Whether it be out of polite conversation or genuine interest, I’ve often been asked “what made you want to be a lawyer?” I almost always jokingly respond with “because my Asian parents wanted me to.” It’s either law or medicine, right?”. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
My parents, Dan and Lieu were quite surprised that I was motivated enough to pursue law at university. My older siblings hadn’t shown any real interest – to be fair, learning English and trying to fit in as awkward working-class teenagers occupied most of their time. With those challenges in mind, my parents only ever wanted my siblings and I to work towards financial stability. If they had to choose a profession for me, they probably wanted me to become an accountant or a chemist – jobs they understood.
How my parents came to Australia
After 2 failed attempts at leaving Vietnam and a year-long jail sentence for my Dad, my parents finally fled the country as part of the massive exodus from communist controlled war-torn Vietnam.
My family were crammed into a rickety fishing boat with about 30 other people – double the safe capacity for a boat that size. They spent over 2 weeks at sea and suffered multiple attacks and were stripped of the few personal possessions they’d brought with them from Vietnam, by different groups of pirates somewhere in the South China Sea.
Eventually, my family made it to the refugee camp on Bidong Island in Malaysia. After months of not knowing if any country would accept them, Australia came to their rescue! Dan and Lieu arrived in Adelaide, South Australia in 1983 with my 4 older siblings dressed from head to toe in donated clothes.
Despite the trauma of their journey and having to leave their friends and family behind, having to work multiple low-paying labouring jobs and not knowing a word of English, Dan and Lieu were so completely and utterly happy with their new life in Australia. So much so that they decided to have me, their 5th ‘green card Aussie baby’.
Assimilating and overcoming obstacles
As my family began to adjust to life in Australia, my teenage siblings slowly forgot about the heartbreaking poverty from their childhoods and started wanting all the things their friends had.
So, like clockwork, my parents would reminisce (aka lecture us) about how harrowing their boat journey was and how lucky we were to be alive and living in Australia. They also reminded us that whatever money they made, a large portion was set aside to send back to Vietnam to support their families.
One of my Dad’s favourite shutdown lines to us was “in Vietnam, people would be happy to have salt with their rice so count your blessings”. Luckily, the Vietnamese proverb which translates to ‘harsh words but gentle heart’ applied perfectly to my Dad – so my siblings and I still had what we needed and even got the occasional order of pizza. My Dad’s frugality taught me to be careful with not only my own money but that of others.
Although confronting and painfully difficult to relate to at the time, those stories made me appreciate how hard my parents worked despite their limited resources and how much they’d sacrificed so that my siblings and I could get the education and opportunities they never had.
Through my parents, I learned that dedication and resilience was what got food on the table and the school fees paid; not luck and definitely not charity. This made me determined to be a good student, although I wished my family had told me school would be in English earlier! Up until Kindergarten, I’d only spoken Vietnamese to my family so you can imagine the terror I felt during the first few weeks of Kindy. My parents felt really sorry for me at the time but it was their way of preserving our culture. It actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I now take a lot of pride in being able to say that I’m bilingual.
Another side effect of my upbringing was that instead of extra-curricular activities after school, I used to help with whatever family business was churning at the time. From measuring and cutting elastic bands for my parents to sewing in their garage, to taking orders and delivering bread around the Queen Victoria market to making ‘banh mi’ rolls in their ‘always open except on Christmas day hot bread kitchen’ – I did it all! Sometimes happily and other times begrudgingly of course because like other kids, I would’ve much preferred to stay home to watch TV or sleep in!
How does my upbringing benefit my clients?
I didn’t know it then but having to wake up at the crack of dawn to work in the family bakery taught me responsibility and organisation. This helped me finish my law degree whilst raising my young son.
Serving customers (aka speaking to complete strangers) 8 – 10 hours per day since the age of 8 laid the foundation for another crucial skill that all good lawyers should have – people skills. The ability to connect and relate to people from all walks of life. This means that I always listen carefully to my clients to determine how best I can help them.
Growing up, my number one goal was to stay out of trouble and to help solve issues my parents faced to lessen their burden. This led me to yet another must-have lawyering skill – advocacy. I started out with simple interpreting tasks over the phone and at the shops and progressed to reviewing contracts (whilst still in law school) and making submissions to extend the ‘usage’ clause in their rental agreement with a major shopping centre.
Unknowingly, the challenges my parents faced as uneducated non-English speaking immigrants forced me out of my comfort zone, embedded a strong work ethic and gave me the confidence to speak up and fight for what was right and fair. So, this is the real answer to why I became the dedicated and compassionate lawyer who will do everything that I can to help my clients.
About the author
Yen Tran is a personal injury lawyer in Melbourne. She works with clients who have been injured either at work (workers compensation claims) or as a result a road accident (TAC claims). Yen is a second-generation Vietnamese Australian who grew up with 4 older siblings and non-English speaking working class parents. She is passionate about helping her clients navigate the complexities of the law to achieve the best outcome for them.