Good Asian, Bad Asian: Wrapping Your Head Around The Contradictions Of Vietnamese Australia
Mum’s hands were cứng and tê like wood, and her doctor said she needed surgery. Mum laughed before telling me, ‘I don’t need surgery. I can go swimming instead.’
She put on her sunglasses, shaped like Sonic the Hedgehog’s eyes, then draped a satin scarf over her hair and tied it at her chin. We walked to Cabramatta station and waited for the free Cabramatta-Canley Vale shuttle to take us to the pools. We stood where the “Time Gone” arcade used to be (I’d never been to this Time Zone rip-off because Mum said arcades groom kids into gambling) against the wall in the shade.
In front of us an oblong yellow bus rumbled by. Its metallic fumes fused with the stinging cigarette smoke from the boys on the silver seats next to us, scrawny Lebs and Viets so dark they might as well have been Cambodian. They sat on the back of the bench, feet on the seat, leaning forward with elbows on knees, mullets flaring out from under crown-squeezing DriFit caps. One of them, a kid with tracksuit pants rolled up to reveal legs more bone than muscle and Diesel socks poking over the top of purple and black TNs, unclasped his hands and spat between his knees. It hit the asphalt with a splat.
Mum adjusted the knot of her head scarf with one hand, and muttered, ‘Muslims don’t hit their boys, and they run around like this. Mất dạy. Delinquents.’
‘Don’t say that,’ I hissed.
‘You’ll see,’ she said, hand shooting up to signal the shuttle.
The shuttle was a white minibus that let out a nasal beep as the back door jolted open. We got in. I got a window seat up back and Mum sat near the door. She took off her sunglasses and fanned herself with a hand. ‘It’s hot!’ she said.
A woman on the other side of the aisle called back in a burst of staggering Viet, ‘Đụ má, nóng thiêt la nong! Fuck your mother, it’s hot, really hot!’ She had tiny eyes and a huge nose.
Mum tapped the knot under her chin and continued talking to the woman. I checked Twitter on my phone. A tweet from ABC News @abcnews read, ‘One Nation candidate Shan Ju Lin claims she will gain vote of “Good Asians”.’ I clicked through on the link and a quote by Lin caught my eye:
“There are two groups of Asians … the good Asians will be like me. The other group will be supporting CCP [Chinese Communist Party], and those people who support CCP are selfish people.”
I closed the window. The next tweet from @walnutpatron read:
‘If #goodAsians vote for One Nation, then maybe #badAsians leave dog blood on the chopping board?? Lol!’
There were two jokes in this tweet. One was that Shan Ju Lin, a Taiwanese-Australian, was representing One Nation, a white supremacist party founded by Pauline Hanson. I could quote her 1996 maiden speech to the House of Representatives word-for-word:
I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians…They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate…Do we want or need any of these people here?
At a glance, Lin running for a party infamous for its anti-Asian stance seemed ironic. Only it wasn’t: citizenship relies as much on inclusion as much as it is exclusion, and at that point in time Lin felt included enough to exclude what she figured as the Chinese Communist Party, who have ‘bought a lot of businesses and our harbour and properties’ — the new (money) Yellow Peril.
The other joke was that Asians eat dogs.
‘Gà ràn!’ Mum shrieked. Guinea fowl. Her hands were pressed against the window. As the bus drove by the Cabra-Vale Diggers club, marked by a blue silo in a white metal lattice that lit up at night, I looked out. On the close-cropped bowling lawns, three fat birds the size of turkeys with white masks and red beaks strutted around, black and white feathers shifting like houndstooth.
‘I haven’t seen those birds since I left Vietnam,’ Mum said. ‘Me and Anh Hai sold them at the markets. He talked to the customers and I looked after the birds. Then we’d go home, all seven of us. Home was so fun!’
The lady with small eyes fanned herself with both hands. She looked like a dugong having a seizure as she said, ‘Vietnam’s not so bad these days. You should go back, visit your old place with that brother of yours.’
Mum slipped her sunnies on, arms going under her headscarf. ‘The communists worked him to death. Dogs! I can never go back.’
The bus stopped and the door opened with a beep.
As we walked through the carpark to the leisure centre, a chunk of flat glass and curved metal, Mum said, ‘That woman on the bus swore too much. It’s not right. She was low class in Vietnam, and she’s low class here.’
I thought Mum would get along with Shan Ju Lin swimmingly. They shared a hatred of communism, a belief in good citizenship, and a love for structured blazers. If Lin ever came over for lunch, I’d have to fold my arms, bow, and call her ‘auntie’. I broke out in hives at the thought.
I said, ‘Mum, do you always have to bring up Vietnam?’
Mum clicked her tongue and stopped. ‘Do you want to pay for my surgery?’
I sighed, and we went into the reception. I paid entry for us both, which totalled $8. We stepped into the pool area. The smell of chlorine hung so thick in the air it was claustrophobic, while screams and laughter ricocheted off the grey metal ceiling. I felt like I was in a bubble. Mum went to the change room and I sat on a wooden bench.
