Here are the truths I’ve always known:
My parents were refugees, who came here by boat.
My father was an army doctor.
They came to this country with nothing, and worked very hard to create a future for my sisters and me.
As a child, I found it hard to reconcile these facts with our comfortable suburban existence. Growing up, we wanted for nothing: we lived in a big house with a swimming pool, had birthday parties and a dog. I felt no different to my friends at school. I’d only ever known my parents as I physically saw them, and so even though I knew these truths, it seemed like those were stories about other people.
They told us about their past lives, but only in snatches. We heard about the dog that died during the war, about my mum’s sibling hijinks in Saigon, about the fishermen that attacked their boat while they spent 10 days at sea. We heard about their first days in Australia, the culture shock of it all. They talked about longing, sometimes – how they wanted to see their home again, but probably never would.
As I’ve grown older, though, I find myself hungry for the entirety of these truths
I loved hearing these stories, but they seemed so long ago. I was happy knowing the basics – enough to appreciate their sacrifices. I was proud that I knew more than most of my second-generation peers, that my family still followed Vietnamese traditions, but I thought that was enough.
As I’ve grown older, though, I find myself hungry for the entirety of these truths. I had a vague idea when I was a teenager that I’d like to write a book about my parents’ lives, and in the last year, I have intermittently conducted interviews with them about these things – their childhoods, the war both as civilian and soldier, the concentration camps, the boat, the sacred light of a fresh beginning – in order to begin piecing it together.
The process has been confronting and healing at once. It’s not only me who has gotten to know my parents anew – my dad has revealed painful wartime memories that he has never before shared with anyone, not even my mother. ‘No one ever asked, so I never told them,’ he said.
These stories made me heave, horrified by their gruesome weight, but they have given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of this man I’ve known all my life, perhaps only in fractions until now. He’s a stoic, silent type, never offering his feelings unless they are pried from him – but he says he will tell me everything, if only I ask.
The realities of my life are inextricably linked with my parents’ experiences of war and adversity
Sometimes months pass between interviews, and I find myself frantic – it’s emotionally gruelling to talk about these things, but it’s equally harrowing not to, knowing that time is limited. I want to know everything about my parents now. I want to find the moments they have stowed away, the truths both terrible and beautiful that have always lived beneath my skin. It makes no sense anymore to live my life without knowing what went into making it what it is – it feels like taking things for granted.
Hearing these stories, and reconstructing them in my own words, feels like a way to understand and honour my parents. I close my eyes and imagine these scenes, in a country I have never been to but burn for. I wonder if I would ever have heard these tales if I never decided to undertake this project, or if they would have died with my parents when they eventually do.
There’s still a lot I’m yet to uncover, and I am both scared and excited to learn more. The realities of my life are inextricably linked with my parents’ experiences of war and adversity, and I feel a responsibility, both personal and political, to gather this history. There are parts of it, the intensely intimate details, that I will keep for my sisters and me, and parts of it I will release into the world for anyone who cares to listen.
Within my family’s story, there lie echoes of the truths of diaspora worldwide, past and present. Preserving it is my way of remembering the long-ago struggles I owe my existence to.
It is my way of saying thank you.
Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter at @gisellenguyen
Who Do You Think You Are? airs at 7.30pm Tuesdays on SBS, starting April 17, and on SBS On Demand.
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