Sometimes unable to speak each other’s language, the generational divide in the Vietnamese diaspora means younger members struggle to connect with elders to learn their history or discuss sensitive topics.

It’s a disconnect that those involved in the upcoming “Water Lullabies” online panel discussion at Myseum of Toronto want to overcome.

“There’s a completely missing link in the communication between, let’s say, a grandmother and their grandchild,” said Vince Ha, the curator of “Water Lullabies: Difficulties, Gaps, Progress and Resettlement.”

In other instances, he said some elders can speak or understand some English (or French) and some younger folk know some Vietnamese, and so converse in a mix of the two. In a lot of cases, much remains unsaid.

“Especially the Vietnamese community, we have this mentality of keep your head down, work hard, and keep quiet,” Ha said.

“There's a lot of history that's involved in the Vietnamese community, there's a lot of trauma that's trickled down into every individual family household,” Ha said, recalling his mother’s short fuse after they arrived in Canada when he was a young teen in the mid-1990s.

“There’s this sense of shame when you don't know your mother tongue, and it's different when you acknowledge that fact in an environment that is not Vietnamese,” he said.

The online event, which will take place on Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., aims to create a conversation about topics such as postwar trauma, the mental health impacts of dealing with COVID-19 and rising anti-Asian racism, and hierarchy in the Vietnamese diaspora.

The project was initially slated for April 2020 and was meant to include an exhibition and opera performance commemorating the 45th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, but the pandemic upended those plans.

“I want to push them out of their comfort zone, but not in a bad way,” says Thao Vy Nguyen of the Water Lullabies panel event.
David Pham holding a family photo taken in Canada in 1995 that is torn in a corner and includes his mother, his wife, and his five sons. Photo by Vince Ha

Moderator Alex Trinh said the role of patriarchy — including that in many traditional Vietnamese families, a bride ends up taking care of her husband’s family — is a topic he is eager to bring up.

“That's what my mom had to live through, and I'm very against that. I'd like to bring up questions like that. It is a very strong topic, but I feel like it should be discussed,” said Trinh, who was born in Canada after his family arrived as refugees.

Trinh, who said he knows the language better than most Vietnamese Canadians his age thanks to his love of Vietnamese pop music from the 1950s and '60s, said he also wants to talk about whether queer culture should be celebrated in Vietnamese culture.

Thao Vy Nguyen, the other moderator, wants to hear from elders about when they have been most proud of their offspring, noting that Vietnamese kids are always being told how to improve.

“I want to push them out of their comfort zone, but not in a bad way,” she said, noting that they expect it to be a free-flowing discussion where they can ask speakers the more controversial questions that they might avoid asking their parents. “There’s so much misunderstanding.”

Crew on the amphibious cargo ship USS Durham transfer a Vietnamese refugee child from a small craft on April 3, 1975, in the South China Sea. Photo via the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Almost 150,000 people born in Vietnam have immigrated to Canada since 1980, the 2016 census shows, after fleeing the country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.

The largest wave, almost 78,000, arrived in the 1980s, with almost two-thirds of them classified as refugees. That initial movement has since turned into a consistent flow of around 20,000 per decade, mostly sponsored by family already here.

“There's a whole generation of us kids whose parents came from Vietnam and had us in North America, so we're really western with a Vietnamese identity,” Nguyen said.

The moderators and panellists will be enlisting the help of project co-ordinator Hanh Le, who came to Canada as an international student about five years ago, is fluent in both Vietnamese and English, and will provide live translation in both directions for the panel talk.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer