Let’s get this out there straight away. I am a pom. An unreconstructed, unapologetic, dyed-in-the-wool Englishman. I take tea in the morning, consider any code of football using a non-round ball to be knuckle-headed frippery, and I will automatically apologise if you stand on my foot.
Eight years and counting down-under has not made the slightest dent in my pomminess.
I was brought here by the love of an endlessly patient Vietnamese-Australian woman, a love that has borne hybrid fruit in the form of two children, now aged an exhausting five and six. They’re Aussie. But they’re English, too. And Vietnamese.
So this year, to connect them with that side of their heritage, we’ve decided to take a family holiday to Vietnam.
“Hey, kids,” I announce at the dinner table, partly to distract the boy from his greens.
“Guess where we’re going on holiday? To Vietnam! Yaaaaay!”
My daughter’s face falls into a gurn of displeasure.
“Awww,” she laments, “why can’t we go to England?”
“Well,” I point out, “we went to England last year, and ba and ong really want to show you where they’re from in Vietnam. And anyway, the weather in England is rubbish.”
(Ba and ong are their maternal grandparents. They live a twenty minute drive away in Melbourne, often help out with childcare and will be joining us for the trip. Hurray for ba and ong, and babysitting grandparents everywhere.)
Our daughter can seem a little down on being Vietnamese. This could be due to Vietnamese school, where they have to spend three hours every Sunday.
Our daughter can seem a little down on being Vietnamese. This could be due to Vietnamese school, where they have to spend three hours every Sunday, reluctantly being drilled on the language and culture. Or maybe it’s the big family gatherings at which her scary great-uncle pinches her cheek and berates her for not eating her pigs’ feet. It could also be a product of living in what’s a very Anglo-centric society, despite all this “Asian Century” posturing.
Her mum was not on good terms with her own Asian-ness back when she was a girl. She and ba came over by boat as refugees at the end of the war. She was only four, and ended up at predominantly white schools, embarrassed by her ethnicity as she got into her teens. She minimised contact with Asian people and Asian hang-outs, modified her name to make it easier to pronounce. Oh, and she loathed going to Vietnamese school on Sundays.
She encountered, daily, casual racism.
Or maybe it wasn’t so casual. Maybe it’s just because she’s sounded so casual when she’s told me about it. The ten year-old boy at the housing commission flats who slashed her throat with the torn-off base of a Coca Cola can when she was seven or eight, he didn’t sound so casual. Then there was the policeman who, when asked to intervene as a white kid was stealing her dog, advised her to “go back to where you came from if you don’t like our laws.”
Around the age of sixteen, she rediscovered her roots, started to take a pride in them and it’s stuck. It’s infectious, too; I love being part of a Vietnamese-English Australian family, and not only because I think it makes me cool and modern.
I love being part of a Vietnamese-English Australian family, and not only because I think it makes me cool and modern.
There was no way the kids were ever getting out of Vietnamese school. My own attempts at learning a little of the language have been few and pathetic, though I am very familiar with a bunch of phrases that loosely translate as “oh you useless old man” and “how I suffer”.
At the dinner table, I am holding court.
“It will be fantastic to go to Vietnam, because Vietnam is a part of our family and we’ll be discovering it together. I’ve never been there either.” For a split second I worry about humidity-crankiness and our daughter’s peanut allergy, but get straight back on message - “We’ll find out together about where we’re from and it’s going to be great!”
The boy considers for a moment.
“Will there be banh da lon?”
Banh da lon is a layered tapioca and mung bean cake that looks like striped jelly.
“Yes there will. There will be loads of banh da lon.”
My daughter’s pout protrudes a little further.
“I don’t like banh da lon.”
“Neither do I,“ I admit.
“But, dad,” says the boy, “you’re not Mietnamese.”
He’s got me there.
“No son, I’m English. And never forget: thongs are flip-flops, chips are crisps and football is football. Now stick a bit more gravy on your rice.”