Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • How can I speak in 10 minutes

  • about the bonds of women over three generations,

  • about how the astonishing strength of those bonds

  • took hold in the life

  • of a four-year-old girl

  • huddled with her young sister,

  • her mother and her grandmother

  • for five days and nights

  • in a small boat in the China Sea

  • more than 30 years ago,

  • bonds that took hold in the life of that small girl

  • and never let go --

  • that small girl now living in San Francisco

  • and speaking to you today?

  • This is not a finished story.

  • It is a jigsaw puzzle still being put together.

  • Let me tell you about some of the pieces.

  • Imagine the first piece:

  • a man burning his life's work.

  • He is a poet, a playwright,

  • a man whose whole life

  • had been balanced on the single hope

  • of his country's unity and freedom.

  • Imagine him as the communists enter Saigon,

  • confronting the fact

  • that his life had been a complete waste.

  • Words, for so long his friends, now mocked him.

  • He retreated into silence.

  • He died broken by history.

  • He is my grandfather.

  • I never knew him in real life.

  • But our lives are much more than our memories.

  • My grandmother never let me forget his life.

  • My duty was not to allow it to have been in vain,

  • and my lesson was to learn

  • that, yes, history tried to crush us,

  • but we endured.

  • The next piece of the jigsaw

  • is of a boat in the early dawn

  • slipping silently out to sea.

  • My mother, Mai, was 18

  • when her father died --

  • already in an arranged marriage,

  • already with two small girls.

  • For her, life had distilled itself into one task:

  • the escape of her family

  • and a new life in Australia.

  • It was inconceivable to her

  • that she would not succeed.

  • So after a four-year saga that defies fiction,

  • a boat slipped out to sea

  • disguised as a fishing vessel.

  • All the adults knew the risks.

  • The greatest fear was of pirates,

  • rape and death.

  • Like most adults on the boat,

  • my mother carried a small bottle of poison.

  • If we were captured, first my sister and I,

  • then she and my grandmother would drink.

  • My first memories are from the boat --

  • the steady beat of the engine,

  • the bow dipping into each wave,

  • the vast and empty horizon.

  • I don't remember the pirates who came many times,

  • but were bluffed by the bravado

  • of the men on our boat,

  • or the engine dying

  • and failing to start for six hours.

  • But I do remember the lights on the oil rig

  • off the Malaysian coast

  • and the young man who collapsed and died,

  • the journey's end too much for him,

  • and the first apple I tasted,

  • given to me by the men on the rig.

  • No apple has ever tasted the same.

  • After three months in a refugee camp,

  • we landed in Melbourne.

  • And the next piece of the jigsaw

  • is about four women across three generations

  • shaping a new life together.

  • We settled in Footscray,

  • a working-class suburb

  • whose demographic is layers of immigrants.

  • Unlike the settled middle-class suburbs,

  • whose existence I was oblivious of,

  • there was no sense of entitlement in Footscray.

  • The smells from shop doors were from the rest of the world.

  • And the snippets of halting English

  • were exchanged between people

  • who had one thing in common,

  • they were starting again.

  • My mother worked on farms,

  • then on a car assembly line,

  • working six days, double shifts.

  • Somehow she found time to study English

  • and gain IT qualifications.

  • We were poor.

  • All the dollars were allocated

  • and extra tuition in English and mathematics

  • was budgeted for

  • regardless of what missed out,

  • which was usually new clothes;

  • they were always secondhand.

  • Two pairs of stockings for school,

  • each to hide the holes in the other.

  • A school uniform down to the ankles,

  • because it had to last for six years.

  • And there were rare but searing chants

  • of "slit-eye"

  • and the occasional graffiti:

  • "Asian, go home."

  • Go home to where?

  • Something stiffened inside me.

  • There was a gathering of resolve

  • and a quiet voice saying, "I will bypass you."

  • My mother, my sister and I

  • slept in the same bed.

  • My mother was exhausted each night,

  • but we told one another about our day

  • and listened to the movements

  • of my grandmother around the house.

  • My mother suffered from nightmares

  • all about the boat.

  • And my job was to stay awake until her nightmares came

  • so I could wake her.

  • She opened a computer store

  • then studied to be a beautician

  • and opened another business.

  • And the women came with their stories

  • about men who could not make the transition,

  • angry and inflexible,

  • and troubled children caught between two worlds.

  • Grants and sponsors were sought.

  • Centers were established.

  • I lived in parallel worlds.

