Families and cultural diversity in Australia

Historical publication – December 1995

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10. Vietnamese-Australian families

by Vuong Nguyen and Mai Ho

The Vietnamese community in Australia had its'beginnings after the fall of the South Vietnamese government in April 1975. The circumstances of the mass exodus from Vietnam and subsequent admission to Australia have had long-lasting impacts on the people's settlement in general and their family structure in partic- ular. Vietnamese people, arriving either from refugee camps or direct from Vietnam, expected that Australia would provide a more favourable political and economic framework in which their families could grow. However, the majority were not fully aware of the acute socio-economic and cultural differences between their homeland and the society to which they were emigrating.

Once in Australia, Vietnamese people wanted to be part of the host society, but they also wanted to maintain their cultural identity. The integration process of immigrants includes some reaction to acculturative pressures and some adjustments on their part (Berry 1991). The process and rate of acculturation are not the same for all, even for members of the same family. It depends on an individual's age at the time of arrival, his or her sex, the period of settlement, contact with the wider community, skills in making use of host institutions, and other background attributes. For individuals it is a process of trial and error, of continuous changes that are affected by personal, familial and societal factors. There is great variation in the nature and degree of individual change.

This chapter explores the impact of the migration-integration process on Vietnamese family life in Australia. It is based on studies of the Vietnamese and Indochinese (sometimes called Southeast Asian) refugee/immigrant population in Australia, relevant studies in the United States and Canada, and the authors' personal observations and work experiences in the community. The discussion is most relevant to ethnic Vietnamese families; however, to some extent both ethnic Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese from Vietnam share similar experiences.

Migration and its impact on families

The Vietnamese-born population in Australia at the 1991 census was 121 813 (BIPR 1994e), a substantial increase from the few hundred Vietnamese students and professionals who were resident in Australia prior to April 1975. The major buildup of the community followed the mass exodus of Vietnamese refugees after the political events in their homeland in that year. Although the flow of Vietnamese boat people has been reduced substantially in recent years, their acceptance from refugee camps in Southeast Asian countries for resettlement in Australia continues. In addition, since 1986 there has been a substantial increase in the number of Vietnamese people-partners, dependent children, middle-aged or elderly parents and close relatives of the refugee group-who have been admitted directly from Vietnam for permanent settlement in Australia under the Family Reunion Program.

As a result, the Vietnamese-born population in Australia includes some people who have been here for almost twenty years and some who have just arrived, together with the Australian-born children of early and later arrivals. The latter group numbered 25 151 at the 1991 census; they are the second generation of the community, the overwhelming majority of whom are under 15 years of age (BIPR 1994e). Their impact has not yet been studied. They are included here with children and adolescents born overseas, although there are some differences between the two groups. Until 1991 almost 80 per cent of arrivals were from refugee camps; they came in large numbers between 1981 and 1986 (Viviani, Coughlan and Rowland 1993). The predominance of refugees and family members of refugees means that the present community sees itself as possessing all the characteristics of a refugee rather than an immigrant community, one which has been established in a little more than a decade.

At the 1991 census about 27 per cent of the Vietnamese-born population were of Chinese background (BIPR 1994e). Their acculturation differs from that of the ethnic Vietnamese. They tend to show higher levels of psychological adjustment as they are able to identify and connect with an already established group of Chinese immigrants in Australia (Berry and Blondel 1982, in Thomas and Balnaves 1993, p. 5) and because their experience of living as a minority in Vietnam helps them to build a 'collective wisdom and know-how' in their integration into Australian society (Nguyen 1986, p. 10).

While earlier Vietnamese settlers have had some time to adapt, recently arrived people have not. Many previously separated (nuclear) families suddenly have one or more newly arrived members. Their arrival appears to reinforce traditional cultural values in the community and in individual families; however, new arrivals are likely to be assisted by earlier settlers to adapt more quickly. There have been several 'waves' of Vietnamese refugees, who differ according to their reasons for leaving their homeland, their occupational skills, their social class and their ethnic composition. Political factors dominated the 1975 and 1976 refugee exodus (Viviani 1984). By 1978 the reasons stressed by those leaving Vietnam were economic losses as a result of the Communist Government's policies, a general decline in economic prospects, political re-education, racial discrimination against the ethnic Chinese, and fear of war (between Vietnam and China and between Vietnam and Cambodia).

Vietnamese migration to Australia has been characterised by traumatic experiences of escape and living in refugee camps, a moderate to serious imbalance of age groups and gender, and a substantial number of family separations, lone minors and unmarried adults in the early settlement years (Viviani, Coughlan and Rowland 1993). During the escape trips and in the camps many refugees, particularly women and children, were subjected to violence (Hitchcox 1993). Cox (1986) summarises their experiences:

Clearly many of the refugees experienced trauma, or severe emotional shocks, in the often difficult period preceding their arrival in Australia. Such experiences can leave profound marks on the lives of people and affect the ways in which they later adapt to a new environment. Refugee camps so often generate apathy and dependency. An increase in isolation, self accusation and doubts can kill off a person's initiative and ability for self-defence and independence. (p. 6)

The 1991 census showed that Vietnamese-born males outnumbered females, with the greatest imbalance in the 15-29 age group (BIPR 1994e). There are various reasons for this. For example, in the patriarchal family system young males are more likely to have the necessary skills and personal resources to establish themselves in a foreign country before sponsoring other family members (Brown 1993; Thomas and Balnaves 1993). In addition, more males arrived because they were soldiers, army officers, public servants, business people, landowners and their sons-that is, those most directly affected and endangered by the change of political regime in Vietnam and therefore needing to escape.

