Lost teas / September 2012 (Issue 18)

Permanent Memories

by Violet Kieu

I wrote only for myself.

My thoughts. My life. My reflections.

It was inevitable then, that the day had to come when I realised that there was far more to life than just myself.

It all starts with the smallest things. The drops of rain on a window. A little lost ray of sunlight, radiant on an otherwise bleak Melbourne winter's day. In reality, though, it nearly always starts with your parents...

You never really see your parents in the way other people do. You see them uniquely. You can see them only from the eyes of a child who has grown up under both of their influences could ever see them. Personally, I see them both from an angle refracted through childhood memories of skinned knees and warm kisses, and now of adolescent angst and acceptance. I was a recipient of their unconditional love. I had never thought to question it or to understand it.

From my perspective now, however, I realise I should dedicate something to them. This piece perhaps, deservedly dedicated to those who have spent a lifetime dedicated to me. Though I love them, I know this sentiment is not enough to do them justice. So, I will show you who they really are, how I finally realised the significance of understanding your family and the people who make it. My parents were refugees who fled post-war Vietnam in a situation of immense turmoil and turbulence. I know because they have told me often enough. What they haven't told me was the tense atmosphere of uncertainty, ambiguity and fear, mingled with a blind hope for a future worth the highest price. Worth the risks, sacrifice and hardship they endured. My parents were refugees, who are now Australians.

And this is why I didn't complain when they packed me into the car to go to the opening of Melbourne's new Immigration Museum. This is why I felt obliged to join them, without really wanting to go, without really getting the point.

I was never one for long car trips, so I was usually awoken upon arriving at our destination. That day was no exception. My father always told me I missed half the journey that way. I always used to rebuke him, exclaiming that the fact I got somewhere really negated the need to know how I got there. So I slept, lured to sleep by the periodic falling of raindrops on the car rooftop.

When we did enter the Immigration Museum, we entered it as a family. We walked together through the gates that lead into the main garden. My first impression of this living museum was one of beauty and humanity. When you think about all the suffering, the violence and the anguish that humanity has unleashed, it's easy to forget that the human hand and its touch can also bring happiness and true beauty. The beauty was in this shrine to our memories, a mark of remembrance of our unique histories, cultures and pasts. Wherever people once lived in years gone by, they ventured out of their networks of safety to immigrate to Australia. They learnt to move on, perhaps to love their new lives, to love their new homes. I would like to think I wasn't wrong and luckily proof is easy to find. They must have found a new place in this society we built, to be able to come and celebrate the opening of such a remarkable museum. All the people there with us were there to acknowledge our cultural differences and our pasts. They were also there to revel in the efforts made to lower the fences and to take that one step closer towards true multiculturalism.

Seeing our name engraved, permanently, deeply, onto the hard metallic surface of the wall gave me a sense of place and time. Of really belonging. Here in history my family stood amongst so many others who have left their own countries and past to risk an unpredictable future in another land. Moving away from the wall, it is still not possible to see all the names that have been marked. It is magnificent to picture that all those names represent so many people with so many stories. So many memories that may disappear if nobody is around to cherish them.

In comparison, I found some of my problems pale into insignificance. It brought my world into focus. I can say, laughingly, that it doesn't really matter that I speak Vietnamese with an Australian accent, or eat my noodles with a fork. It's part of the joining of two cultures, where I stand in the middle. But I'm sure I'm not alone. I can live the best of both worlds by keeping the legacy and traditions of the past without forsaking my future.

Any worries I had about whether I was just a Vietnamese girl who lived in Australia or an Australian one whose parents were born in Vietnam disappeared into that crisp wintry air. Staying longer than anticipated in the gardens, we looked at the wall and watched demonstrations by other cultural groups, whose ancestral history is just as old as my own.

And when we did leave, we went to my grandmother's house. It seemed most appropriate that way. I'm proud to say that I didn't sleep in the car trip getting there. It's true. I had missed out on too much of life already. I stayed awake in the car and listened to Vietnamese music, from the country I have never visited. I looked out of my window to see the world. I saw the true colours of Melbourne, my vibrant city in the country that I call home. The raindrops had stopped drumming on the glass. The rain clouds had moved on and the day seemed somewhat brighter.

We drove through Carlton, detouring through the small cafes and homely bookshops on Lygon Street, past the university and away from the historic cemetery, arriving finally at my grandmother's home.

Leaving my shoes next to her embroidered slippers, bowing reverently to the all-seeing statue of Buddha at the end of the hallway, I slipped silently into my grandmother's world. I followed the exotic aromas to the kitchen, where I greeted her in Vietnamese with what I hoped passed for a respectful, dutiful and politely removed tone. Then, casting aside all formality, I hugged her tightly and kissed her. It was in English that I told her I loved her.

It makes me smile to think that she understood all of what I was trying to say.


(First published in Time After Time: Winning Stories and Poems from the 2001 Boroondara Literary Awards.)

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