I was a fat kid at school so I didn’t fit in.
I hung around with a bunch of other misfits: a guy with acne, two nerds, and a refugee from Vietnam. His name was Phu Trinh and he was a boat person who escaped the communists with his mum and nine siblings.
The Trinhs lived just around the corner from where I grew up, and were the first Asians to settle in Lilydale. They had a tough gig, breaking the ice.
Days when I was feeling persecuted at school I just had to hang out with Phu. The names people came up with made me wonder how cruelty and creativity could go so easily hand in hand. It didn’t seem to worry him though, he just grinned and went back to our year-long downball tournament.
Some days after school I went to his house and his family, which had opened a bakery, fed me cakes and pastries. When it was time to go home, his mum – who didn’t speak English – loaded my arms with bags of pies and pasties, nodding and smiling goodbye. I didn’t really think about it much as a kid, but they had the knack of making me feel welcome at a time when they wouldn’t have felt it themselves.
I recently thought of Phu because I’ve started a new photography project on refugees in Australia. The working title is Hobbies of Asylum Seekers and it will be an exhibition documenting what people do in their leisure time when they’re no longer being persecuted, or shot at, or tortured. The reason I chose hobbies is that it’s perhaps one of greatest indicators of someone settling into a community, when their focus shifts from surviving to thriving.
I hadn’t seen Phu since high school, but last week I looked him up and found out his family ran the same bakery at Wantirna South. I drove over and the guy operating the till made me feel old by telling me he was Phu’s nephew. He said Phu lived out the back and we knocked on his door and sure enough, there he was, smiley as ever. We caught up on the last 25 years and he told me he was married with two kids, and that he played baseball. I told him about my project and he was keen to be involved – and this is the picture.
Standing in his lounge room he showed me a photo of his baseball team, the Croydon Rams. They’re all standing on the edge of the diamond, arms folded, backs straight. Most of his team mates are smiling, except Phu. He’s standing with his feet planted squarely, looking straight into the camera, his chin raised slightly. It takes me a moment to figure out his expression.
That’s it, he looks proud.
PS I need some help: Does anyone know anybody who’d be happy to be photographed for the exhibition? They might be refugees or asylum seekers – the only criteria is that they’ve come to Australia seeking refuge. Please get in touch via the contact form.