Minh-Ha and Alan’s Story
Ngoc Anh Donald and Alan Lan Van and Minh-Ha Tran
Ngoc Anh Donald along with her sister and her brother in law, Minh-Ha and Dr Alan Lan Van Tran have incredible stories to tell. Determination to survive and thrive has seen this family experience many highs and lows over the years. The journeys, challenges, celebrations and valuable contributions to their new home of Queensland are evident through the stories they have shared.
Anh, Minh-Ha and Alan invited exhibition Curator, Naomi Takeifanga and photographer Hamish Cairns to meet them at the Phat Da Monastery in Inala on 7 May 2016. It is a relatively new monastery with the first impression of the beautifully kept grounds, with glistening white statues and meticulously manicured dragon hedge.
Through displacement from wars in their homeland of Vietnam, the family of Anh and Minh-Ha lost everything twice and had to start again. Their experiences of arriving to Australia are quite different, Anh was a scholarship recipient of the Colombo Plan and Minh-Ha and the rest of the family experienced the harrowing journey as boat people as a result of the humanitarian crisis created by the Vietnam War. Their stories tell of their major contribution to Vietnamese culture in Brisbane, how they have all gone on to have successful careers and most importantly what tradition and family means to them now.
We invite to watch the digital story Two Wars, Three Cities, Four Generations created for the SLQ exhibition Water, Trees and Roots in 2006/7 (3 mins 39 secs in length), and then read the stories from both Ngoc Anh Donald and Minh-Ha and Dr Alan Lan Van Tran.
This is the story of four generations of the Tran Family. Ngoc Anh Donald (nee Nguyen) came to Australia in 1964 when she was awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship. In 1977, three months after the birth of her first child, Anh parents and her sister’s children arrived in Brisbane as refugees. The children’s parents Minh-Ha and Alan Lan Van Tran did not arrive for another three and a half years. This is their story as a family over many challenging but rewarding years.
“We were both from Hanoi in North Vietnam. Our family moved south to Saigon after the Geneva Accords in 1954, which split the country into two, the Communist North and Free world South. Basically we lived in a different place but in a same culture.”
This is Alan and Minh-Ha’s story about their Tradition Now.
Interviews with Dr Alan Lan Van and Minh-Ha Tran took place on 7 May 2016 at the Phat Da Monastery, Inala.
Minh-ha and Alan spoke of the importance of their legacy for future generations would like to do research, they can see what they went through and can find out some answers. The culture of being a refugee is very different, my sister although she is a refugee as well, she not a boat people like them. Being in the family she knew our story but she didn’t live it, its very different. In 1975 students given the option to go back home or to stay in Australia, and Anh chose to stay in Australia.
When you were growing up what did family and tradition mean to you?
We were both from Hanoi in North Vietnam. Our family moved south to Saigon after the Geneva Accords in 1954, which split the country into two, the Communist North and Free world South. Basically we lived in a different place but in a same culture. When growing and living in Saigon in the 1950s and 60s the family was very strong morally and spiritually. Family equaled extended family and that equaled everything. Children were taught at home and at school to respect their grandparents, parents, elderly relatives, older brothers and sisters and especially their teachers. Absolute obedience was expected. Family values were often very traditional and impacted heavily on the children’s choice of education, careers, religion and marriage. The children lived at home and were fully supported by their parents until they get married or going overseas for their education which was highly valued, as did Anh with the Colombo Scholarship.
Tradition was closely observed by families for the celebrations of cultural events such as Tet, religious events such as Buddha’s birthday and ancestor worshipping. It was quite common to see three generations living together under the same roof. The duty to look after elderly parents fell on the shoulders of the eldest son of the family. Traditionally sports were not encouraged, it was only used to keep your fitness especially for girls, the result of an old fashioned education system and beliefs which were in favour of academic goals of the arts and music. Children were not encouraged to be independent individuals they were part of the family.
Brisbane has become your families new home, was it a difficult transition from life in Vietnam to life in Australia?
