The Happiest Refugee

I decided to bring forward all the material that would prove to them I was just an Aussie kid.  So I did a number of jokes about bull terriers and Datsuns and housing commission estates, and slowly I was getting a few chuckles.  Then I moved on to footy jokes, farming jokes and kiwi jokes.

Anh Do, The Happiest Refugee

For about a year I worked at the Sakai-Higashi branch of NOVA teaching English in Japan.  There were twelve teachers.  11 Australians and me.  The Australians were curiously relentless with their jokes about New Zealanders having sex with sheep.  To be polite I joked along for a while initially assuming that they would stop eventually.  They didn’t.  I tried being cross, then totally ignoring them, and then finally settled on treating a joke about my birthplace and bestiality as a sort of joke on Australians.  They said something about kiwis and sheep, and I would nod cheerily and wonder what was the matter with them.  I concluded that there was some deep-seated need in the Aussie male to talk about having sex with sheep; impossible to fathom and difficult to sympathise with.

You can see Anh Do’s train of thought in the order of jokes above.  First: establish that he is a real working class Aussie (this gets us to footy jokes), then move seamlessly from making fun of farmers, to sheep, to Kiwis.


That’s all I’ve got though.  Anh Do is a cool guy and highly likeable.  His Mum and Dad are cool, and his brother and sister are cool.  The story he tells is interesting.  He’s done some fairly impressive things: made a few films, came second on Dancing With the Stars, won the $200,000 on Deal or no Deal, been a successful stand-up comic.  His brother was named Australian of the Year.  You can see from this list that there are some good things, and some publicity generating who-really-cares things.  He can now add writing the 2011 Australian Book of the Year to his list.  I think he’s about 34.

I don’t read feel-good biographies so reading this was a stretch for me.  There is a lot of hardship in this story but like a Hollywood movie of a certain type you know that everything will work out ok.  I am in no way diminishing the hardship.  Escaping Vietnam in the late 70s and very nearly dying as boat people a few times is not something you can make light of.  The problem is that I always want to know a bit more.  Seems like Anh’s family were Roman Catholics.  I imagine this made life pretty interesting during the later stages of the Vietnam War.

But that would be why he has written a successful book and (one of the reasons) I haven’t.  He tells a good story, and I get bogged down in details very (very) few people are actually interested in.

The good news we can take from this book  is that Australia isn’t really racist, and that pitbulls, footy and kiwi jokes are the ties that bind.

Still, I really know next to nothing about Australia, and most of what I do know came from working with Australians in Japan.  When I went to Japan I assumed that Australian Europeans and New Zealand Pakehas were the same.  When I came back from Japan I knew that they weren’t.  Related sure, but different.  New Zealanders tend to be quieter, gloomier, deadpan, and generally less inclined to sneer at the indigenous culture of their country.  Of course any generalisation leads to trouble, but that seems about right if you’re painting with big strokes and not worrying about individuals.

Unusually for a New Zealander I have only been to Australia once (twice if you count Sydney Airport).  On the way home from Japan for a holiday Cathy and I stopped off at Brisbane Airport for about eight hours.  We landed, rented a car, drove to Burleigh Heads, had lunch with Cathy’s grandparents, drove back to the airport and flew to New Zealand.

Even in eight hours I could tell that the Australian landscape was nothing like New Zealand’s and that this would probably create peoples with different outlooks on life.  Brisbane Airport seemed to be surrounded by endless stretches of dense, green bush that looked tropical, and the road to Burleigh Heads was a stretch of blacktop surrounded by red earth and lush green.  The road sings listed destinations with impossible distances of over 1000 kilometres.  It absolutely poured for about half an hour; sheets of water falling in torrents as our windscreen wipers beat feeble moments of clarity for me to glimpse the road ahead.  And then it cleared, and the road took us out to the coast where hotel skyscrapers rose up next to long white beaches, and a clear, blue sea.

In 1998, when Cathy and I left New Zealand to start our adventure in Japan, our first stop was at Sydney Airport which seemed impossibly big, with rows and rows of planes waiting on tarmac that apparently stretched to the horizon.  It made me feel like a small town boy, and rather tiny.  A country cousin in fact.  Which explains that train of thought in the Australian comedian’s mind: from footy, to farms and Kiwis.  We must seem like the outback country cousin at times as we make our way in droves across the Tasman and onto the streets of Sydney.  Perhaps that’s why we’re lost in an endless sheep joke.

Last year I discovered The Magic Pudding, and Seven Little Australians, which are wonderful books for kids, and My Brother Jack, which is just a wonderful book.  The Happiest Refugee didn’t do a lot for me, but I hope to get back to Australia’s books and its red earth one day soon.