Personal Essay

What it took to understand my 'Boat People' parents

Jason Chau, the only son of Vietnamese refugees, shares how a trip to Saigon shook the core of his Canadian identity.

There's a big difference between starting in Canada, and coming here to start again

Jason Chau's advice to first generation Canadians: if you can, go back to your parent's home country and have them walk you through their world. (Jason Chau)

I stood in front of a motorcycle parts store with my father in Saigon, Vietnam. In typical stoic Asian dad fashion, he said nothing — so I broke the silence.

"Is this mom's house?"

He nodded.

The store stood where my mother's family home used to be. I looked around in every direction, picturing what she would've seen every day.

This world wasn't mine, and I barely understood how it was a part of me.

Growing up 'Gwai Jai'

Throughout my childhood, my parents' past seemed a world away. They were ethnically Chinese and grew up in Vietnam. I was born in Canada and grew up in middle class Toronto neighbourhoods.

I didn't even know how my family had ended up here. Not really.- Jason Chau

My group of friends did not share a skin colour or mother tongue. I loved rock 'n' roll and spent my free time playing the guitar. I didn't take the time to learn the Cantonese words I didn't know. I simply said it in English.

To my parents, I was too Canadian. They often called me a  "Gwai Jai" — a white kid. The title was a chip on my shoulder. I knew I didn't feel that way.

To me, Canada seemed like a country for big families who owned cottages passed down from generation to generation. Canadians were the people I saw on TV. Rarely did I see a face like mine on shows and movies. I felt like I just happened to be here, like a reluctant guest.

Growing up, Jason (seen here visiting his cousin) felt caught between worlds: neither "TV Canadian" nor comfortably Chinese-Vietnamese. (Jason Chau)

Plus, I didn't even know how my family had ended up here. Not really.

For most of my life, my parents never spoke about the war. Their main goal was to survive and provide me with a good education. Dealing with the past was never on the forefront of their minds, and I suppose they didn't want to burden me with the details.

But buried details always find a way to surface.

'The last time I was here …'

My mother passed away in late 2014 without having ever returned to Vietnam.

Chau's mother died in 2014 having never returned to Vietnam. She wanted nothing to do with the past, he says. (Jason Chau)

My dad had tried, for many years, to convince her to go back, but she wanted nothing to do with the past.

The grieving settled after two long years, and finally my father felt ready to go back and rediscover the world he left behind. In early 2016, he asked me to go with him to Vietnam.

He wanted me to know about our family history and see his country — "our country" he would say. It would be his first time in 40 years, and my first time ever.

I was nervous, but I knew the trip might answer many questions I never had the courage to ask.

The trip took us to many places significant to our family history. I saw both of my parents' homes, the spot where an uncle died in a motorcycle crash, the butcher shop where another uncle worked and the corner where my grandmother served street food, among other places.

At one point, during our walks through the city, we came across a busy intersection that seemed much more modern than the rest of Saigon.

"The last time I was here, it was all on fire," my dad said, stretching out his arms and framing the entire street in between them.

It finally hit me that my father had watched Saigon crumble.

Prior to that moment, my only knowledge of the Fall of Saigon had been from Wikipedia, and now he was describing it in detail. His memories hadn't faded. They were too deeply etched into his mind.

I struggled to think of an event in my life, other than my mother's passing, that could compare to the loss he witnessed. I realized there was no equivalent.

Everyone he'd known had lost nearly everything.

The full picture

The trip filled in many details of my parents' lives prior to my existence.

I learned that my parents each had 11 brothers and sisters. (I had only met a handful of them.) Some died in the war, some stayed behind and some stopped talking to those who left.

This is what Chau's father saw stepping into his childhood home after 40 years away. (Jason Chau)
I learned that my father took a treacherous journey on a small boat, crammed full of other refugees, towards Macau. It was there that he met my mother at a refugee camp, and together, they came to North America.

They knew my aunt lived near Syracuse, New York, so they opened a map of North America and decided that Toronto was a good place to settle because it was geographically close to her.

I'm not sure if they knew at the time that Canada was a different country.

Learning about their personal sacrifices and forced migration made my identity crisis feel insignificant. And now that I had the full picture, I realized they sheltered me from a very real burden. Being forcibly dragged away from their home and country was a pain they shouldered alone.

Without knowing it at the time, this country gave me a chance to do things I might not have ever done were I born in Vietnam.

I likely would have never travelled the world, let alone have a group of friends that come from every corner of the globe. I probably wouldn't have a job that allows me to use my creativity. Canada gave me that chance.

Life before you

I came back to Toronto with humility. I realized that Canada is an incredible place if you need to start life again — and that's what my parents did. They hit the big red restart button so I could begin my life with a clean slate.

If you're like me and feel a cultural disconnection from your parents — ask them what life was like before you.- Jason Chau

Now I see more immigrant families with children, all trying to survive and provide a future for their little ones. I see more people embracing refugees with open arms. I see a country that values life itself. I don't see that around the world sometimes, and it breaks my heart.

If you're like me and feel a cultural disconnection from your immigrant parents — ask them what life was like before you.

If you can, go back to their home countries with them and have them walk you through their world. It can be a sobering experience to see how much you truly have because you live in Canada.

Today, I feel much more Canadian. I no longer see Canada as just a country for multi-generational Caucasians.

It's a country for anybody who wants a fighting chance at life.

Jason Chau is an Advertising Creative at Mosaic Sales Solutions. He cooks a lot of Vietnamese food to remember his mother. (Jason Chau)

Pitch your own personal essay to Canada 2017. Do you have a fascinating first-person story about Canada? Is it a point of view that we don't often hear from? Does it present a vision for the future of our country? Read more about how to pitch your essay to Canada 2017. You don't have to be a professional writer — you just need a strong story.

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