As a child, I strongly resisted my Vietnamese heritage. I fought against being sent to Vietnamese school on Saturdays—‘but we speak English in Australia!’—and the very first time I put on a traditional áo dài was only a few years ago for my brother’s wedding. I couldn’t understand the necessity of clinging on to a language, a culture, that wasn’t applicable to our immediate environment. Suffice to say, I grew up with a ‘Western’ mindset despite my parents’ best efforts.
I used to see a great divide between how I lived in Australia and how my cousins lived in Vietnam. I could see differences in our attitudes, world views and how we approached things based on the mere fact that my parents decided to flee Vietnam by boat 30 years ago, and theirs did not.
However, after a recent trip back to Vietnam to visit family, I’m not so certain that these dissimilarities exist any longer. My cousins, now adults, are liberal in their ways of thinking, drive cars with inbuilt Wi-Fi, have flashy mobile phones and wear modern clothing. They are also less dutiful, less respectful and exhibit what my parents would deem ‘Western behaviour’.
I’ve realised that when my aunts and uncles are gone, they will also take with them a culture and tradition. This comes neither as a shock nor a surprise considering how homogenised societies are becoming due to our increasingly globalised world.
Such changes are undoubtedly interlinked with progress. As Western generations are gravitating toward a nomadic and flexible way of working free from the constraints of the regimented 9-to-5 routine of the baby boomer generation, so too are Vietnamese youths seeking out a life beyond shouldering bamboo poles, a ubiquitous image that westerners often envisage and come to expect.
I can’t help but extend this revelation to my own life here in Australia. When my parents are gone, it will be up to me to continue my Vietnamese culture, albeit a bastardised version of it, should I choose to do so. It will be up to me to teach my children as my parents taught me. Alternatively, I can allow this culture to gradually fade out through the generations.
This comes neither as a shock nor a surprise considering how homogenised societies are becoming due to our increasingly globalised world.
This is a dilemma that will inevitably affect over 4 million second-generation Australians, or over 20 per cent of the population, with at least one overseas-born parent. It is this generation that will bear the responsibility of preserving a culture, or, at the very least, have the choice of preserving a culture. This may prove an even more difficult task given our nation’s poor record in preserving our national culture.
But how exactly do we preserve a culture that we haven’t been born into? How do we pass on something that we are ourselves, perhaps, not fully versed in?
As much as culture can be ingrained, it is also moulded and shaped through our experiences. Culture is subject to our willingness to embrace, or even reject, it.
As daunting a task as it seems, the act of preserving culture itself is not overly difficult. Culture can be passed on through language, songs and stories. I have encouraged my Anglo-Australian husband to learn Vietnamese because language is one of the most tangible components of culture. Sharing songs and stories is how we build connections and establish familial bonds. Culture is passed on through food and customs—what would Australia be today without the diverse bounty of foods and colourful multicultural celebrations?
It may be that we are culpable witnesses to cultures that are slowly dying all around us, but cultures need not be rigid and unyielding. Culture is malleable and adaptable, taking on variations as required to survive, and modernised as needed in order to align with current ways of thinking.
Perhaps, in a sense, culture that is lived does not need to be preserved per se, but instead cultivated to continue building on the history that has shaped our identities—past, present and future.