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Tea with the Jongs

With the announcement yesterday, that Western Bulldogs Lin Jong has become an Australia Post AFL Multicultural Ambassador, it was a chance to look back at an interview we did with the young man and his family in 2012.

The jong story

Lin Jong is a shy kid. I spoke to him on the phone briefly about his journey to the AFL shortly after he was drafted. He didn’t give me much. You get the feeling he doesn’t think it’s a big deal.

His manager describes him as “low-maintenance”.

So driving out to Jong’s family home in Wheelers Hill for an interview ahead of AFL Multicultural Round I don’t know what to expect.

It’s not as though he doesn’t have a story to tell. Maybe he’s sick of telling it? The requests came the day following the draft and they haven’t stopped.

Born to a Taiwanese mother and an East Timorese father, he played basketball until his mid-teens before switching to football. He played seniors at Mulgrave before earning a spot on the Oakleigh Chargers list. He got his chance in the TAC Cup mid-year when a few of its stars were playing school football, he kept getting better and they couldn’t drop him. Next minute he was playing in the TAC Cup Grand Final. Teammate to be, Fletcher Roberts ripped the guts out of Oakleigh that day, but on a wing, Jong did enough to get selected at Pick 9 by the Bulldogs in the 2012 Rookie Draft.

That’s his football story, and remarkably it’s not the best angle in the Lin Jong story. In fact, he’s not even the subject and it’s got little to do with football.

The stars

The stars of the Lin Jong show greet us at the front door wearing beaming smiles; Lin’s parents Faye and Vitor.

Lin is a little more reserved, he’s just arrived home from training and as we sit down in the lounge room, Lin sits anxiously on the couch between his parents; he leans forward with his forearms balanced on his knees, he locks his hands together. I get the impression the source of his nerves are for his parents, not himself. He need not worry.

I throw the first pitch and the Jongs knock it out of the park; they are interviewing each other before too long.

For the next 30 minutes the broad smiles that greeted us at the front door are joined by a chorus of cackling laughter and the Jong’s Australian story unfolds.

Vitor Jong fled civil war in East Timor in 1978, aged 18, to find work and study, “To survive”, interjects Faye. His journey began in Japan, next was Macau, then Hong Kong and finally Taiwan. “In the civil war his family could not support him so he had to travel around” Faye says.

“He came to Taiwan with no family; he was very lonely, so he is fortunate he met me!” She’s taken over Vitor’s story now. They met at a party – was it love at first sight? “Not really” – cue laughter. Then, Faye had no idea where East Timor was. Her world was comprised of Taiwan, China, Japan and the Philippines.

Their next stop was Australia; they moved to the land of opportunity in 1985 and began setting up their new lives. Despite the language barrier, Vitor began working at the Ford motor factory in Broadmeadows. Faye works in a nursing home.

Faye’s earliest memory of Australia was how big it is and its green colours, but for Vitor he wasn’t so impressed. “It’s so boring, because nothing is open, you can’t go anywhere…Where we come from the shops are open 24 hours”, he laughs.

They would have five children; four girls and Lin – the youngest. “We are really close, aren’t we Fi?” Lin calls out to his youngest sister, who’s just arrived home. “Expect when I was younger it was really bad because I was isolated because I’m the only boy,” he teases. She objects.

Lin’s first kick

Football wasn’t a big part of the Jong household until Lin began playing. There certainly wasn’t a thriving backyard football competition, “I’d have a kick and they’d just drop marks and throw it back to me” Lin says of his sisters. His parents don’t claim to be particularly sporty, well Vitor might be, he has the height, but before he can tell his tale the youngest daughter Fiona yells out from behind the camera, “Dad tells us all the time he can catch a crocodile”.

Vitor acknowledges it was only a matter of time before the national game crept into their lives, “It was the only sport to watch, especially in Melbourne, there was only football,” he says. For Faye, Korean born former player Peter Bell sparked her interest in football, and she admits she’s a nervous spectator, “I enjoy the game, I’m learning”, – adding that Brett Goodes is her new favourite.

Up until the age of 15, basketball was the number one sport in Lin’s life, he and Vitor covered every inch of the state playing in representative teams. There no doubt who Lin’s biggest fan is, “I don’t think he has ever missed a game” Lin says. “I just follow Lin everywhere…Sometimes we would drive 2-3 hours to play basketball, I would sit in the cold and he didn’t play but that’s ok, we would just drive home,” Vitor adds.

“I go to games, so I don’t have to stay home and watch this one,” Vitor says pointing at Faye…again, cue laughter.

“I wouldn’t be here without them, they have supported me through everything and never told me I couldn’t do anything and if I wanted to do something they would support it,” Lin says, in what is probably the most serious part of the interview.

Lin flirted with football in Grade 6 but without a club it wasn’t until his school mates invited him to the Glen Waverley Football Club did his journey to the AFL really begin. “I wanted to play, but I never really found a club and I guess it’s hard, when you don’t have any friends, to start playing anywhere.”

The big day

When his name flashed up on the laptop signifying his selection in the Rookie Draft, his life changed forever. His first call was to Vitor, then into the kitchen to tell Faye – “she was happy but I’m not sure how much she knew what was going on” Lin says. She must have had a pretty strong grasp on the context, “I called my relatives and said watch the TV tonight,” she volunteers.

Lin did his first media interview that day and since then he’s been a poster boy for multiculturalism and diversity in the AFL.

“I wanted to play football, it didn’t matter what my background was but now I’ve been drafted I guess I can be seen as a bit of a role model to others kids, that’s humbling to know.”

“I don’t mind it. I don’t feel it’s a burden… I guess I’m still trying to find my feet as a footy player.”

Lin’s first AFL game was a historic moment for the Jong family and the wider Asian community, but for Vitor and Faye something that happened in the lead up to the game brought them the most joy – Lin received a letter of congratulations from the East-Timorese prime minister.

“I couldn’t believe it. I had a lot of things on my mind at the same time. I don’t know how to explain it, I just felt really honoured…It didn’t feel like much of a big deal at the time because I was focused on playing my first game but Dad loved it a lot as well,” Lin says. On Vitor’s delight, “Yeah he’s a show-off, he was showing it to everyone in the community” Faye says.

After a scolding cup of Chinese tea we thank the Jong’s for sharing their story, Faye thanks us for coming, “multiculturalism is all about relationships and learning”.

They are amazing people with an incredible story. There is no doubt about why Lin has been able to achieve such success in a short period of time. Lin’s AFL journey is unique and a first, but his family show that with a big smile and a keen sense of humour, the diversity of our game will only grow.