Let’s talk about intergenerational trauma of refugees!

I was recently interviewed about intergenerational trauma of refugees. This is an issue that is hardly ever talked about in the Australian media, public forum or in the Vietnamese community.

The majority of the Vietnamese diaspora came to Australia as part of Malcolm Fraser’s response to the Indochinese refugee crisis in 1977. 

References to the Vietnamese refugees in Australia tend to be highly positive, often noting how well we have settled in, our achievements in education and businesses, and how we have contributed to the Australian society, particularly in food.

Such representation is wonderful, and if the intention is to promote pro-refugee values against the current wave of anti-immigration or anti-asylum seekers, then it really is for a greater good.

But such representation also masks the struggles that refugees face, manifested by displacement of place and deeper sense of alienation and loss of identity.

During my interview, I recounted my father’s loss of sense of self – his work. He stayed in Vietnam after the war ended because he could not bear losing everything he had ever known. But only to actually left everything he had ever known a few years later.

Whilst the refugees’ journeys on leaking sardine-packed wooden boats and all of their tragedies have been written a lot to hero courage and resilience, the lingering trauma of such tragedies are seldom understood within and external to the Vietnamese community.

After our initial period of settlement in Sydney, my father found a new job – from ship magnate to contract electrician. Like many Vietnamese people, he preferred to run his own business rather than working for someone. Perhaps for my father, it was about regaining that sense of self control.

My early childhood memories of my father in Vietnam are that of a tower figure, tall and so unreachable. My adult memories of him in Australia are that of strength but feebleness, contentment yet sadness. He was still unreachable, but not in the mountainous way that I remembered him before.

“But how does intergenerational trauma affect you?” my interviewer asked me.

Most of my adult life has been about reflecting on the cultural impasse of a Vietnamese refugee growing up in Australia. It is a series of fragmented accounts of places and spaces between Vietnam and Australia, between moments of holding onto to my mother at the back of a motorbike in some old town Saigon markets, and running through a windstorm on Pulau Tarenganu swallowing sandy porridge as we tried to find safety from days on sea; or eagerly making tuna sandwich for school at the East Hills Refugee Settlement centre, and yelling abuses back at strangers barking “Asians go home” on some dilapidated streets in Auburn.

“How do you think intergenerational trauma affects second Vietnamese generation in Australia?” my interviewer asked.  

I could only see my children’s world views through my own laments. In our situation, they do not have the village that is required to raise a child. Like me, they do not have the anchors of family values of the Vietnamese traditional culture. Unlike me, they do not have to abide by these traditions because after all they do not have access to such model of filial piety and personal relations of the Vietnamese virtue system.

 “I think intergenerational trauma doesn’t go away. It is only less visible between generations.” I said.

I sensed my answer was incomplete for my interviewer.

“What about the continuous drinking? Do you think whenever we have these Vietnamese family gatherings, people always drink so much so they can forget the past?” My interviewer asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Vietnamese culture of drinking.” I replied. It was a throwaway comment, without much thought or conviction. I seldom not know what to say.

Then I realised something. I saw in my interviewer – a well-spoken young second-generation Vietnamese – a glimpse of my father with layers of lost identity and disconnection beneath a façade of content and control.

I felt connected to my interviewer.

“Aline, if you want to write about intergenerational trauma of refugees, you should write your story!”

I thank my interviewer, who inspired me to write this blog. Aline is not the interviewer’s real name.

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