I’ve been eating a LOT of street food in Vietnam. Look at my Instagram feed and you’ll wonder if I’ll soon be morphing into the Michelin Man. On most occasions, I’d plant myself on the side of the footpath, on a plastic stool no more than a foot off the ground and order noodles or anything grilled over the BBQ. These types of venues are operated by what I’d consider the Asian version of an Italian Nonna: Middle aged, takes no nonsense from anybody and not afraid to say what’s on their mind. In the past three months that I’ve spent in Hanoi, I’d say about eighty percent of the time the conversation will go as follows:
Nonna: Where are you from?
Nonna: But you look Asian.
Me: I am Australian born but my parents are Vietnamese.
Nonna: How old are you?
Nonna: Wow you don’t look 36.
Me: Thanks. It’s a curse.
Nonna: Are you married?
Me: Just because (whilst employing every ounce of patience to remain calm and not tell them to mind their own business)
Nonna: You should get married. You should get married a nice girl; a nice Vietnamese girl. Would you like me to introduce you to somebody?
The main reason I’m in Vietnam is to connect with the family history. After an eight month period of galavanting around Central and South America, I figured that it would be the right thing to do; spend time discovering the family history and immersing myself in the Vietnamese culture. Growing up, I rarely really quizzed my parents about life in Vietnam in the 70’s.
What I know was that my father was an interpreter in the South Vietnamese army and my mother had her own ordeals during the war. While she was seven months pregnant with me, they couldn’t wait any longer and risked their lives as well as both my older sisters, to flee their homeland. Under the cover of night, they set off on a rickety old boat night for those reason that have been rarely discussed to this day. This thought was further exemplified by a conversation that I had with an ex officer in the South Vietnamese army in Dalat last week. He mentioned that thousands of people had died in the 70’s attempting escape by the same method.
When I first arrive in Hanoi, Vietnam this year, I felt ecstatic to be there; that I had made the right decision. Now that a few months have passed, I can’t help but feel a little out of place. It sounds strange doesn’t it? I’m fluent in Vietnamese to get by more than enough and I love the food and the history. So what is the problem? Well for the past few weeks I’ve been feeling like somebody trapped in between two cultures; like an outsider. I am a thirty six year old man, raised in Australia and I had subconsciously planted the seed of expectation with the fairytale ending where I’d fit in easily. Instead, I face the constant barrage of questions and lectures about how I should live my life as though I’ve been doing it incorrectly my entire life.
I was raised in a Western culture, different to that of most Vietnamese growing up in Newcastle. After arriving as refugees, my parents decided not to settle in Western Sydney where most of the Vietnamese migrants did. Instead, after I was born screaming into this world, we moved up to the steel city of Newcastle.
Growing up as a kid, it was still a challenge to “fit in”. As a child of first generation immigrants, I knew that we were different but felt that we had every right to be be there like everybody else. At school there were mostly anglo kids and a few Pacific Islanders that made up the numbers in the playground. I could count on one hand the number of other Vietnamese and Asian kids in the playground as we played handball each morning. Back then, casual racism and bullying existed but we all developed a thick skin and dealt with it.
There was a small community of Catholic Vietnamese families settled in Newcastle and during religious occasions, we’d all get together for a church ceremony. My favourite part would be the reception afterwards where each family would bring several large plates and bowls of food to share amongst the congregation. Sometimes there would be karaoke for the adults as us kids became hyperactive from excessive soft drinks consumption.
Education was seen by my mother as something we had to strive towards. Get an education and get a good job. Both my older sisters became doctors: one in health and the other as an academic. For me, I wanted to be a professional golfer but gave up those dreams to go to university. I had originally enrolled in nursing but changed to business at the last minute after my mother kept insisting that I’ll be wiping people’s bums for the rest of my life (apologies to all nurses reading this).
Unlike most of the Vietnamese kids in the community, we were encouraged to leave the nest to study and pursue our careers outside of our hometown rather than live at home with the parents until we were married. My sisters moved to Scotland and Perth to pursue their careers. As for me, I couldn’t wait to leave Newcastle behind to start a new life in Sydney. Whilst most of my friends back in Newcastle and relatives abroad were settling down, the social circles and influences around me inspired and encouraged me to travel and explore the world; something that really isn’t in the Asian cultural DNA. I’m also fortunate to have been raised in a developed country with access to a disposable income that will go a long way in many countries.
Fast forward to the present moment and and here I find myself trying to identify with a culture that I am aware of but have never had to experience. Where, on a daily basis I engage with strangers who aren’t afraid of telling me that they know what’s best for me and my future. At times in order to have a break from the impending barrage of questions, I approach a vendor and either just point to what I want or speak in English. If the nonnas are quite comfortable in providing their opinion on my future, I can only imagine the liberties my family might take.
The next few months will certainly be interesting.