụ má mày means “motherfucker” [laughs]. They used to go, “Oh I know some Vietnamese. How about this? Motherfucker?” I started to think, Hang on a second, that’s what my Dad says. I went home and asked Mum, and she said, “Don’t repeat that word!” That’s when the penny dropped.

So how did you get from Adelaide to Melbourne, and why?

I went to school in Adelaide until the end of prep. Dad heard from his friends who were in Melbourne that there was a really good industry going on for Vietnamese people where you could stay at home and work. That was the sewing industry…

Could your parents sew?

No [laughs]. But they were going to learn! It had a lot more opportunity than what Dad was doing in Adelaide, which was washing linen for a massive laundromat company.

Why did your parents want to work from home?

To raise us. We moved to Reservoir to a two bedroom home. And it had a bungalow at the back which Mum and Dad used to sew in day-in-day-out. There was a lot of stress. There was a lot of pressure. We’d hear them say, ‘Oh no, if this doesn’t pull through then we’re going to really struggle…’ I was the oldest daughter. So I would help clean, cook, sew shoulder pads. A lot of shoulder pads [laughs].

It was the 80s after all!

I was the only one who could overlock the shoulder pads. If one thing went wrong, unpicking was disastrous. There would be nights where we’d all stay awake—the kids, Mum and Dad, and unpick, and unpick the garment because of a simple mistake.

Do you ever get flashbacks when you’re performing surgery?

Of unpicking garments? I actually joke to my patients, ‘I was brought up by seamstress parents so, you know, I’ll be doing beautiful sutures on you today! You’re in good hands.’ They don’t realise how serious I actually am! [Laughs].

Fast forward 30 years and here we are! Everything you’ve done has been a success; you’re an A plus performer. Correct?

Well just academically. I don’t know about socially [laughs].

I remember distinctly feeling that I needed to be a “banana.”

What do you mean?

This was the cool thing to be. Even I grew up discriminating against the Asian kids, because I wanted to be “yellow on the outside and white on the inside.” That’s what they called a “banana”: an ultra-cool Asian. I remember thinking, I need to be a banana. I cannot be the Asian-Asian.

What’s an Asian-Asian?

The one who’s the nerd, reads books, doesn’t socialise, is introverted and has amazing academic and music skills. Then of course, in my twenties, suddenly all of these caucasian males started really liking Asian women. They had “yellow fever.” For so long, I was so repulsed by yellow fever that I only dated Asian guys.

You didn’t want to be fetishised?

Exactly, I didn’t want to be that “Asian chick.” I didn’t want the white boy to like me just because I was Asian. I wanted them to see me for who I was. We laughed at them. Quite ironic isn’t it?

How did you end up marrying Alex?

Well. He was my roommate for a while. We were just friends! He came from a completely different world to me. He was just the epitome of everything that my parents did not want me to have in my life [laughs]. His parents were divorced. He came from a non-Catholic background. He was a schoolteacher at that stage teaching photography. He was white.

Wow, you were brave.

Yeah, but my sister had gone before me and already dated a white guy. So…

[Laughs] a precedent had been set!

She’d done all the dirty work for me. And Alex was such a charmer. He charmed his way into my parents’ life.

And how were his family when he brought home an Asian girl?

They were so open and welcoming and warm.

So you marry this lovely man and you’ve crossed cultures. What have you learnt from that?

I was married at 28. And there was a sense of freedom. I really opened up to Alex about my past, and he thought it was amazing. I had always thought, That’s just my life. You convince yourself that’s normal because that’s all you know. He said, ‘Do you know what you’ve gone through?’ But I always thought that in comparison to everything my parents went through, and the sacrifice they made for me, my life was simple and easy. But Alex was adamant, ‘No, it wasn’t. You came here by boat, and obviously some of that trauma would have filtered down into your life, how you were raised.’ But I had never thought about it like that.

So you spent your childhood, and then your adulthood working to make up for your parents’ struggle; to make it worth it. And then you hit the pinnacle of your career. You’re very young, hugely successful, you have your own practice in a beautiful, affluent part of the city you grew up in. And then what?

I think my parents were proud, you know. But unfortunately, they measure success by money and status. Because that was something that they never had or had the opportunity for. Dad got pulled out of Year 12 due to the war. Mum only went to school until the age of grade five I think. In Asian culture, you have to be something. I was so convinced that that would be my success story, that it would make them proud.

And what about you?

Well that’s it.

In the last few years, I’ve started measuring success as happiness.

That’s something Alex is really trying to show me as well. He comes from a completely different background. His parents gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted. My parents often struggled with that. They expected me to marry the surgeon or the person who would take care of me, but at the same time they wanted me to find my feet and be a successful person too.

How you are developing your happiness?

Well, in the last year or two, I’ve been developing myself as an individual through yoga. Suddenly I see a richness in my work, of actually realising I’m in a privileged position where people come to me, vulnerable, in pain and anxious.

It’s not just about treating the pain, but about having an authentic connection with them first; seeing them as a human being.

By changing myself first and purging all of this stuff that’s happened in my past, going through it and understanding it a little bit more, it sets the scene to facilitate these really rich connections with patients. Which leads to, obviously, success. People come back to you because they trust you, because you really, truly care.

So how does yoga come into this? Yoga helps me with the craziness of life, of stress, and also neck, back and shoulder injuries from work. It means I can help without killing myself. Literally.

So what do your parents think of all this “hoojie- woojie” stuff?

They think that I’m doing yoga because I’m stretching [laughs]. It’s really, really hard to explain this to my parents. It’s hard to explain spirituality. That was something that I struggled with for so long because they were like, ‘Why aren’t you going to church? Why aren’t you god-abiding?’ I’ve realised that it’s just better to let some battles go.

But for them, god was overseeing your survival—a kind of continuum.

Correct. That was their hope. When they were on that boat, they prayed. They believe that because they prayed so hard, god took them through. Or Virgin Mary saved them. How can you fight that? You can’t.

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.

That’s exciting.

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…

Lazy.

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?

This piece was originally published in Dumbo Feather issue 38.

Fern is one of the faces of the I Came By Boat campaign, celebrating the contribution people seeking asylum have made to Australia. Show your support and donate here.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Photography by Lauren Bamford

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