This post is by Christa Dang:
She doesn’t speak much English.
The Vietnam War was over, but the new communist government did not take kindly to those who had fought against them. Because her husband was a South Vietnamese soldier, they believed that staying in Vietnam meant sure death. The decision to leave their home and their family was extremely risky and terrifying, but the odds of survival were marginally better.
In the dead of night, with nothing more than some food and a few ounces of carefully hidden gold, she waited with her children, the eldest of whom was five years old and the youngest, one month old. They were ready to turn back at any moment; if they were caught attempting to escape, they would be killed.
Her husband soon arrived and led them to a small boat where other escapees were waiting, which he then steered towards Cambodia. From there, the passengers quietly moved onto a larger ship with other boat people from different areas and fled to Thailand, where they stayed in a refugee camp for two weeks before receiving clearance from the Canadian government.
They were attacked and robbed by pirates and thieves numerous times during their journey, leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
In 1980, she arrived in Canada with her husband, her three children and two of her eleven siblings. The family was lucky to have survived the ordeal; more than half of the boat people with whom they’d traveled had perished.
Their trials were far from over, however. Her husband was healthy when they had embarked on their journey, but soon after arriving in Toronto, his face became swollen; still embedded in his flesh were bullet fragments from a gunshot wound that he’d suffered during his service in the war. He was hospitalized for a month after undergoing emergency surgery to remove some of those fragments, and now lives in constant pain because it was not possible to remove them all.
They were then faced with the task of rebuilding their lives in this new and foreign world. For a while, they lived on the meager benefits given to them by the government; this afforded the five of them a one-bedroom rental apartment and frequent visits to The Scott Mission’s food and clothing banks.
She found a night job sewing clothing as she had done in Vietnam and forwent sleep during the day to care for her children, while her husband took English classes, had affairs, and eventually found work.
She was, essentially, raising three children on her own. Many times, other Vietnamese people would ask her if the children had a father and, embarrassed, her standard response was that he had stayed in Vietnam.
Once the children were old enough and the family was able to afford a babysitter, she began working twenty-hour days. Because she valued her family above all else and opted to work and care for her children instead of going to school for English, sewing is – even now – her only option for work. They eventually managed to save enough money to move into a two-bedroom apartment, and then into a small house in 1991.
Ten years after their arrival in Canada, they had another child.
I grew up much more comfortably than my siblings did; their clothes were all secondhand, they couldn’t afford much luxury or food, and my parents worked most of the time. Once they were properly settled, my family made their best effort to fit in with Western traditions while still upholding the more important Vietnamese traditions.
Growing up bicultural is like straddling the line between two worlds; while I don’t belong entirely in either Vietnamese culture or Western culture, I’ve never felt left out although there are times in which I stand out quite a bit.
The language in Vietnam shifted after the war, and I speak like someone who lived there in the 1960s because that is the language my parents taught me. To make sure that I learned the language, I was not allowed to speak English at home. It was annoying then, but now I’m grateful; Vietnam and its culture hold a special place in my heart.
Unlike the stereotypical Asian parents, mine are very open-minded in regards to love and school, and will support my decisions as long as they are genuine (however, they do expect a Vietnamese-styled wedding in the far, far future).
I can’t even fathom what my life would be like if my parents had stayed in Vietnam. I definitely would not be the person I am today, and it’s entirely possible that I would not exist at all!
While I would not change a thing about my family’s story, I believe the greatest difficulty of having immigrant parents is that, due to the nature of my family’s emigration from Vietnam, we are all geographically far apart. As a result, I don’t know many of my extended family members and I don’t have much contact with the ones I do know.
My mother, who sacrificed everything for her family, taught me the value of the important things in life. But even now, after over thirty years of living in Canada, having purchased a large five-bedroom house, and being able to navigate the system more aptly than most, she still doesn’t feel as though she belongs… just because she can’t speak English.
Her name is Tri, Kim Hoa. She doesn’t speak much English, but she doesn’t need to; she has overcome the odds and built a good life for herself and for her family, and that is what matters most.
Christa Dang is a psychology student at York University with the ambition of becoming a clinical psychologist. Her parents and older siblings are Vietnamese boat people; she was born in Canada and raised biculturally.
“Lòng Mẹ” – Mother’s Love – a traditional Vietnamese song: