During this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF), I attended the ‘Second-Generation Narratives’ session, hosted by Arnold Zable and featuring other writers from migrant backgrounds: Maxine Beneba Clarke, Randa Abdel-Fattah, AS Patrić and Alice Pung. The event posed the question: How does an understanding of place, home and family inform storytelling – and increase understanding about migration?

In terms of diversity, the audience was one of the better attended that I’ve seen, perhaps unsurprisingly. I’m sure that, like me, some of them would have been intimately familiar with the subject matter but were drawn to the succour of a discussion that they could relate to, because writing about one’s own culture is as much about escaping it. And those writers on stage represented all the things that can and can’t be escaped.

The Vietnamese have an epithet for people like me: Việt Kiều, for a Vietnamese person who lives overseas. It can be used derisively, ironically, or endearingly. I first heard it from my aunt, who found it enormously funny, on a trip back to Vietnam in 1996. At the time I thought I was returning home, a chance to complete the broken loop of myself, but this label made it clear it wasn’t going to happen there either.

Technically I’m a first generation person. I was two when my family joined all those others to become Việt Kiều, but because I was introduced to English at a young age, rather than having to learn it as an adolescent or adult, I think I’m more closely aligned – or at least have access – to the privileges and anxieties of the second generation.

The use of language delineates generations. As children of migrants or asylum seekers the estrangement from one’s cultural identity can happen almost immediately through loss of language. For children that grow up in homes where another language is spoken, much of the development of the mother tongue is lost as soon as they get to kinder or prep, or as soon as they’re old enough to start talking to older siblings who had done so before them.

If two first-generation parents are a snapshot of an ethnic group, then each subsequent child of their union is another f-stop away from it, creating an increasingly blurry facsimile. When you lose that language connection, then you can also lose that connection to your parents’ culture. In Australia, this is compounded by each generational iteration, becoming increasingly monolingual and monocultural.

Following from her MWF event, I asked Alice Pung, whose family fled the killing fields of Cambodia, if there was a point when she felt this sense of separation from her parents.

‘Sometimes there is no clear point, and sometimes it’s a number of feelings, and I remember one of the strongest was embarrassment, when I became thirteen and in high school … I started to feel embarrassed about my parents’, she said.

I asked Alice if she thought this experience was common in more recent migrants.

‘I think this experience is universal … I do some work with Les Twentyman’s foundation. At the moment there are a lot of kids from Africa, and you can tell they’re really embarrassed when their parents come on parents’ information night, because the dads would wear their best suits and the mums would come in full-on ball gowns, and the kids are so embarrassed.’

But while cultural separation can happen over only a few years, other, less obvious connections can linger for longer.

Inherited, or transgenerational, trauma isn’t new. It was first documented in the descendants of holocaust survivors, and then in the children of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees.

For me it’s expressed in social awkwardness, sudden violent thoughts, and an irrational fear of always being about to stuff my life up. I didn’t recognise it until, like many kids who grow up in families that were granted asylum, I realised I was probably brought up in a household and a community suffering from PTSD.

All the prodigious drunks that wet themselves at house parties, all the family fights in those early years that weren’t about anything except venting the frustration of trying to figure out how to survive.

‘Until you move out of home, you don’t realise how anxious your home life is’, Alice said. ‘You don’t realise how unreasonable some of your parents anxieties are, or the way they deal with certain things, you don’t realise it’s probably not the healthiest way to [live] … they used to have – they still do have – these irrational reactions to ordinary stresses of life, which kind of made me really stressed as well, living at home.’

For some kids, turning to writing can help extricate themselves from these stresses, either to vent or to escape, and give shape to thoughts and frustrations that can’t be shared with family. And so the language that isn’t their parents’ language is what they use to better understand themselves, to begin to piece together an identity that they find neither belongs to their parents’ culture or the mainstream one in which they’re growing up.

I think it’s safe to say that outside of the enclaves of literary cliques, it’s not considered normal to be a writer. It’s an ‘outsider’ occupation, like being a skateboarder or rodeo clown.

For a person from a migrant or asylum seeker background, born outsiders, who can grow up not wanting to be seen, wishing to be able to disappear into the background and be normal and unremarkable, there is an irony in discovering that we want to write; outsiders who are drawn to an outsider occupation.

And the tension in the irony is mitigated by accepting at some point that it’s actually okay to not be ‘normal’.