Many married men could escape only by leaving behind wives and families. In contrast, some women who lost their husbands in the war before 1975 or in the new regime's re-education camps felt threatened by the government, so decided to escape with their children. There were also cases in which family members left Vietnam at different times, were accepted for resettlement by different countries or were dispersed in different parts of the same receiving country (Viviani 1984).

Among the refugees there was also a substantial number of teenagers and young adults whose parents had arranged for their escape with either relatives or neighbours (Le 1986; Lim 1979). These groups of young siblings travelled together, each group led by the oldest member. For the majority it was the first time they had been away from the family and had had to look after themselves.

Family separation and the consequences of broken family structures have been widely reported as the most serious concern among Vietnamese refugees world-wide (Viviani 1984; Lewins and Ly 1985). The reunited family has to resolve problems caused by family members' different expectations. For example, Le (1986) reports children's difficulties in attempting to readjust to a twoparent family and the 'intense sibling rivalry, dissatisfaction and even hatred' between children who came to Australia first and those who came later (p. 8).

Most refugees were not able to plan their escape in detail, let alone prepare for settlement in another country. 'Culture shock' has been widely reported among these settlers. There is enough evidence to suggest that most Vietnamese refugees arrived in Australia with very few material possessions (Nguyen 1994). Those who came to join them later, including elderly parents, left behind all their land, home and property. Starting a new life was very difficult, especially if they arrived during the recession. Because of economic necessity many Vietnamese women for the first time had to commit themselves to the labour market as seriously as their husbands did. This brought various changes to their role and status within the family. In other families both parents could find no work and they lived in poverty.

Refugees and their families have also been affected by settlement policies in Australia. Hostels, where many relevant services are provided, are very helpful in the early settlement period. Although there have been efforts to disperse refugees widely through the Community Refugees Settlement Scheme, in general people have not been impeded in their desire to live close together for mutual support. The residential concentrations of Vietnamese, although criticised (Birrell 1993), have served them well in the transition period, providing economic and emotional support and access to information. In areas with large numbers of Vietnamese people families find a neighbourhood where interaction is quite close.

But all in all, most Vietnamese people, while appreciating the need to adjust to their new environment, find that hardship and the unfavourable circumstances of their actual migration have made adjustment quite difficult.

Traditional family values

In Vietnam, family and village form the centre of Vietnamese social and economic life (Bong Nguyen 1979, in Chan and Lam 1987, p. 15), but family is the fundamental unit of the society. Social order and functions rely most importantly on family education, a concept which is very popular and is always seen as complementary to school education. Vietnamese family life and education reflect religious beliefs, the immediate social environment of the family and the ever-changing general economic conditions.


The main religions currently practised in Vietnam are Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and two indigenous sects, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao (Hassan, Healy, McKenna and Hearst 1985). Vietnamese culture was traditionally based on the 'Three Teachings' (Tarn Ciao) in which Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are intertwined and applied to all aspects of life and death. These forms of religious belief were introduced to the Vietnamese people by the Chinese during their one-thousand-year rule over the country from 111 BC to AD 939.

Buddhism emphasises self-restriction of worldly desires so that one is satisfied with what one has, particularly material possessions. People believe that their present fate has its cause in past generations and that they can practise good deeds to leave 'merit' to their descendants ((te ituc lai cho con).

Taoism originated in China as a contemplative philosophy which advocates the cultivation of inner strength, selflessness, spontaneity, and harmony with nature and humankind. 'Taoism was ultimately transformed from an elite philosophy to an elaborate religion. [It] further evolved into superstition, magic, divination, and sorcery' (Chan 1992, pp. 187-8). This evolution has occurred in Vietnam as well as in China. For example, Vietnamese people feel secure when they worship and pray daily for protection from their ancestors' spirits.

Confucianism is a 'philosophy of social order that venerates status, age, obedience (to the emperor, superiors, parents, husbands) and virtue' (Hassan, Healy, McKenna and Hearst 1985, p. 267). Through education one improves oneself to achieve filial piety, respect for the aged and other persons of higher status, and the virtues. Whether wealthy or not, educated persons belong to a respectable social class; education has an intrinsic value. Through education and academic achievements people could also achieve a better occupation to secure their own and their family's life in material terms. According to Confucianism, men's second task, after improving themselves, is 'to keep their house in order'. The Confucian patriarchy differentiates the role and status of family members on the basis of sex, age and generation. The purpose of family education is to ensure that each member acts competently and according to his or her defined role and status. The family is assisted by the neighbourhood and larger society in emphasising conformity and punishing deviation.

The division of labour in the family is based on the concept of the husbandlfather as the provider and participator in social and political activities and the wife/mother as producer/purveyor/ reproducer (Hassan, Healy, McKenna and Hearst 1985). The husband/father is culturally required to provide for his family. He is its head and has the authority to decide all matters, particularly those regarded as of great importance. The wife serves as the 'minister of the interior' and is primarily responsible for what happens inside the house, including raising and educating the children and taking care of financial matters (Tran 1984). The parent-child relationship is based on the principle that pious children must obey their parents and look after them unconditionally in their old age.

Child-rearing practices are different for sons and daughters. Sons are encouraged to pursue their education to further their father's social position and career and to maintain and bring glory to the lineage, while daughters are carefully prepared to be married out to other families. They are taught about tam tong tu due (three obediences and four virtues). 'The three obediences are to the father when still unmarried, to the husband when married, and to the eldest son in widowhood' (Nguyen 1992, p. 46). 'The four virtues are eong (proper work), dung (proper demeanor), ngon (proper speech) and hgnh (proper manners)' (Nguyen 1990, p. 34). The whole point of a girl's family education is to prepare her for a woman's role in housekeeping and in helping her husband and sons to gain success and honour in society.

