Cha nào, con nấy — like father, like child

Emma Cao fishes for herself in her father’s tarnished memories

A man and his daughter sit in the water. The girl is fishing, the man is holding a photo. Art by Annie Zhang

Nước Đục
Murky Waters 

In April I began writing poems to sound out my Vietnamese-Australian existence, and naturally they became about my father, my bố. The unsaid words I’d swallowed like fishbones found their way into the crooked lines. I have always felt a desire to understand why I feel so displaced in intimate spaces like my home, and disoriented amongst people dear to me like my family. And so, I went about writing and writing in an effort to find the answers within myself. 

My tutor called the collection of poems stoical, emitting a low level of sorrow. I have come to realise that my unspoken trauma seems to be inherited from my parents; their suffering so intricately tethered to mine. There is a Vietnamese proverb that reads đời cha ăn mặn, đời con khát nước. When the father eats salt, the child thirsts for water. But it is hard to detail its depths when all I have are fragmented memories, and the aftermath of their personal experiences. And so, my resentment has given way to a desire to discover what has been purposefully cast away. To take what is as much mine as it is theirs. 

My most lucid childhood memory is our trip to the Family Court. I remember entering the courtroom with my mother, my mẹ, and holding her fragile, pale hand — before two tall, well-dressed men insisted I remain outside. I was escorted to the playpen to sit on fraying grey carpet with the other children around a set of fading building blocks. I am not sure if I had truly known what divorce was at the time. I’d still find my father having Saturday afternoon naps on my brother’s single bed, and sleeping on our couch early on Sunday mornings.

As a child, my memories of my father were categorised into three types: him sleeping, him drunk, and him arguing with my mother. The first was often the aftermath of the latter two. 

There is a fair amount of footage of him dozing in our home videos. It seemed like it was all he ever did. At the sight of him sleeping, my older brother and I used the family’s bulky film camera to capture his disgruntled expressions and drew on his face with whiteboard markers. Mẹ would scold us for our actions. “Máy đứa này! His soul won’t recognise him and it’ll become lost!” 

It upsets me that these are the memories I’ve held onto for a lifetime. Bố was hardly home, and when he wasn’t arguing with mẹ, it seemed like he was barely even physically present. And when I think about it now, I pity the younger me whose father’s absence in her childhood is reflected by his sleeping self. The role which I understood fathers to play in their child’s life was instead fulfilled by my single mother, whose days and nights were dedicated to working twice as hard and loving us twice as much. As I watched her shoulder this burden on her own, the beginnings of resentment began bubbling inside me. I decided that I would love her twice as much, and what feelings I had left for my father would be bitten off, chewed on, and spat out. 

After I started high school, I only saw bố on the weekends. “He’s still your father,” mẹ would insist in response to my disdain and dismissal, “you still need to see him.” After all those years, she was still packing her cooking into plastic containers for him. He and I would sit across from one another and eat lunch, leaving our words unspoken and gorging ourselves on steak and dissatisfaction instead. 

Until my mother got extremely sick. 

I was 17 and my brother was 23, then. I sat still against the hard, plastic chair, my short legs barely grazing the ground. I remember counting the tiles that made up the hospital’s white floors, and then counting my father’s frantic footsteps. His hard heels slapped the ground as he entered the hospital, and simultaneously re-entered my life as a permanent fixture. 

The first year without mẹ at home was cold. It was my last year of high school — my thighs chafed and yellow stains bloomed at the armpits of my white blouses. I only caught glimpses of my father in non-places — the car, the hallway, the apartment elevator. With my door shut, we knew only of each other’s muffled existences. His feet padded down the corridors and the constant dialogue resounding from the TV was my reminder that he was there, being. I am not sure when I grew accustomed to his presence. But as time passed and I began to brood more and more about my own loneliness, I became curious about his too. 

Làm con là gì?
What does it mean to be a child?
Làm (verb): To do, to undertake

As May arrives, I schedule a meeting with Dr Lien Pham, a sociology lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, whose interests are in the language and identity of diaspora.

I am swept up by the Autumn breeze as I hurry to meet with Dr Lien at a UTS café. We choose a high table and sit on chairs that leave my feet far from the ground. I tell her honestly that I’m not sure what I want from this talk, although I prepared frantically for our meeting, having read about how trauma lies in the memories we choose to share and those we don’t. I ask her to define this disconnect and detachment — the intergenerational trauma that I do not have the words to communicate. 

“I’ll give you an example through my experience then,” Lien begins. She draws a horizontal line with her index finger across the table as she explains that for her, intergenerational trauma is found in the way her family has carried through a brokenness that can only be blamed on the disruption and separation brought about by the war. She tells me that becoming a refugee, staying in the camp for a prolonged amount of time and adjusting to a different lifestyle and culture had shattered her family dynamic. “The family broke,” she states firmly. “We lost the focus.” In their pursuit of freedom and of life, they had sacrificed the family unit. “All of us went our separate ways in terms of who we are,” she says. “We became individualist.” 

I feel a familiar emptiness rock me as we mull over how memories can remain shamefully foreign, even between people bonded by both blood and proximity. It pushes me to ask her what aspects of the trauma have carried through to her children. “I see they are very much individualistic,” she says quite easily. “We don’t go to family get-togethers every week so they don’t see that collectiveness. They don’t have that very collective big overall family to rely on, and I [can] see them become very individualistic.” 

Individualism is a concept that is particular to the Western world. I too am aware that the conventional Vietnamese family experience is a more collective one, although I am not a part of one myself. A wave of empathy rushes over me as Lien recalls the rising and falling of her family life. What her family could have been has been brought to a standstill by the trauma, and what’s left seems to be hidden within dull waters. 

