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.


International education and development of citizenship and social responsibility

The benefits of education lie not only in economic betterment for the individual. It is also in developing students’ capacity to be informed and enable positive change in their societies.

In that way, education can contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The same can be argued for international education. Those who are lucky enough to experience studying abroad could bring their acquired knowledge, skills, and personal development to make a positive civic contribution to society.

This is the objective of SDG 4: Target 4.7, Citizenship education for sustainable development.

The reality for many international graduates returning to Vietnam looks sketchy although hopeful in this aspect.

One of the key findings in my research about Vietnamese international graduates’ citizenship and social responsibility was that graduates felt a heightened sense of ‘civic self’ and citizenship brought about by their changed conception of ‘community’.

Living overseas allowed them to experience different government systems and community structures, which extended their idea of community beyond the Vietnamese traditional extended family and kinship lines.

Social responsibility became important, and with that, perceptions of opportunities for social change and confidence to take up some of these opportunities.

These graduates took part in a range of civic activities, from humanitarian to community services. Their aspirations to contribute to social development were varied. The international experience was often highlighted by graduates as informing them of the value of building human capacity, which was contrary to the Vietnamese culture of short-term welfare and gifts.

More strategic rationales, such as to cultivate networks for career prospects, were also evident at times, particularly in some graduates’ desire to engage with international NGOs. The Vietnamese priority attached to personal relations and trust emerged as a counterpoint to the more formal structures of these same international NGOs, which explained many graduates’ preference for informal networks.

It was also within these networks, which were an extension of families and friends, that the returnees found their shared values and opportunities to do ‘good’ for the community.

They perceived the potential for change to come about in non-systemic ways, even unintentional ways, or as a result of their interaction with existing political institutions and community groups.

One of the great insights was the graduates’ commitment to long-term community work, which was mainly driven by the values of community work itself, rather than achieved outcomes or a perception of possibilities for social change.

This may explain why many felt that benefits of international education are somewhat limited in the area of social development such as health, social welfare, poverty and underprivileged groups, democracy and human rights.

Nevertheless, there is a sense of social responsibility and perceived opportunities for social change even if opportunities are not always taken up.

This sense of citizenship should be the motivation for undertaking and reaping benefits of international education.

This post is extracted from my recent commentary piece in the University World News entitled “Improving the contribution of returning students to SDGs“.


The purpose of education

There are different views about the purpose of education. Here are three approaches.

The first one is a pure economic one where education is seen as important in terms of developing knowledge, skills and improving work productivity. The benefits of education are considered in terms of increased productivity through jobs and remuneration. People choose education based on expected return of their education in economic terms.

This view is a pure instrumental one. It assumes that people know in advance completely all future jobs and salaries that they can command as a result of their education, and that people are rational enough to gather such information about the future, rank them and decide to undertake education accordingly.

This is highly improbable and quite unrealistic. At best, people are guessing about these outcomes and in shifting economies, for example from labour-based to automation, or in declining economies, such guesses can be quite irrational.

Although there is nothing wrong with taking on a return-on-investment view of education, it would be interesting to consider other non-economic ones.

From a policy perspective, if education is to be evaluated purely based on instrumental benefits, it can lead to unjustified discrimination in providing education. Is education for those that are disposed to be employed more worthwhile than education for those that may not be disposed to employment for no fault of their own e.g. those with disabilities?

The second approach focuses on the right to education. This is the core of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It considers that every human being must be able to acquire adequate education for its intrinsic value rather than instrumental benefits of economic returns.

But in practice, right is not actually and universally guaranteed. It is also complicated by foundational principles and administration. Is it legal or moral rights? Is it the responsibility of the government, the sector, the institution, or at the individual level e.g. teacher, student, principal etc? Often, these rights conflict at various levels.

Even if rights are enacted, the opportunities and processes of schooling themselves can lead to discriminatory application thereby preferencing certain groups and marginalising others. Do English texts in literacy curriculum discriminate against students from non-English speaking background who may not have access to the contexts in which those texts were written?

