As a Vietnamese Australian woman growing up in a predominately Western culture, I often struggled to find myself and the culture I truly identify with.
Up until recently, I felt like I was living two different lives. It almost felt like I had to switch between both of these identities to fit in with certain situations, environments and people.
I was fortunate that I never experienced bullying or any type of racism as a kid but my internal conflicts still felt so prominent. I am a first generation Australian with parents who worked painstakingly to build me a life in this country and although I couldn’t be more grateful and proud of who I am today, I remember how difficult it was for me to find that balance so I could completely be myself.
When you’re younger, you don’t really think about any of these things. There really isn’t a care in the world when your life is still in its single digits. You carry on living this life your parents have set up for you, you eat the food they put on the table and you breathe the air that they breathe. And in return, they wish you’d stay this sweet, innocent little girl that they were so proud of.
When I started high school, my mum always used to tell me that they don’t really teach you manners and how to live your life as a good person at school like they did when she grew up in Vietnam, and while it was important to learn new things, it was more important to remain a good person and learn how to better yourself as a human being.
Unfortunately, as you’re growing up, you meet more people, you get into things like drinking and drugs and sex — it’s so far-fetched from everything you knew about yourself when you were 8 years old. I barely remember the girl I was when I was little. I guess it is a part of growing up, but it’s so twisted from the values my parents worked so hard to teach me when they brought me up.
Even after high school, the confusion didn’t stop. I ventured into this huge world of university, employment and bars on Chapel Street. I quickly fell into the busyness of being a young adult and found a group of people I really enjoyed hanging out with. The majority of these people were white and through my eyes they were all so privileged. I noticed all the boys I started dating were also white and I always felt embarrassed and self-conscious about our different cultures.
Although I enjoyed the perks of looking different to all of my friends, I wanted every other aspect of my life to be just like theirs. I felt a part of me slipping away. I always felt embarrassed to invite them over because they all lived in big beautiful houses with rich families and I lived in a small house in Fitzroy. I really did think everyone else was living an indulgent, fun-filled life and while I was trying to keep up with them, I truly lost myself.
As soon as I left my house, my life as someone who respected and valued my parents so much, completely disappeared. And then the moment I walked back through the door, my life as an Australian girl, living and loving life, vanished. It was a complete imbalance. It was too much of one life on this day and then too much of the other life on another day.
As I got older, I started to see that it didn’t have to be so black and white. I slowly learned how to balance out both parts of myself. It wasn’t easy but I’m so grateful to be around such incredible and diverse role models to inspire me and help me realise how being a person of colour does not diminish my worth as a person, how I cannot correlate the colour of my skin to what I become as a human being and how I myself should not judge how happy or well-off someone is based on the colour of theirs. I now proudly recognise both of my cultures, because they’re as valid as each other, because they are in my blood and without one or the other then I just wouldn’t be me.
Both parts of my life are so fundamental to the choices I make as a person. There’s my Asian culture; the large amounts of food at family gatherings on special occasions, telling my friends they have to take off their shoes when they come over, the morals and values that I hold so dear — but there is also my Australian culture; the music, the Western food, the pub after work, the laid-back, going-out-and-loves-a-party type of culture. I love where we live and although we may not be as well-off, we are so fortunate to be living in a suburb as diverse and wonderful as Fitzroy. It only takes one walk down Brunswick Street to appreciate how beautifully multicultural we are. Looking back now, I feel so guilty that I was ashamed to be myself and openly express who I was.
If I could speak to my teenage self today I would tell her to be proud of who she is, be proud of who her parents raised her to be and to not be ashamed of looking, living, eating, and BEING different.