Young Vietnamese Australians encouraged to embrace cultural heritage

Dual Identity Leadership Program participant Huong Truong. Source: Viv Nguyen

A Victorian leadership program is helping young Vietnamese Australians to embrace both sides of their cultural identities.

The desire to fit in has seen many young Vietnamese Australians suppress their cultural heritage and try to be as Australian as possible.

But as a result they are often left feeling they are missing a part of themselves.

The Victoria-based Dual Identity Leadership Program seeks to help them find their place in the world, learning about their heritage and leadership at the same time.

Vietnamese community president Viv Nguyen told SBS News the program first ran in 2014 with the support of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser.

She said he felt strongly that people of dual cultural backgrounds should not have to choose between them, but should be able to embrace them both.

"That's the core value position of the program that is different to any other leadership program," Ms Nguyen said.

"You learn about leadership...but they also get to explore their cultural identity."

The program runs from April to August and includes guest speakers, a three-day retreat and sessions to encourage debate and and exploration on a range of topics.

Ms Nguyen said she arrived in Australia as a 12-year-old and had struggled to relate her Vietnamese heritage with her life in Australia and Australian culture.

"They are able to explore their heritage in a safe, professional, friendly, non-judgmental environment," she said.

Melbourne resident Huong Truong was born in Australian to Vietnamese refugee parents and was part of the first program in 2014.

She told SBS News she had grown up feeling Australian and had tried to ignore her Vietnamese background.

"For a long time I wanted to be as Australian as I could be," Ms Truong said.

"It was easier to be Australian if I pretended I didn't have Vietnamese heritage.

"I used to have to translate for my mother at places like the doctor and at Medicare and I used to really hate it and really resent that she made me do it."

Ms Truong said she joined the program when she was 30 and had been able to discover more about what it meant to be Vietnamese and to be a part of the community, as well as improving her relationship with her parents through better language skills.

She said her increased cultural understanding had also made it easier for her relate to people of other cultures in her work at a local council.

Andrew Do joined the program in 2015 to learn more about Vietnamese culture and history.

He said growing up he had found it difficult to relate to the Vietnamese community and culture.

“I always considered myself to be Australian first and proud to be Australian,” he told SBS News.

He said the mainstream perception of the Vietnamese community had been coloured by stories of drug gangs and crime.

“It’s generally not a very good association to have, but that’s just a small pocket of the community,” Mr Do said.

“The rest of the community are beautiful, loving, very caring people.”

Mr Do said the program had given him a greater respect for his parents’ journey to Australia and their background, and had allowed him to meet a lot of people who were in a similar situation to himself.

Ms Nguyen said it was common for people who took part in the program to feel a disconnect between their Australian lives and their Vietnamese heritage.

The program helped them to realise they were not alone in their experiences, she said.

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