I want this particular post to be more about the refugee in me than the person I am. My book was about my past refugee life. Here, I want to share with you what it was like to be a refugee in my new life. There are many refugees in the world nowadays. I suspect they all have untold heartbreaking stories and their suffering continues even after their journey has ended. My small hope is that 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.
I know that I didn’t cease to be a refugee even after I had set foot on the land that became my home and felt safe and free. I suppose once a refugee, always a refugee.
It took me seven years and fourteen rewrites to finish this book, with the number of pages swelling to over six hundred at one time. I had difficulties writing, even with help from friends. For starters, my English is not very good despite having lived in this country for more than thirty years. The truth is, I have no formal English education and, from staring at a computer screen some sixteen hours a day for most of those years, I have become proficient only in the languages of computer programming. Sometimes I’d sit for twelve hours mulling over English words and their usages and produce only five pages of work—be it writing or editing. Regretfully, English will forever remain a mystery to me. If I were to start over, going to school to learn the language would be my first ambition.
To write about events that happened some thirty years ago required digging into the darkest corners of my mind to haul out the bits and pieces of sorrowful memories, while carefully handling them like hand grenades. My objective is for the readers to enjoy and feel connected to my story and develop a deeper understanding of how a refugee is made but not be burdened by it. Conveying my emotions with fewer written words, I wanted to make them count in delivering a true tale of courage, hope, and resilience, and by painting the scenes with vivid descriptions, I wanted to make the readers feel as though they were tagging along with me in a dangerous and at times painfully sad journey. To make my story real, I searched YouTube and listened to the old songs that my friends and I used to play back home. The music brought me back into the classroom where I had once strummed my guitar and listened to Mai and my friends singing. Since leaving my country I had avoided listening to those songs for they cut my soul like a knife, but to make my story real, I needed to relive my past.
There were times when I’d sit at my desk and write all night because I had so many things to tell. Then there were times I didn’t know whether I was awake or in a dream, for I found myself on the farm helping Father plant crops or in the classroom chatting with Mai. In those times, the dreams were more real and comforting than reality.
Perhaps because I was a refugee, whenever I meet one, I see a person stranded in a strange land, isolated and lonely. I have yet to meet one that has had it easy in his 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 with the fancy title of seamstress next to my name—I was the only male seamstress the place had ever employed. I was pleased about that—finally, I was something other than a refugee. I had a good reason for holding two 40-hour jobs: To sponsor my parents and my sister I had to show that I was capable of supporting them 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.
What I earned went to pay for my family’s airfare, but I kept some money for myself each week to pay rent ($25) and buy food and other necessary devils ($10). It was a high art to carve a living out of that bare budget. When I attended university later on, I was able to write 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 actually 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 a generous friend would bring me home every now and then for an unfamiliar yet hearty westerner’s meal. One particular Canadian friend, who was equally poor then and is a doctor now, once sneaked me into a multicultural event where they served delicious curry chicken and heavenly basmati rice. Sadly, that was the only time.
My first winter was quite cold—my teeth couldn’t stop clattering when I was wandering on the streets of Charlottetown. My former English teacher spotted me one day biking on the icy roads wearing a sweater. No more biking after that and I was given a brand new and massive winter coat with an equally massive hood. I looked as big as a bear but felt really warm. Then the spring arrived and the coat became problematic. Everyone else was dressing in spring jackets and my winter coat was hot as fire. A man and his three teenage daughters, who lived four houses away and often congregated on their veranda, seemed particularly alarmed by my odd appearance. Whenever I returned from work each afternoon, they’d stop talking suddenly, the girls looking fearful and the father frowning despite my timid waving. I wanted to apologize for the way I dressed and assure them that I was harmless but didn’t know how.
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 conclusion of my first day at school, I went to Burger King with teary eyes to celebrate—Father and Ngo would be so proud of me fulfilling their wishes. I ordered a small fries, costing some 30 cents and asked for a pair of chopsticks in my broken English. The scared teenage cashier hauled out her manager, who demonstrated to me how to eat fries—with his fingers.
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 constant presence might have antagonized the edgy neighboring family even more, an act that I’d resignedly accepted as beyond my control. One day the father walked over and said something to me, which I didn’t understand because he was speaking too fast, but he was smiling, which made me smile too.
By then I was earning the king’s ransom wage—$4 per hour—as a programmer. 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 gone to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and told the front desk staff that I was going to faint. Then I crumbled down onto the floor unconscious before their very eyes.
I would understand if you thought of me as pathetic and weak. I think most refugees are. Even an oak tree would falter when uprooted. I did accomplish two goals: 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: painting, gardening, photography, playing table tennis, kicking a soccer ball with my two now-teenage children, reading, watching movies, and visiting new places.
And I definitely enjoy eating, cooking, and exploring new recipes with international flavors, which thankfully I am able to do often as my family and friends show much enthusiasm devouring the dishes I create.
My first winter in Canada – Jan 1980.