Whenever anyone asked my father where his children were from, he would say, “Oh my firstborn was manufactured in Thailand but assembled in Australia, with Chinese parts.” My parents are survivors of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and my mother was eight months’ pregnant at the Thai Refugee camp when she and dad were accepted as refugees to Australia.
When the volunteer doctor at the camp asked my mum how many months along she was, she held up five fingers. Skinny from malnourishment, and less than five feet tall, she got away with it. Also, there were no ultrasounds in refugee camps. “So that’s how I smuggled you into this country,” she told me, because there was no way they would let a woman who was almost full-term on a plane.
I was born a month after my parents arrived. My father remembered a story he read in his youth which had been translated from English into Chinese, about a girl who finds herself in a magical paradise. So he named me Alice, after Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland because he thought Australia was a wonderland.
There is an Australian expression that goes, “I wasn’t born yesterday mate,” usually delivered with sarcasm, often because someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Well, when my parents arrived in Australia, it was as if they were born yesterday, every single day. Everything was a miracle to them, from traffic lights to escalators. They’d escaped the hell of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. They took nothing for granted. This was their Wonderland, their Lucky Country, and their first child was born smack-bang in the middle of it.
Alice Pung is an award winning writer, editor, teacher and lawyer based in Melbourne. She is the bestselling author of Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter and the editor of the anthologies Growing Up Asian in Australia and My First Lesson. Her first novel, Laurinda, won the Ethel Turner Prize at the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and her latest book, released in October this year, is Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden [Black Inc. Books]. Alice is an Ambassador for the Twentieth Man Foundation, the 100 Story Building and Room to Read - all organisations that encourage literacy and literature among young people.