One of my students, Van, a Vietnamese man in his early forties, once told the story of how he had saved himself from being killed by Thai pirates because of his ability to dive and swim very well. He explained how he and his brother had escaped the Communists in Soc Trang province in Vietnam at the end of the eighties by joining a group of more than a hundred other people in a small boat and how, after a couple of days into their journey to Malaysia, three fishing boats - or what had seemed to be fishing boats - had approached them with the offer of food and water. The people on the boats were Thai, as it turned out, and they had asked to talk with the Vietnamese captain. When the refugees saw their captain being pushed to his knees with a knife held to his throat, they began to despair. All the men, including Van and his brother, stepped forward to protect the women and children, standing near the edge of their boat so that the women and children might shelter behind, but the Thai boats had then rammed theirs. They rammed them so hard that Van and several of the other men had fallen into the water. Van then explained how he had been good at swimming when he was young - unusually good - and so, when he fell into the water he had dived down as deep as he could and then swum some distance beyond the boats. As he began to swim to the surface he could see that the water was red with blood and that he was swimming among bodies. One of the pirates saw him as he surfaced and leaned from the fishing boat with a knife, making ready to kill him. Van told us that he was too tired to dive again, so he just smiled. He couldn't speak Thai, so there was nothing he could do or say but smile. To his great surprise, the pirate had then turned away and lowered his knife.
As Van was telling this last part of the story, he demonstrated the smile he had given the pirate, and thus it became clear to the rest of us that it was not so much his ability to dive and to swim that had saved his life but the extraordinary quality of his smile. At the end of the story - a story which continued on for some time, and which involved an attack by a second group of pirates as well as the kidnapping of all the young female refugees - and the stranding of all that were left in a boat that now leaked, without food or valuables or clothing - Van told us how happy he was that we had allowed him to tell his story. It had happened nearly twenty years beforehand but in all the years since - during his time as a refugee in a Malaysian camp and then later as a new migrant in Australia - he had never had the chance to tell it to anyone, and particularly not to anyone Vietnamese. Nobody had wanted to hear his story about the pirates. It was far too depressing, they said.