Migrant nation: where do I come in? – Mac Nguyen
4 Apr 2021

After a relatively short history, the Vietnamese population in Australia today bears the integration characteristics of a mature migrant group (Jakubowicz, 2004). In the span of less than four decades, the population has grown from negligible to one of the largest non-English speaking migrant groups in Australia (Mellor, 2006: 634). From the early refugees of the Vietnam War through to the succeeding young Vietnamese-Australian generation, the Vietnamese presence has left a visible imprint on the social and cultural make-up of Australia, particularly in the larger cities. Although the earliest influx of Vietnamese migrants was bound by a single cause—namely, the communist take-over of Vietnam at the end of the war—it could also be seen as an event that opened up a migration path between Vietnam and Australia, and consequently catalysed a continuous migration cycle that allowed the Vietnamese diasporas to mature to what they are today.

In 1975, Australia began taking refugees on humanitarian grounds after the exodus of the non-communist Vietnamese at the end of the Vietnam War (Mellor, 2006: 635). The massive influx of Vietnamese refugees coincided with the post-White Australia era, after the Whitlam government’s Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby, enacted policy changes that eliminated racial discrimination and formally abolishing the waning White Australia policy in late 1972. The humanitarianism shown by the Australian government towards the Vietnamese, amongst other refugees victimised by the political unrest in Indochina, was the first major ratification and acknowledgement of this pivotal policy change, and it was substantial. By 1981, Australia had taken 37,000 refugees, representing 0.26 per cent of the total population, compared to Canada’s intake of 0.23 per cent or the United States with 0.17 per cent (Price, 1981: 108).

In late 1981, Australia’s immigration policy began to shift its focus onto the economy, with the political issues in Vietnam ‘no longer a major concern to the Australian government’ (Jakubowicz, 2004). This meant, primarily, a transition from refugee settlement to a formal recognition of family reunion (Stephen, 2001). Selection procedures were subsequently changed to reflect these new pressures (Betts, 1996: 200), and were organised in a bilateral agreement with the Vietnamese government to assist in accommodating these movements (Mellor, 2004: 635). This led to a strategic exploitation of the emphasis on family reunion, with potential migrant families striving to send an ‘anchor’ person to establish themselves in Australia who would then sponsor subsequent members (a strategy which accounts for my own arrival) (Betts, 1996: 216).

In considering this within the framework of push or pull factors, I want to invoke Betts’ (1996: 214) notion of push/pull factors. She asserts that there is a coexistence both push and pull factors, and the predominance of one leads it to be a net factor, as opposed to a sole factor. For Vietnamese migration, push factors gradually evolved into pull factors, reflecting the dynamic nature of Australian immigration policy during the period when the aftermath of the Vietnam War had settled. To cite my own circumstances, my immediate family was leading a relatively comfortable middle-class life in Hanoi, without any type of post-war oppression (that would have otherwise been a push factor). However, Watkins et al. (2003: 164) found that potential Vietnamese migrants tended to carry ‘expectations [that] educational, socio-economic and employment opportunities in Australia were more positive than those in Vietnam’. For my family, it was these expectations specifically, of better opportunities in Australia, which summoned push factors out of the consequent relative undesirability of living in Vietnam.

Despite the government’s charitable strives to allow refugees to settle in Australia, there was still a degree of social, political and economic friction. As Watkins et al. (2003: 157) state, ‘migration involves a complex process of adaptation to living in a different social-cultural and economic environment’, referring specifically to the struggles of the Vietnamese. The social-cultural aspect was particularly significant in considering the clash of cultures. There were still concerns about the Vietnamese’ ability or willingness to adapt or assimilate, despite the rhetoric of assimilation being officially abandoned during the move from ‘integration’ to ‘multiculturalism’ under the Fraser government (Castles et al., 1990: 58-65). Fear and hostility towards Vietnamese immigration had already existed in its early stages, when the Courier Mail published the headline ‘It’s the yellow peril again’ on November 29, 1977 (Stephen, 2001). Controversial historian Geoffrey Blainey is known for the critical use of the term ‘tribalisation’, stating that the tribalised Vietnamese were ‘said to be a society apart, with few economic skills, poor English language levels, and rampant crime’ (Jakubowicz, 2004). Between 1988 and 1991 (the year my family and I arrived), public opinion polls showed that less than 10 per cent of Australians favoured admitting more immigrants, while two thirds favoured admitting fewer or none. This continued into the mid-1990s with the rise of the right-wing One Nation party, whose leader Pauline Hanson declared that Australia was ‘in danger of being swamped by Asians’ and that they ‘have their own culture and religion, form ghettos, and do not assimilate’ (Mellor, 2004: 636).

The economic environment, particularly the recession in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s, made it even more difficult for Vietnamese migrants already struggling to find stable employment. By 1996, the unemployment rate for Vietnamese migrants was at 25 per cent, compared to the national rate of nine per cent (Watkins et al., 2003: 157). A large part of this could be attributed to poor English language proficiency (Khoo et al., 1994) with 45 per cent of Vietnam-born migrants reported to be speaking not well or not at all (Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 2000). Those Vietnamese migrants who managed to find employment were part of a large immigrant working class (Steel 2002), working predominantly in manual labour or other jobs that did not require proficient language skills. For example, many immigrants including both my parents in the early 1990s, performed outwork for the clothing industry, summarised by Jakubowicz (2004) as the task of ‘cutting and assembling clothing in their homes on low piece-rates and in very poor working conditions’. The predisposition for migrants to engage in these occupations prompted concerns about immigration as a cause for social inequality and the ‘ethnicisation or racialisation of social class’ (Jakubowicz, 2004). Hage adds that the Asian working class were potentially marginalised by misrepresentation in what he referred to as ‘class aesthetics’ (Hage, 2003: 108-119).

