On the eve of Lunar New Year, my extended family will gather at my father’s house in St. Albans. Joss sticks will be lit, and the family alters will be meticulously polished and laden with offerings of food and tea for my late grandparents and great-grandparents. It is an auspicious time of family and new beginnings.
It is also a time when I reflect on what it means to be second-generation Vietnamese Australian in this era. The recent media coverage of the Sudanese youth crime crisis, following the tragic death of a young Sudanese man, struck me with a crushing sense of déjà vu. You could take away the word Sudanese and replace it with Vietnamese and the story is the same one that took place three decades ago.
I came of age in the early 90s in Melbourne’s western suburbs. It was a grim time for Vietnamese people, when the media coverage of drug trafficking and street gang violence involving ethnic Vietnamese youth, seemed to dominate the evening news. In the heart of Footscray, drug transactions took place along shopfronts in full view of pedestrians; used syringes were strewn on nature strips; frequent gang brawls erupted in billiard parlors; and a temporary police station was set up in the centre of Footscray Mall.
In an effort to turn their lives around, many youths were temporarily sent back to Vietnam by well-meaning family members. Some were locked in their suburban bedrooms and forced to self-detox, others persuaded into marriages in the hope that responsibility might curb their reckless behaviours. These rudimentary tactics -unsurprisingly - proved ineffectual against such complex problems, and sadly, I witnessed the funerals of a number of friends who had died of drug overdoses.
Many of these troubled youths were refugees who had fled Vietnam following the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the 1970s and 80s. Some had arrived unattended and had spent most of their childhoods in overcrowded refugee camps. Many carried with them horrific experiences of family escape. Perhaps this may partly explain why these young people were drawn to gang membership and the sense of belonging and camaraderie it seemed to offer.
It was not much better for those of us that arrived with our parents. Australia had only just officially eliminated the White Australia policy in the 1970s, and on top of that, the economy was in recession. Many of our parents came from remote villages in Vietnam’s deep south, and few had schooling beyond primary years. In Australia, they spoke no English, and most undertook unskilled work, putting in long hours in factories, backyard sweatshops and fruit-picking on farms. Despite this, they had high aspirations for us to perform well academically. It was immense pressure and quite unrealistic, given the lack of knowledge our parents had regarding our educational needs.
Meanwhile, our parents lived in impenetrable cultural bubbles, out of fear, but also out of their socio-economic circumstance. And to this day, many remain marginalised from mainstream Australian society and continue to depend on their children for interpreting and translating and any transactions with non-Vietnamese people.
Our parents lived in impenetrable cultural bubbles, out of fear, but also out of their socio-economic circumstance.
From the depths of despair, however, came hope and success. The many positive contributions made by the first-generation Vietnamese community is evident with Little Saigons springing up across Melbourne’s suburbs - Footscray, Richmond, St. Albans and Springvale – thriving centres of business and culture. Weekend language schools across the country are filled with children whose first and second-generation parents are committed to maintaining the language and culture.
My second-generation younger cousins, who despite being over a decade younger than me, faced the same challenges growing up, and continue to precariously straddle two cultures. However, they have adapted and successfully transitioned to adulthood making remarkable contributions to this country and pursuing careers in finance, teaching, nursing and medicine. I’m so proud of them all.
And proud of the Vietnamese youth -- past and present -- for their resilience and tenacity.
Diem Vo is a freelance writer in Melbourne.