Recent warnings to stay away from Sydney due to the northern beaches COVID-19 outbreak got me thinking about why a trip to the big smoke means so much to Canberra's migrant communities.
Every summer, Canberrans of different colours and ethnicities flock to Sydney.
Korean-Canberrans make their pilgrimages to Strathfield's Boulevarde, while Pinoys gather at Blacktown central where there's a lively cluster of Filipino eateries. Whether your family hails from Chennai or Suva, Liverpool has long been regarded by ACT Indians as the place to go for dosai and dupattas, although it faces some stiff competition from Harris Park. Lebanese folk catching up with old friends on Haldon Street or at the Lakemba mosque can bump into their Bangladeshi, Sudanese or Pakistani neighbours from "back home" in the nation's capital. Such is the frequency and persistence of these trips that the stretch from Bankstown to Campbelltown has been referred to as "north-east ACT".
Like everyone else, Canberran migrants head up the Federal Highway for a change of scene, a jolt of cosmopolitanism and to buy stuff. But summer trips to Sydney have also been meaningful, and helped us to understand how to belong to those ever-changing places that we know as the ACT and Australia.
Canberra and Cabramatta have been connected for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I sat in the back of our Datsun 1000 and then Holden Camira and marvelled at the vast factories and warehouses of outer Sydney, wondering how people could live on such busy roads. During my teens I was somewhat embarrassed when the family set off to Cabramatta, with its reputation for drugs and gangs, but it also had an edgy allure.
In my 20s I studied Vietnamese language and culture and started driving to south-west Sydney by myself. Reading shop signs, listening to street banter, ordering dishes that my Mum rarely made (like vermicelli with tofu and fermented prawn paste and congee with duck innards) was both a great adventure and a poignant homecoming. Then Cabramatta became hipster cool and friends came along for a short tour of Vietnam, no passport or visa required.
Lately our trips have taken place in an SUV, and my son sits in the back with my parents. Recently I asked Dad to reflect upon a few of the weddings, parties and holidays that had drawn us to Sydney since 1980. He said that he had forgotten more than he remembered and wasn't sure why we still went to Cabramatta, but he was glad that we did. "I suppose my grandson's memories are replacing mine," Dad said.
This got us talking about why we've always gone to Sydney in the summer, and whether we'll keep going once it's safe to do so.
Much of it has to do with food. Back in the day, we returned from Cabramatta with bags full of less-than-two-dollar pork rolls, banh mi, slathered with pâté and mayonnaise. They were well worth the risk, even on a hot day, because you couldn't get them in the ACT.
Desserts and drinks were just as important. For me, summer was flavoured with all manner of jellies and sam bo luong treasures and, above all, sugar cane juice freshly squeezed from carts on John Street.
Today, pork rolls and Vietnamese iced coffee is for sale in many Canberra suburbs and trendy cafes. Vietnamese delicacies and groceries abound. Fabric and traditional outfits can be delivered to our door with just a few clicks. The money transfer services that we used to rely on to support those we left behind have been made redundant by internet banking, or by the welcome fact that many of our Vietnamese relatives and friends are now relatively well off and sending their children to Australia to study and work.
There is something atmospheric about strolling through the cluster of stalls and shops in Cabramatta, and there's no doubt that cuisine there is cheaper, more varied, and "authentic". But once the virus is dispatched, will it still be worth the time, the road tolls and the challenge of finding a parking spot?
The other reason we've always ventured to Sydney is to see friends. For my parents, these bonds stretch back to the old country; while my brother and I connect with mates who also grew up Vietnamese-Australian, meaning they too listened to stories of boat journeys in one ear and The Comedy Company in the other.
But the differences between us and the Sydneysiders were always as stark as our similarities. The big city kids had better Vietnamese language skills, sung karaoke without irony, bowed instinctively upon meeting elders, often studied harder at school and did extra classes afterwards. I wonder if they saw us Vietnamese-Canberrans as having assimilated to Aussie easygoingness, perhaps excessively so. "Mat goc", or "losing one's roots", Viets say.
Nowadays, we remain in touch only on social media. Almost all our childhood friends are busy, middle-class parents. They have moved away from the south-west to more leafy suburbs. But they often return to Cabramatta on weekends.
What has remained constant through all our Sydney excursions is that we have returned to Canberra eager to see the tip of Black Mountain Tower and the clear sky above the Brindabellas. We enjoy visiting the big smoke, but are not so keen on living with the long commutes and pressure to "keep up with the Nguyens".
Looking ahead, it is hard for me to envisage Canberra without trips to Cabramatta. When we're able to travel from here to there, we maintain bridges across cultures and time. And I would dearly like for my son to access other ways of thinking, speaking and learning, as he might pick up an extra gear that allows him to move with ease and speed among different societies, or a spare tyre he can turn to when his default culture is running flat. Indeed, I would like the same access for anyone who wants it in my city and my country.
Let's hope it's soon safe to make the journey once again. These summer pilgrimages of discovery and belonging reveal the rich layers of our identity and how one can be local, foreign, and Australian all at once.
- Kim Huynh is a lecturer at the Australian National University and the host of ABC Radio Canberra's Sunday Brunch.
- For the latest travel advice and information about border restrictions, go to covid19.act.gov.au/travel