Saskatchewan·First Person

I arrived in Canada as a refugee 30 years ago and I still feel like I'm catching up on time lost

Mai Ly feels she is finally where she wants to be, doing the things she wanted to do. But she often feels like she's making up for time lost growing up in and then escaping Vietnam.

Free and safe in Canada, I rediscovered my artistic self

I have lived in Canada for 30 years, most of that time in Regina — on the beautiful prairie land. Over the last 200 years, this land was changed from grasslands where buffalo roamed into the agricultural landscape of today. This painting, ‘Transformation’, is about the continuous change occurring around us. (Mai Ly)

This first person piece was written by Mai Ly, an artist in Regina.

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The concept of time lost is familiar to many of us, especially with the pandemic: it is the time when our lives get off course. We envision an ideal life for ourselves and make plans. However, fate deals us new realities — whether we like them or not — and we can only do our best to live through them with dignity, and never give up.

I have experienced many hardships. I grew up during the Vietnam War, witnessed the communist takeover, and lived for many years as a refugee and immigrant. Often not knowing what the future would bring, I tried my best and always had hope for a better tomorrow.

I am finally where I want to be, doing the things I wanted to do. But I often look back at my troubled past, and I feel that I am racing, trying to make up for lost time.  

As a farewell to the city where I spent my childhood, I painted ‘Que Sera’ to remember Saigon the way it was and still is, and to dream of what it may become. (Mai Ly)

Growing up, I liked art, drawing and playing the guitar. But my childhood was enveloped by war. I was only 16 when the final assault on the capital of South Vietnam started. The fall of Saigon in 1975 marked the end of the Vietnam War, resulting in a total communist victory. 

I took basic evening courses in accounting, which allowed me to earn some money, but overall lived a miserable life under the communist government policies, wasting my youthful energy. I felt I achieved nothing. 

Thousands of Vietnamese who refused to live under the communist system fled the country in search of freedom. I attempted to escape my homeland several times. Eventually, I succeeded.  

I was one of many who bravely boarded little fishing boats hoping to reach the refugee camps safely. We spent seven awful days at sea with not nearly enough food and water. Many were robbed or abused. Some perished at sea. Eventually we reached an island in Indonesia. There, for three years, I lived at the Galang refugee camp where every day was a challenge. 

Those who survived the sea voyage and the refugee camps still faced the challenge of finding a country willing to accept them. I was one of those lucky enough to settle down in Canada.

The picture shows a typical small fishing boat overloaded with escapees, such as the one on which I spent seven days at sea. It was a perilous journey and a nightmare. (Mai Ly)

All immigrants face some form of time lost — that period spent in limbo between leaving their native land and resettling in another country. Their goals and dreams are often put on hold for many years as they focus on achieving freedom and safety. 

The early years in Canada were difficult. Through hard work and perseverance, my life gradually improved. 

Then I realized how little time I had left to achieve my goals. It took about 15 years from finishing high school in Saigon to complete my studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. I took on part-time jobs while studying. 

After getting my degree, I worked as an accountant and in my spare time practised my skills as a painter. I finally rediscovered my artistic self. I found painting as a medium to communicate my deepest thoughts and dreams. I paint not only to express myself but also hope that my artwork is relevant and enjoyable. 

The painting ‘Introspection’ is my way to reflect on my whole life. It shows the time of war in Vietnam, my later time as a career woman, and my future, growing old and walking with a cane. (Mai Ly)

It's not wise to mourn over lost time and how little time is left to fulfill one's dreams. However, I often wonder how much more I could have achieved if my life had been without adversities and interruptions. 

I think it is better to accept that all experiences we have lived through have value. Though I try hard to embrace the time I lived in limbo just trying to survive, it is not easy, and sometimes I wish that fate had given me a normal or even boring life. 

Time passed and here I am, trying to remember the girl who stepped into a flimsy little fishing boat. I am glad she was so brave, risking her life for me.  

Mai Ly's exhibit "I have dreamt; planning for the unknown" is on display at Neutral Ground in Regina until July 3, 2021. It's visible in a window gallery from Scarth Street.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mai Ly is a Regina-based artist, painting in oil, acrylic and watercolour.

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