Melbourne’s Little Saigon

March 28, 2007

Jill Singer

March 26, 2007 12:00am

Article from: Herald-Sun

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ONE of the paths to happiness, according to an ancient Indian text, is not to leave your homeland permanently.

The wisdom of this has struck me during my visit to Vietnam.Invited to join a party of Vietnamese men and women, aged from 23 to 50 years, it was remarkable to witness their love of country and each other’s company.

Young women rushed to don traditional northern Vietnamese costume and regale us with the most delicate, lilting

folk songs. Then there was poetry recitation, comb-and-paper saxophone playing, enthusiastic singing of Vietnamese pop songs, accompanied by guitar, and many, many laughs and hugs.

The people here are so enthusiastic about their culture and prosperity that I feel sympathy for the Vietnamese who were forced to make their lives elsewhere in the wake of the Vietnam War, or the American War as the Vietnamese call it.

A woman tells me of her sister’s life in Sydney and how their mother has become too old to visit Australia. The expatriate sister longs for her family in Vietnam, but her children are Australian.

She lives a life amputated from her culture.

Another tells me of Vietnamese-Australian men returning to their homeland in search of wives.

She has happily rejected several offers because she has no desire to leave Vietnam. Why would I leave all this, she asks? Why, indeed?

THE faces I see in Victoria St, Richmond, are sometimes smiling, the atmosphere sometimes redolent of the real Vietnam. Sometimes. But only in a fragile and fractured manner. Little Saigon is a pale imitation of the real Saigon.

The Vietnamese regard for ancestry is also particularly strong, which makes breaking the ties to home additionally difficult.

Many are returning to Vietnam from countries such as Australia, but many more cannot because of newly formed bonds. They have gained new homes and new opportunities, but they are also missing out on so much.

And it’s not just the Vietnamese who find a migratory life is one mixed with tears and joy.

A friend tells me of her gardener, who is saving up to return to the Philippines in his old age. He does not want to die in a strange land.

Throughout my own life I have often dreamed of living elsewhere, perhaps London or New York.

And then I think of being permanently away from home, friends and family, and the appeal quickly fades. Travel is a tonic but home is a haven.

New York, for example, is no place for any but the robust, according to a young architect friend. She recalls with horror a bout of flu while living there.

Not a soul called to inquire after her health, let alone fetch her a bowl of chicken soup.

Friends and colleagues who have made the pilgrimage to London are also returning in droves after finding life there just too darned hard.

Being an outsider can be exhilarating as a visitor, but can prove tiresome over time.

VISIT nursing homes in Australia and listen to migrants suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Their learned English frequently deserts them as they once again speak the language of their birthplace.

Their bodies might be in Melbourne but their hearts and minds are yearning for Poland, Hungary, China and the many other countries that have populated Australia.

Forty per cent of us were either born elsewhere or have migrant parents. No matter how multicultural Australia has become, the ties that bind to other places can tug relentlessly.

Australians need to bear this in mind when considering our immigration policies and treatment of refugees.

Too often it is assumed that people leave their homes and take to the seas in leaky boats because of aspiration rather than desperation.

But just imagine how hard it is to leave your home and what a tough decision it must be to make.

The vast majority are found to be in genuine need of our help and protection. Some will eventually make Australia their new, permanent home. Others will stay only until they can safely return to their loved ones.

Before we judge them, we should imagine ourselves in their position and remember the old adage that applies to us all: there really is no place like home.

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