A new life equals new challenges in Australia. We arrived in Australia in March 1981 as a boat people to join our parents, Anh’s family and our two children, who had arrived in Australia in 1977 as boat people too. Brisbane is our new home. We arrived with very limited knowledge of Australia, its culture, Its values, its people, and it’s way of life.
We faced enormous challenges in order to adjust and adapt to our new home. We had very limited English. Learning a new language was hard when you were in your late 30s, we had to learn the Australian culture and way of life, which was very different from ours. We had a lot of struggles and overcome a lot of hurdles, we came here with nothing, only the clothes on our backs, and then at that time we had to look after our elderly parents, and children that were 9 and 12 years old. So we had a lot of hardship, trying to bring up children as well as looking after the family, which Anh also saw as her duty, usually looking after the parents falls on the shoulders on the boys not the girls, and at the same time we had to work out which way we were going in the future, Alan went back to university, and a few years later I (Minh-Ha) followed, a lot of struggling. I started my assignments at midnight when everyone else was asleep.
“Family still means a lot to us in the sense that it is a source ofhappiness, emotional comfort and assistance in times of need,Opportunities to share life together and above all love youreceive from other family members.”
And at the same time we had to learn the language because we didn’t know English. Alan learnt his English, in his spare time he would grab anyone that looked friendly and practiced his English, although every white man looked the same, you know a man the second time, you already stopped me, so Alan had to admit that he was practising his English, and if he didn’t mind to let Alan talk to him. He said he could talk to him, but that was the way to learn as quickly as possible. Do it or die.
We also had to adjust emotionally to our parents and children after a long separation of three and half years. At the same time we have to find a direction for our future. While looking after our elderly parents and young children it took us a long time to overcome these hurdles and a lot of courage to decide to go back to university instead of finding a job, to secure our children’s future. Finally we found stability after Alan finished his medical training and started working as an intern at Greenslopes Hospital in 1984.
Can you tell me about your family story since the Water, Trees and Roots exhibition?
Since the exhibition some changes happened in our extended family. The first generation passed away. The second generation our generation in the retirement stage although Alan and Anh are still working. The third generation is doing fine and well. Khoa and Uyen (our children) are working with Queensland health. Kim and Ellie, Anh’s son and daughter-in-law are working in England. Anh Has two beautiful twin granddaughters, we have two lovely grandchildren one boy and one girl from our daughter Uyen and her husband Wayne. They are both in primary school now. Khoa and Susan’s children Alessandra and Benjamin have started high school moving grade 9 and grade 7.
We all faced that terrible flood in 2011 and we received a great support from family and friends to overcome the natural disaster. On a more positive note our family have started an endowment fund with University of Queensland to support medical research and our indigenous students. The fund is now fully operational.
In Brisbane what the family mean to you, the people you were surrounded by every day?
Family still means a lot to us in the sense that it is a source of happiness, emotional comfort and assistance in times of need, Opportunities to share life together and above all love you receive from other family members.
How you kept your traditions going in Brisbane, heart how have you kept your culture alive, and how your family members keep the Vietnamese culture alive?
Although living away from our traditional environment, family and tradition still have major place in our life. Family still means extended family to some extent to us. We tried very hard to keep the standard family together by celebrating together the major events such as Tet, Christmas, New Year, birthday anniversaries, children’s sporting activities, musical activities, school activities, collecting children from school. For other significant events at children are encouraged to participate for example the moon festival children, Thanh Minh (visit to the cemetery very close to Easter) and Vu Lan (commemorative ceremony for the deceased). Once a year our extended family get together for a week-long holiday and we try to get together at least once a month if not more.
We also encourage the third and fourth generations to learn more about the Vietnamese culture and tradition. For daily activities we speak Vietnamese at home and with our children, we eat Vietnamese food with chopsticks and rice bowls. The grandchildren like Vietnamese food and they can use chopsticks skillfully. Alessandra wore a Vietnamese dress (ao dai) and had to showcase the Vietnamese culture at her school during the multicultural day. Benjamin David talked to fellow students about the Vietnamese Tet. Every Tet they come home including Ian to pay respects to our ancestors, exchange good wishes (happiness, prosperity, longevity) and grandchildren receiving red envelopes with the money inside.
