This week, we celebrate NAIDOC and the theme for this year is ‘Our Languages Matter’. The theme aims to celebrate the essential role that Indigenous languages play in cultural identity. Around 120 Indigenous languages are still spoken toady but are at risk of being lost as Elders pass on.

NAIDOC week is a great occasion for me to pause and think about my own cultural heritage. My first language was Vietnamese and as much as I hate admitting to it, I actually felt ashamed of my cultural identity.

Growing up in the 90’s in Australia with shows like Home and Away and toys like Barbie, I was influenced from a young age that I needed to be tall, attractive and Anglo in order to succeed or at least have the upper hand in everything. This sentiment is still common with many ethnic minorities today. Many are turning to surgery to achieve the Westernised looks. South Korea’s nip and tuck industry alone is worth $5 Billion and growing. Intending to be a compliment, I’ve even been asked whether I was Eurasian and since I’m not, the next question is often whether I’ve had surgery on my eyes and nose.

The hyper-sexualisation and fetishisation of East Asian women is problematic

Believe me, it’s not a compliment that my race and gender are portrayed as sexy and exotic. It’s not a compliment that I supposedly look like Lucy Liu, Tila Tequila or insert an Asian celebrity here. Throughout my life, I’ve been harassed (or I’d say catcalled) in the streets with calls like, “Ni hao,” “Konichiwa,” “Are you Chinese, Japanese, or Korean? and “Hello ling ling ching chong”.

When I was around 20, I remember a guy commenting on how much he loved Asian women because “they have smaller and tighter vaginas”. I was with friends at the time and everyone roared with laughter and looked at me as I was the only Asian. GREAT. So people are now talking about my vagina. Are men comparing vagina sizes just like they compare their dicks? (rhetorical question folks)

At the start of my career, a colleague suggested I’d be a great model for “Asian Fever”, a magazine they had in the UK. Years later, I learnt that it wasn’t a modelling magazine but a porno objectifying Asian Women. In the same toxic workplace, I’ve was told numerous times by white male superiors on how much “they loved Asian women”.

Asian women are still expected to submissive and never fart. Well, not this one. Today my response to the above would be very different. It would be like a red flag to a bull.

It took me almost 30 years to embrace my cultural identity

Growing up is a journey and for some, you don’t know who you are until later in life. I guess that’s why some people do the “eat, love, pray” thing, go soul searching to find themselves. But what if you actually know who you are but too afraid to embrace it? It’s so exhausting to feel like you always have to be someone else and that was me.

It took me a long time to know who I was, embrace my identity and be comfortable in my shoes. So what has changed? My A-HA moment was a combination of finding my voice and understanding what an amazing contribution diversity and inclusion has in our society. The cultural fabric of Australia is different today compared to what it was growing up. Results of the 2016 census data released last month show that Australia is more diverse than ever, with almost an even split between Australian-born and migrant families. New arrivals are increasingly coming from Asia rather than Europe.

And because everyone loves a love story, it was an accidental meeting of my now husband who is also of Vietnamese heritage. Like my family, he came to Australia as Vietnamese refugees. It was wasn’t until our son was born that I realised how important it was to preserve our language and heritage so that it doesn’t get lost. I don’t want my son growing up ashamed of his heritage like I was. I want him to know that it’s pretty cool being Asian (the perks are that you get labelled smart even if you’re not and yeah some say Asian babies are the cutest. Just ask Angelina Jolie) and for him to land whatever profession he desires truly based on merit. 

I wore a traditional Ao Dai dress for my wedding

I wore a traditional Ao Dai dress for my wedding.

Raising my bilingual baby 

According to the Raising Children Network, the benefits of speaking more than one language for children is linked to better academic results and problem solving, sense of self-worth and better career opportunities later in life. Children become more adaptable and can understand and appreciate different cultures.

So now when reading books or pointing out things to my son, I do so in both English and Vietnamese. It started off really awkward because I don’t even speak Vietnamese to my husband but I soon got the hang of it after a year. Now I think it actually makes life and learning much more interesting for all parties (especially when there’s a nice mash up of Viet-lish in one sentence).

My boy in a traditional Vietnamese gown

My boy in a traditional Vietnamese gown during Chinese New year

He is exposed to a variety of foods from different cultures. He has developed a love of Indian food which is probably because I had beef vindaloo twice a week while pregnant (I’m surprised it didn’t induce labour). He can eat durian which by far is the most foul-smelling tropical fruit in the world.

Tolerance & Inclusion starts at home 

As parents, you want the best for your kids and I feel if we ever want to achieve gender equality and a world where sexuality, religion or race isn’t an issue – it all starts at home. Do you have a bilingual child(ren)? I’d love to hear your story!