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My immigration story | Tan Le | TEDxWomen

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    How can I speak in 10 minutes
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    about the bonds of women
    over three generations,
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    about how the astonishing
    strength of those bonds
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    took hold in the life
    of a four-year-old girl
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    huddled with her young sister,
    her mother and her grandmother
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    for five days and nights
    in a small boat in the China Sea
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    more than 30 years ago.
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    Bonds that took hold
    in the life of that small girl
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    and never let go --
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    that small girl now
    living in San Francisco
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    and speaking to you today.
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    This is not a finished story.
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    It is a jigsaw puzzle
    still being put together.
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    Let me tell you about some of the pieces.
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    Imagine the first piece:
    a man burning his life's work.
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    He is a poet, a playwright,
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    a man whose whole life
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    had been balanced on the single hope
    of his country's unity and freedom.
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    Imagine him as the communists
    enter Saigon --
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    confronting the fact
    that his life had been a complete waste.
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    Words, for so long his friends,
    now mocked him.
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    He retreated into silence.
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    He died broken by history.
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    He is my grandfather.
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    I never knew him in real life.
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    But our lives are much more
    than our memories.
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    My grandmother never
    let me forget his life.
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    My duty was not to allow
    it to have been in vain,
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    and my lesson was to learn
    that, yes, history tried to crush us,
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    but we endured.
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    The next piece of the jigsaw
    is of a boat in the early dawn
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    slipping silently out to sea.
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    My mother, Mai, was 18
    when her father died --
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    already in an arranged marriage,
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    already with two small girls.
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    For her, life had distilled
    itself into one task:
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    the escape of her family
    and a new life in Australia.
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    It was inconceivable to her
    that she would not succeed.
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    So after a four-year saga
    that defies fiction,
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    a boat slipped out to sea
    disguised as a fishing vessel.
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    All the adults knew the risks.
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    The greatest fear
    was of pirates, rape and death.
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    Like most adults on the boat,
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    my mother carried
    a small bottle of poison.
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    If we were captured,
    first my sister and I,
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    then she and my grandmother would drink.
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    My first memories are from the boat --
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    the steady beat of the engine,
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    the bow dipping into each wave,
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    the vast and empty horizon.
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    I don't remember the pirates
    who came many times,
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    but were bluffed by the bravado
    of the men on our boat,
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    or the engine dying
    and failing to start for six hours.
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    But I do remember the lights
    on the oil rig off the Malaysian coast
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    and the young man who collapsed and died,
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    the journey's end too much for him,
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    and the first apple I tasted,
    given to me by the men on the rig.
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    No apple has ever tasted the same.
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    After three months in a refugee camp,
    we landed in Melbourne.
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    And the next piece of the jigsaw
    is about four women
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    across three generations
    shaping a new life together.
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    We settled in Footscray,
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    a working-class suburb
    whose demographic is layers of immigrants.
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    Unlike the settled middle-class suburbs,
    whose existence I was oblivious of,
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    there was no sense
    of entitlement in Footscray.
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    The smells from shop doors
    were from the rest of the world.
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    And the snippets of halting English
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    were exchanged between people
    who had one thing in common:
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    They were starting again.
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    My mother worked on farms,
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    then on a car assembly line,
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    working six days, double shifts.
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    Somehow, she found time to study English
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    and gain IT qualifications.
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    We were poor.
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    All the dollars were allocated
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    and extra tuition in English
    and mathematics was budgeted for
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    regardless of what missed out,
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    which was usually new clothes;
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    they were always secondhand.
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    Two pairs of stockings for school,
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    each to hide the holes in the other.
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    A school uniform down to the ankles,
    because it had to last for six years.
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    And there were rare
    but searing chants of "slit-eye"
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    and the occasional graffiti:
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    "Asian, go home."
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    Go home to where?
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    Something stiffened inside me.
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    There was a gathering of resolve
    and a quiet voice saying,
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    "I will bypass you."
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    My mother, my sister and I
    slept in the same bed.
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    My mother was exhausted each night,
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    but we told one another about our day
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    and listened to the movements
    of my grandmother around the house.
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    My mother suffered from nightmares,
    all about the boat.
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    And my job was to stay awake
    until her nightmares came
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    so I could wake her.
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    She opened a computer store,
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    then studied to be a beautician
    and opened another business.
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    And the women came with their stories
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    about men who could not
    make the transition,
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    angry and inflexible,
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    and troubled children
    caught between two worlds.
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    Grants and sponsors were sought.
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    Centers were established.
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    I lived in parallel worlds.
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    In one, I was the classic Asian student,
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    relentless in the demands
    that I made on myself.
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    In the other, I was enmeshed
    in lives that were precarious,
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    tragically scarred by violence,
    drug abuse and isolation.
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    But so many over the years were helped.
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    And for that work,
    when I was a final-year law student,
