Wait, what is my cultural identity?

For most of my childhood and teens, I was confused about my ethnic and cultural background. I constantly questioned who I was, who my people were, and where I really belonged.

My Mum was born in Vietnam, Dad in Cambodia, I was born in Sydney but told me that I’m Chinese. What added to the confusion was that we ate phở on most weekends. Both of my parents spoke Vietnamese, Cantonese, Mandarin, English and a bit of Teochew, but I could only speak English and some broken Cantonese. Mum would light incense at the altar for Guanyin and our ancestors, but I went to the local Catholic primary school. I concluded that my parents were some amalgamations of Asian and that I was Aussie.

This was all well and good until I started proper full-time work. The team was racially diverse, but one conversation stood out. I was speaking with a colleague who had a surname that blends in in the UK and looked like they belonged on Aussie TV.  We were talking about our backgrounds, and they labelled themselves as ‘Australian’ and me as ‘Asian.’ I started thinking, “Oh, I thought I was Aussie, but maybe I’m not. So, what am I then?”

A simple answer might be, “Well, you’re Chinese Australian or Vietnamese Australian,” but what did that even mean? I officially began my own cultural identity expedition. According to academics, our ethnicity includes:

  • our race
  • our culture.

Ok, so race was the easy bit, since it was about biology and physical traits, but culture is made of a bunch of things, including:

  • Dietary habits and food prep – so I’d mostly cook at home, but I’d go out for Korean BBQ, Bún bò Huế, crispy pata, South Asian food, and on really special occasions, our extended family we go to a Cantonese Seafood restaurants. I’d also put fruit in front of photos of my ancestors as an offering.
  • Language – I can name a few Vietnamese and Korean dishes, but I did pick up some Cantonese from TVB shows and Mandarin from Duolingo. When it comes to cooking vocab, I’m very American, saying cilantro instead of coriander and broil instead of grill.
  • Leisure activities – I went through a rock phase but I’m back on R&B. I watch Hollywood and Asian movies. K-dramas are in the mix too.
  • And other parts of our communities.

So, the conclusion I’ve come to is that we all have our own flavour of Asian Australian or African Australian or European Australian. This identity can shift and change over time, just like how some people move from being working class to middle class or the other way around. We may not have a complete understanding of ourselves, but through exploring our cultural identity we can have a better understanding and feel more connected to who we are.