The elderly are respected for their wisdom and life experiences. Gratitude is owed to them for their past contribution to the family, the community and society in general. In the extended families of three or more generations the elderly must be treated with full respect.

Confucianism also demands that family members live harmoniously together whether they are in the same household or living in different places. Younger siblings have to obey older siblings and older siblings have to love and care for younger ones. In general, 'the strength of each family consists in the capacity of each family member knowing how to make concessions to each other for the family's ultimate gQal of happiness' (Nguyen 1990, p. 33). Indeed, the interest of the family has to be considered before any personal interest, as this is integral to the principle of family harmony.

Closely related to the 'Three Teachings' is the cult of the ancestors, or ancestor worship:

The cult of ancestors, which has no connection with religious faith, exerts a profound influence on the daily life of the Vietnamese people. The recollection of the ancestors, the fear of offending them or soiling their reputations, coupled with the desire to please them, are sources of inspiration, which guide the actions of the descendants. (Tran van Do 1967, in Hassan, Healy, McKenna and Hearst 1985, p. 268)

The cult has its origin in China (Nguyen 1988). It demands that members of a family commit themselves to the perpetuation of their ancestral lineage by unconditionally assisting existing members and reproducing new members to carry on the lineage. As a result, families' long-term goals are considered as important as, or more important than, short-term ones. The concept of the family extending over time is clearly expressed in the statement that:

... the solid core structure of the family ... owes its cohesion to the religious nature of the relationship between the living and the dead. Indeed, the Vietnamese family consists not only of the living-father, as head of the family, grandparents, the mother and children, the sons and daughters-in-law-but also of all the spirits of the dead as well as those not yet born. (Phung thi Hanh 1979, in Hassan, Healy, McKenna and Hearst 1985, p. 269)

Although Christianity was introduced into Vietnam in the sixteenth century by Catholic missionaries from France, Spain and Portugal, Christian families have retained most of the traditional precepts of family duty (Hassan, Healy, McKenna and Hearst 1985). Some aspects of family relationships are formulated as religious rules, for example the forbidding of divorce.

The social environment

Vietnamese families in the countryside live in villages; in large cities like Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi they live within their neighbourhood. Adults and children spend a lot of time with their neighbours. Neighbours cooperate in tasks to ensure the welfare of the whole community, for example by taking measures to prevent floods in their cultivated rice fields or to control fires in densely populated urban areas. They help one another in cultivating and harvesting rice and house-building in the countryside, and in looking after each other's children in the neighbourhood. Doors are open for neighbours; the village and the neighbourhood become part of a person's lifestyle because moving house is a rare occasion. The younger generation may have to leave their birthplace to look for work, but they are expected to return frequently to visit their family and the village or neighbourhood of origin.

In general, issues of concern to one's family are seen as very private matters in which outsiders should not interfere and in which the authorities are reluctant to be involved. However, the attitude of neighbourhood closeness and mutual assistance allows people to intervene to some extent in the family matters of neighbours. They do not hesitate to criticise any wrongdoing nor to apply the abovementioned cultural and family values as standards. Thus the surrounding environment strongly reinforces traditional family roles and relationship rules.

Economic conditions

Until recently Vietnam's economy relied mainly on its agricultural activities, and the majority of the population lived in the countryside. The country's culture was considered a 'rice culture' in which almost everyone, and every activity, was geared to the work of producing rice (Nguyen 1988). Urbanisation, and the influence of western cultures and values (particularly French and American), have contributed to many changes. An educated urban middle class has gained status; many more women participate in paid employment; and new political and legal systems have forced modifications in traditional family organization.

In Vietnam, by the 1970s, young couples in the cities tended to live in nuclear families in western-style houses. Nevertheless the links with family members, especially with their families of origin in the countryside, were substantial enough for them to maintain common interests and interaction, and obligations to the family were still the first to be fulfilled before community and political interests (Kim 1979, in Hassan, Healy, McKenna and Hearst 1985, p. 270).

Family size had begun to decrease in order to ensure educational opportunities and success for all offspring and to allow wives and mothers some time for activities outside the family, such as social obligations and, particularly, earning of extra income. Among a small number of young couples the woman's role was slowly changing towards one of equal provider with her husband. The authority of aged parents and grandparents was limited to important matters or even to ritual formality, while the daily affairs of making friends, mate selection or career decision were in the hands of young people. Indications of family conflict across generations were revealed publicly to a limited extent.

The debate on traditional cultural values and family lifestyle versus western values had begun in the South before 1975. However, the so-called western ideas of city dwellers were not accepted by the country's larger rural population.

Vietnamese families who left their native country after 1975 took with them the influences and experiences of this diverse and changing background.

Vietnamese families in Australia

Vietnamese families begin the process of integration into Australian society from different bases of comprehension and face difficulties of varying nature and degree. As a system, the family may resolve the stress of adaptation to a new environment by regulating its goals and/or its structure (Broderick 1993). These self-regulating acts I result in a variety of Vietnamese family life patterns.

Changing family structures

The composition of Vietnamese families has been most affected by the impact of migration and immigration. The circumstances of their arrival has meant that refugees have been deprived of their traditional extended family structure; members of nuclear families have been separated and family reunions may not have occurred until months or years later; many teenagers or young adults have had to escape alone. These experiences have affected the composition of their households in Australia. The high cost of housing in Australia also affects household composition, particularly in the early period of settlement. In addition, the increasing number of marriage breakdowns in recent times has led to the formation of single-parent families. It is a new experience for Vietnamese people to witness such a range of family structures, some of which are not yet generally accepted by the community.

