When my mum announced she’d found her birth certificate, I assumed it had been in a dusty filing cabinet buried in a deep enclave of the garage. My dad was quick to correct: “No, she went to the hospital where she was born in Ho Chi Minh. They still had a copy of it - after all this time!” In a way, this wasn’t surprising - my mum is a tenacious navigator of bureaucracy, and if anyone could convince an administrator to dredge through years of old records, it’s her.
My mum is trying to get her Vietnamese citizenship back.
My mum is trying to get her Vietnamese citizenship back. This has required her to recall and document, in painstaking detail, the events and places and dates that compose her early life, the specifics of which she hasn’t thought about once in the decades since she left Vietnam as a refugee. Weirdly, it’s been enjoyable - attempts at remembering provoke once-buried stories; distant relatives and lost friends, now made easy to track by the ubiquity of the Internet, are called upon to corroborate. I find out one of my aunties had a former marriage in Vietnam - someone my grandma tried to set my mum up with first, whom she refused. I can’t believe I lived most of my life without this information.
This isn’t the only story I recently heard for the first time. Growing up, my mum hardly spoke about her childhood in Vietnam, and especially the period before she left. Like any parent, she wanted her kids to thrive - excel in school, fit in with other kids - and for her, this meant being more focused on our immediate environment than on her past. But recently, as the pace of her life has slowed, she’s started looking back, struck by a renewed sense of pride for her childhood home and nostalgia for the past.
We have all embraced my mum’s desire to reconnect with her past. A few years ago, my family went on a trip to Vietnam, so my mum could show us where she’s from. While there, she wanted to give me a tour of her old neighbourhood but nothing looked familiar to her anymore; she no longer knew her way around. Things have changed, she told me - the city’s frenetic hustle is magnified; it’s become a place where everything seems to be for sale. And yet, she’s proud of how far this big, fast, modern city has come.
While there, she wanted to give me a tour of her old neighbourhood. But nothing looked familiar to her anymore; she no longer knew her way around.
My mum and I walked for hours, through a tangle of streets that quickly became indistinguishable from each other, stopping often for directions, coated in a slick layer of sweat and humidity and exhaust. When we finally found what we were looking for - my mum’s school - she started crying. Before long, she was entreating a teacher to take a photo of us, standing together under the entrance arch, our arms linked like a pair of students from this school my mum once attended.
Meanwhile, my brother and dad have started taking Vietnamese lessons. They learn through a Vietnamese school in Ho Chi Minh, because they want a Southern accent like my mum - it’s important to them that we sound like we’re from the same family. My dad is really good - he often teaches my mum new words, which didn’t exist when she was living in Vietnam. Afterwards, I hear her quietly repeating them to herself, a tiny private chant. My parents go back to Vietnam often, so my dad can practice his Vietnamese, and my mum can walk through half-remembered streets, making them feel like home again.
I have loved hearing my mum’s stories. I used to wonder, each year of my life, what she was doing when she was my age. The year I was 21, I imagined her leaving Vietnam, as old as me, in the belly of a fishing boat travelling halfway across the world. Now, finally, I see her in my mind - on a seaside vacation, one of 10 siblings, coated in sand; sitting sideways on the back of her sister’s bike; hiding in the kitchen while her aunties cook, encased in a cupboard, watching. A part of me questions the past - why didn’t we do this sooner? - but mostly I feel lucky that we are getting to it now.
I used to wonder, each year of my life, what she was doing when she was my age.
The timing coincides perfectly with the thoughts I’ve been having about how I want to raise my kids; what stories and traditions I want to pass on. Heritage and history are fragile; they so easily disappear if not fiercely guarded. I don’t speak Vietnamese, but I want my children to - I hope my mum is open to running an intensive Vietnamese language day camp. Now that this link to her history - which is also my history; which will be my children’s history - has been re-established, I don’t want to let it go.
Follow Emily Dale on Twitter @egcdale.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Voices supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_
Who Do You Think You Are? season 11 screens on Tuesdays at 7:30pm. You can catch up on episode 1 on SBS On Demand now.