Former Australian Prime Ministers are not the habitués of my nocturnal imaginings — yet it wasn’t surprising when John Howard appeared to me during a night of fitful sleep. He had loomed large over what had been a much anticipated and momentous day in the life of our family, so his cameo wasn’t apropos of nothing. Also, I was being kept awake by the kicking of the baby inside me, so there was that nighttime disturbance too.

There Howard was in the University of Sydney’s Great Hall, looking resplendent in a ceremonial robe as Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence gave a hagiographical speech about his achievements. The speechwriter had clearly paid attention to Basil Fawlty’s advice — don’t mention the war — and the few references to ‘unpopular decisions’ were Howard’s gun control and economic reforms, which were ceremoniously lauded. Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson spoke next, ending her speech by calling him ‘John’ in an overfamiliar manner, which jarred the formal proceedings. There was, of course, no reference by any of them to Howard’s inertia around reconciliation and the active steps he undertook to undermine Australia’s multiculturalism as well as marriage equality.

The awarding of the Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) to Howard by yet another Australian university attracted a vigorous online petition and scrutiny in the media. On the day there was a large security detail and a group of protestors holding placards. Their voices were amplified by megaphone — ‘John Howard is a war criminal!’ —and the chants were heard as a low rumble from inside the Great Hall after the heavy timber doors were barred shut. The ruckus had its intended effect by delaying the proceedings. Even after we were summoned to stand, it turned out to be for an unspecified amount of time. The organist kept glancing down over her right shoulder to see when the procession would finally enter. She improvised valiantly, each song seguing seamlessly into the next. The entire spectacle and strains of the organ took me back to childhood scenes waiting for the priest and his acolytes to enter from the vestibule into the nave of the church.

When it was Howard’s turn at the podium, he directed his speech to the large cohort of arts and law graduands sitting in neat rows, with tassels hanging to the right of their mortarboards. ‘It was one of the turning points in my life to be able to attend (this) university,’ he said. ‘I’ve never forgotten that privilege and just as it aided my future… it will aid your future life.’ He acknowledged the ‘many fine things’ Australia had inherited from western civilisation, particularly the United Kingdom, and added, ‘we chose to reject class distinction and snobbery associated with old Europe’.

As someone who has lived in a few parts of ‘old Europe’ over time, I understood what he was trying to say, but his assertion about Australia’s rejection didn’t accord with my own experiences of class distinction and snobbery at this very university. Until I entered the hallowed halls of our oldest university I had little concept of how our class system functioned. Until, that is, I met students from wealthier postcodes and elite private schools who inhabited alien worlds I didn’t even know existed.

The first graduand called up was Joshua Brendan Bird, for the award of a Doctor of Philosophy. His thesis title: ‘Entrepreneurs and Ethnicity: Economic development in Northwestern China’. As he walked up the stairs I cheered loudly because, after all, that was my husband standing up just as Howard was sitting down. The first in his Anglo-Australian family to be university educated, he had eventually gone on to achieve the highest award possible. The two women on either side of me in the audience also cheered—Di Bird, his mother, and Thi Kim Thoa Tran, my mother. Duc Tho Pham, my father, was skulking on the grounds outside. My parents had already been inside the Great Hall for two of my graduations whereas it was Di’s first time inside the Victorian Gothic revival style building for such an occasion.

During his first year of university, when Josh was not yet old enough to vote, Howard was ushered in for what would be an 11-year reign. Now all these years later they momentarily shared a stage, two bespectacled men with similar ethnic backgrounds, state school educated and law graduates. But perhaps that’s where the resemblance ends. Born during different eras they also hold polarised worldviews: the older man fearful of the vast continent that Australia is on the edge of, clinging onto ‘Western Civilisation’ as a bulwark against malignant forces, and the younger man who has embraced Asia his entire adult life, though understanding it as comprised of civilisations with their own complexities.

There was no speech about what Josh had accomplished in his life but the title of his thesis provides a few clues. After he completed his undergraduate degrees, Josh moved to Taiyuan in China’s Shanxi province to teach English, where he also began to acquire Chinese language skills. His circuitous career moved on from law to indigenous affairs, and then onto international development and human rights—including several years focused on human rights in China, a bleak endeavour. His doctorate examined multiculturalism in the Chinese context.