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    I was chosen as the Young
    Australian of the Year.
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    And I was catapulted from
    one piece of the jigsaw to another,
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    and their edges didn't fit.
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    Tan Le, anonymous Footscray resident,
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    was now Tan Le,
    refugee and social activist,
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    invited to speak in venues
    she had never heard of
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    and into homes whose existence
    she could never have imagined.
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    I didn't know the protocols.
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    I didn't know how to use the cutlery.
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    I didn't know how to talk about wine.
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    I didn't know how to talk about anything.
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    I wanted to retreat
    to the routines and comfort
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    of life in an unsung suburb --
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    a grandmother, a mother and two daughters
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    ending each day as they had
    for almost 20 years,
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    telling one another the story of their day
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    and falling asleep,
    the three of us still in the same bed.
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    I told my mother I couldn't do it.
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    She reminded me that I was now
    the same age she had been
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    when we boarded the boat.
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    "No" had never been an option.
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    "Just do it," she said,
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    "and don't be what you're not."
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    So I spoke out on youth
    unemployment and education
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    and the neglect of the marginalized
    and disenfranchised.
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    And the more candidly I spoke,
    the more I was asked to speak.
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    I met people from all walks of life,
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    so many of them doing
    the thing they loved,
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    living on the frontiers of possibility.
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    And even though I finished my degree,
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    I realized I could not settle
    into a career in law.
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    There had to be another piece
    of the jigsaw.
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    And I realized, at the same time,
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    that it is OK to be an outsider,
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    a recent arrival,
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    new on the scene --
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    and not just OK,
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    but something to be thankful for,
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    perhaps a gift from the boat.
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    Because being an insider can so easily
    mean collapsing the horizons,
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    can so easily mean accepting
    the presumptions of your province.
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    I have stepped outside
    my comfort zone enough now
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    to know that, yes,
    the world does fall apart,
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    but not in the way that you fear.
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    Possibilities that would not
    have been allowed
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    were outrageously encouraged.
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    There was an energy there,
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    an implacable optimism,
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    a strange mixture of humility and daring.
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    So I followed my hunches.
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    I gathered around me
    a small team of people
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    for whom the label "It can't be done"
    was an irresistible challenge.
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    For a year, we were penniless.
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    At the end of each day,
    I made a huge pot of soup
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    which we all shared.
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    We worked well into each night.
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    Most of our ideas were crazy,
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    but a few were brilliant,
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    and we broke through.
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    I made the decision to move
    to the US after only one trip.
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    My hunches again.
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    Three months later, I had relocated,
    and the adventure has continued.
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    Before I close, though,
    let me tell you about my grandmother.
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    She grew up at a time when Confucianism
    was the social norm
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    and the local mandarin
    was the person who mattered.
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    Life hadn't changed for centuries.
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    Her father died soon after she was born.
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    Her mother raised her alone.
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    At 17, she became the second wife
    of a mandarin whose mother beat her.
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    With no support from her husband,
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    she caused a sensation
    by taking him to court
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    and prosecuting her own case,
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    and a far greater sensation when she won.
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    (Laughter)
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    (Applause)
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    "It can't be done" was shown to be wrong.
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    I was taking a shower
    in a hotel room in Sydney
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    the moment she died,
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    600 miles away, in Melbourne.
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    I looked through the shower screen
    and saw her standing on the other side.
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    I knew she had come to say goodbye.
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    My mother phoned minutes later.
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    A few days later,
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    we went to a Buddhist temple in Footscray
    and sat around her casket.
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    We told her stories and assured her
    that we were still with her.
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    At midnight, the monk came
    and told us he had to close the casket.
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    My mother asked us to feel her hand.
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    She asked the monk,
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    "Why is it that her hand is so warm
    and the rest of her is so cold?"
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    "Because you have been holding it
    since this morning," he said.
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    "You have not let it go."
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    If there is a sinew in our family,
    it runs through the women.
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    Given who we were
    and how life had shaped us,
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    we can now see that the men
    that might have come into our lives
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    would have thwarted us.
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    Defeat would have come too easily.
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    Now I would like to have my own children,
    and I wonder about the boat.
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    Who could ever wish it on their own?
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    Yet I am afraid of privilege,
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    of ease,
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    of entitlement.
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    Can I give them a bow in their lives,
    dipping bravely into each wave,
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    the unperturbed and steady
    beat of the engine,
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    the vast horizon that guarantees nothing?
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    I don't know.
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    But if I could give it
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    and still see them safely through,
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    I would.
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    (Applause)
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    Trevor Neilson: And also,
    Tan's mother is here today,
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    in the fourth or fifth row.
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    (Applause)
Title:
My immigration story | Tan Le | TEDxWomen
Description:

In 2010, technologist Tan Le took the TEDGlobal stage to demo a powerful new interface. But now, at TEDxWomen, she tells a very personal story: the story of her family -- mother, grandmother and sister -- fleeing Vietnam and building a new life.

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDxTalks
Duration:
11:57

English subtitles

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