In the pool, pairs of kids splashed each other in the shallow end, and the only person doing laps was a man wearing heavy black coveralls. Mum came out of the change room wearing a one-piece swimsuit and swimming cap. She held her goggles and scarf in the one hand, and with the other put her bag at my feet.
‘Three dollars, four dollars for a locker. I don’t need to pay when I have you!’ She handed me her scarf and said, ‘Try not to get this wet, okay? I might return it at the end of the month.’ The Myer tag dangled, spinning. The scarf was soft. On the print, white flowers with yellow centres burst from a crimson background, the border three intertwining golden ropes, and the outer edge black. I folded it twice and put it in my lap. Mum went into the pool and started swimming, head bobbing up and down in the water.
I took a printed article from my bag. It was Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘Refugee Memories and Asian American Critique’. Earlier in the year, Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and I bought a copy because he was Vietnamese. I read three pages before putting it down to rest my eyes. I liked his page on Facebook and slid into his DMs to ask him how to take down tourists and experts who liked explaining Vietnam to me, and he actually replied:
It’s not unusual. The problem of a white man claiming authenticity because of his experience, and the person who descends from that country feeling like they don’t have that experience because they don’t speak the language, don’t travel there, etc., is dealt with often in Asian American circles.
Unfortunately I can’t think of one single piece. There’s a whole line of thought descending from Edward Said’s Orientalism (read the introduction and conclusion) that looks with suspicion on the white “expert” “Orientalist.” From there, you can start looking online for the keywords of Asian American/Asian/authenticity/orientalism. Said debunks the claims of expertise as part of a discourse on Orientalism. This guy you speak of may travel, know the language, etc., but that doesn’t mean he’s not gross. Said puts it in more academic language.
That Nguyen knew exactly what I was talking about made me feel less paranoid, or at least less alone in my paranoia. I sought out his non-fiction. Nguyen’s article discussed the role of South-East Asians in Asian-American studies. He argued that South-East Asian immigrants ran contrary to the progressiveness of Asian-Americans as a political group:
“But while Asian immigrant cultures may be oppositional and contestatory, their political direction is sometimes radically conservative, as manifest by…South Vietnamese military veterans. These old soldiers set the political tone for their communities, which, while being highly politicized, tend to oppose and contest an insufficiently nationalist, anticommunist response on the part of the United States toward Southeast Asia.”
A guy wearing a navy polo reading ‘STAFF’ in white letters was standing at the edge of the pool shouting at the fully clothed man in the water, STAFF’s blonde ringlets bouncing off his shoulders as he waved towards himself.
The clothed man grunted as he hauled himself up the ladder, water running in threads off his hair and the creases in his fatigues, which were dark blue. He stepped out wearing black leather boots, laced up tight around the pants tucked into them, calves bloated with water, pooling rapidly at his feet. He chopped a hand at his feet and shouted, ‘How come? How come?’
STAFF, arms crossed, head shaking, ringlets flying, spoke slowly, ‘You just can’t, mate.’
The clothed man hobbled over to the wooden bench next to me and yanked at the laces, taking them off. He wasn’t wearing socks. His feet were so calloused they were purple and the two outermost toes on his left foot were missing. As he stood the fatigues, glossy, clung to his heavyset frame. He turned his head to me and said in Vietnamese, ‘Build disciple. Harden bodies. Prepare minds. That’s how we free Vietnam.’
Then he marched to the deep end of the pool, hopped in, and began treading water. Mum got out of the pool and went to the change room, and I put Nguyen’s article in my bag. I looked up at the clothed man. He was in the same spot, head still, eyes closed, eyebrows furrowed, and arms working. How much effort did it take to keep his head above the water when he only had eight toes?
As we left the pools, Mum opened and closed her hands. ‘Much better,’ she said, reaching into her bag. ‘Less cứng. Less tê’
Was Mum a #goodAsian or #badAsian?
On the one hand, the losses she’d faced in Vietnam made her a staunch anti-communist. She was also anti-Chinese and anti-Muslim, everything White Australia needed her to be. If Pauline Hanson hadn’t left such a bitter taste in her mouth, she might have even supported One Nation.
On the other, she didn’t speak much English and was on welfare. She was a figure maligned by xenophobes and bracketed off as a ‘cost’ of multiculturalism by liberals.
I didn’t know.
‘That’s great, Mum,’ I said. ‘Let’s do this again next week.’
The sliding glass doors ahead of us opened and a young woman in a hijab walked in. She had dark circles around her eyes and a black neoprene underscarf poked out from her hijab, which had white flowers with yellow centres bursting from a crimson background, the border three intertwining golden ropes, and a black outer edge. Mum, meanwhile, had just tied the knot on her identical headscarf.
This article by Stephan Pham was originally published at The Vocal.