My connection to Australia began during my undergraduate years when I considered attending the Australian National University’s (ANU) Asian Studies graduate program. Historically known as the Mecca of Viet Nam Studies, the ANU housed top American scholars at a time when very few institutions in the United States supported their work. In the midst of the Viet Nam War Syndrome, the U.S. was more concerned about putting behind a failed military project than funding scholars who could help them better understand the people and land they occupied.
Australia in the 1970s, on the other hand, wanted to build a strong nation and national identity, and one strategy included recruiting skilled foreigners from a variety of fields ranging from engineering to academia for work and residency. This effort lured scholars to Australia, which explains how ANU’s faculty came to include legends like David Marr. The strong faculty unit then successfully produced new talented scholars such as Philip Taylor and then a younger crop of intellectuals such as Kim Huynh and Ashley Caruthers. Though I opted to attend an Asian Studies program at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, instead, I kept the hope of eventually being at ANU.
My first visit to Australia came in 1997 when I was the International Keynote Speaker at the “First Generation Looks Ahead,” a conference sponsored and coordinated by the Maribyrnong City Council of Melbourne and Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. The nation was still under the Prime Minister Keating’s Labor administration, so Australia experienced an unprecedented boom in ethnic studies and political representation.
In this climate, I was able to connect with scholars and the Vietnamese Australian community, especially from Footscray. Having a best friend that grew up in this community also assisted in my introduction to this segment of the Vietnamese diaspora. Most striking for me during that time was how the Vietnamese diaspora was racialized very similarly to how African Americans were in the U.S.
After this trip I visited Australia on another occasion before returning again, this time as a Luce-Southeast Asian Studies fellow at the Australian National University (ANU) in 2004. There, I was finally able to meet with many of the scholars that I only knew through classic Asian Studies texts. Professors like Ben Kerkvliet welcomed me and was open to my aim of connecting the interdisciplinary fields of Asian and Asian American Studies.
My time at ANU was like a dream come true. Those 14-hour workdays and being known as the professor that frequently used the medic cot to stay overnight and work, was pure bliss. I felt fully supported by the intellectual community there. So, long hours at the office flew by. What remains are happy memories of exchanging ideas with my peers, speaking at the many forums, and organizing the Southeast Asian (Diaspora) conference.
As for Australia at large, though well aware of the country’s racist history, such as having the restrictive immigration policy against non-whites, aptly named the White Australia Policy, until 1973, I also observed a decidedly multiethnic society. Living in Canberra with regular visits to Sydney and Melbourne exposed me to diverse metropolitan populations. Citizens knew the difference between a Turk, Greek, Italian and could differentiate a Korean from a Chinese from a Vietnamese. Cafés served coffee and tea that rivaled anything you would find in Italy and England, respectively. Choices of ethnic foods were comparable to places like San Francisco. Along with my research, these things also made me love Australia. I plan to retire there.