A few months after he began his PhD, Josh also married me, the first in my Vietnamese family to be born in Australia. Ours is a relationship of equals, though there is certainly one notable difference: I’m actually not the first in my family to receive a university education in this country.

‘Hello Dr Bird.’ Dad warmly greeted Josh after the graduation ceremony, his calloused right hand clasping both of my husband’s soft hands. From then on he would often greet his son-in-law by his title, half-joking and half in awe of his academic accomplishment. The other person who sought out Josh was one of his supervisors, Dr Minglu Chen, a senior lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations. She’d had a better seat than all of us, sitting up on stage with other members of the Academy.

Minglu hails from Taiyuan, where Josh had lived that first time in China. In 2003 she migrated to Australia to undertake a PhD. In one of her articles, ‘Being Elite 1931–2011: three generations of social change’, she describes how ‘educational capital’ is crucial because ‘education clearly stands out as an important—if not the indispensable—factor in the… path to power and elite status.’ She was writing about China but it applies here as well. Education is an important catalyst to improve generational mobility in Australia, just as it is elsewhere.

Before the ceremony, Dad had asked if it was a union protest judging by all the union signs. I explained it was actually a protest against John Howard receiving an honorary doctorate. He didn’t know what the ‘honorary’ meant in this context.

‘It’s a bullshit degree,’ I told him. ‘Bullshit’ is a term we both regularly use in English, a word we have never needed to translate into Vietnamese.

‘But why are they protesting?’ he asked.

‘They don’t like John Howard,’ I stated simply. My answer seemed to surprise him, given he’d voted for Howard every single election since 1996.

In the days leading up to the ceremony, Josh had been nervous of a potentially uncomfortable political discussion at the post-graduation lunch. Josh’s dad, Jeff, had been in charge of the press office of NSW Labor Premier Neville Wran. Di had a longstanding rule that no Liberal voter could cross the threshold of their home in Bondi Junction.

Despite the way my parents voted, Dad had an elephantine memory and had never forgotten Howard’s comments against Asian immigration. He never even quite forgave Malcolm Fraser for being initially reluctant to accept the refugees from Indochina, regularly telling me throughout my childhood that Fraser only caved in after international pressure. So when my parents voted for Howard it wasn’t necessarily out of a clear sense of self-interest; it was because they perceived him to be the leader Australian needed, as did so many swinging voters back then.

Living in Sydney’s southwestern suburbs for almost their entire tenure in Australia, my parents rarely venture into the inner city where anti-government protests usually occur. That’s not to say protesting is a freedom they’ve taken for granted because they’ve participated in plenty of protests in Australia about the country they’ve never returned to. But when it comes to the political affairs of Australia, their protests don’t go much beyond shouting at the TV—which is probably not so different to most of their fellow Australians.

Although I’d had raging arguments with Dad during those long Howard years over our political differences, the former Prime Minister’s name had hardly been uttered by any of us in the years since he was voted out. So I reassured Josh it was unlikely Howard would be brought up in conversation and spoil the mood.

It wasn’t surprising for the Prime Minister to say what he did to me the one time we met in person at the Sydney Olympics in late September 2000.

At the time I was working as a runner for NBC, the American broadcaster, and it was something of a dream job, given I was a teenager. Being positioned at the swimming pool meant breaking news was a quotidian occurrence and I felt closer to the centre of the action than I’d ever felt before. Although I had chosen to study science at the University of Sydney, I had long been curious about working for the media. At press conferences I would overcome my nerves and signal for the roving mic to ask questions to the athletes. Dad had discouraged my early interest in journalism, reminding me I was Asian—as though I needed reminding—and stated that my appearance alone would always hold me back in Australia. But that month I didn’t feel any such limitation, especially when I met larger-than-life figures like Mohammed Ali. Though back then I knew nothing of him as a political figure and naively associated politics as being the primary domain of politicians.

One afternoon at the International Aquatic Centre I spotted our then Prime Minister standing a few metres away. Howard’s election had done little to assuage my fears during an anxious time because of the rise of anti-Asian rhetoric on the streets (‘go back to your own country’ etc), in politics and in the media. Despite all that, in a rush of euphoria after a thrilling afternoon at the pool I couldn’t resist the lure of asking him for a photo. Howard happily obliged and with one arm around my shoulder, he asked:

‘So where are you from?’

