Sylvia Nguyen, the only child of Vietnamese migrants, terrifies her parents when she announces she’s quitting her law degree to focus exclusively on a creative writing career. It takes Sylvia quite a bit of courage to announce this seemingly unfathomable detour; after all, her life to date has followed the rigid path prescribed for her. After school tutorial sessions have been dutifully attended in order to pass exams for entry into a competitive selective school, and now there are unexpressed but deeply held hopes that she’s set for world domination via a highly coveted and well paid career.
Except for the fact that, unlike stereotypical expectations, Sylvia is not an overachieving Asian who excels in academe and filial piety; she’s a confused outlier and her torturous and tortuous path to adulthood has to necessarily derail for her to understand what it is that she wants and doesn’t want from life.
Shirley Le’s debut novel has been compared to Alice Pung’s trail-blazing Unpolished Gem and the comparison is a fair and apt one. Both writers do track the pressure of a model minority to succeed despite personal reservations or disinterest. One of Sylvia’s relatives tells her plaintively he became a doctor even though he hated every moment of studying for his medical degree because the profession at least afforded respect. The onus on second generation migrant children to fulfil their parents’ ambition of achieving educational success and hence climb the ladder to middle-class virtuosity is a well mined story.
The early 2000s setting of Funny Ethnics is vibrantly captured; the novel thrums with colour and references to bubble cup drinks, fortune telling, temples and fast food joints, with snippets of untranslated Vietnamese threaded into the mix as well as teen lingo. Its verisimilitude attests to the fact that the book could only have been written by someone who grew up in Western Sydney herself.
Sylvia moves between school, friendship hangs and home, and mingles within the community of Viet elders and cousins in and around Yagoona and Cabra (Cabramatta). It’s a tightly circumscribed world of ‘class, exams, home, tutoring’ that she fights to break out of, helped along by her friend, the vivacious Tammy.
The narrative shifts back and forth from Sylvia’s mid-to-late adolescence to her early 20s as she tries to narrow the chasm between expectation and reality. All this makes it sound as though it’s a serious and earnest book, but as its title pre-empts, Funny Ethnics is more a comedic bildungsroman that’s lighter in tone and subject matter than Unpolished Gem. Maybe that’s because Le is opaque about the migratory and assimilation traumas of her protagonist’s parents. Sylvia’s Ba and Me do not talk about the journey over to Australia and hence she, and by default, the reader, is shielded from their refugee experiences.
Le is more interested in exploring the worldview of a hyphenated identity: a girl-woman and a Vietnamese-Australian navigating identity, race and class.
Funny Ethnics, Shirley Le
Publisher: Affirm Press
Publication: 28 February 2023