By Jessica Nguyen, Meds '23
I grew up hearing that “I’m very lucky”. As a first-gen Canadian and a daughter of two refugees, I knew that I would never know adversity like my parents do. Yes, I heard stories of about their life-altering journeys from war-torn Vietnam to Canada, but I don’t think I ever really took a minute to marvel at the strength, courage, and sheer luck that it took for my parents to make it to this country. That is, until a simple conversation we shared while on a drive to Kingston.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, my dad and I were on the road to pack up some things so I could move back home. We ate snacks in the car, listened to music, and talked about how lucky we are to have a house to socially distance inside, full of cupboards of food and closets of board games to distract ourselves. My brother had just turned thirteen that week. Curious about what my father’s life was like at thirteen, I asked him about his upbringing and journey to Canada, something he rarely talks about. During my father’s childhood, Vietnam was still recovering from a war that still has grips on the country today. My grandfather was a soldier for the side that lost the war and was branded a ‘traitor’ after it ended. He was imprisoned and my father’s family was forced to move to the southernmost province of the country. “It was riddled with malaria and water-borne diseases,” he told me. “They made us live somewhere that was basically a jungle, and we survived there for five years. Essentially, the government oppressed anyone who had stood in its way during the war.” He was three years old when the government moved them.
Five years later, his family moved back to the city, where they survived on the streets. At least there was opportunity to find work there. Back then, living on the streets was the norm for families that had fought for the “wrong side” during the war. After all, they lost everything. “We were so poor,” my dad told me. “We had this wooden fish that we would put on a plate to make it seem like we were eating more than just a bowl of stolen rice for dinner”. Living in the city, my father made a friend who eventually presented my father with an opportunity to flee the country by boat. In the years after the war, millions of Vietnamese citizens fled the country this way in hopes of finding a better life, and at the age of fourteen, my dad became one of them. Not only did he face the dangers of the sea, he also faced death – escaping was a crime that the government persecuted many people for, with countless dying these journeys.
When my father told his parents that he was planning on escaping, my grandmother insisted that his older brother take his place on the boat instead. My uncle was almost at the age of conscription and she didn’t want him being taken away by the government. My dad begrudgingly agreed. The night of the planned escape, my dad stayed awake all night, until he heard his brother leave quietly to go to the meeting point. “I decided last minute that I was going on that journey no matter what, so I jumped out of the window and followed your uncle in his xích lô to the meeting point”. He ran after my uncle for 15 km through the night to the first meeting point, where they would meet others that were headed onto the same boat. When my uncle realized that my father had been following him, he demanded that he return home. “I was getting on that boat no matter what,” my father said.
When their small fishing boat left the dock, the police had caught wind of the escape. “They shot at us until we crossed into international waters,” he recounted. And then when they were just barely safe, they realized that their motor had fallen off in the commotion. “All forty-four of us thought we were going to die. During the day all you saw was water and during the night, you couldn’t see anything. How was anyone going to find us?” he said. “It was so cold I went to sleep in the boiler room one night and had some oil spill on me. It would keep me warm during the night, but I didn’t realize how terrible of an idea it was until the morning, when the sun would burn my skin”. Not only that, they suffered from dehydration, starvation, and seasickness. I don’t know how he held onto hope after being at sea for seven days.
On the seventh day, a terrible storm was headed straight to them. My father looked up at the sky wondering how his life could end this way. “I regretted everything. Being a troublemaker to your grandma, leaving home without telling anyone, not trying harder to help around at home”. Everyone cried and prayed. It seemed that they were just going to be another failed attempt at escape, a shipwreck containing bodies of passengers that never made it to freedom. But out of sheer luck, an American ship found this tiny fishing boat in the middle of the ocean and brought them to the shores of Singapore. They were saved.
From the Singaporean refugee camp, my uncle sent letters back home and told my grandmother he was safe. She wrote back, telling him she was heartbroken that my father was lost and had run away from home. Imagine her surprise when she found out he was with my uncle all along! After a couple months at the camp, my father and uncle arrived in Canada. (Fun fact: they chose Canada because the snow looked so beautiful – ironically, they are both the biggest grouches during Canadian winters nowadays). Two young men, fourteen and twenty-one, starting their lives in a country whose language they didn’t speak and customs they didn’t know.
It amazes me how refugees like my father manage to build a life in Canada despite all odds. While other teenagers spent their time playing video games, my father spent his years learning English and trying to sponsor the rest of his family to Canada. While others lived their lives oblivious to what was happening in Vietnam, my father and countless others rebuilt their lives in countries they had never heard of before.
So, there I was. Listening to this insane story, in disbelief at how the man driving the car, who I call ‘dad’, had risked everything in hopes of a life he would have never dreamed of. I couldn’t believe that this man eating a whole bag of mini eggs with me, was also a man who was able to journey to another country, learn its language, and thrive in its society at the age of fourteen. I don’t know why I had never had this conversation with my dad before, but I knew that this would forever change how I see the world. When I hear “I am lucky”, I know that it is true. After all, it was only one generation ago that my family had to risk their lives for the hopes of a brighter future.
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