Friday, July 13, 2007

Finding your way home

Thirty years ago Thao Nguyen's parents left Vietnam for Australia. The new country gave the family great opportunities and Thao rose above the ranks to become a corporate lawyer.

This would seem to be a copybook refugee success story. Yet, it doesn't work out exactly as those promoting open borders might expect it to. We are supposed to believe in all this that ethnicity doesn't matter and that people can be settled anywhere with equal prospects for success. Thao Nguyen herself, though, tells us something different.

Thao has written a column for the Sydney Morning Herald describing her return to Vietnam to work as an intellectual property lawyer. Despite the corruption and poverty she finds in Vietnam, she writes that it is her "dream" to live there because of what it means for her identity. It's clear too from her column that the opportunities given to her in the West haven't fostered a sense of gratitude or belonging. Instead, she presents herself as being an excluded outsider.

Here is Thao writing about her personal response to living in Vietnam:

For me, there is no detachment. I have returned to fill in the pockets of missing history, heritage and identity ...

Although she recognises problems in Vietnamese society, it doesn't affect her close identification with the country:

What I see as flaws through a Western liberal lens are part of the culture and the country, and I can't divorce these disappointments from my personal heritage. Undeniably it is a part of who I am. In many ways, I feel betrayed. Before my arrival I had a romanticised image of the motherland. Growing up with racism, along with social, economic and class exclusion, refugee kids create a haven in their minds. It is where they feel like they belong: the search for an elusive concept of home.

When I visit a floating fishing village in northern Vietnam that is surviving its struggle, I am in tears with pride. This nobility should also run through my veins.

I am finding answers to lifelong questions.

Another comment from Thao brought to mind Professor Putnam's recent claim that "an extraordinary achievement of human civilization is our ability to redraw social lines in ways that transcend ancestry". For Thao ancestry isn't a negative to be transcended, but something to be valued as a source of connectedness. Having spent a night at her family's village she writes:

I wake up renewed by the connection to the ancestry and mysticism that is essential to the Vietnamese spirit.

She finishes by describing her efforts to help a disabled Vietnamese man and his grandson into a taxi:

I pay for the cab but tailgate it until we reach the train station. They were finding their way home. So am I.

We are not interchangeable units. We have a connection to people and place, to a particular history and culture, which enriches our lives and anchors our identity. It is not a freedom but a misfortune to lose this connection.


  1. "We are not interchangeable units. We have a connection to people and place, to a particular history and culture, which enriches our lives and anchors our identity. It is not a freedom but a misfortune to lose this connection."

    So true. I guess that liberals simply do not feel this sense of attachment to place though (otherwise, they wouldn't be liberals). I think that is their loss, myself.

  2. The other thought that just crossed my mind- it is okay for a person of Vietnamese heritage to feel this sense of attachment but not an Anglo Australian?

  3. I guess that liberals simply do not feel this sense of attachment to place

    It's an interesting issue Scott. There are liberals who have a sense of attachment, but who also accept an overriding liberal political morality.

    It's common for such liberals to "individualise" attachment - they treat it as something that exists at the individual level, as a kind of sentiment, whereas the liberal principles order the public level.

    There is a fatal flaw in taking this attitude as what matters individually is undermined by what is thought to be right in terms of public policy.

    However, such liberals are rarely challenged for holding such an unworkable framework.

    And yes, there are no doubt liberals who for whatever reason don't feel the sense of attachment as strongly as others.

    However, even these liberals won't be entirely blind to attachment. It's often noted that the most politically correct liberals frequently choose to live in traditional areas.

    (And yes, I think you're right about the double standard - which presumably explains why the story made it into the Sydney Morning Herald in the first place.)

  4. Under no circumstances should Ms Nguyen's musings reach emeritus Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki. To see the vacuous look on his face disturbed by bad news is something we’re not prepared for.

  5. "She finishes by describing her efforts to help a disabled Vietnamese man and his grandson into a taxi".

    This is most illustrative. It is known that noise pollution makes people anti-social:

    "Noise [causes] ... aggression, unfriendliness, disengagement, non-participation ... It has also been suspected that people are less willing to help, both during exposure and for a period after exposure."

    And so I believe a similar effect occurs when one lives within diversity. Foreign faces hit the nervous system with microshocks, just like noise pollution. Call it visual pollution, if you will. The result is a constant low level tension, nausea, pain, etc that prevents people from relaxing. And it takes relaxation to perform charity.

    Noise also effects productivity and congitive performance, which I believe will also be lower in diverse settings e.g. workplaces and schools - due to the constant low level shocks preventing sustained concentration.

    So the high that this lady speaks of upon returning to her homeland is, I believe, partly explained by the removal of these microshocks. By removal of the physical tension, she is free to indulge in the higher pleasures of the heart and mind.

  6. Another curiosity:

    The woman in the story does this with a romantic air. I can almost picture the scenes played out in sepia tones with muffled Vietnamese music from yesteryear to create this climate of ‘coming home’ to one’s ‘family’.

    Now pan to modern Britain, a white man professes a warmth and sense of community while living in an English town.

    The reaction to both these examples would, presumably, be violently different, so much so, I doubt the editors of the Sydney Morning Herald would cover any such story unless it involved an indigenous lesbian asserting her tribal identity.

    Yet the principles are the same, exactly the same.

    The only conclusion that can be reached is that the media elite is either (a) afraid of promoting Western, European culture, or (b) has no desire to promote Western, European culture, or (c) hates Western, European culture and does not want to give it any credit.

    Either way, it’s pretty bleak.

  7. I just found your website, ironically via Public Opinin, Gary Sauer-Thompson's website.

    This is an issue quite relevant to me. I am born in Australia of Greek parentage.

    I have similar feelings to the aforementioned Vietnamese person.

    As to 'attachment to identity' for Anglo's, well as far as I can see, whats your beef?!!!

    The Anglo world is completely in the ascendancy and you are whingeing?!!

    The whole world is learning English! The whole world is swallowing American culture.

    Is that not enough for you?

    As for liberals downplaying their won culture. I suspect part of it is a sub-conscious way of re-balancing this tidal wave of the anglosphere.

    Thank god they are doing it. The rest of us non-anglo's don't have the power to do it.

    We will have to rely on the Chinese.

    I will never forget the night of the 2004 election when the Australian public returned the Howard govt with an INCREASED majority.

    It dawned on me that my relaiton to Greek politics was so different to Australian politics.

    In Greece, I don't like/dislike either of the two major parties. Partly, this is because in both cases, I see them as my fellow Greeks.

    Whereas, here in oz, I vote for the ALP/Greens partly because I despise the Howard govt and all its members.

    I realised then that I may be an Australian citizen, I am a Greek national. I realised that it would be traitorous to some extent to throw away generation's of Hellenism in just one generation (mine).

    This is something that is slowly dawning for many non-anglo Australians (I sometimes suspect that even Paul Keating's persona reflects this anti-anglo feeling)

  8. At the moment, she's feeling a sense of identity with her kin. Hey, who wouldn't?

    Place any Aussie back in their ancestral home, and they'd feel some kind of affinity.

    More so with recent refugees.

    Over here in Australia, she would be just one of many lawyers and also a minority - but in Vietnam, her corporate status and education places her in the super elites.

    She's "at home" now and doesn't feel like an outsider. Happens for everyone.

    But she forgets that if her parents had remained in Vietnam in that small village, she'd most likely be just another ordinary person.

    Anyhow give her time. The feeling of poignancy and belonging may rub off eventually.

  9. (c) hates Western, European culture and does not want to give it any credit.

    It's (c). And I might add, not only hates "Western, European culture" but also hates the people who created it, us evil bad white folks. Hates us with a passion.