The third approach is the capability approach. It considers education to be a basic capability because education is important in itself and is useful in increasing opportunities in one’s life.

The capability approach sees education as developing the person as an ends not means to jobs or employment. In other words, education enables human flourishing in its entirety and keeping in mind all aspects that would impact a person’s opportunities in life.

The benefits of education are about expanding people’s choices and freedom to choose the kind of life they want to live.

So, if by having a university degree, a person has increased their opportunities and ability to choose things that they want to do as they value, then they have increased their capability.

But if by having a university degree, the person has narrowed their pathway with less opportunities and ability or freedom to choose the things they want to do and be that they consider valuable, then they have not increased their capability. Although if the narrower track provides higher remuneration which accord with their want, than that would also be considered in the capability equation.

The capability approach puts the person at the centre of their education. They are in charge because ultimately, they are considering the benefits of education according to their own values, rather than others’ values.

In application, this approach is difficult to implement at a policy level because of its multifaceted considerations. But certainly, for every one of us who are living in our everyday life, it is worth the thought.

Does your education enhance your capability?


The paradox of democracy

The recent Australian federal election result reveals the paradox of democracy in a world of economic decline and social inequality.

Almost all Queenslanders voted for the Coalition government because they were promised continuation of the coal mine industry that would provide jobs – labelled as pursuit of aspiration albeit seen through the veil of economy. This was posited against the threat of the Labor Party’s stripping away the coal industry and thus a future of no jobs. This so-called choice that Queenslanders took up have been said as reasonable because they were voting for economic survival.

But here is the problem, under capitalism, the burden of survival is put upon the people whose autonomy and agency are hailed through their capacity for employment. Yet this capacity is based purely on their past experience and past or existing conditions. In order for them to continue to make good of such capacity, these conditions have to continue to exist. In other words, economic survival is about being dependent on the conditions in which those past experiences were enabled which, for the Queenslanders, is the coal industry. Thus, the Coalition’s claim of ensuring a continuation of coal industry created that perceived opportunity structure for survival – a survival that necessitates the maintenance of exiting conditions.

At the same time, those at the higher end of socioeconomic percentile – those who own capital like property – also rely on past or existing conditions in order to maintain their status, which are tax breaks through negative gearing or franking credits. These people also voted for the Coalition in order to ensure such conditions continue to exist so as to maintain their economic position, also termed as aspirational people.

Both groups, whether at the lower or higher end of the socioeconomic ladder, are caught in the structures that created the conditions that put them in their respective positions in the first place. In fact, we are all caught in these structures, but in a declining economy, those at opposing ends of socioeconomic groups perceive the needs to maintain their status quo much more than others and any claim to maintain existing conditions that address these groups would be most effective. That is why the Coalition campaign was so effective because they struck at the perceived needs of these groups.

Herein lies the paradox of democracy. Rather than creating a platform where people can address their real concerns with the government, democracy has effectively let people to “unconsciously” maintain their respective socioeconomic position without knowing that they are “subjects” of the structures that put them there and construct their choice in ways that make them think they have a choice.

It is not that democracy is not worthwhile, but democracy only works to produce its desired effect of common good when all people are on even ground to make “real” choice. The paradox of democracy is that in conditions of heighted inequality, it can be used as a tool for the State to create false perception of its regime – as Foucault terms “a regime of truth” – thereby creating conditions in which the State can maintain their political legitimacy. The creation of false perceptions is what the Australian media calls Morrison’s effective campaigning. Or it is just simply that sowing fear is easy because existing structures have conditioned people into accepting what they see as choice. In fact, this is how authoritarian states operate, for example in Singapore, China or Vietnam where economic prosperity is the conditions too appealing to forego in exchange for real democracy.