In Australia a limited extended family household of three generations may be found but it is not as common as in Vietnam. Thomas and Balnaves (1993) found in their study that 68 per cent of the elderly Vietnamese and Vietnamese of Chinese background who were sponsored by their adult children to come to Australia lived with the sponsoring couple and the grandchildren. However, these families did not usually function in accordance with traditional ways. The elderly no longer had the role of overseeing the family's affairs. Rather, they perceived themselves as dependent. Therefore the traditional strength of the three-generation family should not be taken for granted in Australia. The changed role of elderly members caused much stress for them and for the whole family structure.

Overcrowding also contributes to intergenerational conflict (Tran 1991). As a result, some elderly Vietnamese choose to live independently of sponsors-either individually or in couples. Some of these old people are still supported by and in close contact with their adult children and some are not, depending on their reasons for living separately. Of the elderly participants in Thomas and Balnaves' (1993) study 4 per cent lived by themselves. They found it an unfortunate development; for the first time they had to rely almost totally on support from social services in order to conduct their daily lives.

A modified structure of the extended family, stretching across a number of households located in the same area or in nearby suburbs, is more commonly found in the community. Families tend to live close to other Vietnamese families or households, which can create a neighbourhood environment for mutual support. This contributes to the formation of residential concentrations or ethnic enclaves such as those identified in Melbourne's Springvale and Sydney's Cabramatta (Birrell 1993). This tendency towards residential concentration has also been observed in the United States (Montero 1979) and in Canada (Van Esterik and Van Esterik 1988).

Family links extend to many relatives in Vietnam. There is a commitment to giving financial support to family members in the homeland in the spirit of the traditional extended family. The nuclear family household of parents and dependent children is now more common in the Vietnamese community in Australia. People from both rural and city backgrounds in Vietnam appear to accept it as a standard of living to be aimed at, although their links with other related families are quite strong. However, in comparison with Australian nuclear families, Vietnamese family households tend to include more young adults, both students and those not yet married.

Variations of the above household types are often dictated by economic factors in early settlement. McDonald (1991a) suggests that, according to 1981 census figures, comparatively large numbers of Vietnamese live with non-relatives, and the incidence of 'secondary family units' in households (more than one family living together) was at that time higher than for any other birthplace group. It is not uncommon to find newly arrived brothers, sisters or friends and newly wedded children attaching to a nuclear family for a time. Another phenomenon is an increasing number of families with dual-career couples, where family functions have to be adjusted to achieve economic goals.

In the early 1980s one-third of families in which the family head was born in Vietnam were either single-parent families or family forms other than those headed by a married couple (Bui and Bertelli 1990). At the 1991 census 13 per cent of families whose reference person was born in Vietnam consisted of a single-parent and his or her offspring; a further 4 per cent consi~ ted of a single-parent, his or her offspring and others. This is much higher than the proportion of single-parent families in immigrant communities generally but is consistent with other refugee communities (BIPR 1994b). The high number of Vietnamese single-parent families is the result of the loss of partners during the migration process and, more recently, marriage breakdown in Australia. Such families are usually disadvantaged economically, socially and emotionally. Households headed by females frequently have the least resources and are the most distressed; they are often quite isolated from mainstream society and from other Vietnamese (Lin, Masuda and Tazuma 1982).

The Vietnamese community sees the single-parent family as less than ideal for bringing up children. It is widely believed that mothers feel insecure without a man, and that a single-parent household without a male head is an unsatisfactory environment for educating children because a father's disciplinary assertiveness is lacking; male single-parents are believed to feel their household lacks a woman's love and closeness to young children. Singleparent families resulting from marriage breakdown are seen as part of the damaging effect of migration and the community is usually not sympathetic.

Sibling group families consist of groups of brothers and/or sisters who escaped Vietnam together or one after the other, and were later accepted for resettlement in Australia. Traditionally, if parents die early the eldest child is responsible for looking after younger family members. However, young Vietnamese people in Australia have not been prepared for this change in role and they lack the supporting network of relatives and/or neighbours. There are many cases in which siblings live together in the same house but rarely communicate with one another. For example, a 16-yearold student living with his older brother, who works afternoon shift, said:

Even though we are living in the same house, I do not see my brother very often or spend time with him, except on the weekends _ .. Only occasionally, my brother takes me to the beach for fishing, or we go to see a film together, and only then do I feel he is still my big brother, like he always was in Vietnam. (Nguyen 1991, p. 37)

In summary, the variety of Vietnamese families found in Australia clearly shows the effect of migration. Some groupings, which were rarely found in Vietnam, such as young sibling groups, households of single young men or women, families headed by divorced females, and elderly couples or individuals living by themselves, are now more common. Generally, these families are more vulnerable because their members are least prepared for changes in roles and status. The tendency for Vietnamese people to live close together in Australian capital cities reflects their need for support in the early stage of settlement, the cultural characteristics of the extended family structure across households, and the neighbourhood mentality.

Family roles and status

Vietnamese people would like to see, and indeed expect, some stability in traditional family patterns. However, inevitable changes, such as those in family composition, have led to other shifts in roles and status. Socio-economic factors, such as the participation of married women in the labour market and the economic marginality of the husbandlfather, and also the rapid socialisation of children into Australian social values and norms, contribute to further changes in the traditional hierarchy of family relations (Chan and Lam 1987).

The impact of socio-economic factors needs to be evaluated in the context of differences between the individualist ideology found in Australian society and the traditional collectivist values, rooted in the 'Three Teachings', found in Vietnamese and other Asian cultures (Chan 1992). This cultural clash seems to manifest itself particularly strongly among young Vietnamese and their parents, and it threatens their relationships and the rules which govern them.

