It’s a Sunday but Dad is still in his Jim’s Mowing greens. His pants have been reinforced around the knees with squares salvaged from old uniforms. What was formerly the colour of park benches and lush tropical foliage is now a mottled eucalyptus. They remind me of the clothes Dad wore when he fled his country—many times mended, witness to all kinds of adversity.
I am trying to explain to him the concept of Diana Nguyen’s show, Singing 5 Ways to Disappoint Your Vietnamese Mother. My Vietnamese is broken up and glued together with English conjunctions and I am struggling with the word ‘disappoint’; I do not know a Vietnamese equivalent.
On her break away from the sewing machine, Mum helps me out by coming up with không b?ng long or ‘displeasure’ but it’s not what I’m looking for. It’s funny how we share no common language to describe what the three of us once understood so well—that sinking feeling and the need to save face whilst your parents praise someone else’s daughter in front of you.
‘You’re seeing a comedian?’ Dad asks. ‘Anh Do? We just saw his show on SBS.’
Ten years ago, my parents would have never acknowledged the likes of Do. The idea that an Asian Australian could succeed in a creative industry was unimaginable. After all, wasn’t creativity the domain of white people? My parents’ logic was based on years of sampling imported electronics: the Americans came up with the innovations, the Japanese perfected them, and anything ‘made in China’ was a Great Leap Backwards. Hence, if some young person in the family showed any signs of crazed creativity, my parents would put them down to spare them the pain of failure.
But something happened after I moved out of home and began writing for publication. My parents started noticing high-profile Vietnamese creatives. Conversations moved from what display home model my childhood rivals were building to Auntie Seven’s tenuous connections to Nam Le. Dad even admitted to one of his clients, Andrew Bolt, that his daughter was a writer as well. So when I tell them that I’m seeing an up and coming comedian instead, I don’t get the usual negativity. Instead, Mum says, ‘Oh good. You should support her. And maybe you’ll learn something about Vietnamese culture along the way.’
A few hours later, I am stumbling into a dimly-lit private karaoke lounge that’s been converted into an X-rated version of a Vietnamese living room. There are Nhu Quynh laser discs draped in pink feather bowers and the microphones are covered in what could only be described as a cloth condom.
Singing 5 Ways to Disappoint Your Vietnamese Mother is based on a short story with a similar title. True to the original material, it relies on humour that’s both sweet and sour. Diana Nguyen belts out Lady GaGa’s “Born This Way”, switching the lyrics “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen” to “Don’t be a slut, just be a doctor”. In between songs, Nguyen steps outside for a shouting match with her mother. She slams the door, before quietly adding, ‘I didn’t mean to…’
Being Nguyen’s first attempt at producing, writing and performing a Fringe Festival event there’s some to-be-expected untidiness. Singing 5 Ways is more like a party with Nguyen’s closest friends (read ‘fans’) than a structured show. This casual approach is both a strength and weakness. While the group karaoke, the competitive scoring, and the unstaged comments from audience members do help create an organic and enjoyable experience, such antics also leave very little time for actual storytelling. Afterwards, I walk out of the karaoke bar, wishing I had gotten to learn more about the woman who gave birth to this Vietnamese triple threat. Who is this middle-aged má who chose to roll around on the airport floor, pretending to be in pain, so that she could get 90kg of luggage across the world without paying extra for it?
In between Britney Spears and Whitney Houston, we learn how this theatrical woman rejected her singing, dancing, and drama-obsessed daughter in typical first-generation Vietnamese-Australian style. She called Diana ‘?? ??’ (‘Slut-Slut’) and threatened to sue her for writing about ‘family business’. Since the publication of Nguyen’s short story, however, there’s been a reconciliation of sorts. Mrs Nguyen now supports her daughter’s choices, going out to see her shows and watch her kiss strangers on stage.
But these glimpses are not enough. Like Diana Nguyen, I am amazed, baffled even, by our parents’ resilience, their ability to adapt to whatever situation they find themselves in, whether it be a leaky boat, a foreign country, or a daughter who wants to be something other than a doctor. At the end of the song, I am left wanting more.