Impossible Kindness is a Canadian Reality
I’ve never had to worry upon a trip to the library, or the dentist, if the staff there has lived or died in the latest political tumult to hit Toronto. It has never crossed my mind to imagine that if tanks rolled down Yonge St. (marking the takeover of the Western Canadian Regime), it would mean that I might as well keep my neighbour’s snow-blower, because he would have likely escaped in the middle of the night with his family, abandoning their house. I don’t have these ludicrous thoughts because I live in Toronto, Canada. Instead, this week, I will cross Yonge St. on my way to watch my friend’s softball game in Riverdale Park, and the library might have the book I’ve put on hold. As a Canadian, my mind has the war-free-bandwidth to think of flossing and thanking Mr. Possamai for bringing my blue bin back in on Friday.
In the former economically viable Westernized capital of South Viet Nam (a country that no longer exists), my mom and dad, too, once took life’s blissful banalities for granted. But in the 60s and 70s, the Viet Nam War raging in the countryside near the North spread its dark stain, slowly, but surely down toward Saigon.
Then on April 30, 1975, the bubble of the insular capital city finally popped, and Saigon fell with a disastrous speed no one had imagined possible. The North Vietnamese came rolling down Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard in tanks, victorious. This sight of the enemy, long-feared, triggered a mass panic, and then exodus in the largest-scale helicopter evacuation in history. In the decimated economy that followed, under a hostile regime, the many left behind knew that life and freedom would never be the same again. It would end up being 2 million people, who planned their escape—this time by boat.
It took my parents five hard years to work up the plan and gold ounces to escape. They couldn’t be sure, but they had researched that the world knew of the humanitarian crisis of the Vietnamese people. They had heard of organized refuges in neighbouring Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, and legal passages to start lives anew in countries that were actually welcoming them around the world. But they had also heard of devastating scams—countless exorbitant pay-upfront escape schemes that preyed on people’s desperation, taking their life’s savings and decimating the one last thing anyone had left: hope. And then, of course, there were stories of those who died because they had been too full of hope and dared to escape based on unreliable information. For my parents, in their late 20s and early 30s, it would all be nothing short of the biggest gamble of their lives trying to figure out what to do next, when the price could be their lives along with the lives of their two small daughters. Death was waiting on the open sea, to swallow us whole, to have us shot as treasonous escapees by coast guards, or beaten to death by pirates.
But the alternative was a life not worth living.
So, one moonless night in spring, when the coast guards would be blinded by darkness, and the ocean was still, a small fisherman’s boat pushed out quietly into the open South China Sea with its belly swollen. My parents, my sister and I, and 57 other people were inside. The engines were only turned on once the boat was in international waters. My mom the librarian, my dad the economist, along with students, civil servants, housewives, journalists and their children, aimed for Thailand. We had taken with us only what we could sew discreetly into our work, or market clothes. A silver necklace, some baby pictures.
I was two years old and my sister was five. We took turns sitting on my mother’s lap.
The 1.5 day trip ended up taking 9 days, when the plastic bags of a pregnant woman eating snacks had gotten sucked into the engine, stalling it early on in the journey. Drifting aimlessly, for days, without fresh water, mouths became cracked and eyes dimmed. It didn’t look like fortune was smiling down upon us. It seemed that the wishes and prayers whispered through the parched mouths of 60-some-odd Vietnamese people in a dot of a boat were impossible to hear, or to care about, in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and the gauzy tentativeness of existence.
Impossibly, I find myself here, now, writing this to you as a Jays’ fan, with skinny jeans, a favourite IPA and opinions. I was that 2-year-old girl adrift in the Gulf of Thailand in a boat with a broken engine, no fresh water and no country. It is nothing short of the Incredible Humanity of Canadians that I exist. My family and thousands of other Vietnamese may have uttered our inaudible cries for help out in the middle of some remote sea, on the other side of the world, and not even in English or French, but Canadians in the 1980s must have been preternaturally, pre-Internet savvy! Joyce and Marion Mackie, Gordon and Doris Bennett, Jim and Jennie Montgomery, Cyril and Jean Gough were among dozens of impossibly kind strangers who had somehow heard my family. They were the congregation of a small United Trinity Church, in Charlottetown, PEI. And they had the wherewithal and organizational power to coordinate with a refugee camp in Bangkok, Thailand (where we finally landed) and with all governments in between, to issue airplane tickets and passports to Quang and Tam Tran and their two little girls, to fly to Charlottetown via Tokyo and Montreal. For a new life. Impossibly, we found ourselves in glorious and free Canada, just one month after that moonless night.
No one told us about the winters, but 35 years on, we’re still here!
So, what was it: a highly evolved heart, or advanced faith or education that these Canadians had, who saved us? They had reached out to complete strangers and handed us our lives back. I’ve had the extreme fortune of experiencing Canadian kindness, but I never questioned where it came from. I can only say for certain: it felt like a miracle; it felt like compassion.