Husbands and wives

The traditional division of labour between husband and wife is affected when the wife has to work for an income. At the 1991 census 68 per cent of Vietnamese-born married women were in the labour force (that is, either employed or seeking work), of whom 59 per cent were employed (BIPR 1994e). Until recently Vietnamese women were found in large numbers in unskilled occupations in the clothing, footwear and other manufacturing industries (Madden and Young 1993). The independent wage labour performed by women has a strong impact on negotiation of power within the domestic sphere, on traditional family patterns (Bachu, in Bujis 1993, p. 11) and on roles and status within the family (Gold 1993; Matsuoka 1990 and Tran 1988).

In order to achieve smooth functioning within a Vietnamese family where the wife or mother is .involved in paid employment, other members must accommodate to the change. For the changes to be sustained men, particularly, need to see the value of their participation in child rearing and household responsibilities (Matsuoka, 1990). This is often a slow process, because the perception that the main responsibility of a good wife and mother is to care adequately for her husband, children and home is strongly held by both men and women.

It is not uncommon in many Vietnamese families that, 'even though both husband and wife work full time, the wife is expected to cook, clean the house, and take care of the children' (Tran 1988, p. 292). Nevertheless, with perseverance and effective communication, Vietnamese working women can change their husbands' attitudes to helping run the household, and train them in the required skills. Once the new pattern of a less sharp division of labour emerges, it promotes other changes in the relative status and power of husband and wife. However, this does not lead easily to equality. The majority of Vietnamese married women still defer to their husband's authority in social and many family matters, such as the discipline and education of children.

In families in which husbands resist change, Vietnamese working women find it almost impossible to break through old patterns. Not only does the woman suffer but the man's position as family head becomes very vulnerable and his life stressful, particularly when he has been unemployed or cannot earn as much as his wife. The husband's resistance often results from his background as rigid family patriarch, his resentment at losing face, and the few chances he has of contact with mainstream Australian society and a better appreciation of women's role.

When women are not employed, traditional sex roles and status may continue unchanged. If the wife is socially isolated because of language and/or having no extended family network, her position can be undermined further by dependence on her husband and children. Surrounded by a strange environment, she may withdraw deeper into her inward-oriented role. Often, she can free herself and 'discover' previously untapped abilities to deal with the present and plan for the future only after separation from her husband (Sluzki 1979). Losing a male partner demands that women change their role and status in families. However, they need support to cope with the loss and to gradually learn new roles and responsibilities.

Although the actual incidence of domestic violence in the Vietnamese-born community in Australia is not known, it is now seen as a serious problem (Nguyen 1991). A study of attitudes towards family violence and child sexual abuse in the Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Chinese communities in Melbourne found that only 8 per cent of the respondents approved the use of physical force against female partners. This is very low when compared with the 19 per cent of the general population in an Australia-wide survey in 1988 who approved of a man using physical force against his wife. Indochinese respondents also placed clear limitations on the circumstances in which physical force could be used and on the degree of force acceptable (Seitz and Kaufman 1993).

The discrepancy between the above-reported attitudes and the reality of the increasingly serious problem of violence against female partners has been explained as the result of unemployment, dissatisfaction, loneliness and stress caused by husbands' hard work, drinking, jealousy and adjustment to the new environment (Nguyen 1991). The concept of a husband's authority is considered an underlying factor in violence against female partners.

Parents and children

Relationships between Vietnamese parents and their children often reflect the conflict between the values underlying the traditional family hierarchy and the children's extrafamilial socialisation. The former emphasises the child as dependent and as submissive receiver; the latter encourages assertiveness and independence.

Many Vietnamese parents take initiatives to help all family members adjust to the new social-cultural environment within an orderly framework. Their understanding helps to resolve the value collision, or to reduce it to a tolerable level for both parents and children, and the parent-child relationship gains new strength which is conducive to the children's success in Australia.

Some Vietnamese parents cannot perform aspects of their parental role because they lack English-language skills and knowledge of the new country. When children have to assist their parents with translating, interpreting, dealing with institutions and other areas of the family's social functioning, they gain unprecedented power and parents' status and power may be diminished.

Children and young people often have more opportunities than their parents do to be involved in the host society through education, recreation and peer group activities, and their socialisation into mainstream Australian social values and norms is accelerated. Young adults who receive government allowances (unemployment payments or Austudy) or who work part-time have some financial independence, which also supports more rapid socialisation.

These circumstances may cause parents distress, and evoke resentment of their children and of the social agencies which they perceive as responsible. If the conflict becomes too severe, young people may decide to leave home. This is possibly the most traumatic experience for Vietnamese parents because they come to Australia with a strong desire to provide a better future for their children. They may also fear for the safety and the future of their children without family support and guidance.

Elderly parents and adult children

The role of older Vietnamese people in Australia differs from traditional expectations because of the inversion of the priority of kinship relations. One-quarter of the elderly participants in Thomas and Balnaves' (1993) study said they had no authority over their children, grandchildren and sons- and daughters-in-law: 'It's sad to see that I was a "boss" in the family back home and now I have to depend totally on the children'; 'The old time is gone. My daughter is now the "boss" because she feeds me. To her I am worthless'. The general effect of role reversal and status loss is a major stress on elderly Vietnamese in western countries; in turn it has weakened the traditional extended family structure.

Members of new family forms in Australia have to rely on Australian role models because there is no comparable situation on such a scale in Vietnam. Many are vulnerable and in need of income support and other welfare provisions. The generational change is illustrated by Thomas and Balnaves' (1993) comment· that '[y]ounger Vietnamese in Australia did not appear to hold obligations to Vietnamese family to be unconditional, but rather subject to strategic and situational concerns'.

