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A Viet-Aus. Experience: Why The @#$! Was My Grandmother Talking About Donald Trump?

I know, I know. We’re literally a whole year and an ocean away from the Trump administration. Really, this is something I had forgotten about—at least—until I realised that I stopped having to manoeuvre family interactions around it. Thinking back on it, it was a bizarre experience seeing as how before 2019, anything resembling “politics talk” from my grandmother was unthinkable.

I know, I know. We’re literally a whole year and an ocean away from the Trump administration. Really, this is something I had forgotten about—at least—until I realised that I stopped having to manoeuvre family interactions around it. Thinking back on it, it was a bizarre experience seeing as how before 2019, anything resembling “politics talk” from my grandmother was unthinkable. As far as politics went, she’d been (and still is) a reliable Labor voter for thirty years since arriving in Australia. Other than that, there wasn’t much engagement on that end—not much as far as news, controversies or scandals go. Sure, there was the occasional question about who the new prime minister was, but that was about it, which is why the first time it happened, when she’d said something about “learning to deal with it the way President Trump has cleaned out the Chinese”, my only response was some terribly interesting fact-checking about the ineffectiveness of the China tariffs and whichever most recent instance of a racist moment I could recall.

At this point, I wasn’t that worried. It was probably just a misunderstanding or a piece of misinformation from a friend. She then asked me to source my claims, and after giving the usual, i.e., Reuters, BBC, ABC etc., she called them “fake news” in Vietnamese. So much for my hopes that it was a random event.

But I didn’t look for an explanation—at least not immediately. I still wanted it to be a one-off event, so I doubled down. I tried showing facts, figures, clips and videos alongside anything else I could find. And I learned the painfully long lesson of what it was like to try and reel somebody in against a tide of an ever-increasing number of slogans and talking points appearing successively. She’d told me “Democrats are importing Mexicans immigrants to increase their share of the vote”, whilst I knew for a fact that before 2019 she didn’t even know what a “democrat” was.

Come the 2020 election season. After months of cycling between manoeuvring conversations around Trump and frustrating myself into fruitless attempts at persuasion, I finally managed to give myself enough space to be confused.

Where the fuck did all of this come from?

By now, I’d come to learn a few things—having acquired more knowledge than during the initial stupefaction. I knew now that there was a whole Viet-language Trump Fandom Internet Media-sphere. As I could tell, there was also some kind of all-day Trump Fandom radio. So, I asked around and it turns out that I wasn’t alone in my experience. I found that friends and relatives were in similar situations too, be it with parents, grandparents or aunts and uncles. For some, these troubles have been the cause of significant rifts in familial relations. They’ve all had the same internet radio shows menacing their households.

At some point, I thought to myself: If this is happening here, surely, I’d see a bigger trend reflected in the US. It didn’t take long to find articles reporting the same trends in the States. A 2020 poll by Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote found that Biden was strongly favoured in all Asian-American groups except Vietnamese Americans, with 48 per cent supporting Trump and 36 per cent supporting Biden. So, the Vietnamese Trump preference seems like a widespread phenomenon, but the interesting bits of data are what voters thought about him during 2016—especially in comparison to traditional Republican candidates. According to exit polling by the Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund, Vietnamese voters had been historically Republican voters, which we see reflected in Romney’s 54 per cent support rate. Yet, the 2016 election saw Trump support drop to 32 per cent. This means that whatever has led to his current 48 per cent support amongst Viet-Americans must’ve occurred during the Trump election, be that the legitimacy conferred onto his anti-China rhetoric by the officiality of the presidency or the proliferation of the online Viet-language Trump media-sphere.

Trump’s anti-China rhetoric seems a key part of Vietnamese support with radio shows constantly focused on his anti-China crusade and the contested South China Sea. One part of this is due to the 1000-year period where Vietnam was under Chinese rule from 111BC to 938AD. And from this, a perceived colonial threat manifested in Hong Kong, the expansionist rhetoric towards Taiwan, and the current contest over the South China Sea. The other piece of the puzzle seems to come from a sense of anti-communism which we also find shared amongst Cuban immigrants in the US. For much of the Vietnamese diaspora, with many of them coming as refugees of the Vietnam War, the sentiment is understandable. It’s hard to resist the pull of this new Trump fandom with its own media sphere which amplifies and legitimises Trump’s anti-China rhetoric.

Now, I’m not nearly qualified to do more than surface speculation here. Nonetheless, it was in some ways relieving, if not, horrifying to know that I and the people I know weren’t the only ones going through this.

One difference between us and the American experience, however, is that we don’t have Vietnamese boomers showing up to Black Lives Matter (BLM) rallies as counter-protesters or death threats and calls from the local Viet community to boycott your business for supporting BLM. These are things that do happen in the States. In Houston, we find the local pro-Trump Vietnamese community responding with messages calling for the lynching of Lê Hoàng Nguyên and his business after he funded an anti-racism billboard reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop Racism” in English and Vietnamese.

Over here, the Trump fandom is more perceivable as a fandom, that is, their engagement with the fandom (through radio, etc.) is quite separate from most of their everyday interactions—especially with us. I suppose this may cause that familiar dissonance of “Wow, I didn’t think that they’d be into this stuff.” This fandom was relatively easy to avoid (at least as far as I can tell), which makes it much different than parents trying to recruit the kids into more malicious fandoms (if I may stretch the term), such as Multi-level Marketing schemes. Besides, since none of our elders in Australia can vote for US elections, their engagement with the fandom has zero effect on politics over there, that is, if you discount the encouragement they give on social media to friends and family living in the States. In fact, you can find examples like my grandmother who still votes for the Labor candidate every single election. It’s what you’d least expect after seeing how she had purportedly bought into a whole other kind of politics.

But that’s what I mean. It’s like a fandom; it’s just something you’re into. And maybe it’s just a very cringe and uncomfortable fandom with socially unacceptable slogans. But if I don’t have to see their slogans, and if I don’t have to be pulled into fandom discussion groups, then the only solution I can see is to let them be. It’s either that or try the ever-seeming-impossible task of taking them out of their fandom. But a fandom socially reinforced by friends, and by “news” media that speaks their mother tongue despite living in an English-speaking country? Not likely. Even if for many of us the pain of watching their sense of reality gradually warp will be unbearable, I’m not sure what else there is for us to do. Maybe this whole thing will just disappear, or maybe it just fades into obscurity until the next populist decides to wield the ever-present sentiments driving the current movement.

Whichever the case, I’m tired of it. Even having to remember it all exhausts me and I kind of don’t want to find out how it ends. It has gone quiet now. I’m not sure if I’ve managed to navigate familial conversations without running into the fandom or whether the fan has simply chosen not to bring it up. The last time I heard about Trump from my grandmother was in early 2020 when we made a $100 bet over the results of the presidential election. She hasn’t mentioned the bet since, and I’m honestly too scared to try and collect my winnings. Likewise, I don’t want to have to find out whether she’s over the fandom or simply never brings it up anymore.

I know it gets crazy. But the Australian experience—thankfully—seems to fall short of going “full culture war”. At least, I’m hoping very much not to be proven wrong. Because it’s weird. It’s uncomfortable. It feels like shit to have your elders suddenly get all “political”. And I mean that in a way where you’re perceiving them leaving your plane of reality towards a place where you no longer share the same basic facts. Because that is just deeply unsettling to me.

 
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