DR HUAN VO-TRAN: Choose your own adventure
“What’s in a name?” - William Shakespeare
Growing up in Australia, Dr Huan Vo-Tran continues to discover the power language, place and education has on one’s identity. Forging a narrative of 'Australian-ness' that is intertwined with his Vietnamese heritage, Dr. Vo-Tran applies his multicultural awareness to further develop PhD students within the university community.
Despite coming from a family of educators, academia never seemed like a path Dr. Vo-Tran was going to take in life. Dr Huan Vo-Tran is an academic at RMIT (Melbourne) in the school of Business and IT Logistics, and has a strong awareness of how knowledge and education is powerful and can not be taken away.
THE PIN. Where did you grow up?
DR HUAN VO-TRAN. I was born in Vietnam. My parents left with me and my sister when I was a month old and I spent the first couple of months in Malaysia, so technically I grew up here in Australia.
Was the culture within your household different to the outside world?
H. Definitely. Mum and Dad are from a traditional Vietnamese family and I grew up learning Vietnamese culture. At the same they also asked us to integrate into Australian society as much as possible, they knew that this was the society we were going to grow up in so understanding your Vietnamese roots as well as understanding Australian culture, and trying to integrate into that as much as possible, was important.
What were/are your family values and history around culture and identity?
H. I think the values I had growing up around respect were influenced by Vietnamese culture. Vietnamese culture is very hierarchical and respect is given to your elders, that was a big theme growing. The other value that we had was education. My parents continuously reminded us that education was key to opening doors. My parents lost everything in the Vietnam war and believed that everything can be taken away from you but education can't. It was a value that was instilled in my siblings and I.
Do you think understanding your family’s culture and heritage is important to the development of one's identity?
H. Of course and more so in the last seven or eight years since I started working for RMIT. I have made frequent trips back to Vietnam and it's given me a better sense of identity. For the first twenty something years of my life my identity was a bit confused. Going back to Vietnam later on in life and learning that aspect of myself gave me a sense of identity and belonging. It helped me understand why my parents did certain things. Growing up in Australia I was surrounded by a lot of Anglo Australian children and not many Vietnamese kids, with little understanding of why we did things a little differently. It wasn't until I travelled to Vietnam and immersed myself in the culture that I really understood my identity.
Were there challenges you faced when recognising and reconciling the multiple cultures that make up your identity?
H. Yeah, there were times I'd question why other kids did certain things, like play sport on Saturday's or do music, while I was stuck in Vietnamese school trying to learn language. Or why I had to go home and do homework for hours when other kids could watch T.V. It was hard to understand why my parents did certain things and why they followed the old tradition and culture but on reflection it was actually of benefit for me to understand my heritage.
What misconceptions have been made about you and how have you overcome them?
H. I think the first thing is my name. Realising that yes, I have a Vietnamese name, but when I open my mouth I speak with a heavy Australian accent. It's one of the biggest misconceptions, 'oh your name is Vietnamese so you can’t speak English properly' or that I am new to the country and people question how long I have been here. I have had students come up to me when I take them on study tours and ask where I am from. I tell them 20 km down the road.
That clash of cultures, where do I call home? I call Australia home. This is where I have been all my life and this is where I have settled but there is an understanding that Vietnam is a home away from home. I am pulled between two places but the stronger alliance is actually here. If I were to call myself anything I would call myself Vietnamese-Australian or Australian-Vietnamese but I would have to put the two together, I couldn't have one. I wouldn’t call myself completely Australian, I wouldn’t call myself completely Vietnamese. I straddle the two cultures and combining them actually gives me a greater sense of identity. I think a lot of people go down that path too.
Were you always drawn to academia?
H. I actually fell into academia. I come from a long line of educators on both sides. Initially, I started out doing IT and was happy with that, then thought there must be more, and through my final years of university I did some tutoring and fell in love with teaching. At first I hated it and I didn’t want to be a part of the family trade but eventually I decided to do an degree in education and taught in high schools. Eventually this job came up, a friend messages me saying it would be perfect for me and that I should apply. There was probably about six hours to go before applications were due so I just quickly popped through an application low and behold I got an interview.
What drew you to information systems specifically?
H. I have always had a liking for technology, and communicating and working in it. That was the hero attraction and what I am passionate about. I know my mum was disappointed when I decided not to do medicine. To this day she still says 'you’re not a real doctor!'
I could have been a good Asian kid and gone through a medical degree and not been happy with who I am. I am not one to compromise and do something I'm not 100% happy with. I’m happy with where I am now.
What is the role of information systems in the modern world today and where do you see it growing and developing?
H. Information is everywhere, analysis and understanding data information is vital and underpins everything we do. Information is given to you when you go to the supermarket and you want to buy a product; information is given to you when you make one of the biggest decisions of your life, for example having kids or buying a house. It’s how we interpret that information that drew me into the area. In terms of the systems aspect, my thought behind it is that systems are just the tools that help us access the information that we need. We’re an information hungry society! Think about it, when you’re sitting on your couch and you’re watching a television show or a movie and you don’t know who the actor is, or you want to know a bit more, you reach for your phone and the information is instantaneous. We’re a society that requires it as soon as possible and that’s what it is.
Do you think having multicultural understandings has influenced your approach to teaching and/or research?
H. Being in a university, I've got a wide range of students from diverse backgrounds and cultures and so on and so forth. An understanding of Asian culture and how Asian students learn is extremely beneficial in getting the content across and getting them to be the best they can. Having the Australian point of view and understanding how they learn and how Australian students push themselves is also beneficial. If you look at Asian culture the teacher is the wise sage giving you information to absorb. In Australian culture students tend to question what is given to them. Understanding this helps helps me become a better teacher and helps me get the content across. It’s an understanding of the educational system and where students have come from, that helps me become a better teacher overall.
Do you think multiculturalism and the existence of more than one cultural identity is generationally possible?
H. It’s a tough question. I think it can be. I think it comes down to the level of tolerance and the level of education one gets. I have grown up here but with a culture that is different to the mainstream culture, so the culture is crossed. For the next generation it will cross over again. From my own personal point of view I have a daughter and both her parents are Vietnamese. Her mother was born here and has a limited understanding of Vietnamese culture, we'd like for our child to understand where her grandparents and her ancestors came from yet at the same time integrate. It is generationally possible through education, tolerance and understanding. It needs to nurtured and promoted because we want to harbour understanding, not hate, in society.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
DR HUAN VO-TRAN. Try and immerse yourself and try and understand the cultures from which you have come. I know when I was younger it was more of a rejection of the culture, I just wanted to be like everybody else. When I was younger I was surrounded predominately by white people - I stood out like a sore thumb and was picked on for being different.
Advice I would give to my younger self would be to embrace it, own who you are and stand up for what you are, rather than accepting the status quo and trying to conform to what society is telling you to be. Be who you are. My name is Huan, it’s Vietnamese, and there is no way that I am going to change it for the world.
-This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: Dr Huan Vo-Tran