The maintenance of functioning and affectionate family relationships is very important for the survival of family units among the Vietnamese community in Australia.

Important life stages

This section discusses Vietnamese people's attempts to come to terms with the new context in Australia at different stages of the life cycle.

Having children

Generally speaking, Vietnamese people see children as an integral part of marriage, with a couple usually having their first child early in the marriage. There is an implied duty to their extended family. However, educated and/or working couples may plan when to have their first child, and the number of children they will have, so that they can enjoy and cope best with them, given work and other commitments. Coming from a society in which the number of children a couple have averages between six and seven (Nguyen 1990), Vietnamese women in Australia tend to have relatively large families. Among the Vietnamese-born parents with offspring in 1991, 38.8 per cent had three or more children. This is significantly higher than the percentages for both the total overseas-born population (24.7) and the total Australian population (25.1) (BIPR 1994e). Day (1993) suggests that the old norms may be reinforced through return visits to the homeland and through the arrival of new immigrants of similar background.

During pregnancy and after giving birth young Vietnamese women tend to follow a mixture of traditional and western approaches in caring for the foetus, looking after their babies' physical and mental development, and in caring for themselves. Older women who give birth in Australia, while appreciating the modern facilities of Australian hospitals, tend to follow traditional ideas and practices. For example, mothers about to give birth follow a very strict diet, eating very salty foods with almost no fresh fruit, as to eat anything 'sour' or 'cold'-that is, fruit or raw vegetables-may provoke further bleeding (Tran 1980). The need to keep the body warm before and after birth also demands wearing warm clothes, covering the head and ears, and minimising the use of water (for example, not showering or bathing after labour). Practices may differ according to the woman's educational background.

The task of bringing up children is considered by Vietnamese parents one of great responsibility and some anxiety. In Australia they find the task even more difficult because the environment is unfamiliar, and the child's success is their most important goal. Their purpose of integrating into Australian society demands that they work out a framework to incorporate both traditional family values and host society values at every stage of the child's development. Although most Vietnamese would not distinguish in clear terms the child's developmental stages, as is done in western societies, different approaches are taken when the child is young and when he or she grows older.

Family education of children

In infancy and early childhood, children are perceived as being relatively helpless and not responsible for their actions. They are seen as too young to understand or to be ready for discipline and serious teaching (Matsuoka 1990). Parents are thus very tolerant and permissive and they immediately gratify the infant's needs (Chan 1992). The care of infants and young children is mostly in the hands of mothers, but fathers, older siblings and other members in the household are expected to help (Nguyen 1991).

The traditionally delicate balance between a 'severe father' (nghiem phft) and a 'tender mother' (tu mJu) for child rearing and the family education of children is still considered as ideal because it represents 'both characteristics, hard and soft, [which] are extremely necessary in teaching children to become pious members of the family and good citizens of society' (Nguyen 1990, p.34).

The goal of family education is to 'form' a child into both a pious family member and a good and successful citizen. Vietnamese parents make every effort to inculcate in their children traditional values and customs, and demand that they work hard for success in school and in the wider society.

Many Vietnamese parents have made special efforts to maintain traditional values: for example, by sending children to Vietnamese or Chinese classes; preferring their children to speak in their native tongue at home; showing children how they (the parents) work hard for the whole family's livelihood; reminding children of their Vietnamese/Chinese culture and how to appreciate their family values; talking about the success of other family members and friends in Australia and other western countries, and if possible facilitating their chances of meeting them; taking children to Vietnamese/Chinese community cultural festivals or religious activities; facilitating contact with extended family in Australia and in Vietnam.

Parents may also try to limit their children's involvement with peer groups. They are always concerned, sometimes quite overtly, about the 'inappropriate morals' introduced to their children by peer groups in the wider community. In extreme cases parents may be very negative about all aspects of the host culture and demand their children's obedience.

On the other hand, some parents initiate the family's involvement in the wider society through visiting their children's schools, taking part in community activities, inviting home their own or their children's Australian friends, and taking holidays together in other parts of the country. However, these attempts are very much dependent on the parents' language and social skills and their economic circumstances.

Most young people are capable of developing bilingual and bicultural skills and are at ease in both settings. Their parents may not be as bicultural but some understand their children's socialisation process and tolerate or encourage their pursuit of independence. However, parents' approaches vary with the child's age and' gender.

Adolescent/teenage children

With the onset of adolescence, the previous permissive approach to child rearing changes to a stricter set of expectations and family education of older children is intensified. Gender roles are different: '[G]irls are expected to manifest modesty, obedience, and chastity. Boys are expected to exhibit adult male behaviour' (Matsuoka 1990, p. 342).

The adolescent is expected to work for success in school education because of its intrinsic value in Vietnamese society. In a new country education is expected to bring success in a career and in life. Many Vietnamese parents work long hours in order to give their children the best education they can (Hardey and Maas 1987). Others maintain a lower standard of living in order to save for their children's education.

In general, Vietnamese adolescents, especially those approaching young adulthood, share their parents' high educational aspirations for them (Hartley and Maas 1987). Two Vietnamese tertiary students recently wrote:

As a kid, one clearly recognises the sacrifices that are often made to ensure that there is an environment conducive to study ... The whole culture transported through the parents is very much one which places tremendous importance on education. (Vu and Le 1992, p. 53)

As a result, there are outstanding performances reported of Vietnamese youth within the Australian education system, although this experience should not be generalised to the whole population (Viviani 1993, in Birrell 1993).

Although Vietnamese parents encourage both sons and daughters to succeed academically, in difficult times for the family the· daughter'S educational interests might be sacrificed. For example, girls may be required to leave school to help with home businesses, or to take time off to look after younger siblings and carry out general household responsibilities (Hartley and Maas 1987).

