Writing — a Family Affair

My mum’s unrealised dream became my own.

shallow focus photo of person wearing ballpoint pen

Before getting pregnant with me, my mum wanted to be a journalist, a writer. She wanted to travel and to write. That was her dream. Then she met my dad when he was serving as an army nurse. They got married, and he went back to school for higher education.

My mum never told me why she couldn’t become a journalist. I suspect she couldn’t get a job or being a journalist couldn’t support the family while my father was finishing his double-major bachelor degree. She took a housekeeping job at the hotel where my dad’s eldest sister managed.

Consequently, my mum stopped writing and was later promoted to a receptionist position. At this point, she didn’t understand a word of English. She struggled and got mocked by her co-worker at times (I wouldn’t be surprised this treatment was due to the nepotism she’d received). My mother started studying English at nights when she didn’t have shifts and eventually surpassed the co-worker. She moved up the rank. I’m not sure what happened to that co-worker afterwards.

During this time, the Vietnamese government implemented a series of economic and political reforms, starting in 1986 with “Đổi Mới” policies. Vietnam then joined the ASEAN free trade area in 1995. I still remember the talks around town about the government signing a free trade agreement with the US in 2000 and how life would change. English classes started popping up everywhere. English became one of the compulsory subjects in school from year 6.

Nowadays, many families teach their kids English along with Vietnamese the moment they could speak. One of my cousin, who is 14, speaks English fluently despite having never left Vietnam. Westerners could visit Vietnam without knowing a word of Vietnamese since most people can converse rather efficiently in English. Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) is also home of many ex-pats.

When I was 7, I stopped going to my piano class and started studying English instead.

While studying English, I was also going to drawing classes. I kept going to drawing and English classes on and off outside of my school duties. There were times I hated learning English. There were times I couldn’t draw to save my life. But I kept at it. Both of these skills leading me to design, which has turned into a career.

My English was always pretty good, I was said to be gifted. The truth is I wanted to get good when I realised watching and reading materials in English expands my knowledge, uncensored. But I sucked at writing. I also hated literature classes until year 11. Mostly because I have a crappy memory, and forcing kids to memorise was how most Viet teachers teach. It doesn’t help Communist values were embedded in the curriculum, which I found dry and dull.

I never thought I could be a writer. I was convinced I wanted to be a designer by the time I was 16.

As an adult, being a designer allows me to keep drawing while earning a decent income. I can sell designs, but I hate selling my art until today. By the time I finished high school, I was ready to enter higher education. Like many other societies, if you want to be “successful”, you go to a big city and try to get into the best university in your field. I won’t bore you with how convoluted and ridiculous the higher-education system is in Vietnam. In the end, I failed the entrance exam into the only public university that taught design (our public schools are cheaper and considered better than private ones).

My failure was a shame to my family. My father was well-known around the city at this point. As a child of a semi-affluent family, I was meant to keep my grades up and get into the best schools. Yup, I said schools, most of my classmates got accepted into 2 schools. My parents knew a lot of people around the city, and people talked. Problematic. I know.

When I put all of my works together, it turns out I’ve been writing all my life.

This is where my life took a turn. My family didn’t have a lot of money for most of my adolescence. Despite my mum’s hope for me to study aboard, they couldn’t afford it without a full scholarship. What they could afford (barely) was tuition fees of an international college.

During this time, I was a queer kid deep in the closet. I felt immense guilt towards this development. The amount of money she was spending was enormous, and I felt like I already owed her so much. After battling with my own demons for weeks, I gave in due to the pressure from my extended family.

2 years later, I found myself in Australia out of sheer luck.

I am now nearly 30, having lived in Australia for almost a decade. Lately, I find myself reconciling with my childhood. I started writing on Medium as a mean to sort my thinking and to own my truth. Shortly after beginning writing seriously again, I realised I never really gave up writing, it’s always been in my blood. I started writing a blog on Yahoo!360 and then Tumblr and Facebook to express myself as a queer young adult. Before that, I wrote a musical play. I’d even started a novel. I wrote a piece for my high school yearbook, and my friend said she really loved it, but I’d never believed her. I thought she was being nice. During my uni years, I wrote 2 short films, and I made an illustrative video. During my design career, I always write in some shape or form. I wrote scripts for explainer videosMy art is littered with text. When I put all of my works together, it turns out I’ve been writing all my life.

I write because I have an intense need to be as truthful about who I am to myself and the world around me.

Funnily, a lot of people I have a soft spot for, attracted to, have a connection with are also writers in some capacities, including my life partner.

These days, I’m writing almost every day. I’m chasing my mum’s dream, partly because she never could.

I write because I have an intense need to be as truthful about who I am to myself and the world around me. It irks when I can’t do that like an invisible rock is on my chest, and I need to get it off as soon as possible. Writing allows me to be free.

The income I’ve made with writing is not much compared to my day job, and yet it’s the most fulfilling thing I do with my life. It gives me so much joy that I’m quitting my 6-figure job to spend more time writing. I’m letting my freak flag fly because I’m tired of letting the world chipping away at my soul. I need to write and let my thoughts out in the world without feeling like I need to censor myself to be able to operate through the world.

I’m a writer. I’m a writer. I’m a writer.

This path I’ve chosen for myself is one that is less travelled. It’s challenging, and yet I’m grateful to be able to write, not fully all day, every day. Not yet anyway. But I feel brave taking “a creator’s path”, leaving the comfort space of a full-time job and accepting writing is a part of me that I could never run away from.

After many years of trying to find my life purpose, I’m here, now, writing. When my mum couldn’t. Because of poverty, because of money, because life happened. I consider myself so lucky to have the privilege to write and make (some) money from it. My mum had given up her own writing dream for us for our family.

Sometimes, what you’re meant to do with your time on earth is right in front of you.

Thanks mum.

I do owe you everything, after all.