by Nori Gale
The relationships we have with our colleagues are often strictly professional. We don’t usually share with each other the full range of experiences we’ve lived. We work together not knowing what personal stories exist in our midst—those of hardship, personal loss, and adventure which mark every life to varying degrees.
An Early Childhood in Vietnam
Marie Yip was born in the late 1960s in Vietnam when it was in the midst of 30 years of war. Communist leadership first fought against France’s colonial power, then against South Vietnam and its US backers. The US pulled out in 1973 and Vietnam became a unified country two years later ruled by the Communist north. Over 800,000 Vietnamese fled the country in the months following unification - the largest refugee exodus the world had seen during peacetime. More than 1.6 million people from Vietnam were resettled between 1975 and 1997.
Early Years as a “Street Kid”
Yip was four years old and without siblings when her parents divorced. In Vietnam no-fault divorce did not exist at the time. Vietnamese society followed a patrilineal line when distributing property and power. “In Asian society when I was a child, when a family experienced divorce the mother was immediately ostracized, and any children remained with the father. So, starting when I was four years old, my mother was forbidden to see me and I was left with my father. From then until I was almost ten, six years, I was very much a street kid. Nobody really cared for me, and I didn’t go to school at all during that entire time.”
To further complicate matters, her father was a mercurial figure whom his children feared. Yip mostly tried to avoid him. Having to fend for herself, she grew up fast.
She enjoyed spending time around adults and would quietly lean into their conversations, soaking up everything she could. “During that time when I was putting up with my father’s rages, I would be hanging around adults listening to conversations and one that I heard repeated that’s very normal in Asian societies was about the importance of education. They would say “education is where you’ll make something out of yourself,” and from that point forward I always knew education would be my way out.” Yip wouldn’t have the opportunity to get that education until later: while living with her father she was kept out of school to avoid exposure to political beliefs with which her father didn’t agree.
Life as a Housekeeper
Soon after her parents’ divorce, Yip’s father remarried and started a new family to which Yip never felt she belonged. Several years later, after reunification, as people started to flee Vietnam, her father took his family and emigrated to Hong Kong. Yip was left behind with her aunt who did not take her in as one of her own children but instead put her to work as a housekeeper starting at a very young age.
During the time that Yip was living with her aunt, Vietnam was newly reunified under communist rule, and imposed a strict rationing of household supplies. “I was the one sent out to buy our rice and meat - they had a ration on how many kilograms per person were allotted per week. I would be there at 5 o’clock in the morning lining up to buy our portion. I had to make sure that I was one of the first three in the queue because if you were last in line you wouldn’t be getting any lean meat.”
Age 10 and Changes are Afoot
One day, unexpectedly, Yip’s mother received a phone call from her former sister-in-law to say that she and her family were fleeing Vietnam to go to America. She laid out the options to Yip’s mother: Yip would be left on the street to fend for herself or her mother could take her in.
“By the time my mom got the call to pick up her daughter, believe me, I was a terrible child. If you think of the mentality of a child that age - all I understood was that my parents abandoned me. I didn’t see that my mother didn’t have a legal option to stay in my life.”
The Journey Out
Yip’s mom planned on escaping Vietnam with her extended family and had purchased space on a fishing boat to Malaysia. When she was reunited with her daughter she purchased one more spot, paying with currency called tael which was a block of gold weighing approximately one and a half ounces. The price for one spot on the boat was 18 tael.
Escape on a Leaky Fishing Boat
As Yip recalls it, their reason to escape wasn’t about fear of danger, as was the case with some, it was about escaping what they felt to be an oppressive society and seeking opportunity. Ronald J. Cima in his book, Vietnam: A Country Study describes things this way, “After the mid-1970s, the North and South faced the task of social reconstruction... While the return of peace reunited families, communist policies forced fathers or sons into reeducation camps or entire families into new economic zones for resettlement. For those who saw no future in a socialist Vietnam, the only alternatives were to escape by boat or escape by land.”
