After seven years and fourteen rewrites, I feel that I have finally crystallized my story into something that I could present to readers: the inspiring story of human survival, notwithstanding its sorrowful nature.
Come with me to my childhood in Southern Vietnam—another time and another place—where you’ll live the life of a fourteen-year-old fugitive hiding in his own homeland, of “boat-people” crossing the pirate-infested South China Sea, of an unwanted alien stranded in Malaysia. Feel the danger, sadness, and joy of my journey as you travel through the times of extraordinary hardship to the bottomless pit of despair. Then we’ll pick ourselves up and celebrate the triumphant human resilience of overcoming all odds that brought me back a life.
To write about events that happened some thirty years ago required digging into some dark corners of my mind to haul out the bits and pieces of the inconsolable past that were like unexploded hand-grenades. I dreaded them for they might just blow up and shatter my spirit. But that was what it’d take to make my story real. I also listened on YouTube the songs that my friends and I used to play back home and which I had been avoiding like the plague because of the painful memories they evoked. The music brought me back to the classroom where I had once strummed my guitar and listened to Mai and my friends singing. The music took me to our farm, where I found myself helping Father plant crops.
There were times when I’d sit at my desk and write all night because I suddenly remembered many things that I wanted to relate. Then there were times I didn’t know whether I was awake or in a dream. In those times, the dreams were more real and comforting than reality.
MY NEW LIFE
In my first month in Canada, I attended an English as a Second Language class for four weeks, then started working—washing dishes in a restaurant at night and sewing jeans in a factory during the day. On the schedule sheet, they put the word seamstress next to my name. I was pleased about that—once I knew what it meant—finally, I was something other than a refugee, not to mention that I was the first male seamstress the place had employed. I had a good reason for holding two 40-hour jobs: To sponsor my parents and my sister I had to show that I could support them financially by making at least $4 an hour. Well, no one was going to pay an eighteen-year-old that king’s ransom, so the kind-hearted officials at Immigration Canada settled for my offer of keeping two jobs earning $2.75 an hour each.
Most of my weekly cheque went to my family’s airfare fund, but I kept $25 for rent and $10 for food and other necessary devils. It was a high art to carve a living out of that. When I attended university later, I wrote a computer program to better manage my $10 based on what I could buy on sale. But no amount of programming could help me avoid the many dreadful meals of peanut-butter sandwiches, which I vowed to never touch again when I’d escaped poverty, a vow I have broken a few times since (I’ve discovered that peanut-butter tastes very good with homemade bread). Every few weeks I would have to tighten my belt when I ran out of rice, which cost $7 a bag. Sometimes I was down to a bowl of steamed rice drizzled with soya sauce. In those days, there were no food banks or soup kitchens, but some friend would bring me home every now and then for an unfamiliar westerner’s meal. One Canadian friend, who was almost as poor then and is a doctor now, once sneaked me into a multicultural event where they served delicious curry chicken and basmati rice. Sadly, that was the only time.
My teeth started clattering when the winter arrived. My former English teacher spotted me one day biking on the snowy road wearing a thin sweater. No more biking after that and I was given a brand new and big winter coat with an equally massive hood. I looked as big as a bear but felt warm. Then the spring arrived. Everyone else was dressing in spring jackets and I was about on fire in my coat. It also alarmed my neighbors, a man and his three teenage daughters, who lived four houses away and often congregated on their veranda. On my 30-minute walk from work each afternoon, I’d catch the girls’ fearful looks and the father’s frown. I’d wave at them with embarrassment and resignation, not knowing when the days would turn warm enough for my thin sweater.
In my second year the Canadian friend helped me fill in the English registration form to the University of Prince Edward Island and the bursary and student loan applications—he and I were going to university! We promised each other that we’d reach our goals—he a doctor and I a computer programmer (it was the only major I might be able to use to find a summer job). At the end of my first day at school, I went to Burger King to celebrate, my eyes teary—Father and Ngo would be so proud of me fulfilling their wishes. I paid some 30 cents for a small order of fries and asked for a pair of chopsticks in my broken English. The frightened teenage cashier hauled out her manager, who grabbed a few fries with his fingers and stuffed into his mouth, chomping and grinning. I caught on and did the same. If Father ever saw me eating like this..
The first snow storm caught me by surprise. The forty-minute walk to the university turned into two agonizing hours, angry wind battering and whiteout conditions blinding me on the snow-covered sidewalk. When I arrived at the university’s Robertson Library door, I found no one. The university had been closed due to the storm. I stood at the locked door and cried my heart out before staggering on for another two agonizing hours back. The whole island but me knew about the cancellation.
In the late spring of my third year I bought my first car, a second-hand Chrysler K. Every evening I’d hand-wash the vehicle on the front yard with a rag and a bucket of soapy water, feeling proud as a peacock. I’d never owned something that impressive before. My edgy neighbor took notice. The father walked over one day and said something to me which I didn’t understand, but he was smiling. So I smiled too.
On November 3, 1982 I officially became a Canadian citizen thus had a country to call my own and a place to shelter and belong. It was a big day for me, as big as the day we stood and cried facing a platoon of armed Malaysian soldiers waiting for our execution only to discover that they chose to set us free for the bravery we demonstrated by sinking our own boat. I always remember that day— November 3, 1982—as one of the best days of my life. The entire staff of federal Fisheries and Oceans department where I worked attended my citizenship ceremony, so did my university professors and all the friends I made. I felt as if I had been reborn and could now close the seemingly ill-fated chapter of my life.
I was now earning the king’s ransom wage—$4 per hour—as a programmer, enough to start the sponsorship application to bring my parents and Su-Linh to Canada. But the long hours remained with my two fulltime jobs. And then there was university when the fall came. Tuesday and Thursday were when I crammed all six university courses. Other days I worked 9-to-5 at one place and then drove for an hour to a town called Montague and worked from six pm to two am. In the wee hours of the morning I returned to the university’s residence hall, where my Chinese friends cooked me a meal. Then I slept for four hours before rushing to class. I was constantly exhausted. More than once I’d driven myself to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and declared to the front desk staff that I was going to faint. Then I crumbled and passed out.
I obtained my university degree in my fifth year in Canada and, three years later—after I’ve paid back my student loan in full—brought my parents and my sister to Canada and provided for them.
I have hobbies: gardening, playing table tennis, kicking a soccer ball with my two now-teenage children, reading, and visiting new places. And I enjoy eating and cooking, which I do often as my family and friends have no trouble devouring the dishes I created.
STRANGERS ON THE SHORE
There are many refugees in the world nowadays. I suspect they all have stories without a venue to tell. Perhaps because I was a refugee, whenever I meet one, I see a fellow human being stranded in a strange land, isolated and lonely. I have yet to meet one that has had it easy in his new life nor that he could ever cease to feel like one.
Perhaps, the next time you meet some refugees, you will be able to tag my story to those nameless faces and feel as if you know them.
If you’ve read my book, I’d be thrilled if you’d post and share your thoughts with other readers. I’ve learned so much from the feedback about the world we live in and the humanity that hasn’t lost its inherent goodness and compassion for one another in time of uncertainty.
Alternatively, you can email me.
My first winter in Canada – Jan 1980.