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Scattered across the world, the Boat People shaped unknown and alien places, into their new homes. Hear their stories of adjusting to their new surroundings.

Waiting For My Brother

Story by Vi Nguyen. Translations by Nam Hoang.

Audio Transcript: English

[Huong Hoang]: Ok, so uncle Thiep was also a Boat Person. What was it like at home, waiting for news?

[Vi Nguyen]: We were very sad. Your grandma would go to the fortune tellers constantly. Really, I think if your uncle had waited he could’ve left with us. However, at the time, China was invading the North of Vietnam. And so the government was conscripting anyone over the age of eighteen for the war. After he finished high school, your uncle got the papers telling him to report for duty. Your grandma asked uncle Thiep if he’d rather wait, or take a boat and leave. He chose to leave. At the time the government was heavily persecuting the Chinese living in Vietnam. They were taking their businesses and their homes. To be honest a lot of people didn’t truly know the perils of the sea, I know we didn’t. But at the time many Chinese were deciding to flee. Grandma had a Chinese friend; she knew a person who made boats. Papers were drawn up for your uncle to make it look like he made boats as well. Your uncle left with the Chinese friend’s son, so that they could meet up with your Grandpa [who was already out of the country since before the war] and he wouldn’t be alone.

After he left, we didn’t hear from him for awhile. Vietnamese people have a superstition, that if your front door and back door align, and then money will flow through and then out your house! My house was like that. Anyways, one day a bird somehow managed to get through our screen door, flew into the house and then right back out the back door again! Your grandma saw it as a sign that something had happened to your uncle, and she cried and cried. I remember her crying and holding your uncle’s shirt in her hands. I tried to tell her that he would be fine, and we did end up hearing from him a bit later and that he was ok.

I think we arrived in Canada a year after uncle Thiep (the entire process took five years). Canada’s immigration people were very smart actually. They sent people to Saigon to interview us to make sure that we really were your Grandpa’s family. A lot of people would pretend to be related to someone in another country and try to get sponsored over and the Government of Canada knew this. They were very clever, the people they sent knew how to speak Vietnamese, but never let on that they did. They wanted to see if we were fake. It was either your Aunt Van or I that brought your Grandma to the office in Saigon to check up on where we were on the sponsorship process. I remember that our guy was named Bosma. He had eyes like an owl, like he was trying to see through you. Meanwhile your Grandma kept going to the fortune tellers very early in the morning. I think we kept going because we felt very powerless. When they told her that we were almost ready to go, she would be very happy. But when they told her that nothing much was happening, she got very sad.

A funny story: your Grandpa never wore his wedding ring. Your Grandma made him wear it and he sent us a picture from Canada of his hand with the ring on. In the pictures he looked like he was getting so old. For one, he was sad because of the long separation from his family. The other thing was that eating out and drinking here in Canada was starting to take his toll on him! When Grandma finally made it to Canada and Grandpa started eating properly again, he got his youthfulness back!

[Huong]: How did you hear that Uncle Thiep had made it?

[Vi]: When we finally heard from Thiep we were so happy! He sent us a photo [from the refugee camp] and I could barely recognize him. Before he left he was very small and shy, not like your aunt Tu who was very outspoken. But in the picture he was so big! And he had this wild hair! When we asked him about his transformation, he said all he ever did in the camp was eat, swim, and exercise! Grandpa was sending him money, that’s how he bought the camera to send us pictures with. He probably has so many pictures of the camp on the island.