The other half – exploring my cultural identity

In the 1970s, my parents both boarded separate ships with their families bound for the golden shores of Australia. Each had a slightly different reason – my father’s family, coming from Britain, were simply migrating for a new lifestyle. Whereas my mother’s family, leaving Saigon in May 1975, were forced to make a much more reluctant move to avoid living in a war-torn country.

Many years later, they met in medical school and eventually I was born. I grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne, in a red-brick house with a wild back garden and hills hoist clothesline. Even though that home stayed the same, we travelled frequently to delve into our family history, heading to France often to see my mother’s family and even to the Isle of Man to see where my father’s family used to live.

This is what feels normal to me. My family has never come from one place or had one home in that exact sense. It has often caused the question, ‘So, where are you from?’ to strike fear into my heart, as I never know how to phrase a complicated story into a polite 30 second answer.

Eventually, I learnt the common label used to explain a person like myself: halfie. British-Australian on one side, Vietnamese on the other. Half-this, half-that. On the one hand, it was great to have a term which I could finally identify with. It created a certain bond whenever I met people like me, that we could connect over the fact we were both halfies.

However, I eventually began to experience the inherent struggle of being a halfie, as I grew up feeling restricted by the term. It encouraged me to feel foreign to the two different cultures of my parents. I fit some of the stereotypes, but not all for either one. I couldn’t speak a word of Vietnamese, but spending my first Lunar New Year away from family as I left for university left a gaping hole in my heart. I inherited my dad’s sense of humour and love watching British comedy shows, but all their political references go straight over my head.

I also had to deal with the casual racism expressed by people as they tried to overcome the ‘shock’ of my heritage, given my physicality of brown hair, brown eyes, a Caucasian name and English fluency. So when they discovered my Vietnamese heritage, a chorus of ‘How can you be Vietnamese? You’re so white!’ and ‘Ah, that makes sense – you can tell by your eyes!’ would erupt. It would leave me feeling uneasy, frozen to the spot, trying not to grimace as these people essentially evaluated whether or not they could fit me into their racial profile of a Vietnamese person.

My experience with racism eventually culminated in a school trip to the Melbourne War Memorial for a presentation on the Vietnam War. When the guide asked if anyone was Vietnamese, I raised my hand proudly. Yes, this is my story, I was happy to proclaim. These are my people.

‘Have you been back to Vietnam since the War?’ the guide asked.

‘No,’ I responded.

‘Why not?’ he asked, looking incredulous.

‘Well, my mother hasn’t been back since she left,’ I stuttered. The guide laughed at me.

‘Surely you want to see where you come from?’ he asked.

I couldn’t say anything in response. Of course my mother hadn’t been back. She loves Vietnam, but she was born in Saigon. A place that doesn’t exist anymore. It has been replaced by Ho Chi Minh City, a foreign city that does not feel like home.

And so I let this guide tell me how I should feel about my heritage as I got upset and had to sit out the presentation. Afterwards, he did not apologise for making a 14-year-old girl cry.

More recently, I have come to the revelation that it shouldn’t matter that I don’t fit the stereotypical profile for someone either British-Australian or Vietnamese or even for a halfie. Because, when it comes down to it, my family isn’t restricted to one race or culture and that’s the most beautiful thing in the world to me. I have learnt so much more about the world, because I haven’t just learnt the best things about Australia but about so many other cultures, too.

I grew up reading Rainbow Fish and Atticus the Storyteller, but also the comics of Asterix, Tintin and Marsupilami. When my uncle got married in the summer of 2012, I had family members flying in from half a dozen different countries. At the welcome dinner, there was a language frenzy of English, Vietnamese, French and Japanese being spoken by different people all at the same time. I may have to spend Lunar New Year away from my family, but I can take my new friends at university out to my favourite Malaysian restaurant instead. When I go home, some nights I’m eating bangers and mash with my knife and fork, and others it’s stir fry beef with a pair of chopsticks. Some days I’ve spoken a simple phrase in French to my mother and we’ve gone back and forth for a few sentences before I realise that my brother has no idea what we’re saying.

Because it’s always going to be a defining part of who I am. It’s exactly as my mother puts it – I have the best of both worlds. I get presents at Christmas and then red packet money at Lunar New Year. I get my grandfather’s amazing fruit pudding and my grandmother’s fantastic spring rolls. I wasted so much time flitting between the two cultures, trying to decide which one I was more like, when I could have just had them both.

Over time, I’ve grown more wary of the term ‘halfie.’ It implies that I am half-one thing, half-another, never going to be full. The truth is, of course, that I have been gifted a beautiful mix of cultures that has shaped me into the person I am today.

Now, I prefer to refer to my background as ‘mixed.’ I am a beautiful mix of Australia, Britain, Vietnam, France and so much more. My search for the other half is never going to find an answer; I am already whole.

Image: Yaoki Lai

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20151109-IMG_9823Julia Faragher is a current university student with a passion for writing across all mediums, from novels and short stories to films, plays and poetry. Her adventure with writing began in November 2011, when she competed in National Novel Writing Month for the first time. Three years later, she had written three novels of more than 50,000 words each and fallen in love with writing. Since then, she has also had success writing in other areas, such as co-writing a play that won her high school competition and placing in the top 4 of last year’s ANU Interhall Poetry Slam. She also has a love for film, and served as the director, producer and writer for Dear Jasmine, winner of ‘Best Student Film’ at the Lights! Canberra! Action! Film Festival 2015. Other festival credits include Tropfest Jr, the All-American High School Film Festival and the Screen It Festival. She currently studies English, Gender Studies and Law at ANU and runs her own short film company, Skybound Productions.

This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.

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