Natalie: An Australian filling in the missing links to her own story in Vietnam
In this People of the World post, we have the pleasure to get to know Natalie Anderson. Natalie was raised in Australia, but now lives in Vietnam with her husband and three year old daughter. In this Q&A, we talk with Natalie about living in Vietnam, her studies on second generation Australians with immigrant family backgrounds, raising a multicultural 3-year old in Vietnam and how important it is to fill in the missing “links” to your own story through your family heritage.
First off, please tell us a little about yourself
I was born in Singapore to an Australian father and Vietnamese mother. We lived all over Australia when I was growing up and we frequently travelled overseas. When I graduated from university I spent several years travelling around the world, and was based in London for about 4 years, returning to Melbourne to complete my Masters in Language and Cultural Studies – case studies on second-generation Australians from immigrant family backgrounds (from Greece, Italy, China, Vietnam, Turkey and Lebanon) about their cultural heritage and the impact of this on their concept of self-identity. I also worked as a researcher at a social welfare organisation dealing with young people and families from CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) backgrounds.
After this, I finally came to Vietnam to meet my family and explore my own cultural heritage, and I’ve been here for 8 years now! I’ve since travelled quite a bit around Asia, and to the USA and South America, but mostly we’ve divided our time between the UK and Australia in recent years.
In terms of family, my husband and I met here about 6 years ago. He had been living in Thailand and was just passing through Vietnam but ended up staying! His brother lives in China with his Chinese wife and his sister in Indonesia with her Mexican partner. Our daughter Tia was born here three years ago, and I think she identifies with both Australian and British culture. We hope that – unlike me – one day she will speak Vietnamese and will remember her life here (if we ever leave that is!). My mother became very acculturated in Australia and she didn’t pass on many customs or traditions – I had to come to Vietnam to learn the language! But I now understand how difficult things must have been for her; she had left her own country while it was at war, and then for many years she was cut off from her homeland and her family which made her feel isolated from her own culture.
So we’re very conscious of the way the past affects the present, but also the way that you can shape the future, and while we are aware that our daughter may one day crave stability and a sense of belonging that an ex-pat existence may not adequately provide her, we hope that she will benefit from her early experiences in life. These days there is a rapidly growing number of families in the same situation, perhaps you have had the same thoughts about your son for the future.
Workwise, when I first came to Vietnam I did volunteer work at a shelter for street kids here in Saigon, taught English and did freelance writing for local magazines and publications. Then I ran a training program for Australian university scholarship candidates, many of whom were from regional areas, which helped to raise my awareness of some of the issues facing people from ethnic minorities and for women in accessing education here in Vietnam, and this is an area that I’d like to research further.
Natalie, you mentioned that as part of your Masters you studied the impact of immigrant’s cultural heritage on their concept of self-identity. Can you tell me a bit more about that? What did you learn?
My case studies were about individuals who perhaps saw themselves as having “hyphenated” identities, for example, Greek-Australian or Australian-Vietnamese, but I aimed to explore their idea of cultural self-identity even further. My theory was that it’s not only country of birth and heritage which shape this, but that things like gender, class, religious and political beliefs, family relationships, peer group, lifestyle, environment, and personal experiences also contribute to how we develop as individuals, how we perceive ourselves and how we present ourselves to others. Additionally, I was interested in investigating these factors in the context of a multicultural country which has been grappling with its own emerging independence and sense of identity.
Did any of your learnings from your studies impact the way that you live/where you live, and how you raise your daughter to think about her cultural heritage?
The answer to this question is quite complicated! I realized that I don’t identify myself as “hyphenated”, but rather as an Australian woman with Vietnamese heritage. However, although I don’t really feel Vietnamese, I don’t feel that I’m 100% Australian either because there’s a lot about the country that I haven’t identified with. I think that myself and the participants in my study come from a generation that chose, or were forced by circumstance, to distinguish itself as being separate and distinct from things like cultural tradition and even language, but hopefully my daughter’s generation can be encouraged embrace their roots. Hence our wish for her to be familiar with Vietnamese culture and to feel a strong link to Vietnam.
You say that your daughter, Tia, identifies with Australian and British culture. Does she also identify with Vietnamese culture? How do you share these three different cultures with her?
Tia can understand quite a bit of Vietnamese but she has refused to speak it for some time now, perhaps because she was so focused on developing her English, though she does appear to be showing more interest now. Unlike many of her friends whose parents have different first languages, we speak English at home, so confusion only arises when we use Australian or British terms and colloquialisms, which she’s quite clever at adapting, depending on who she’s talking to. And of course she is exposed to songs, stories and movies from Western culture. We ensure that she visits both countries and celebrates relevant special occasions from ‘home’ such as Christmas, but events like Lunar New Year are also very important – we always decorate our house for Tet and take her to see the flower festival and so on. She loves Vietnamese music and stories, adores the people, enjoys the food and dressing up in an ao dai. And she is very used to this environment, the noise, the traffic, the chaos; she seems to just take everything in her stride.
Has it been easy for you to get to know your Vietnamese family? Are they now part of your family’s day to day life?
My grandparents have passed away and many of my uncles and aunts live in other countries, so there’s not so much family here now. And being distant relatives, we are not in frequent contact, mostly only at Tet (Vietnamese new year) or for occasions such as weddings or funerals. I certainly wouldn’t say that family is one of the ties which keeps me here. However, there is a sense of family history which is very strong and quite meaningful for me. It’s also the place my parents met, where my husband and I met and were married, and where our daughter was born, so we’re adding our own chapter to the story now.
What advice would you have for individuals or families considering going back and reconnecting with their cultural roots, as you did?
I think it’s an incredibly enriching experience, because it’s a very significant part of who you are, and could always remain a missing ‘link’ in the whole picture if you don’t explore it further, particularly by the time you have your own family. It’s also very important to listen to the stories than family members have to tell you, and to go back to where it all took place so that it becomes more real and tangible for you. But it requires a willingness to change any preconceptions that you might have had – it may not turn out to be what you expected. Initially, I wished I’d gotten around to it earlier, but now I’ve realized that perhaps it wouldn’t been the right time for me, so I’m just happy that I’ve had the chance to do it now, and of course, to be here with my own family.