This is where Marx is wrong in proposing that capitalism is unsustainable because at some point economic inequality would lead to people’s revolt. He was basing his thoughts on the morality principle of common good whereas the reality of capitalism has seen entrenched individualism in ways that makes it incredibly difficult for any political Party to prosecute a vision of common good as opposed to individual good.


The Meaning of Knowledge

The term “knowledge economy” is often used to denote the current world that we live in; moreover, to emphasise the value of higher education. Underpinning this concept is the idea that knowledge can be acquired and traded as goods in an economy often seen though the claims of jobs and employment as outcomes of education.

The direct assignment of education to jobs as a causal premise, or the value of education seen through jobs is so deeply embedded in society that it becomes the norms. Schools where everyone not only career advisers spruce jobs and careers as the goals of post-school education, or parents on Saturday soccer grounds who speak about how much they are pleased when their children are asked to develop a marketing plan as a university assignment rather than writing essays, or the prevalence of entrepreneurship as a subject to be taught at schools or universities.

This phenomenon can be said to be symptomatic of capitalism, where education is synonymous with the labour market. The phenomenon is so prevalent that it becomes an objective structure where people no longer question but assume their being and doing within this market. It begs three questions:

First, does knowledge exist in itself or is it attached to something – a person perhaps – in order for it to be tradeable?

Second, if it is attached to a person for it to have currency, then by trading it away through a labour market, does the person then no longer owns that knowledge?

Third, if the worth of the person lies in the knowledge that they hold which can only be measured through employment returns such as high wage, does that mean education is a means rather than an ends of the person?

Intuitively, one would say yes to the first question, no to the second question. As to the third question, it is probable that people would like to think that they are not merely educated so that they can fill a job but that there is a purpose in that job which defines their being and doing. I wonder how many people actually feel that as they grind through their daily jobs.

My book “International Graduate Returning to Vietnam” questions whether education should serve merely an instrumental value of employment or an enabler in people’s capability to do and be as they have reason to do and be. I suggest the idea of a knowledge society is more appealing than a knowledge economy.

A knowledge society marks citizenship as the value of education. Two ideas are central to citizenship: education is about knowledge for the world, that is education has value for the people in the society that they live in, not what they can return to themselves; education also has value in relation to what people do and produce in that world that count for them and for society, which is more than material benefits for personal interests.

This emphasis on “value” in and for the world that people live in necessarily invoke reflections about what people do and be, and why they should value these doings and beings. Only when we can reflect on the things that shape and drive us rather than assume we are merely players in a game, that we can be and live the worth of knowledge.

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Cuba Casa Particulaire

Casa particulaire is a type of accommodation in Cuba. Guests rent a room in someone’s house for a fee. The owner usually lives in the house and prepares breakfast and sometimes dinner if the guest requests. This concept of renting out a spare room in your house in return for money is everywhere in most parts of the world like Airbnb or couch surfing. But it is only a recent idea in Cuba.

Casa particulaire means private house. “Private” is a new term and practice in Communist Cuba. There is something oddly paradoxical about the concept of “private house”. Surely all houses are private, but if private refers to privatisation – that is individuals selling their property to the public then is that house still a private thing? Perhaps it is only a play of words but words shape discourse.

During my recent visit to Cuba, I stayed at a few casa particulaires. In Havana, the casa particulaire was run like an enterprise. The owners had two casa within walking distance of each other. One casa had four rooms, and the other, where the owners lived, had about seven rooms on three floors. All rooms had private bathroom and shower. The houses were beautiful with marble floors and ornate Spanish column structure. I stayed in the smaller house and had my own keys. It was wonderful except for the internet, which was turned on and off, mostly off.

My casa particulaire in Trinidad had a similar “business” ambience. The room was separate from the main living quarters of the family with a separate laneway for entry and exit to the house. It felt very private!

The casa particulaire in Santiago de Cuba was most like living with a Cuban family, mainly because meals were served at the dinner table which was in the owner’s living room and there was no separate access. This was wonderful as I had many opportunities to talk with the owner and her daughter who could speak English quite well.

