I was born eight years after my parents arrived in Australia as refugees. In 1980, when they first arrived, my father could speak English, but my mother didn’t know a lick of it. They acclimatised to a new home and a new tongue.
I grew up with two languages. Vietnamese was the first. My parents were adamant that my sisters and I learn the language and keep it alive within our suburban Australian existence. We went to Vietnamese school once a week, where we learned to read and write. Though we spoke English to each other, the rule at the dinner table was that we were only to speak Vietnamese. The three of us got around that rule by staying totally silent during mealtimes, then erupting into English chatter again as soon as the table was cleared.
Our grandmother lived with us and didn’t speak any English at all, so it was important for us to keep up with our Vietnamese in order to communicate with her. We wrote letters in broken Vietnamese to our grandparents in Canada.
We kept up with the Vietnamese tradition of greeting elders formally. Every night at dinner, we invited our elders to eat before us in Vietnamese. To our parents, we spoke a garbled mixture of Vietnamese and English. When we needed to communicate secretly in public, we spoke in Vietnamese to each other, giggling behind our hands because it was like our secret code.
But we are older now. All of my grandparents have passed away, and many of my aunts and uncles speak to me only in English. I don’t live with any of my family members. I text my parents in English, and we continue to speak our hybrid language on the phone. On the rare occasion that I see my parents’ friends, I fumble through Vietnamese sentences to talk to them. But that’s all it really is these days.
Vietnamese is one of the top 10 languages spoken in Australia. At the 2011 Census, there were 219,800 speakers in the country, with 27.9 per cent of those born in Australia. Many of my friends with Vietnamese heritage know the language, but I’ve seen that it is dying out in younger generations, especially those raised in predominantly white areas – I have younger cousins who can understand it, but only barely, and have great difficulty stringing a sentence together in Vietnamese.
I often wonder what will happen when my parents pass away. Will I continue to speak Vietnamese as a code language with my sisters? Will we keep up the traditions that we were raised with – the ancestral shrines, the memorial days, the greetings of elders? Will we teach the language to our children? Or will we let it slip away?
I’m grateful that my parents made such an effort to teach us to speak, read and write Vietnamese. Living so far away from our country of origin – one that I have never visited – I often feel disconnected from my roots, like I don’t really know who I am. But having this language nestled on my tongue, being able to switch back and forth like a cultural chameleon, reminds me of the duality which I would not be myself without. I am Vietnamese and I am Australian. Both of these parts matter equally.
One of my New Year’s resolutions will be to make a more concerted effort to keep up with the Vietnamese language. When I was younger, it didn’t seem all that important to me, but now I realise it’s central to the person I am. When the generation before me dies, I don’t want the language to go with it.