The Long Trip Home to Pulau Bidong, Malaysia. "Pulau Bidong" -- those words alone send shivers down my spine. Many Vietnamese “boat people” risked their lives decades following the Vietnam War - some 250,000 passed through Bidong from 1975 through 1991. Despite the number of refugees who accessed the island, many former inhabitants remain tight-lipped about their experience in the camp.
My parents fled with my four siblings. I was born on the island. My family has only given me bits and pieces of what life was really like on the camp, and two of my four siblings were too young to remember their time there.
One of my sister's earliest memories was my dad falling off the boat as they were boarding. My eldest brother cannot forget the stench of the old lady's dead body that was on board. You see, a promise was made to this lady not to throw her body overboard. She wanted a proper burial when they were to hit land. Amazingly, this promise was fulfilled.
Growing up, I was always teased by my relatives because I was born on Bidong. They would call me 'stateless'. I am ethnic Chinese with parents from Vietnam, born on this makeshift refugee camp in Malaysia, but grew up in Canada from a very early age. To say I’ve suffered from identity issues is an understatement. I even have a difficult time when people ask “where are you from?” or “what’s your background?” These questions used to be carry a sense of shame along with them; now pride.
Pulau Bidong was once the most densely populated place on earth, housing 40,000 refugees in a livable space about the size of a football field. For it to now have no permanent residents seemed somewhat undignified.
Getting to the island at the tail end of monsoon season was no easy task. Much like those who fled before me - just hope for the best. At least I had a life jacket.
When approaching Bidong from a distance, the silhouette of the island becomes more and more prominent. With the hilltop centred in the middle of the island it is unmistakably "it". I was filled with an unsettling anticipation the entire 45 minute ride. I fought back tears I did not know I longed for and feelings I could not make sense of. I was at the site of my birth place and of my re-birth.