Yip and her mother left Vietnam on June 24, 1978, in a small, leaky fishing boat. The trip was meant to take three days but the compass broke and they ended up adrift. They were spotted by a Singaporean oil patrol ship whose crew rescued those aboard the fishing boat. From the deck of the oil patrol ship, they watched their fishing boat sink. By the summer of 1979, more than 200,000 people had drowned trying to escape Vietnam by boat. Others were robbed, raped, and murdered by pirates. Yip describes what lay in the balance that day, “We were lucky we were rescued, if not we would have lost our lives.”
The Singaporean crew dropped them on a deserted island (Bidong Island) in Malaysia on July 1, 1978, where the Malaysian government took responsibility for them and started the process of finding them new homes.
The first boat of Vietnamese refugees arrived in Malaysia in May of 1975, carrying 47 people. In 1978, there was a large increase in refugees landing in Malaysia. One month after Yip and her family landed there, Bidong Island was officially opened as a refugee camp with a total of 121 Vietnamese refugees. That number eventually ballooned to nearly 40,000 refugees from Vietnam in 33 mountainous acres meant to accommodate 4,500 people.
A Month in Captivity in Malaysia
Yip’s memories of their time on Bidong Island are surprisingly sweet, “For me, as a child at the time (I was almost 10 years old), it was an adventure. It was living like Robinson Crusoe. We were sent to this island where there were no houses. There was nothing - no structures - we were bathing in the sea, we were constructing the toilets, and chopping down trees. It was exactly like what you see on a show like “Survivor” - we were constructing the shelter, the roof, the frame.” As the New York Times reported at the time, “The refugees live in an extremely congested cluster of rickety structures made from slats from trees cut down on the mountain slope — the nearby hillside is becoming denuded — with sidings patched together from low‐grade bags that had field rice and sugar and leaky plastics.”
Yip’s family escaped Vietnam with enough resources that they were able to afford the things they needed to survive. Some refugees were entrepreneurial and building shelters for others: “We had a small square with six panels - two rows cut into three individual spaces that made up our living space. People used gold or U.S. dollars to pay fellow refugees to build homes for them.”
Malaysian authorities supplied food and drinking water to her family during Yip’s time on Bidong Island. The Times reported that “The refugees receive their drinking water and food, which is paid for by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and supplied by the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, by boat. Food is packaged with one carton containing three days’ ration for one person.”
“During the whole of July, we were on that Malaysian island and during that time round-robin screening interviews were taking place with countries willing to accept us as refugees.” Yip’s family was accepted to resettle in Australia. In August of 1978, the Malaysian government flew them from Bidong Island to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (K.L.) and from K.L. they boarded a Qantus flight to Adelaide, Australia. “From there we began our life changes.”
Resettlement in Australia
When they landed in Australia on August 24, 1978, initially they were housed in hostels. “We were happy. For us, it was a new beginning. In the hostel, we had people who cooked three meals a day for us. They clothed us - we arrived during wintertime in Australia, so part of what we needed was warmer gear for the cold weather. Australia has a very good welfare system so they put us on welfare immediately which we stayed on for about six months.”
As described in a report published by the University of Adelaide, “Migrant hostels were generally ex-army camps or warehouses converted to accommodate migrant families usually in the form of communal housing. The capacity of these hostels differed, with larger hostels able to accommodate over 1,000 migrants. Migrant hostels provided short-term, communal housing for migrants following their arrival in Australia. Generally, migrants were accommodated in hostels prior to finding employment and private housing. The living conditions within the hostels were diverse and the experiences of migrants varied significantly between hostels and migrant groups.”
And Now How to Make a Living
After a short time spent in Adelaide, they moved to Melbourne for work. Melbourne was the manufacturing capital of Australia. “My mother had to work in a factory. That’s hard to go from being the person supported by a wealthy family and never having to work to now having to work in a factory. That was a huge change for her but she had to do it because there was no alternative. Her motivation was about putting food on the table. We could have easily remained on welfare but she wanted to work and contribute.”
