Cloaked in a quiet suburbia, survivors slice into medium-rare steaks and sip red wine at the dinner table. Mothers swoop back and forth like trained servers, fathers make a parody out of politics, and the young swipe across tiny screens, slouching behind handheld barriers. With flushed cheeks and gruff voices, the grandfathers, seated at the end of the table, commence a ceremonious impartation of war recollections. A hush fills the house. Food tastes better when the mouths have not been fed. If the children have not experienced suffering, at least they should hear it.
The children don’t care. It’s the twenty-first century in the land of the glorious and free. No communist soldiers pound on their doors, ransacking the young and the old, only mailmen delivering purchased goods. Screams are sacred thrills for soccer games, not daily rituals of another mother mourning her child. Fortune wafts through lecture halls, not gunpowder blowing through bustling streets, where a man with worn clothes begs for money to feed his family. After nine years at a re-education camp, freedom in a tarnished town is as untasteful as the whispers of those lost at sea.
“You have it so much better than we did,” the survivors say, their voice roughened by anger and sadness. They hold their calloused hands, unknowingly tracing scars from more difficult days. Gratitude rooted in guilt festers like an untreated wound.
The children of survivors have not tasted the tenderness portrayed in film and foreign culture, or at the next-door neighbour’s house. With laced-up sneakers, they are prepared to run from threats they haven’t seen. But still, they thrive in powerful places, despite the seed that is planted at a young age: that they will never be enough.
It was an ordinary evening—local news played on the television and fog and forest obscured the moonlight, causing time to feel later than it was. Mary finished wiping the counters and drying the dishes, completed her usual rounds from cabinet to drawer, then rested at a kitchen chair. I sat beside her, gazing out the window where blankets of snow-covered our yard and glassy icicles dripped off our roof, creating the epitome of a winter wonderland.
Mary, our live-in caregiver—a thin, energetic woman with a cropped bob and bangs—was hired after my paternal grandmother, a stubborn and independent woman, suffered a stroke and could no longer care for herself. Babysitting Lucas and me was part of the package-deal, at least until my parents came home from work. Our bungalow sat on land protected by the Oak Ridges Conservation Act, which neighboured one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Canada—also known as the city of Vaughan. This made it difficult for me to reconcile whether I preferred city-chic or country-charm—yet another identity crisis for me to eventually overcome.
“Your parents want to spend time with you,” Mary said, motioning for me to sit beside my dad on the couch. She gazed down at me with kind eyes and a grim pout, which she wore throughout the day, like she was enduring an unseen burden that had simultaneously softened and strengthened her. Mary waved her hands in a gentle ‘shoo’ motion. I stayed by her side, so she repeated herself with her usual sing-song voice and a touch of suppressed fatigue that I was too young to observe.
After further urging from Mary, I grudgingly sat next to Dad on the sofa, both of us stiff and unspeaking while the TV droned on in the background. Shortly after, a banging at our door indicated that Mom had arrived home from work. I made an excuse to get up and greet her, moving toward the door. Dad let me go.
Mom worked as a piano teacher in Etobicoke, a thirty-minute drive down Highway 400 and off the Finch exit. At the front of the rented unit was a small room with a piano and a cozy foyer with mismatched furnishings. At the back of the unit was Dad’s headquarters for his start-up company, Philix Technologies. As a child surrounded by humming machines, tangled wires, and energetic employees—intermingled with the sounds of classical music and Mom’s corrections—I often felt like I was in the world’s leading innovation centre. The flimsy plastic window blinds, the disappearing kitchen tucked behind squeaky rolling doors, and the creaky staircase that led to Dad’s cluttered office only added to its allure.
“Did you eat yet?” Mom said as I greeted her.
I shook my head. “No.”
“You mean, ‘not yet,’” Mom corrected.
“Sorry. I mean ‘not yet.’”
Mom dropped her bags by the hallway table, rambling about work while rushing to the kitchen. I waited for her to ask me how my day was.
Earlier that day, I stood at the front of my class, hands shaking as twenty deadpan faces stared back at me. With more ‘uhhs’ and ‘umms’ than I could count, I finished my presentation then took my seat as the next student stood, a dazzling picture of confidence. He smiled at the front of the class, his friends at the back hooting and hollering as he bantered his way through the presentation. I clapped with the class, then the bell rang to go home.
“Why don’t you hire someone to take care of scheduling for you? That will save time and stress,” I suggested. That was my poor attempt to mention that I wanted to talk to Mom about something, but instead my confession came out as an accusation.
“It’s not that easy, you know,” Mom replied. “I don’t have anyone that I can trust to do it. It’s a lot of work. And they’ll have access to all my information. I can’t just give the job to anyone.”
“You just worry too much,” I replied.
Mom paused. “You know, when I was your age, I had to sweep the floor every day. And Grand Aunt would slap me if I didn’t put things back where they came from. You are so lucky I’m easy on you.” She reorganized the mugs in our cabinet to her liking.
“Why does it even matter where the mugs are? They’re all the same.”
“Because you need to have good habits. When you go to someone’s house, they’re going to talk about our family and say nobody ever taught you.”
I stormed off, silently. Mom followed shortly after to tuck me into bed, like she did every night. We said our usual prayers, asking for health and happiness. Mom kissed me on the forehead and shut the door behind her until I could only see a sliver of light and hear the faint mumble of Mom and Dad’s banter. I hugged the blanket tighter to my chest. If Mom and Dad wanted to spend more time with me, why didn’t they?
The next morning, Mom woke me up for school and prepared my lunch.
“Don’t forget to dress warm.”
“I’m fine,” I replied, already halfway out the door.
“I won’t be home until 10 p.m. today,” Mom said.
I already knew that. It was the same almost every night.
I offered a half-hearted wave, back-facing, and caught the bus for another day of school.
A glance out the window will show that seasons passed quickly. Over the course of 10 years, Mom and Dad’s schedule stayed busy, and I floated down the school system’s stream with only a few minor scratches, a hamster wheel we ran on relentlessly. Through a creative writing course in university, I was tasked to write about my family history. For the first time, I listened to my parents’ story with a journalist’s curiosity, suddenly appreciative of the tales I heard around the dinner table.
Both my parents escaped Vietnam as pre-teens. Around the same age I was assimilating into Canadian schools, they were arriving in an entirely different world with only the valuables they could carry. Most escaped by boat, eating whatever they found on the ground—rotten food, plants, or feces—and were often raped or killed on the journey. My parents were lucky to escape through sponsorship and arrive in Canada on a plane.
In 1962, Dad was born in a hospital in Gia Định, a province surrounding the capital city of Southern Vietnam. Gia Định province—not to be confused with gia đình, which translates to “family”—was known for its industrial centres. Dad grew up in the middle of the Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, and recalls playing with gun shells found on the ground.
On January 30, 1968, Gia Định was alive with the excitement of Lunar New Year festivities. Tết is one of the most important celebrations in Vietnamese culture. Based on the lunar calendar, it marks the arrival of spring, the forgetting of troubles, and the blessings for a new year. Families visit each other, dressed in traditional áo dài—a long dress worn with silk pants—and hand out red envelopes with lucky money to obedient children. Families decorate their homes with chrysanthemums or orchids, cook foods such as bánh chưng—sticky rice, seasoned pork, and mung bean wrapped around banana leaves—and visit family altars to pay respects. The belief is that good occurrences on the first day of Lunar New Year foretells a good year ahead.
Dad climbed up a bamboo ladder to see festivities at every corner; the turbulent sounds and sights of troops approaching, cities falling, and forces retreating almost forgotten. Without warning, bomber planes flew overhead, bombing cities and scattering people. The attack was an attempt to stir up rebellion in the south of Vietnam and convince the American allies to give up their defence. Dad recalls his family hiding at a church for shelter until the noise died down.
On April 25, 1975, five days before the war was over, a C5A military transport brought Dad and his family to Guam, a military base in the Pacific Ocean. From there, they were flown to Camp Pendleton, a military base located near downtown San Diego, before
being sponsored by an uncle who had already settled in Canada. In a brick townhouse with a rickety door, situated in a low-income area in Toronto, Dad became an outsider who didn’t look or speak like those around him. He carried vivid memories of suffering that no one could see, especially the neighbours his age who decided to call him ‘ching.’
A year earlier, in 1974, Mom was born to a literature teacher who was working and waiting for her husband to be released from re-education camp. Forced to serve for nine years under the pretense of being a rebel, he survived off meager rice portions and salt, worked free labour, and missed most of his daughter’s childhood. Mom recalls the first time her dad returned home. She wondered why her mom burst to tears at the sight of a stranger.
In 1989, Mom was finally sponsored to come to Canada by her aunt and uncle, who escaped by boat years earlier. Before she left, Mom’s school friends wrote messages and memories in a journal alongside photos of themselves, so that they wouldn’t be forgotten after Mom’s one-way trip to the land they all dreamed of. In a coloured photo of Mom’s last day in Vietnam, she played a song on the piano for her classmates, her hair in two braids with a pastel pink string tied at the ends, her classmates crowded around her, mesmerized.
Canada was nothing like what Mom had imagined. It was cold and lonely. She couldn’t communicate in English to her older siblings who had immigrated years before. She wore tanner skin and mismatched hand-me-down clothes, making it hard for her to fit in. Mom spent hours on long bus rides from Scarborough to Spadina for work at the family restaurant, where the whole family helped. At night, she slept in the corner of the room facing the wall while she cried silently so no one would wake up. A kind woman named Mrs. Dorland offered free piano lessons until Mom’s mother received a better paying job where she stayed until retirement.
When I was born, Mom continued to work, taking only one month for maternity leave. She was self-employed as a piano teacher, which meant she had the flexibility to take time off, but work was essential for survival. A seven-dollar parking pass was a souvenir from the hospital Mom kept on the first page of my photo album, which held photos of baby me meeting the family, cocooned in a blanket, two-thirds of my face flushed pink, as if my skin had been burned alive. Mom said she loved me so much that when Dad asked for a second child, she couldn’t imagine having more love to spare. Her memory of my birth reminded me of how much I mattered, just like Mary’s words on that random night.
It’s 10 p.m., I’m in my pajamas, and the food is cold. Mom asks me if I ate dinner the minute she walks through the door, and I reply “yes,” a routine response to a routine question. On the crook of her arm hangs her black leather purse filled with ‘just in case’ items, weighing her down and rarely used. In her other hand are bags filled with music books.
Mom speeds into the kitchen, then rambles about the piano lessons she needs to reschedule. She glances at her reflection in the hallway mirror for a split second before turning away. I feel her nervousness, and like an itch at the back of my throat, I tell Mom the words I feel she needs to hear, the words I need to say, because I’m overwhelmed with the feeling that if I don’t, it’ll be too late.
“I love you, Mom.”
“Aww, I love you too, hunny.”
“You’re beautiful, Mom. My beautiful momma,” I add, knowing it will make her cringe.
“I always tell my students that only you say that to me.”
“Because it’s true.”
“Well, no one else ever says that to me,” Mom replies.
I don’t reply because I don’t know what to say. Putting my phone down, I glance at Mom while she heats up the leftovers. Peppered grey hair blends into bleached brown, and she wears the same thing she wore yesterday. Not everyone has the inclination to express love through words, because they don’t know how, or they don’t want to. I don’t say much else, though, because a soft smile lingers on her face, and I feel the itch subside.