A Tale of Two Generations

Once upon a time, the Dragon King from the East Sea fell in love with the Fairy Queen from the mountains. The queen gave birth to a hundred eggs, from which came a hundred sons. The eldest son declared himself the first ever King of Vietnam. The divine couple then divided their children. Fifty stayed on the land, and fifty followed their Dragon Father to the sea. The children made a promise to remain brothers, forever. From this legend derived a word unique to Vietnamese culture: dong bao – brothers born from the same sack of eggs.

The fall of Saigon in 1975 cast the whole nation into the same sad scenario. More than two million people would escape to the sea in search of a new homeland, while their dong bao stayed and celebrated the victory of the Communists. This time, they never made a promise to remain brothers.

None of this would have struck Huy’s mind while his family was crossing a leech-infested swamp in U Minh forest on a moonless night of 1983. The mud was as high as their knees. Huy’s dad carried his older brother on his shoulders. His mum struggled with her late pregnancy. Another man gave Huy a piggyback. They moved in silence, towards the boat. If the Communists found out their secret, they would be sent straight away to the re-education camps where they’d eventually lose their life, just like the 2.5 million ‘war criminals’ during that period.

Two weeks earlier their family left Saigon after paying a great sum in gold to the people-smugglers. In this southernmost town, they waited patiently for that night, to be packed on a tiny fishing boat with about 250 people, spend days and nights on the sea with little food and lots of dark stories about death, cannibalism and pirates. Once they finally made their way to Pulau Bidong refugee camp, they would, again, wait patiently for resettlement in Australia.

Huy was only nine back then. He is now in his forties, a father of three well-raised children, a managing director of a successful consulting group in Docklands, and a coordinator of a Vietnamese Buddhist group. His office looks out over a picturesque view of the Melbourne Star and the bright city skyline.

It is 6.12 pm. Only two of us in his neat and orderly office. On his desk are photos of his children, Ananda, Tam Dang and Maitri, whom he named after the Buddhist metaphorical words for wisdom, spirit and compassion. In his grey suit, Huy recounts the last 30 years of his new life in Australia, as if it just happened yesterday. He is distracted by occasional calls from his clients, but quickly picks up the story afterwards.

The war is fresh in Huy’s mind, just as it is still haunting the first generations of Vietnamese refugees, defining their life values. ‘You don’t know enough about the war,’ he says. ‘There was no hope. Only fear…’

Nearly 40 years have passed since the first Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived on boat in Darwin, but memories of the tragic event still linger.Nhan Quyen and Ti Vi Tuan San – two notable Vietnamese newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne – rarely fail to remind readers of the Communists’ wrongdoing. At the same time, racism, exploitation and poverty haunt the past of most first-generation Vietnamese in their new homeland.

As they try to pass on their past to the next and the next generations, young Vietnamese–Australians also have their own take on the Vietnam War as well as the Vietnamese culture and language.

Last April, I caught up with Phuong Ngo, an Australian-born visual artist whose parents came by boat from Vietnam. Phuong explores the individual and collected Vietnamese identity through many of his photography, video and installation artworks.

Returning from work – complete in a snapback, tee and jeans – he looks typically Australian. We meet at Grill’d. His call. I would expect a phorestaurant, but Phuong fancies a burger after a hard day’s work.

He recently staged a project called ‘Article 14.1’ at La Maison Folie in Belgium, in which he lived off the same limited supplies his parents had on their escape to Pulau Bidong and occupied his time by folding paper boats out of tien am phu (hell money). At the end of the project, the boats were burnt in honour of the 500,000 Vietnamese who perished at sea.

Through this installation artwork, Phuong hopes to seek his own experience of the war, one thing he has lost being brought up in Australia.

‘Just like my parents have lost their house and their country, I myself have lost the sense of being Vietnamese,’ he says.

During his childhood, Phuong always identified himself as ‘white’. He spoke perfect Australian English, and would only hang out with ‘white’ friends. Yet every once in a while, someone would ask him: ‘Where are you from?’

‘In other words, they mean, ‘You don’t belong here.’ So a couple of years ago, I went back to Vietnam, and I found out that I didn’t belong there either. So where do I belong?’ Phuong asks.

To answer that question, Phuong traced back in space and time: he followed his dad’s story to places in Vietnam and Malaysia, he re-read Vietnamese history back to the French colonisation – the war that started it all. From this, many of his artworks were born, such as ‘Ao Dai Cho Me’, ‘My Dad the People Smuggler’, and ‘Before Pulau Bidong’.
‘Cultural identity is a personal thing,’ Phuong concludes.

And that, in some way, is my experience with Melbourne, with another slice of Vietnam that I couldn’t find in my homeland before. It’s the land where the present meets the past, and many of us linger somewhere in between, trying to find our cultural identity. Me, as an aspiring international citizen; Phuong, as a Vietnamese-Australian who’s in a quest to define his identity; and Huy, who’s trying to make peace with his past.

Trinh Le's story was a finalist in the Higher Education Category: By international students studying at a university.