It’s Sunday, which in our house is a day of unrest.
“It’s not fair, why do we have to go to Vietnamese school?”
“Because it’s important.”
“Why is it important?”
“Because you’re half-Vietnamese and it’s important you stay connected to that part of your heritage.”
“What’s a heritage?”
“Ask your mother.”
There are two schools of thought around parenting to deal with the perceived hardships of one’s own childhood. One calls for the parent to make sure their offspring never experiences such hardship. The other follows the “I copped it, why shouldn’t they?” line. Regarding Vietnamese school, my partner is firmly of the latter.
She arrived here, by boat, along with her mother, in 1979, after escaping fallen Saigon. She was barely aged five, her mother 29.
Having brought her daughter to the lucky country, she had no intention of letting her forget where she came from, and saw in her need for tutelage an opportunity to bring together a community of her displaced compatriots.
They spent the next few years moving from one Melbourne suburb to another, slowly but surely finding their feet in their new home, Australia. Apart from one or two exceptions (notably one kid a couple of years her senior who made a decent effort at slashing my partner’s throat with a lacerated cola tin, on account of her kind not belonging on his estate), most people made them feel welcome and helped out with the whole integration thing.
By the time the eighties were kicking in, as Joe Dolce struck mystifying gold with Shaddap You Face and Sons and Daughters debuted on the box, the little girl had embraced her Aussiehood, and was ready to consign the old country to the past.
Only her mum had other plans.
My mother-in-law is an energetic and determined woman. Having brought her daughter to the lucky country, she had no intention of letting her forget where she came from, and saw in her need for tutelage an opportunity to bring together a community of her displaced compatriots. So she started a Vietnamese school, Victoria’s first, aimed at keeping first generation immigrants in touch with their original culture and language, even as they adopted the new.
And that was where my partner had to spend every Sunday, all the way into her early teens. By which point, she’d decided she didn’t want to be Vietnamese at all, but as white as her latest group of friends. She’d even taken to pronouncing her own name with a fancy French inflection she thought made her seem sophisticated, instead of Asian, which in her eyes was anything but.
She loathed every minute of Vietnamese school. Loathed missing out on her friends’ birthday parties and hang-out afternoons. Loathed having to wear those cornball costumes and perform the lame dances on stage at new year. But what she loathed most was how hard she found the language to read and write, when everyone expected the principal’s daughter to cruise through.
And that was where my partner had to spend every Sunday, all the way into her early teens. By which point, she’d decided she didn’t want to be Vietnamese at all, but as white as her latest group of friends.
Once the demands of high school ramped up, she dropped the Vietnamese classes like hot spring rolls. If her mum was disappointed in her, she never showed it. She just kept on running the school, bringing in volunteer teachers, recruiting new students, year after year, her work its own reward.
Our kids are six and eight now. They can complain until they’re blue in the face about what a drag their Sunday afternoon duty is, about how boring the class is, and even if they have my sympathy (and they do, my own childhood Sundays having been blissfully free of all obligation), there’s no getting away from it, they’re going to that Vietnamese school, for a few more years at least.
Because their mother’s denial of her own Asian roots didn’t last. During her twenties, she snapped out of it, came to embrace who she was and where she was from, even started to wish she could read the damn language a bit better.
“Muuuum, we don’t want to go to Vietnamese school. And what’s a heritage, anyway?”
During her twenties, she snapped out of it, came to embrace who she was and where she was from, even started to wish she could read the damn language a bit better.
Just like every Sunday, their mother will persuade them to go for the sake of their “ba”, their grandmother, who, at age 68, is still principal. She’ll tell them that one day they’ll thank her for it, though they’ll think she’s got to be kidding.
Who knows? A few years down the track, maybe they’ll be having the same battles with their own kids, struggling to convince them how important it is to remember the language and culture that flows in their veins.
To remember, too, the selfless woman whose strength and courage brought their mother to Australia. Exactly the kind of woman who is at the heart of immigrant communities around the world, holding them together, connecting the present to the past, all too often overlooked by history.