  • In one, I was the classic Asian student,

  • relentless in the demands that I made on myself.

  • In the other, I was enmeshed in lives that were precarious,

  • tragically scarred by violence,

  • drug abuse and isolation.

  • But so many over the years were helped.

  • And for that work, when I was a final year law student,

  • I was chosen as the young Australian of the year.

  • And I was catapulted

  • from one piece of the jigsaw to another,

  • and their edges didn't fit.

  • Tan Le, anonymous Footscray resident,

  • was now Tan Le, refugee and social activist,

  • invited to speak in venues she had never heard of

  • and into homes whose existence

  • she could never have imagined.

  • I didn't know the protocols.

  • I didn't know how to use the cutlery.

  • I didn't know how to talk about wine.

  • I didn't know how to talk about anything.

  • I wanted to retreat to the routines and comfort

  • of life in an unsung suburb --

  • a grandmother, a mother and two daughters

  • ending each day as they had for almost 20 years,

  • telling one another the story of their day

  • and falling asleep,

  • the three of us still in the same bed.

  • I told my mother I couldn't do it.

  • She reminded me that I was now the same age she had been

  • when we boarded the boat.

  • No had never been an option.

  • "Just do it," she said,

  • "and don't be what you're not."

  • So I spoke out on youth unemployment and education

  • and the neglect of the marginalized and the disenfranchised.

  • And the more candidly I spoke,

  • the more I was asked to speak.

  • I met people from all walks of life,

  • so many of them doing the thing they loved,

  • living on the frontiers of possibility.

  • And even though I finished my degree,

  • I realized I could not settle into a career in law.

  • There had to be another piece of the jigsaw.

  • And I realized at the same time

  • that it is okay to be an outsider,

  • a recent arrival,

  • new on the scene --

  • and not just okay,

  • but something to be thankful for,

  • perhaps a gift from the boat.

  • Because being an insider

  • can so easily mean collapsing the horizons,

  • can so easily mean

  • accepting the presumptions of your province.

  • I have stepped outside my comfort zone enough now

  • to know that, yes, the world does fall apart,

  • but not in the way that you fear.

  • Possibilities that would not have been allowed

  • were outrageously encouraged.

  • There was an energy there,

  • an implacable optimism,

  • a strange mixture of humility and daring.

  • So I followed my hunches.

  • I gathered around me a small team of people

  • for whom the label "It can't be done"

  • was an irresistible challenge.

  • For a year we were penniless.

  • At the end of each day, I made a huge pot of soup

  • which we all shared.

  • We worked well into each night.

  • Most of our ideas were crazy,

  • but a few were brilliant,

  • and we broke through.

  • I made the decision to move to the U.S.

  • after only one trip.

  • My hunches again.

  • Three months later I had relocated,

  • and the adventure has continued.

  • Before I close though,

  • let me tell you about my grandmother.

  • She grew up at a time

  • when Confucianism was the social norm

  • and the local Mandarin was the person who mattered.

  • Life hadn't changed for centuries.

  • Her father died soon after she was born.

  • Her mother raised her alone.

  • At 17 she became the second wife

  • of a Mandarin whose mother beat her.

  • With no support from her husband,

  • she caused a sensation by taking him to court

  • and prosecuting her own case,

  • and a far greater sensation when she won.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • "It can't be done" was shown to be wrong.

  • I was taking a shower in a hotel room in Sydney

  • the moment she died

  • 600 miles away in Melbourne.

  • I looked through the shower screen

  • and saw her standing on the other side.

  • I knew she had come to say goodbye.

  • My mother phoned minutes later.

  • A few days later,

  • we went to a Buddhist temple in Footscray

  • and sat around her casket.

  • We told her stories

  • and assured her that we were still with her.

  • At midnight the monk came

  • and told us he had to close the casket.

  • My mother asked us to feel her hand.

  • She asked the monk,

  • "Why is it that her hand is so warm

  • and the rest of her is so cold?"

  • "Because you have been holding it since this morning," he said.

  • "You have not let it go."

  • If there is a sinew in our family,

  • it runs through the women.

  • Given who we were and how life had shaped us,

  • we can now see

  • that the men who might have come into our lives

  • would have thwarted us.

  • Defeat would have come too easily.

  • Now I would like to have my own children,

  • and I wonder about the boat.

  • Who could ever wish it on their own?

  • Yet I am afraid of privilege,

  • of ease,

  • of entitlement.