I do not want to answer that English is the language I speak at home because I know what the question is trying to elicit. But it is an inaccurate way of recording my ethnic diversity to answer, untruthfully, that Vietnamese is the language I speak at home.
And I am always confused by ‘home’. I have made my own home with my partner – it’s a workers cottage in inner city Brisbane (you’d love it) – and my parents have visited me there only once. But I will regularly say, while I am at home with my partner, that I am going home for a while. What I mean is that I am going to my parent’s house in the suburbs surrounding Brisbane. The house I experienced my teenaged years and the rising racism of Pauline Hanson and ilk. The house I still consider home.
Before that house, we had another, smaller home near to where I now have my current home. In my dreams, that house is our family home – it is the house of my earliest memories: a kind of cosy mish mash of too many bodies, too few rooms and a stronger community. In that home, we hosted many families – either more recent arrivals from Viet Nam or family visiting from interstate. Family that my parents had to draw airborne diagrams to explain the connection to our family before I would call them by their appropriate title (uncle on my father’s side, great-aunt on my mother’s side), aunts who were younger than me, nieces who were my age but had to call me aunt, cousins I called ‘older brother’, ‘older sister’ and whom I begrudged giving up my bed to. This house is my archetypal home. There, I started school and made my first friends who were not family. There I developed a sense of myself, separate from my parents and siblings. And there, I refused to bathe in the bathroom where I had once seen a slug. (Until we moved out, I bathed in the laundry sink.)
On census night in 1988 when I was old enough to interpret for my parents and answer the questions with my brothers and sisters, the question about how many people lived in our house worried me. Why did they want to know that? I knew enough to know that the census form was for The Government and had experience enough to be fearful of authority. I had an inchoate concern that if we told them just how many people lived in that falling apart three bedroom Queenslander (what would be a ‘Renovator’ today), some person would descend and move a distantly related uncle, aunt and kids, away. Perhaps they would even take a sibling.
My friends at school did not have as many people in their family as I did – no, neither Naila’s Muslim Lebanese family nor Ellen’s Irish Catholic family had so many people under the one roof. The logic behind the fear had something to do with knowing that other households had fewer people and that the Government had power to help, and hurt. My parents received social security from the Government, and so did some of my older siblings. But I never understood why we received it, why it would occasionally stop and cause my parents an array of anxiety I was not a part of, and what was done to regain it.
By the next census in 1994, we had moved to a larger home and I was a teenager who was much less fearful of Authority arriving in white shirt and tie to take me, or my parents and siblings away. Indeed, I was vocal, political and unafraid to thumb my nose at Authority although I was still afraid to thumb my nose at my parents. By then, I knew that people in white shirts and ties who turned up on our doorstep were either Mormons, or people from Telecom trying to sell us pay TV. All were turned away politely. When I was younger I slammed the door and hid. By then, we were also Naturalised – Australian Citizens – and I was ready, willing and able to wield the force of that category against our enemies (usually more perceived than real).
That house is now largely empty and on Census night in 2006, my parents will ask one of my siblings to assist them to fill out the form. In my new home, I have reverted to impolite refusals of unexpected guests, who these days telephone rather than turn up knocking at our rotting wood door. I no longer hide. But I still cannot come up with a satisfactory way to answer what language I speak at home.