One morning, after the rain and just before December, I packed a single suitcase, said goodbye to my brothers and walked out the tired front door. I was 17 and I had officially become a "runaway".
With the courage of soldiers, my brothers then ventured out to the restaurant to face the firing line. They presented my father with the farewell letter that I had handwritten – a soft and compassionate letter outlining all the reasons I had to leave the family home. My brothers told my father they had "found" the letter after "discovering" that I had gone.
Pauline Nguyen in her Red Lantern restaurant.Credit:Janie Barrett
At the restaurant, my father hastily read my words and put them in his pocket. He ordered my brothers to join him at the table. He picked up four square stainless-steel napkin dispensers and placed them neatly on top of one another. With steel in his voice, he told them, "These represent each one of you." He pointed to each dispenser as he spoke, resting his finger on the bottom dispenser. "This one is your sister, she is meant to be the foundation for the four of you."
After a long and deliberate pause, he took a sudden violent swing at the bottom dispenser, sending it flying through the air, smashing it against the tiled wall. As the top three dispensers came crashing to the ground, he shouted, "Instead, she has chosen to wreck the family home!"
My brothers tell me that the restaurant was full of customers that day, and that he had digested not one word of my letter. "She is wrong," he said, "to do what she has done."
With the help of a close friend and the support of my brothers, I went into hiding. My father ordered his men to search for me. My brothers, who always knew of my whereabouts, warned me by phone if my father or any of his henchmen came close to finding me. He had spread the word that there could only be two reasons for my leaving: one, that I had become a drug addict too ashamed to face the world; or, two, that I had fallen pregnant to the phantom boyfriend he had conjured in his head.
For me, life was also about survival. In order to survive, I could not allow myself, not even for moment, to think about the tremendous shame that I had dumped upon my family. The months passed slowly as I moved around to avoid detection. Truly, I hid in Newcastle, north of Sydney, one of the last places anyone would think of looking. But my spirit grew weary of living in fear and my body tired of being on the run.
I made up my mind to return to Sydney and get a university degree. By this time, I had found new strength. My fear of the future was nothing compared to my fear of the past. Even so, out of habit, I would look over my shoulder everywhere I went, paranoid that familiar faces were following me.
I put myself through university and completed a bachelor of arts, majoring in communication. Looking back, I find it amusing that, even years after leaving home, I still felt compelled to inform my father of my academic achievements. Every semester I sent home my university reports. I would cut away my home address so that he wouldn't know where I lived, but I wanted him to know about my achievements, and know that there were some things I would never forget.
But there comes a time when you need to overcome your fears by looking them in the face. And for the sake of my mother, and for the sake of my brothers, and for all the shame I had dumped on my family in the years that I was away, I reluctantly reconciled with my father.
Out of duty I would go home to visit, and I hated those visits. I hated the sense of claustrophobia and suffocation I felt in his presence. The meetings were always stifled and false. But what I hated most about those visits was the overwhelming realisation that I'd grown up to be just like him. I, too, was angry all the time. Angry at my friends, angry at my work colleagues, angry at the world, angry at myself.
Angry people are highly skilled at noticing all that is wrong. For many years, anger was the default emotion I ran to – anger and judgment. I was constantly in "error detection mode". This was how I was brought up. This was all I knew. This is what my parents had downloaded onto me.
My neuroscience teacher refers to this as the "right wrong virus", a mind operating system with error detection and judgment at its core. This is a prevalent human condition and those who judge the most are secretly the ones who feel the most judged.
I carried this anger with me for many years, but when my husband and I decided to have a child, I was determined that this cycle would end with me. I was determined to not pass on my anger to the next generation.
So, in 2007, I landed a deal to write a recipe book and memoir about my family. As I was writing this book my fears returned. I'd think, "How am I possibly going to survive my father's reaction to this story?"
The book is called Secrets of the Red Lantern and it's not meant to be a scathing account of my father. Instead, it's a beautiful story about personal freedom, family and hope. All up, there are 10 chapters and it's my intention to complete it and give it to my father in its entirety so that he can see the full arc of the story and see what a beautiful story it is. But in order to talk about the good stuff, we have to share some of the bad stuff that happened as well, right?
By the time I finish the fifth chapter, my father demands to read my story and I freak out. I freak out because he can't possibly read it now. It's not finished!
The fifth chapter is also the worst chapter about my father. It is the most scathing account of him and he can't possibly read it now. It's not finished!
But you don't say no to my father, and I have no choice but to hand over my unfinished manuscript, the story about his life written by his prodigal daughter. I don't hear from my father for three months and I need to hear from him. I need to finish my book. I need to move on.
Father's Day comes and I decide to go home and face the music. As I'm driving to Bonnyrigg, where my parents lived, with my brand-new baby daughter, Mia, the nerves and anxiety overwhelm me as usual. Fear chokes me so I can hardly breathe.
I'm not scared that he will hit me or do anything like that. I am scared because I am about to do something that has never been done before. I am about to confront my father to end this family's pattern and make things better than before.
So, I'm at the front door, and I've brought with me a case of my father's favourite red wine as a peace offering. My parents open the door and see Mia for the first time. They immediately take her from me. They kiss her, they cuddle her; they're so happy to see her and I can tell they are in awe of her smallness.
Pauline (back row, third from right) with the extended Nguyen family in mid-2018.Credit:Courtesy of Pauline Nguyen
As I enter the house, I see that they have created a feast for me. The old family table is covered in traditional goodness – caramelised pork, tomato prawns, roast duck, bitter melon soup.
When we sit down to eat, I take a moment to find my centre. I sneak a peek at their faces and see a look in their eyes I've never seen before. They're treating one another with a new softness and speaking to me with deliberate respect. "I was wrong," my father admits to me unexpectedly. The sound of those three words – "I was wrong" – make me sit up and pay attention.
"Do you know why Buddha sits on a lotus flower?" my father asks me.
I answer with some caution, "No, Dad. Why does Buddha sit on a lotus flower?"
In a sad, serious voice, he responds. "Nothing is as beautiful as a lotus flower. Out of watery chaos it grows, emerging from a muddy swamp, yet it remains pure and unpolluted. So pure you can eat it – all of it, the flowers, the seeds, the leaves, the roots, the petals. But the lotus has another characteristic. Its stalk can easily bend but cannot easily break. It has strong, tenacious fibres that hold the plant together."
He takes a deep breath before continuing. "My children are lotus flowers." My silence enables him to carry on. "Like the lotus flower, all of you have grown out of the mud of your origins. You have grown out of the aftermath of war. You have grown out of Cabramatta during its murkiest time – and you grew out of me. I am dirt. I am mud. I am shit. I am very lucky to have you all."
Edited extract from The Way of the Spiritual Pauline Nguyen, out now.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale March 10.
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