Not all Vietnamese children realise their parents' educational expectations for them. Indeed, some parents' aspirations for their children are unrealistic given the children's previously disrupted education, the parents' own lack of English skills and of knowledge of the education system, poor family living conditions such as overcrowded housing, and financial difficulties. Unrealistic expectations may put young people under a great deal of pressure (Hartley and Maas 1987).

Young people's assertive attitude at home is a common cause of tension between parents and children. Frequently, parents complain that their children receive too much 'freedom' as they are influenced by school and peer groups; parents are treated less respectfully and they gradually lose control. Young people complain of parents' rigid relationship rules. Among Vietnamese youth, 'many are turned off their own culture because the picture they get of it is quite negative. It consists of a list of prohibitions and operates as a "fetter on their growth'" (Vu and Le 1992, p. 56). In extreme cases Vietnamese young people may feel marginalised in both cultures.

Some Vietnamese-born parents do not have enough opportunity or confidence to become involved in mainstream Australian society. They feel uncomfortable or fearful and try to limit outside influences; teenagers are left to deal with the world beyond the family with little help or guidance from their parents in these circumstances.

Due to economic conditions in Australia many Vietnamese live in poverty because parents are unemployed long-term or are on a single, low income. The unemployment rate for Vietnamese-born workers in September 1994 was 30 per cent (ABS 1994c). Unemployment of parents contributes to disadvantage for their children in terms of poor access to services (such as child care and child development programs), educational disadvantage, low health status, crowded housing, lack of recreational activities, and experiences of prejudice (Taylor and MacDonald 1992).

Finally, there are adolescents who came to Australia after spending most of their childhood in an overcrowded refugee camp. Some 'carry with them horrific experiences of the family escape trip, which may lead them to behave aggressively (Le 1986).

Adolescents are very vulnerable to life disruption and cultural discontinuity (Matsuoka 1990). For normal development they need to establish their identity firmly in both the family and the social environment. Failure to recognise this may result in a situation such as the following, describing Vietnamese families in the United States:

Many Vietnamese families discovered with horror and often too late, that their children, instead of being the model students of the usual refugee's success stories, are now living their life in the fast lane, using drugs, playing truant, skipping classes, dropping out from school, running away from home and into trouble, sometimes ending in jail for having associated themselves with a bunch of older troubled kids. (Tran 1990, p. 23)

Such situations are unfortunately occurring in a number of VietnameselIndochinese families of every social group, as observed by Tran and by the authors in . Australia. The general literature and personal experience also suggest that children (adolescents in particular) from disrupted homes show relatively more evidence of disturbed behaviour and psychiatric disturbance (Eversley and Bonnerjea 1983).


Marriage, cohabitation and divorce

In general, Vietnamese young people delay marriage until they can afford it. In most cases they make their own decisions and arrangements about marriage. The family, however, still exercises an important influence, although parents' power is no longer absolute.

Because of a serious gender imbalance among the Vietnameseborn population in Australia in the 15-29 age group (there are more males than females), quite a few young men have returned to their country of origin to seek prospective partners and then sponsored them to come to Australia. Parents or extended family members both here and in Vietnam assist by, for example, introducing the young couple.

In contrast to much wider general acceptance of cohabitation before marriage in Australia (McDonald 1993), the majority of Vietnamese young people still defer to parents' wishes that they live together only after they are formally married. Although more young Vietnamese are experimenting with sexual freedom, having premarital sex and practising birth control (Tran 1988), the discussion of these subjects is still largely taboo in their community.

In 1990 over 90 per cent of ethnic Vietnamese immigrants marrying in Australia married ethnic Vietnamese partners. The marriage pattern of the second generation (the Australian-born) is too new to assess (Price 1993). Parents want to see their children wed in accordance with traditional ceremony. After marriage Vietnamese young couples try to live separately from their parents, so that they can follow the western idea of enjoying their marital relationship as 'social companionship' (Ballard 1982).

In general, the Vietnamese community in Australia has negative attitudes towards separation and divorce, because it values family and marriage as . 'sacred institutions' which have dignity and operate primarily on the premise of collective rather than individual rights (Chan and Lam 1987). Therefore it is very stressful for Vietnamese women to resolve conflict-ridden marriages. In a strange environment they must also think very carefully about their own future and that of their children. However, ABS divorce statistics over the past decade or so suggest an increase in the number of divorces among Vietnamese-born couples.

Lien (1991) has suggested that there are many reasons for marriage breakdown, most of them residual effects of unhappy marriages arranged as an escape from strict parents or contracted because of personal loneliness, the woman's insecurity in being alone in Australia, or loss of virginity. Other reasons include lack of sensitivity and understanding between the couple, and failure of the husband to share household and financial responsibilities. Domestic violence often occurs before separation. The availability of government financial support is crucial for women making a decision to leave the marriage.


Middle age

In one sense it is those Vietnamese-born people now in the middle age group who have been most affected by the political upheaval in their homeland and by migration. Within a relatively short time their previously stable personal and family "life was disrupted psychologically, socially and economically. They have had to reestablish what has been lost. In the process some have been more ambitious than others, but the majority settle for less because what they look for most is stability for themselves and their family:

In a wider sense the priorities of the Vietnamese have been set by their predominant refugee status. Settlement has therefore meant the opportunity to rebuild their lives, and reconstruct family and community life in a peaceful environment. (Tran and Holton 1991, p.l72)

As a group the Vietnamese middle-aged are preoccupied with looking for work, working hard to maintain a job, reuniting with other family members, and securing housing, children's education and many other practical matters-all aimed at having their families settled in Australia. Settling into their own house (an cu) and having a stable job for regular income (lqc nghiep) are the two highest priorities for a Vietnamese family. Once achieved, they give the middle-aged some comfort in life but, more importantly, they are perceived as creating a suitable base from which their children can work towards their own future. If parents are not successful in their own lives, they tend to channel their expectations into their children.