What also intrigues me is her position as someone who shares both the experiences of the generation before and after her. It is a conflict that is distinctly shared by first-generation immigrants constantly negotiating between their past and present selves as they aspire to be the best children for their parents, and the best parents for their children. Although she expresses her unhappiness about her children’s lack of collectivist experiences, since Lien arrived in Australia when she was only eight, she also shares to some degree their experience of individualist Western culture. 

“I’m caught in the middle,” she says. “My mum strongly believes in the collective but in a very old-fashioned and very traditional Vietnamese way… yet I have children who I can’t demand that from because they don’t see those values.” I realise how easy it is to feel estranged from ourselves and the collective. 

As we bid each other farewell, I feel in her eyes a desperate encouragement to ask questions about my own family experiences. It seems that the most significant thing in understanding intergenerational trauma is recognising how personal it is. I sense a common understanding between us that the only way is to prod. Perhaps I can, I think to myself. After having bumped into these feelings again and again in my studies of transcultural conversations and postcolonialism, it feels only right for me to tread through these waters. 

Về thương, về bị thương
About love, about wounds
Thương (Verb): To love
Thương (Noun): To be injured, to be wounded

It is a Sunday and we are having Yum Cha at the Golden Palace Seafood Restaurant in Cabramatta, when a question about his refugee experience falls from my lips. Dad had enthusiastically agreed to the interview a week before, following my interview with Lien. It feels like the right moment; my eyes dart from the table’s red and pink décor to the rattling food carts as I await his response. My father’s eyes shine like crystal currents, intrigued. Yet he still says, “Not right now. It’s too loud in here.” 

His voice is earnest. I accept it and place a prawn dumpling in my mouth, its skin scorching my palate. But suddenly, he starts speaking — almost subconsciously — about his journey.  

Unlike my mother who came here by airplane after marrying my father, Bố was a refugee who came to Australia during the depths of the war, living in the jungles of Cambodia for nine months before sailing away from the motherland at 16. 

My eyes mirror his. “What do you want to know?” he asks.

When I prod about his first memories in Australia, he describes leaving the migration centre dressed in Red Cross donations with a belly full of begrudgingly eaten “Australian” food. My uncles had arrived a year earlier, as my grandmother had wanted to separate her sons to ensure that she would have at least one boy left with her at the end of it all. When I ask him if he knows of his brothers’ experiences, he tells me they have never spoken about it. 

I have felt the slick oozing tension between my father and his siblings. He is the youngest, and they bully and undermine him — I have heard it in the tone of their phone calls, felt it seep through the doors of my grandmother’s house. 

Although his words drip with anguish, they hold no blame. It is a strange unconditional love borne of obligation and tied by collective loss that is deeply familiar. “Bố don’t have the kind of [close] relationship — with both of my brothers. Just because we never had a chance to grow up together.”

And yet, he constantly reminds me that they love me in ways I do not know.

At the tail-end of my grandmother’s life, she suffered from dementia and my dad’s eldest sister sacrificed her life and career to care for their mother. She has no family of her own. Whenever I visited my bà nội, my aunt handed me slippers at the door to wear inside, and pushed me into the vintage floral chair beside my grandmother’s bed. Once seated, she forced a red envelope containing a $50 dollar note into my hand. “Keep it,” she shouted, and I thanked her in Vietnamese. But my aunt would often go long periods of time avoiding my father, without telling him what he did wrong. And when that happened, it meant my bố wouldn’t visit. “I didn’t spend a lot of time with my parents, like her,” he mutters, slick with regret. “But she sacrificed everything, so we have to appreciate that — we have to.” 

As much as my father became absent from my family’s life after the divorce, it seems he was also absent from his own. He concedes he was irresponsible. But perhaps I can empathise with being a Vietnamese-Australian, and having to be twice more Vietnamese and twice more Australian than the ordinary Vietnamese or Australian. To always have to “need to be” — rather than merely “be” — is a suffocating burden for the immigrant.

Nước trong (Có còn hơn không)
Clear waters (Something is better than nothing)

We sit in silence in the car after we finish lunch. When we pull into our driveway, he drifts into his memories of his first day out of the migration centre. After my uncles came to get him, they brought him back to their two-bedroom unit, where he slept on the couch. “Bố was with your uncles for five to seven years,” he says. “Bố was living like that.” I recall all the times I watched his still form dozing on the couch throughout my childhood. It seems to have become his place of solace. 

Before we get out of the car, I ask him if he has any last words. “Surviving is surviving, but you need to have quality time with your family.” I wonder whether he is reminding me or himself.

In an eager bid to understand my own conflicts about family ties and the pain associated with familial responsibilities, I have unknowingly delved into his. It remains true that I have inherited the tensions of the Vietnamese-Australian diaspora like heirlooms, daintily woven with pain and sorrow and tied meticulously by obligation. The fog draped river has left me resentful of my father’s ongoing emotional absence from my life and the expectations he projects onto me as his daughter, a granddaughter and a niece of a broken family. But I am unlearning my default instinct to remain silent in an act of obedience, and am realising that the obligation to my family that I have always shouldered, is one that is far beyond me and my capabilities. And as I walk underneath my father’s shadow that stretches long across me, I no longer assume the shapes it makes, but use the fragmented images my father has begun to show me to weave it accurately. 

As of today, my father and I no longer creep around each other. In the way he packs my lunch and ends his text messages with ‘love u’, I can tell he is compensating for the experiences that he once missed. And so, I allow myself to embrace the warmth that I feel in my chest towards him. At times, I still bear a stoic resignation towards him and his ideals, but I now know that he was robbed of understanding his identity as a father, a son, a brother and as his own individual person. Being a Vietnamese-Australian, he is caught between the spirit of collectiveness and individuality in spaces so intimate to his identity. And perhaps in plummeting into his murky waters, I have become tender to his traumas and tender to my own.