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Inside Teaching : April 2011
www.atra.edu.au | firstname.lastname@example.org MY BEST TEACHER 23 Pauline Nguyen is, by her own admission, a high-achiever. What drives her? The Sydney restaurateur, writer, mentor and parent, who’s also one of Australia’s first Vietnamese boat people who made the perilous journey with her family from Vietnam in 1977 as a four-year old is, she says, addicted to learning. ‘I get really excited when I think about what I can accomplish. I love to pass on what I’ve learned, and get really excited when I see how techniques or knowledge that I’ve been able to hand on have helped someone. I’m always asking, “What else can I learn?” There’s always something new to perfect.’ Nguyen’s path of lifelong learning began at preschool in Chester Hill, Sydney, where Laurie Henley took the young refugee under her wing. ‘It was an unusual situation,’ says Nguyen. ‘She asked my parents if she could take me home to stay with her during the holidays. She lived with her mum and dad and I stayed for the holidays for three years, even after I’d begun at Regents Park Public School. She’d take me to lots of places – the African Lion Safari near Warragamba, places like that. It was a release from living at home.’ And release was sorely needed. As Nguyen recounts in her award- winning book, Secrets of the Red Lantern – her memoir with recipes by husband Mark Jensen and brother Luke Nguyen – life at home involved frequent child abuse. Her father and mother, Nguyen explains, were workaholics, and her father was an angry man and a violent disciplinarian who dominated his wife and children. When school reports came home, he’d use a billiard cue to give each of his children a beating, two for a C and one for a B, then he’d throw each a dollar for every A. Nguyen became a straight A student. ‘All our teachers knew about it,’ she says. ‘It’s really hard to be happy when your life is like that, but I think I and my brothers Lewis and Luke did a great job. We weren’t troubled kids at school. ‘The desire to learn wasn’t beaten out of me, and the taste of accomplishment is something I’m addicted to.’ Nguyen moved from Regents Park to St John’s Park Public School. ‘My father felt I needed some religion and some discipline. It was the best decision he made. I appreciated the faith, I came first in religion, but most importantly I had teachers who were just so passionate. Tim Fitzpatrick was my English teacher. He gave me the passion for words, for literature. He taught me about the meaning behind things. He really switched me on.’ In the senior secondary years Nguyen moved from St Mary’s Catholic Girls School in Liverpool to All Saints Catholic Senior College in Casula, where she met another English teacher, Narelle Archer. ‘She was really passionate, and her passion was contagious, but she was also compassionate. I went through a lot of crap when I was growing up and she helped me so much. I cried a lot on her shoulder. She showed me how to be hopeful.’ It’s no surprise that Nguyen enrolled in Communications at the University of Technology, Sydney – she worked in film and television in Paris and London before returning to Sydney in 1999 where she met her future husband Mark, eventually opening Red Lantern with him and her brother Luke – but she admits she had no memorable teachers at university. ‘I was unable to connect with any teachers at university,’ she says. ‘The view in my Communications course at the time was that you couldn’t put a grade on creativity, so there were no exams, no grades beyond a pass or fail. It might’ve been a good thing at that time to have had more discipline. I regret not being pushed harder.’ In Secrets of the Red Lantern and in the Griffith Review and Best Australian Essays 2010, Nguyen writes movingly about her father. He’d insisted on reading the unfinished manuscript of Secrets of the Red Lantern and, not surprisingly, she’d been anxious about the way he would respond