Schooling for the First Time
“When I came to Australia I was starting from scratch in school. I struggled a lot. I was ten years old and had no language skills, I couldn’t count beyond ten, I had to learn my ABCs.” Once settled in Australia Yip’s mother took hold of her education and they had tutoring sessions where she taught Yip the basics: ABCs, addition, subtraction, and reciting her times tables to prepare Yip to enter regular schooling. “I knew how important it was to listen and value her lessons. When she started teaching me I was like a sponge. I’d always believed what I’d heard about education being the key to everything. So I was invested immediately when she put in the time to teach me.” Yip was put straight into year six.
By the time Yip entered school, she succeeded by simply working harder than everyone else. She was so single-minded in her desire to learn that she didn’t have much of a social life, which lasted through high school. “I had seven years of education total before I went to university. During those years I had a drive to always be top of the class.”
Part of that drive was borne out of fierce protectiveness and care for her mother. She saw what her mom had endured first being cast off as a divorcee and then through years spent working as a laborer in a factory. Yip’s will to succeed was strengthened by the belief that it would make her mother happy to see her child do well and even further sustained by the knowledge that education would allow for her to provide a comfortable life for her mother. She believed the path to do that began by working hard in school.
Because she’d learned cleaning, housework, and shopping while living with her aunt, Yip adopted those tasks in the new household in Melbourne. “Starting at age 10 I did all the cleaning and shopping. And did my studies. I was quite self-motivated. I didn’t need my mother to tell me what to do. On Fridays, our reward was to go to McDonald’s. That was our treat.”
How Adapting to Challenges Has Shaped Her Work
What we have experienced in our lives comes to bear on how we contribute to our workplace. Yip’s experience has given her grit and a serious work ethic. And she has a high bar when it comes to her expectations of others. It also has given her a perspective on what’s worth sweating: “I constantly tell my staff that when you are resilient and resourceful nothing phases you - everything is so minor when you have faced a life and death situation.”
A way Yip expresses the expectations she has of her staff is by sharing with them some of what motivates her. A big motivator for her is what she calls the “Marie Yip brand.” She says, “When I manage my staff I explain to them that when you do a piece of work you’re putting a brand of yourself out to the world.” She says to be aware of their personal brand whenever they sign off on the work they’ve done.
She also realizes she has set a high bar and manages her expectations and works to be a manager who is patient and encouraging to her staff. She understands that her motivations are singular to her experience and the people with whom she works each has their own unique experiences. She cares about her staff, and she acts on that care by meeting them where they are.
42 Years Later: Where Are They Now
A group of the refugees who were aboard the fishing boat that carried Yip and her family from Vietnam to Malaysia became close friends over the course of their journey. They were all approved to go to Australia, were relocated from Bidong Island to Adelaide, and moved to Melbourne simultaneously. They have remained lifelong friends. Yip’s younger uncle, with whom they’d traveled since they left Vietnam, remained in Melbourne with her mom and her for the duration. He ended up marrying and having a family with one of the friends they’d met at the start of their journey.
Yip has a family as well and has raised two sons in Melbourne. While she adores her boys, she recognizes that the relationship she has with her own mother is unique and has created a bond between the two of them that wouldn’t be easy to replicate.
At the start of my conversation with Marie Yip, she mentioned that she hasn’t always been an optimist, that it’s something she has taught herself to be through reading and self-reflection. By the end of our conversation, this description of change by force of will, and through a natural openness to the wisdom and help of those outside herself, felt unsurprising. Yip’s presence at WEX, her hard work, her empathy as a boss, and, yes, her optimism, contribute to our community even without our knowledge of her story. Knowing her a bit better serves us in a different way—by giving us a greater curiosity and compassion for those around us, who work with us on a daily basis.
To learn more about WEX, a growing and global organization, please visit wexinc.com.
Vietnam: A Country Study
The New York Times
The University of Adelaide Study on Migrants to Australia