We were very scared. We thought we could be jailed at any moment. We had no freedom.
Truth is stranger than fiction every day of the week. And more shocking, sad, funny, illuminating, inspiring, terrifying, horrifying and theatrical. And plenty more besides.
Truth is life and life, as we all know, never goes to script. You can plan for things all you like, but there’s often a curveball coming your way and all you can do is deal with it as best you can. The trick is not to let it defeat you.
Be Ha faced one of those curveballs in the mid 1970s. Living happily with her husband and two young children in a small town outside of Saigon, Be’s world rocked on its axis when the Vietnamese Communist Party took control of the country.
When the Communists came, they took everything and controlled everything, she says.
They took my parents’ farm, all the land, shops, houses – everything. We all had to move into a small house – me, my husband, my mum and dad, my two children (aged two and three) and my 11 brothers and sisters. We were very scared. We thought we could be jailed at any moment. We lived like that for two years and that’s when we decided to escape Vietnam. We had no freedom.
That decision resulted in Be and her immediate family landing in Australia about four years later. But that’s the shorthand version of events. The devil, and suspense, as always, is in the detail.
To get to Australia, Be, her husband, her two young children and one of her sisters had to cram into a tiny fishing vessel (12m x 3.5m) with 149 others and set off, destination unknown.
To make matters worse, there was no food or water available on board, the boat was attacked by pirates (twice) and the passengers were at sea for 30 days. That’s a long time to go without something to eat or drink and, unfortunately, two passengers died of starvation – one of them an elderly man who sat next to Be the whole journey.
I was treated like a no one.
Colin Hiscoe has stared down a few curveballs in his time, too – curveballs you wouldn’t wish on anyone. Colin is a man with an intellectual disability which went undiagnosed until he was at least well into his 20s. But even that pales into comparison when you hear him speak of his teenage years.
At first he was abused by his uncle – ‘I was treated like a no one’ – then by fellow inhabitants and the landlord at a Boys’ Home.
I was abused, I was mistreated,he says.
The landlord belted me from the back of my shoulders, back of my neck, right down to the back of my legs where my ankles are. I was black and blue.
Colin ended up running away, but the abuse kept following him. Remarkably the scars – physical and psychological – are hard to see. Colin says he has learnt to let the anger that would consume him slowly subside.
You just have to keep on going. I used to get sick and tired of being pushed around and then I started fighting back and then I thought maybe that’s not the right way to go about it, maybe I just have to try and smile and be happy. Does that make sense?
I’ve spent my whole life knowing there’s something in me that’s different.
Sally Conning hasn’t had to come to grips with too many curveballs, save for the one she was born with. Not that she’d change a thing. Sally identifies as transgender, something she first realised at about age five. However, it took another 53 years before she finally felt comfortable introducing herself to the world.
In the intervening years she lived as a man, sharing her secret only with family and partners.
I’ve known I was different since age five, when I wore my sister’s clothes, Sally says.
I’ve spent my whole life knowing there’s something in me that’s different and I got to the point where I had to … express myself as Sally and not as ‘the boy’.
Two years ago I knew I was going to retire, I knew I was going to live full-time as myself. I walked out the door from work on that last day and took off ‘the boy’s’ clothes for the last time – ever.
When asked what it is about wearing women’s clothes that compels her to don them, Sally says it relaxes her.
Every time I got tensed up I’d dress in girls clothes and I’d relax instantly, she says.
Sally has two children who still call her ‘dad’.
They’ve known about Sally for a long time. I have a daughter and son, 36 and 34, and they’re fine with it. They’ve met her.
Like all the people interviewed for this story, Sally is a glass-half-full person. Despite the inner turmoil she has felt over the years, and despite losing one of her best mates when he heard about Sally, she says she wouldn’t wish for a different life.
(Otherwise) I would not have had the life experiences I’ve had, she says.
If we can educate the ignorant then … we could co-exist in this crazy, mixed-up world.
Phil Cooper sees curveballs on a weekly basis, but, in his case, they’re almost always one and the same – racism.
Phil says he first saw it as a boy and still sees it today.
(When I was growing up) an Aboriginal person had to put up with blatant racism, the refusal of employment, renting a house, refusal of a drink at the local pub or entry into night clubs, he says.
We were served last at the shops. It was abuse from small-minded people every day.
I’d say 50 per cent of people are ignorant (about Aboriginal issues). If we can educate the ignorant then we’d have the majority being like-minded and we could co-exist in this crazy, mixed-up world. We need to educate the educators that are teaching the children who are our future leaders.
Asked if he could see that happening in his lifetime he pauses and tells of a recent experience.
I got vilified twice in one week, he says.
They wouldn’t serve me a beer and this bloke called me a ‘coon’. I probably get racially abused once or twice a month.
Life. Sometimes it’s not easy to live with.