I was curious about the types of people who own casa particulaire given that the majority of Cubans live on government handouts and rations and everyone had a house to live in. All of my hosts had something in common. They all had relatives overseas, either in the US or Canada to fund their casa particulaire business. Indeed, one host told me they could not have done anything without remittances from overseas.

So, do Cubans benefit from casa particulaire? The owners, people with capital funded from offshore, I presume are those that benefit financially. Is this capitalism in its core, where the economy only exists for few people who can access the market and gain benefit from it? What does this mean for the rest of Cubans? Does this create social stratification between those who have the means to make money and those that do not?

There are only four communist countries in the world today. China and Vietnam have already embedded capitalism and open themselves to the world. Is Cuba heading the same direction? For political economists particular in comparative development, it seems an inevitable pathway to progress. As I reflect on Cuba and her frozen in time beauty and dilapidation, I wonder whether she will resist capitalism or choose to do it in the Cuban way, slowly and in the moment!

Stay tuned, I will include some excerpts or narrations from the book in future blogs. Follow me on TwitterFacebook or LinkedIn if you would like to be notified of my blogs.


Insider and Outsider

My research has largely focused on Vietnam. Vietnam presents a great sociological project because Vietnamese society is so complex. Vietnam is layered with much contradictions and contestations. Given the Confucius history of Chinese imperialism, the Vietnamese traditional values are more characteristic of East Asian than South East Asian countries. Its history of colonialisation makes it more similar with Laos and the Philippines. Its political contexts mirrors China, and its educational system also takes on the East Asian countries like China, South Korea, Singapore, however the orientation to studying abroad follows Japan. These dynamics play out in fascinating ways which may explain my fascination with Vietnamese society.

In doing research for my book “International Graduates Returning to Vietnam”, my Vietnamese heritage and Vietnamese language fluency were critical factors.  I had to relearn Vietnamese language, because many terms have changed since 1975. Also, I had left Vietnam when I was six years old, so my knowledge of Vietnamese was mainly food and places.

Speaking in Vietnamese, I felt a sense of trust with the people that I interviewed. There was space for us to converse in authentic ways. There was a sense of familiarity to the stories that I heard. These were meaningful ideas about personal and complex issues like family relationships, Vietnamese culture, values and beliefs, goals, politics in the workplace, community life.

Our conversations were shared understanding of place and space of a Vietnamese identity, simply because we spoke a common language of Vietnamese.

I was an insider!

When I left the coffee shops where I did most of my interviews, and came back to my mini hotel, I wrote my debriefs in English. These debriefs were part of my data. Putting on the researcher’s hat in compiling these notes, I was aware of my distance to my participants. I was reading my notes about them and my relationships with them as if they were “subjects” of the inquiry.

That is the peril of doing research. I had to constantly balance the “Vietnameseness” in me, which gave great insights into the lives of participants, and then trying to abstract these realities into knowledge which was steeped in Western-oriented training.

I was an outsider!

This process of doing research as insider/outsider was important for my journey as a researcher to understand the ethics of doing research. The problem of research is not how to deal with a kind of knowledge that shall be or is “truth in itself”. Rather the problem lies with the researcher and participants having to deal with the problems of “knowledge making” bounded by the researcher’s intellectual training and the knowledge of participants about their own lives.

Researchers have to interpret the words of their participants, but what they interpret are echoes of their own values, ideals and education. After all, research, particularly social research is not value free. This problem is exacerbated when researchers conduct research in a different culture to their own.

In order for research findings to have relevance for people who live in practical lives, it is important to be conscious of the researcher’s cultural, social and political values and how they project such values into their observations in the fields. The trap that some researchers fall in is in making meanings across cultures, they essentialise culture in explaining their data, rather than recognising their own cultural supposition in making these claims.

Perhaps what makes this research in this book so poignant is that I am Vietnamese so I could understand the position that these participants were in and the values that they carried and upheld. It is still their stories and all I am is the translator.

I am an insider and outsider…