Nowadays when I look at that slightly blurry photo—my uncontainable cheesy grin and Howard smiling but looking off slightly to the side—it’s difficult not to recall this moment without a sense of disappointment. For one thing, I was not surprised that the man holding the highest office in Australia had asked me the same old tired question I’d heard a hundred times before. Never mind that I hailed from the western suburbs not so far from where he’d been raised and that we would soon share the same alma mater.

Later I would tell people about my encounter with Howard, always generous in my interpretation even when they expressed disbelief. But their reactions reflected what I felt at some level, bothered that it had been that question out of a thousand other banal possibilities. During the Olympics there were indeed foreigners everywhere you looked, and it was that sense of connection with the international community that seemed to liberate us—Australia—from our almighty cringe; never mind that we already had an existing international population living within our borders.

Asking where someone is from is natural when driven by curiosity but this was not why Howard asked that question and I knew it. In his eyes, I was doomed to be a ‘perpetual foreigner’ because excepting him and, on another memorable occasion, a group of burly security guards at a bag checkpoint, not a single other person actually asked me that question during those four weeks. So when I look back on the Olympics, those were halcyon days that truly freed me to feel a sense of rare belonging. I fervently joined in the spontaneous bursts of ‘Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!’ that would regularly erupt in sporting venues, on the streets of downtown Sydney, on the trains late at night.

My American colleagues never seemed to question I was anything other than Australian and explained it wasn’t the done thing back home to ask anyone where they were ‘from’. It might have been so-called political correctness but it was an intriguing idea since there seemed to be no such correctness during the most formative years of my life in Australia. Being immersed with Americans provided a clue that I would eventually find a hitherto unknown freedom outside of our borders, rather than within them.

After the graduation ceremony, we sat down for a celebratory three-course lunch at a chic restaurant which epitomises Sydney’s middle-class lifestyle. Minglu was the only one of us who’d been before, living just around the corner in Glebe. Josh was worried my parents wouldn’t enjoy the meal but I reassured him I was on hand to decipher the menu and help them navigate like I’ve done many times before—as I’d been doing my entire life.

After reading the menu for a few minutes Dad said, ‘I’ll have goat.’ I explained to him that it was actually ‘goat curd’, a kind of cheese he wouldn’t like. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘It says goat.’

Di leaned across the table to ask me, ‘What’s ‘burrata’?’ Josh had already shrugged his shoulders because he had no idea since he had a general aversion to cheese, whereas I was a bit of a turophile, despite being lactose intolerant.

‘It’s a kind of soft cheese,’ I said. ‘It’s milky, a type of mozzarella.’

After our orders were taken, Dad remarked, ‘I saw that man, Barry Humphries. He’s very small.’ It was surprising to hear Humphries had been there but it was impressive Dad even recognised him. I doubt I would have, though we had just that weekend past watched Humphries in Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia. Di rolled her eyes and said, ‘Yes, he’s tiny.’

I asked Josh what occurred on stage with the Chancellor, as there had been an exchange. ‘She said, “you must have worked very hard” … and I actually got a bit choked up.’ It had finally dawned on him what an achievement it was to gain a PhD — and his reaction demonstrated how he’d been well-trained to downplay his intellectual achievements in the classic Australian way.

Dad sent me a text a few days after the ceremony, over-punctuated as usual and ending with a term of endearment.

Could you send me Josh’s photo standing alone with graduation robe so Danny recreates new big photo with 4 graduates in my elite family (with new face of Dr. Bird) of course to Dan’s address A.S.A.P. Thanks, Darling!

In my mind’s eye I could see how this ‘new big photo’ created by my youngest brother would have pride of place on the living room wall. The composite image would feature each of us wearing a mortarboard and gown, with time and space converging through the magic of Photoshop. Dr. Bird became one of us through marriage, but it’s through education that he’s now a part of our ‘elite’ family.

Sheila Pham and John Howard, 2000. Image: Sheila Pham.
Sheila Pham and John Howard, 2000. Image: Sheila Pham.