We always encouraged our children to learn our language and culture and we were very proud that they both can speak our language fluently and they are capable of using it when seeing Vietnamese patients.
Has religion played a role in this? If so can you talk about how celebrating your family spirituality and your community spirituality has kept your culture alive?
In the old traditional Vietnamese society quite often religion and culture are quite overlapping. The worshipping ancestors and funeral services especially the service 49 days after death at typical examples.
Religion temples and churches to keep the culture and tradition alive especially Buddhist and which was the main religion for many centuries have a Vietnamese people until the French colonisation started around 1850. In fact many saw Buddhism today as a blend between Buddhism, Confucianism and Taosim (theory of three religions with one origin).
The celebration of many important thing in the Vietnamese calendar such as Tet reflect this blends. There is an old saying, “the roof of the temple carries the soul of the people and the eternal traditions of our ancestors”.
A temples and churches in Brisbane are numerous, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Cao Dai (a broad church), Hoa Hao (a branch of Buddhism). They are also meeting places that elderly people at the weekend (after the service), especially the elderly people who are marginally isolated due to their limited English and integration.
The impact of culture on religion is quite remarkable in Vietnamese culture. The best example is ancestor worshipping which is now acceptable within a Vietnamese Catholic family or at a funeral service. (especially after Vatican 11, ie Dignitasis Humanae 7-12-1965).
Personally we get very involved with Vietnamese Temple Phat Da Monastery. Alan worked in the management committee for 17 years, after that we still get involved in fundraising and many other activities. Our deceased parents are worshipped at the temple and we go to the temple on a regular basis for the prayers.
Our culture is very much alive if you were invited to a Vietnamese wedding in Brisbane it would be a whole day celebration. With the assistance of the extended family and friends several offence would occur from early morning to late evening. Apart from the ceremony at the church or Temple, there were other traditional ceremonies such as welcoming ceremonies for the bride and have family in the morning (procession with trays of gifts), paying respect at the ancestors altars at both families home, introduction of the bride to both families, dowry ceremony with money and jewelry to the bride cut “tea ceremony” from the bride and groom to say thank you and paying respect to parents and grandparents.
You could add up all other modern features of weddings that just are, signing the marriage certificate with the marriage celebrants and the formal reception dinner in the evening when up to 500 guests are invited. In the evening the bride make it changed up to 4 styles of dresses. In a nice gesture to guest, the young couple go around accompanied by their parents to say thank you to guess at each table and receive gifts these are usually red envelopes with money and well wishes. The party usually finishes at around 11 PM at night so to the bride on the wedding day to be between 4 AM in the morning when she gets up to get a hair done until about 11 PM p.m. at night when the last guests leave the restaurant.
Looking to the future are you confident that your Vietnamese heritage will still be celebrated here in Brisbane?
Looking to the future we’re pretty confident that the culture will be kept alive with the Vietnamese community in Australia Queensland chapter a very active to organise every year important events Tet, 30 April (the fall of Saigon to the Communist North) Moon Festival (also called children’s festival) and many others.
To keep the language alive Brisbane also has Vietnamese schools on Saturday morning with three schools and five centres, one in West End, one in Goodna, one in Darra and two in Inala.
What are your hopes and aspirations for your families future generations celebrating the Vietnamese culture?
At a personal level Khoa and Uyen speak fluent Vietnamese with the reasonable good knowledge of our culture, tradition and values. However how successful will they be ensuring that their children, the fourth generation of Vietnamese refugees understand the heritage? It will be a big challenge for them.`
At the end of the interview Alan and Minh-Ha took the curator and photographer around some of the significant cultural places around Inala, to show Vietnamese culture in action. The places included Vietnam St, Saigon Place, Freedom Place, Dr Alan’s medical practice and the richly diverse Inala Civic Centre with mosaics in the footpath symbolising Vietnamese culture.