I didn’t start writing about my experiences as an Asian-Australian until my mid-20s, but it’s now the stuff I’ve had published the most. For the panelists in that MWF session, the work they are known for owes much to their personal cultural legacy. Do writers in this country from migrant backgrounds have the freedom to do what Japanese-English writer Kazuo Ishiguro did with The Remains of the Day, and write something completely removed from their parents’ cultures? Is there even a reason why they should? And would Australian publishers or readers let them? These were writers who even at the stage of negotiating interest from publishers, were at times pressured to make their work more accessible. Maxine’s The Hate Race was encouraged to have a more pleasant-sounding name. With one publisher, AS Patrić had to make a point to keep his grapheme ć.

I went away from the event reminded again of the double-edged sword of writing about my parents’ culture – my culture – and its legacy to me. But I’m a Việt Kiều, not wholly one thing or the other. In a society where that’s increasingly controversial, I’m finally coming around to that being normal for me.


 Image: A Vietnamese migrant family and their hosts at a community function, Canberra, 1980 / NAA

Hop Dac

Hop Dac is a Vietnamese-Australian writer, artist and illustrator who lives in Geelong.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Being embarrassed by your parents isnt, of course, limited to migrant children – Aussie kids can just as easily wish the ground would swallow them up when their parents come into their world – school events being a good example.
    The African kids fear the response of their white peers to their parents’ “otherness” which suggests that, in the school environment, the children are maybe not feeling “other”. Part of education in this multicultural setting ought to be harnessing the otherness and making it central so that the African kids (for example) and their cultural habits are the norm rather than the laughter/scorn-inducing exception. A school might embrace its different cultures and give each one a season to shine so that the parents, families, children and their culture – celebrations, festivals, clothes, ways of seeing the world, aspirations – and even the hardships they’ve come out of – are made familiar to others and become seen as strengths rather than weaknesses (because un-Australian). Schools really have a fantastic opportunity here to knit the community together and engender pride in the migrant kids about who they are, where they’ve come from and what their parents have brought from their own countries to enrich this one. We can only be a truly multicultural nation if we learn, know, accept and appreciate each other’s worlds. Australian values, incidentally are equally valuable and should be celebrated every bit as much as African, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian or any other.

    1. Hi, Susanne. I think for me the embarrassment is tied to cultural shame and subservience, so it’s a little bit different, or is an added bonus, to the usual mortifying embarrassment of parents. Not all migrant kids feel like this, of course. I don’t think strength of community even has much to do with it, but is dependent on the ability of parents to instil that confidence in their children.

      I agree – schools, and good, positively encouraging teachers, make a huge difference to migrant kids. In my experience, they are role models firstly to reassure them that they’re like any of the other kids in the classroom, and help them to embrace their uniqueness, and secondly to encourage them to pursue interests that might not be so appreciated at home. Some schools are better at this than others, and in the schools that don’t facilitate this as part of their culture, then it’s reliant on the initiative of individual teachers.

  2. Thanks for writing this Hop, and for your reflections on the MWF event as well.

    It’s a good observation you make about how the use of language delineates generations. It’s something I think a lot about now that I have a child who is mixed race, so that’s a further stop away from the source.

    With writing, it’s true that people like us are outsiders drawn to an outsider occupation – but I wonder if a lot of us becomes readers first, escaping into books because of our circumstances, and then feeling the power of words we’re drawn into writing…and not necessarily to explicitly write about our family experiences either. A lot of us start off with fiction but then may get sucked into writing memoir because we feel we need to explain ourselves and also because that’s what we get shaped into writing by the wider culture – which relates to your point about how limiting it can be to come from a ‘migrant’ background in a place like Australia and be a writer.

    Kazuo Ishiguro wrote Japanese-related novels first before he got to The Remains of the Day so that’s something to reflect on; perhaps we have these extra layers to work through that people from the dominant culture don’t have to because they have more space to just ‘be’ from the very start.

    1. Thanks, Sheila. It’s definitely a revelation when you realise that these extra layers of difference are actually points of access to different layers of insight.
      And you do turn to memoir to test these insights out because suddenly you have these new tools to gain a better understanding of yourself. I often find when I’m writing these pieces, I’m handling ideas that are still unfamiliar to me because I’ve only just allowed myself to open up to them. More prolific writers than I work through these ideas more quickly. But we’re lucky to feel the impulse to read, and then to write. That’s the lottery we have no control over.

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