Yesterday I visited the main street of Cabramatta in Sydney’s western suburbs. It earned the colloquial name of ‘Vietnamatta’ as it has been home to an increasing number of Vietnamese immigrants over the past 50 years. Here you would be hard pressed to find a shop with English signage, western goods and foods, indeed someone who actually speaks proper English apart from “you-buy” and “be-a-man”. Forget Paddy Markets in Sydney’s Chinatown, that’s merely a facade for tourists. Cabramatta is the real deal, a living culture of Australian Vietnamese immigrants, their children and their children’s children.
It was not the first time I had passed through the Cabramatta mall but what struck me as uniquely different this time, was an advertisement for Medibank Private; one of Australia’s largest health insurance funds and a recognizable brand. This advertisement made me stop, back track and look twice. I was so impressed with the creative thought that went into the design. It wasn’t because it was translated into Vietnamese. Many Australian business represented in Cabramatta translate their ads, this was probably a direct translation of the same transcript used in other Medibank Private English marketing collateral. What was different about this image, was the image of a water lotus.
To many central and south-east asian cultures, the lotus is a symbol or health, new life, and reflects the beauty and purity of nature. This is because in the Buddhist tradition, it is said that the Buddha was born, or rose up from a lotus flower. The flower also carries meaning of being untouched by the things around it, the Bhagavad Gita (the equivalent of the Hindu bible);
“... is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus is untouched by water”
Bhagavad Gita 5.1
Confucian scholar Zhou Dunji is quoted as saying the his love for the lotus is because whilst growing from the mud, it remains unstained. The point being that the consistent understanding of this flower is that it represents purity as Buddha rose from it and that it remains untouched by a filthy environment. The flower is therefore also closely associated with Chinese herbalism and natural therapy. What the stethoscope and white lab coat is to the west, the lotus is to eastern medicine.
I wondered then ‘why then had this particular lotus flower had actually sprouted on the end of a stethoscope’. Medibank is making the brave insinuation, that from western medicinal tradition has sprouted eastern tradition; a marriage between two often conflicting systems. This image is particularly powerful because either of these two symbols on their own carry significant weight and meaning, however posited together they carry a very different message about the interaction between the two. T
he plastic and metal engineered stethoscope representing western medicine, and the green, herbal and natural therapy of eastern medicine.
There is a deeper level to this symbology; the Australian government currently rewards those less than 30 years old with a Medicare tax rebate as long as a private health fund membership, like Medibank Private, is maintained. The typical Vietnamese Australian under 30 years was most likely born and grew up in Australia and is therefore sympathetic to both eastern and western symbolism; in this case both the stethoscope and the lotus. Perhaps struggling with their own hybrid sense of identity, this poster encapsulates their position perfectly, a blend of east and west.
Let’s take this interpretation yet a step deeper. The lotus flower is the sexual organ of the plant and in this image it has been pierced by the stethoscope representing the west. An intimate moment in a interracial marriage? The fact remains that the Australian children of Vietnamese immigrants are increasingly marrying into a mixed race marriages, resulting in racially blended offspring. This Medibank Private advertisement mirrors this cultural phenomenon, it is literally art imitating life.