My maternal grandfather is Chinese and my maternal grand other is Vietnamese. My father is Vietnamese too, so I only have a quarter of Chinese heritage in my blood.
Mum was Chinese educated. She speaks fluently Mandarin, Teochew, Cantonese and Vietnamese. I was Vietnamese educated, and I excel in Vietnamese but only learnt enough Cantonese from my neighbours to get by. My friends were all Vietnamese and no one knew that I have some Chinese heritage.
I grew up in a neighbourhood in the Chinese quarter of Saigon, made up of 90% ethnic Chinese. I have a favourable attachment to anything Chinese, from the costumes to the Mandarin or Cantonese songs because they were connected to the fond memories of people and settings of my childhood. However, I believe in Vietnamese values such as duty to my country and the importance of education.
The Vietnamese referred to the ethnic Chinese using the pejorative phrase “the Ba Tau”. “Tau” means ship and “ba” means three in Vietnamese. It was explained that the Chinese originally emigrated to Vietnam in three ships.
My friend used to tell me casually that her dad – working in Customs – often was gifted money by the rich “Ba Tau” businessmen who did imports and exports. The ethnic Chinese whose majority made a living through commerce were resented for their affluence, and their stranglehold on the Vietnamese economy – their adopted country.
The ethnic Chinese were accused of possessing “money language” with the Vietnamese officials. In contrast to the very rich, my grand father, his relatives as well as my neighbourhood ethnic Chinese were the hard-working middle-class people. I often heard Vietnamese said “The ‘Ba Tau’ own unhygienic restaurants” or “The ‘Tau’ speak loudly as if they are arguing”. I witnessed Chinese women in their traditional costume being jokingly and derogatorily called “xẩm”. I saw people mocking voices with accent of the “Tau” as they laughed.
The ethnic Chinese felt that they were treated as second-class citizens and developed a strong solidarity. Their affinity towards other ethnic Chinese was recognised and admired by the Vietnamese. The ethnic Chinese liked to live together in certain areas and considered themselves Chinese, or at most Vietnamese Chinese. They distrusted the Vietnamese and preferred their children to marry only ethnic Chinese and speak Chinese besides Vietnamese. They often experienced that Vietnamese officials didn’t give them fair treatment if they disputed with the locals.
I bore witness to the racial discrimination of ethnic Chinese by the Vietnamese and vice versa. Since leaving Vietnam, I lost that position, and found myself a familiar surroundings in my adopted country in which regardless of how eager I am to assimilate into the Australian life, it is very hard for me to make friends with Australians.
I read bad jokes about Vietnamese titled “it’s them, not us”; my poems were laughed at for I rhymed “baby” with “be”, “mind” with “smile”, and “place” with “stayed”. I was told that “Asian women are subservient”; I was mistaken for an economic refugee and looked down because my country’s poverty was exposed on TVs and on newspapers. I am forced to hear hatred remarks because I was mistaken as relatives of those rich, corrupt Chinese or Vietnamese communist officials who bought large chunks of properties in Australia and pushed the prices up.
Nonetheless, I appreciate it very much that racial discrimination is legally forbidden in Australia and stories told by victims of discrimination are often publicised in the press, for the sake of equality.
The herbal medicine sweet smell
The Chinese songs lulled me to sleep
My own childhood memories swell
The herbal medicine – sweet, smell!
The home-sick Chinese – tears fell
The lonely guests in a host country
The herbal medicine – sweet smell
The Chinese songs lulled me to sleep!