The distinction between the middle and older stages of a person's life in the Vietnamese culture is not strictly related to age, but is subject also to the person's life experience. An accumulation of unhappy life events can demoralise people and those in their middle-to-Iate fifties can perceive themselves as old and give up motivation and hope for their future.

Old age

Vietnamese people expect their life to be settled in their old age and to enjoy 'retirement'. In Australia two groups of elderly Vietnamese can be identified. The first are those who arrived in Australia as refugees and heads of families, who had to work hard for their family's resettlement. The second group were sponsored by their adult children under the Family Reunion Program. In relative terms the first group can, over time, achieve an independent status both economically and mentally. The latter are prone to social isolation because of their perceived dependence on their children and their lack of financial capacity (Thomas and Balnaves 1993).

Lack of English skills and inadequate knowledge of Australian society and its institutions reduces this group's social mobility; they become more dependent on their children and experience feelings of homesickness. The majority turn to religion and/or their social clubs for emotional and social support. Social clubs for the elde'rly can be a means of their regaining something of what they miss in family life.

In general, it can be said that older Vietnamese immigrants approach death and bereavement philosophically, in accordance with religious beliefs such as fate, karma, and returning to the earth. In Vietnam, funerals take place in private homes. In Australia, Vietnamese families accept that funerals are often conducted in funeral service premises but they ask that some of the old rites be included so that the ceremony can be performed in a traditional and religious way. In Melbourne, many families prefer to conduct funerals in a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, where family members, relatives and friends are able to spend a longer time for condolences. The traditional custom of commemorating the anniversaries of the deaths of family members-normally parents, grandparents and children-is still widely observed by Vietnamese families in Australia.

In summary, this discussion of important life stages indicates that both acculturative adjustment and the persistence of traditional cultural values in family life are present but vary at each stage of the person's life. At each stage the combination of new and old values also varies with personal and family background. For example, a general trend is that the older immigrants are when they arrive the harder they find it to adjust to a new society (Tran 1988). The relatively independent status of young couples after forming their own families facilitates further changes in family life patterns.


In the twenty years since the first wave of Vietnamese refugees arrived in Australia, the Vietnamese population has grown remarkably in terms of its numbers and its activities. The presence of the Vietnamese is generally accepted within the political framework of Australian multiculturalism. The question discussed in this chapter is how the community has, so far, been integrated into the many aspects of Australian society. The role of the family, the community and specific cultural background are all important in shaping individual adaptation.

Because of the predominant role of the family in Vietnamese culture and its effect on the individual, it is necessary to discuss the integration of the family as a unit. Most literature on refugees in general, and the Indochinese in particular, suggests that their difficulties in adapting to a new socio-economic and cultural environment are tremendous and multifaceted (Lin, Masuda and Tazuma 1982; Viviani 1984; Cox 1986; Coughlan 1994). Adaptation is therefore expected to be a gradual process.

We have noted changes in Vietnamese family structure. The nuclear family is accepted widely as a norm but in the spirit of a modified extended family network. The increasing number of married women and younger (unmarried) women joining the Australian workforce has .upset traditional sex roles, and husbands and wives have had to adjust. The results have been that Vietnamese women hold more power in family decision making and families have become smaller. Some Vietnamese women are more confident, and some are likely to resolve unhappy marriages through separation and divorce.

Younger Vietnamese people have moved a long way in adapting to the host society in order to succeed in the new environment. To some extent this adaptation has been supported by their parents and other older people, even in the case of girls (Nguyen 1992), as a matter of survival in a new situation (Tran 1988).

There are many examples in which the family has expanded its framework to encompass new values, while adjusting its own rules. For example, parents might use their influence to set general directions within which children take their own initiatives. In this shift young people may seek to reform, modify or rework their parents' cultural heritage (Ballard 1982). With newly learnt communication skills, young people seek parents' opinions in matters such as career paths, mate selection and marriage.

McDonald (1991a) suggests that in areas directly related to economic pressure immigrants are more inclined to adapt to Australian patterns of behaviour. In other areas which are less directly under economic pressure immigrants' values remain more stable.

Although it varies in degree, acculturative stress affects every refugee/immigrant family. In order to resolve acculturative stress Vietnamese families adopt a variety of approaches.

Some families maintain only the minimal contact with mainstream society required for survival. However, these families still rely on ·their ethnic community and friends. They may be functioning 'normally' in the short term; yet in the long run, with their children growing up, conflict between the host culture and Vietnamese family values seems inevitable. This segregation is caused by parents' misunderstanding of the Australian culture and by social isolation resulting from long-term unemployment. Because of negative experiences and difficulties in settlement, they may think of the host culture as a homogeneous entity which they perceive as alien and threatening. Isolated in their residential concentrations, they have no significant opportunities to make contact with the host society. Indeed, such families withdraw to avoid stress and appear to live a life marginalised in relation to the wider community.

On the other hand, a small number of Vietnamese families with professional or business backgrounds are quite highly integrated into the host society.

A more general picture is that on the whole families move in varying degrees towards becoming 'bicultural', adapting to the economic, social and cultural conditions of life in Australia while maintaining to some extent their own culture. It is important that future research look at factors in the immigration-integration process which affect the direction and the degree of adaptation of Vietnamese families in Australia. Only with such knowledge can families be assisted to realise their wish for meaningful integration into Australian society.