Like any other migrant group, cultural factors played an enormous role in the Vietnamese arrival. Jakubowicz (2004) refers in particular to ‘cultural trauma’, a phenomenon affecting the cultural adaptation and mutual tolerance of both the Vietnamese and wider established Australian society. By the second generation of Vietnamese migrants, the issue of cultural trauma subsided. Most children of Vietnamese migrants were nurtured by a variety of differing and, at times, incompatible environmental factors from their parents. They were able to establish ‘peer networks that include members of the dominant culture’ (Matsuoka, 1990) through school, and became influenced by a host of non-traditional values. This gave rise to the issue of intergenerational cultural conflict. Research has confirmed that Vietnamese-Australian adolescents ‘perceived that they had less traditional values than their parents’ (Rosenthal et al., 1996: 81) and ‘acculturate more rapidly than their parents’ (Boman and Edwards, 1984), and the consequences of this were ‘likely to lead to parent-adolescent conflict’ (Rosenthal et al., 1996: 82).

In spite of the evidence suggesting an attempt to subdue tradition by the younger generation, there were many positive effects that came from surviving Vietnamese values. The emphasis on education, for example, has ironically eased the transition for the second generation into an integrated social environment. Jakubowicz (2004) states that in ‘both Buddhist [the religion of my parents] and Catholic Vietnamese communities, there is an assertion of the value of education, and a belief in the potential for individuals to realise their aspirations through education’, an assertion that is supported by the fact that Vietnamese parents who are generally poorly educated due to their early adverse circumstances are more likely to press their children toward academic success. This endows the younger generation with ‘opportunities for upward social mobility so they can aspire to professional and managerial positions that have eluded most of their parents’ (Tran and Mak, 2001: 193), while their bilingual, bicultural characteristics allow them to retain a sensibility to their Vietnamese heritage.

From a personal perspective, it is possible for both traditional Vietnamese and dominant Australian culture to coexist and form substantial parts of the second generation Vietnamese identity in Australia. Mellor (2004: 654) invokes LaFromboise et al’s (1993) ‘bi-culturation styles’ where he asserts that ‘the Vietnamese have adopted the alternation style, moving between Western and traditional ways as required’—precisely the mechanism in which many young Vietnamese-Australians sustain a dedication to acknowledging, and practicing, their cultural dichotomy. As a young first generation Australian, my cultural identity is the product of a rich migration lineage, shaped as much by the complexity of my own circumstances upon arrival in Australia to the common circumstances of other settling migrants. Although the initial motivation to emigrate from Vietnam was not a direct result of the war, the formation of a migration path between Vietnam and Australia after the mid-to-late 1970s exodus of refugees (that developed into a well-established community by 1991, when we arrived) made our transition possible. Once here, the initial socio-economic struggles and personal conflicts with bicultural conditioning allowed our experiences to converge with other Vietnamese migrants, and in a greater context, non-English speaking background migrants in general.


Betts, K. (1996) ‘Explaining Australian Immigration’, Journal of the Australian Population Association 13(2):195-229

Boman B., and M. Edwards (1984) ‘The Indochinese refugee: An overview’ Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 18: 40-52

Castles, S., M. Kalantzis, B. Cope and M. Morrissey (1990) Mistaken Identity. Sydney: Pluto

Department of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs (1988) Australian and Immigration 1788-1988. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia

Hage, G. (2003) ‘The class aesthetics of global multiculturalism,’ pp. 108-119 in Against paranoid nationalism: searching for new hope in a shrinking society. Sydney: Pluto

Jakubowicz, A. (2004) ‘Vietnamese in Australia: a generation of settlement and adaptation’, Making Multicultural Australia May 2004

<http://www.multiculturalaustralia.edu.au/history/viet.php> (consulted 16 Apr. 2009)

Khoo, S., K. Pookong, T. Dang, and J. Shu (1994) ‘Asian immigrant settlement and adjustment in Australia,’ Asian Pacific Migration Journal 3(2): 339-72

LaFromboise, T., H.I.K. Coleman and J. Gerton (1993) ‘Psychological impact of biculturalism: evidence and theory’, Psychological Bulletin, 114(3): 395-412

Matsuoka, J.K. (1990) ‘Differential acculturation among Vietnamese refugees’ Social Work 35: 341-345

Mellor, D. (2004) ‘The Experiences of Vietnamese in Australia: The Racist Tradition Continues’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 30(4):631-658

Price, C. (1981) ‘Immigration Policies and Refugees in Australia’, International Migration Review 15(1/2):99-108

Rosenthal, D., N. Ranieri, and S. Klimidis (1996) ‘Vietnamese Adolescents in Australia: Relationships between Perceptions of Self and Parental Values, Intergenerational Conflict, and Gender Dissatisfaction’ International Journal of Psychology 31(2): 81-91

Stephen, S. (2001) ‘From Fraser to Howard: Behind the shift in policy toward “boat-people”’, Green Left Weekly 14 Nov. 2001 < http://www.greenleft.org.au/2001/471/24887> (consulted 16 Apr. 2009)

Steel, Z. (2002) ‘Long-term effect of psychological trauma on the mental health of Vietnamese refugees resettled in Australia: a population-based study’ The Lancet (British Edition) 360(9339): 1056-

Tran, C. and A.S. Mak (2001) ‘Big five personality and cultural relocation factors in Vietnamese Australian students’ intercultural social self-efficacy’ International Journal of Intercultural Relations 25: 181-201

Waktins, R., A.J. Plant, D. Sang, T. O’Rourke, V. Le, H. Nguyen and B. Gushulak (2003) ‘Individual characteristics and expectations about opportunities in Australia among prospective Vietnamese migrants’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 29(1):157-166