Image: National Archives of Australia
By Damian West (first published March 2015)
Nguyen might be on track to become the most common Australian family name, according to data from Ancestry.com.au and White Pages Online.
In Sydney and Melbourne, it’s already within a whisker of taking the gong, giving Smith, the perennial front-runner, a real run for its money.
Three Nguyens ran for office in the last federal election, raising the possibility for a moment that Nguyen might become the most common name in Australian parliament.
It’s a proud name that migrated to Australia on boats with the mass exodus of Vietnamese refugees following the fall of Saigon, and has since even adopted an Australianised form of pronunciation.
“Something like ‘New’n’ is the common Aussie way of saying it”, I recently told a radio presenter who wanted to feel he had it right before introducing a Nguyen on air.
It’s actually not much like that at all. Something more like ‘Ng’win’ – said short and sharp – is how I remember friends at high school saying it in the early to mid-nineties. In the Aussie way though, it’s been stretched out and rounded over time to fit in with the rest of the lingo.
It’s not the only Vietnamese name, of course. There’s a whole bunch that connect people’s ancestral lineage to various Vietnamese dynasties and rulers. Le is another that along with Nguyen migrated to Australia by boat with refugees displaced by the war.
Last year, a Le became Governor of the State of South Australia – His Excellency the Honourable Hieu Van Le. His boss is the Queen(!) which goes to show you never really know where life’s going to take you.
There’s a piece of footage from a short while before my time of those names first arriving in Australia by boat that I wish I could find.
“I’m from Vietnam,” said a woman to waiting media as she disembarked in Darwin Harbour during the seventies. It’s a clip I’ve seen replayed many times before. You’ve probably seen it too.
I would give anything to know why those exact words were the words she knew she had to say. Maybe they were the only English words she knew? But forty years down the track, knowing what those names had been through, what they would go through and where they’re at now, it’s hard not to be moved by those words.
Nguyens were once demonised in Australia. Now there’s hardly a person in our community not grateful that Nguyens are Australians.
Nowadays, on Australia Day, Nguyens listen to Triple J’s Hottest 100 just as they attend Survival Day rallies. In the latest Queensland election, Nguyens voted for Labor, the LNP, the Greens, Palmer United Party and a bunch of independent candidates. Nguyens are celebrated artists, comedians, actors and Members of Parliament. Right now in Queensland, Nguyens are teaching school children, curing disease, designing the interior of homes and praying to their ancestors.
I’ve got no hard data to substantiate any of the following claims; just a strong hunch based on the Nguyens and Smiths I’ve met in my life and the prevalence of both names in the Australian community.
I reckon it’s a pretty safe bet that a person called Smith has taught a person called Nguyen how to paint a picture, and a Nguyen a Smith how to replace a spark plug; a Nguyen a Smith how to sing a song, and a Smith a Nguyen how to make ends meet.
I find it near impossible to believe that a Nguyen hasn’t cured a Smith of her cancer or that a Smith hasn’t taught a Nguyen how to be a better son.
Smiths and Nguyens have fallen hopelessly in love, I promise you that much.
Nguyens have taught Smiths how to read and write.
Smiths have taught Nguyens how to read and write.
A young Nguyen has helped an old Smith cross a busy road, and a young Smith has cared for an old Nguyen during his dying days. Smiths and Nguyens have been the best of friends and the fiercest of enemies.
Nguyen is now a name that Australia would be lost without. While I make no specific predictions, it will not surprise me one bit if someday a Nguyen becomes Prime Minister of this nation.
Other names, like Nguyen, have migrated to Australia on boats more recently, attached to those who have risked everything as refugees in search of safety.
Sharifi, Mohammadi, Ramanathan and many more. They will probably never become the most common names in Australia, but in time they will come to occupy ever profession under the sun.
And like Nguyen, they’ll become celebrated Australian names. There’s no doubting that. It’s a story I hope I don’t have to wait too long to write. Those names don’t deserve that.
(Originally published at http://www.mdaltd.org.au)