Jeannie Messer grew up isolated from the culture and language of her Vietnamese mother. But at 47 and with a family of her own, she found it was never too late to learn.
Danielle Hellot

7 Jan 2019 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 3 Dec 2019 - 9:23 AM

Jeannie Messer visited Vietnam for the first time in her 20s and, like many Australians, fell under its spell. 

The food was a highlight, of course: steaming bowls of pho, xoi (sticky rice) and bun thit nuong (pork and rice noodles). But she also loved the infectious energy of Ho Chi Minh City, the heat and the hair-raising experience of facing down a wall of motorbikes when crossing the road.

“I like the noise, chaos and that it’s a bit crazy. I like stepping out on the road and being confident the people will drive around you,” she says.

She even appreciated the Vietnamese habit of asking visitors a string of personal questions. How old are you? Are you married?

“I like the way the Vietnamese people are very direct. You always know where you stand with a Vietnamese person,” she laughs.

But then Jeannie, who is half-Vietnamese, has a deeper affinity with the country than the average visitor.

“I felt very at home and comfortable,’’ she says.

She has since returned to the country many times, and now has a good grasp of the language thanks to an online Vietnamese program offered through The Australian National University (ANU). After three years of learning, she now reads and speaks “reasonably well”.

“Enough to get myself into trouble, but not enough to get me out of trouble,’’ she quips.

However, it wasn’t always that way. Jeannie grew up isolated from the culture and language of her mother Hoa, who is from the orchard town of Lai Thieu on the Saigon River.  

Jeannie’s Australian father was a civilian working for a computer company in then Saigon during the Vietnam War. He met Hoa at a party in 1966, and the pair moved to Brisbane two years later with baby Jeannie in tow.

It was an era when migrants were more focused on learning English and assimilating than passing down their language to their children – and Hoa was no exception. When a local newspaper interviewed her as the first Vietnamese person in Queensland to get Australian citizenship, Hoa said earnestly that she hoped to be a “good Australian housewife”.  

She was taught to cook chops and boiled veggies by her mother-in-law. The food and the quiet suburban streets were a culture shock. “It’s hard to imagine how disorienting it would have been,’’ Jeannie says.

Moving to Sydney’s upper north shore in 1970, Hoa still felt isolated in her new surrounds. Her closest cultural connection to Asia came in the form of a Chinese grocer.

“Chinese was her surrogate identity,” explains Jeannie. “She made Chinese friends and cooked Chinese food.”

It was well before the surge of immigration of post-war Vietnamese refugees, many of whom arrived by boat from 1976-1981, and far from the communities they established in Sydney’s Marrickville and Cabramatta and Melbourne’s Richmond and Springvale.   

There was no question of returning to Vietnam, which was virtually closed to visitors until the Doi Moi political and economic reforms in 1986. By then, Hoa had lost contact with most of her extended family.

Hoa was initially reluctant to return to Vietnam, but eventually went back in 1997 with Jeannie’s family.

It was a poignant moment, returning to her old village and seeing its transformation over decades of reforms and modernisation. The vastly improved livelihoods of locals, however, eased the nightmares she had suffered since the war.

Learning Vietnamese has been a way for Jeannie to reconnect with her mother’s history and culture. 

The language is spoken by more than 90 million people in Vietnam. It is also the native language of nearly 4 million people in the diaspora.

“I had always liked languages at school, learning French and German,’’ she says. “Learning my mother’s language has been an extension of that.”

Jeannie has been learning Vietnamese for the past three years at ANU, which requires three to four hours of online study weekly. As a cross-institutional student, Jeannie’s courses are credited to the Bachelor of Art in Linguistics she is completing at Macquarie University.

One of the challenges of Vietnamese is its tones – indeed, all six of them.

“Being a tonal language, if you don’t get it right, people don’t understand you,’’ she says.

“There are certain sounds like ng that you have to make at the back of your throat. There are other sounds that are hard to hear; the difference between t and th is very subtle for us.”

Jeannie has also discovered the complexity of the greeting system.

“The pronoun ‘I’ changes according to the relationship with the person you are addressing. It’s amazingly complicated and reflects that personal relationships are very important in Vietnam,” she says.

Jeannie enjoys the high level of interaction in the “virtual classroom” at ANU, which uses video conferencing and e-texts across its online language programs. Lessons include stimulating discussions about contemporary topics in addition to the traditional pillars of language learning such as vocabulary and comprehension exercises.

“Once I got used to [the virtual classroom] I liked the interaction. We take turns to participate,’’ she says. Jeannie even got the chance to meet her teacher when she came to Sydney.

“We had a coffee and spoke Vietnamese,’’ she says.

Jeannie enjoys the structured academic approach to language learning combined with the flexibility and convenience of online delivery, which she can tailor to her family, work and study responsibilities.

“The online format definitely makes you feel connected to your tutor and it was really easy to ask questions,” she says.

“All the course materials are available online, so it was really easy to revise and read ahead.”

Apart from bringing her closer to her mother (who is pleased, if a little bemused at Jeannie’s persistence at learning Vietnamese), she says she’s doing it for her personal satisfaction.

When she finishes her studies, Jeannie plans to return to Vietnam in 2020 to keep up her skills.

It also helps that she lives with her family in Sydney’s Marrickville, where Vietnamese is the second-most spoken non-English language, according to the 2016 Census.

However, Jeannie admits trying out her language skills on local merchants is perhaps the most daunting test of all.

For now, her ultimate challenge is to confidently walk into her local Vietnamese-speaking butcher “and order half a kilo of pork ribs”.

ANU offers 16 Asian and Pacific language programs that give students the skills and knowledge to succeed in the Asian Century. Nine of these languages – Burmese, Hindi, Mongolian, Sanskrit, Tetum, Thai, Tibetan, Tok Pisin and Vietnamese – can be studied entirely online via Open Universities Australia. Enrol now to start studying in 2020: