Diem Vo: Family Life, p. 155
Diem Vo’s portrait of “family life” depicts a blended family, which draws upon both characteristics of Vietnamese and Australian lifestyles.
The narrator’s family owns a Vietnamese video shop in the multicultural landscape of Footscray. They are “sandwiched between” the Chinese hairdressers and an Italian takeaway shop, and stand out with their colourful Asian posters.
Diem’s parents are typical migrant workers; they work long and arduous hours. They are running two shops, or two jobs at once, sewing garments in their spare time for 80 cents a piece.
Diem and her sister ends up running the shop, and, as business women, they are proud of the responsibility invested in, and “thrust upon” them by their parents. However, they complain that they, too, are overworked, and “have no life”. They treat themselves by taking coins which they spend on pizzas and cappuccinos.
During that time, typical shows such as the King of Gamblers captured the imagination of their Vietnamese clientele.
In her short story, Diem gives an insight into life in a Vietnamese family. It is a “Vietnamese version of Neighbours” — a large extended family with many cousins and family gatherings. Family get togethers provide the adults with a chance to “get pissed” and to “gossip”. Indulging in “slabs of beer”, the Vietnamese fathers and uncles are just like any Australian family.
However, what sets the family apart, is that they have “makeshift” newspaper tables, because their own are too small; their gathering is a blend of both Vietnamese and Australian customs. They eat the “little rice bowl” with their chopsticks, and drink their “beloved VB cans”.
As for the women, they are depicted as materialistic, fashion-conscious and rather pretentious, much like their Australian counterparts. The women “parade their newly purchased designer bags”, as a sign of their successful status as new migrants. They also indulge in plastic surgery in order to improve their appearance. They, too, also show signs of a blended identity. They do sing their traditional songs, a “form of Vietnamese opera” whilst they talk about money and plastic surgeons.
Diem compares her trials and tribulations with that of her younger cousins who grow up in families that have easier lifestyles and few obstacles. Her parents had left a “war torn” country and had to face enormous pressures associated with establishing new lifestyles.
The changing times are evident in the overweight “McDonalds-eating younger cousin” which shows that they have become comfortable with the new lifestyle. The author compares their easier lifestyle with her own, which was governed by strict rules and discipline which drove many into a rebellious, drug-taking lifestyle.
The author also draws attention to the problems of migrants who do not speak English. She laments the fact that her parents spoke no English, which meant that she had greater responsibilities thrust upon her, such as interpreting at school parent-teacher interviews.
The accents were also problematic. The parents spoke with a Vietnamese English accent, which was off-putting to many of her friends.
According to Diem, it was much more difficult for her generation growing up with struggling parents. However, she recognises the benefits and so they could understand their migrant mindset better and appreciate the sacrifices. They first lived in Housing Commission flats and her parents were typical of migrants who constantly worked in order to improve the family’s lifestyle. The parents also paid a heavy price: her mother had physical pain from sewing over extended hours.
As Diem explains, they were doomed to live in a “cultural bubble” because they did not have the skills to adapt to the Australian way of life. Their journey rendered them “helpless” in many ways and they were alienated from mainstream society. Diem shares their sense of “uncertainty and awkwardness”.
Diem compares her life with a story of an Australian friend who suffers from an acute sense of loneliness as the only child in a safe middle class suburb with “troubled” parents. Whilst her family life is “chaotic and dysfunctional” it nevertheless is never “dull”. She has plenty of relatives with whom she can spend time, pester for icy poles and just “hang out”.
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