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Better off here? Still no answer 24 years later|
Joseph Huynh made it out of Vietnam on his second try, but his exodus took a year
Saturday, February 15, 2003
"When Vietnamese people don't know what to do, they smile," Joseph Huynh says, grinning from ear to ear.
He is recalling arriving in Winnipeg with his four brothers and sisters in 1979. All refugees, they had been sponsored by members of a Baptist church there, and none of them knew any English.
"Someone from the church said 'How are you?' " Huynh says, "and none of us knew what he was saying. So we just smiled."
Curiously, Huynh also smiles as he describes the ordeal that led him to Winnipeg -- a year-long exodus from Vietnam that almost killed him and his family several times.
It was June 1978. Huynh, then a teenager, his brothers and sisters and 26 other people climbed into an, 11-metre wooden boat near Vung Tau, the port city where he was born, and headed out to sea. There were no seats in the boat, and enough rice, oil and water to last two weeks. Maybe. Each passenger brought one change of clothing, but nothing else.
They didn't know where they were going. They had no compass, no map and no seafaring experience. The boat was powered by one small outboard motor.
"We thought we were going out to another country and a better life," Huynh says, "but nobody knew where. It was anywhere where you can see the shore.
"What happened belonged to God, not to us."
Like tens of thousands of other Vietnamese boat people at the time, they were fleeing the Communist takeover of South Vietnam, believing that life in that country was no longer worth living after the defeat of Saigon.
It was Huynh's parents' idea that they go. Though they remained behind with four other siblings, they told Huynh: "This is the time for you to run."
He and other members of his family had already been imprisoned for trying to escape before, but that didn't deter them from trying again. It was the only way, they believed then.
"Now," he says with the wisdom that experience brings, "I would have thought differently."
Not long after they left, a thunderstorm blew up. It lasted three days. "The sea was very black," Huynh says. "Everybody thought that's it."
But it wasn't. They survived the storm and numerous bouts of seasickness, and after two weeks at sea, came upon a fishing boat whose crew gave them more water and rice, and pointed them towards Malaysia.
After another week on the open ocean, they arrived.
But the Malaysian government wouldn't accept them. Instead, Huynh, his family and thousands of other refugees who had arrived around the same time, were herded into a refugee camp on a soccer field where they remained for a week while authorities debated what to do with them.
After a week there, they were put back in their boat and towed out to sea again by a Malaysian navy vessel.
The vessel towed two boats at once, Huynh says. The other one overturned in the vessel's wake, and everyone on board drowned.
His boat was luckier.
But they still had no destination in mind or in view. Once again, the boat and all 31 people in it were heading where the currents, the wind and fortune chose to take it.
Which turned out to be next to a Panamanian oil rig. Workers aboard the rig fed them, gave them water and allowed them to tie up next to the rig, but they wouldn't allow them aboard unless they were in danger of drowning.
Days later, Huynh and his fellow refugees decided to sink the boat and take their chances.
They were rescued, and then taken to an Indonesian refugee camp where they spent a year wondering what would happen next and if they'd done the right thing by leaving in the first place.
"I thought 'If I'd stayed in Vietnam, I would have been better,' " Huynh says.
Twenty-four years later, sitting comfortably in the living room of his Vancouver house, with his wife, Teresa, at his side, and cheerful red and gold Vietnamese New Year decorations festooning his mantlepiece, Huynh still doesn't know if he did the right thing.
"How can you know?" he says. "Some people who stayed behind are now very rich."
But Huynh had made his choice and as a result ended up in Winnipeg where he learned English, finished high school and then a degree in economics and business administration at the University of Manitoba. All of it in English.
He then got a job with the Sun Life Assurance Company. He still works there, but now in Vancouver after the company transferred him, his new wife and month-old baby, James, in 1995.
A younger sister also lives in Vancouver, but the rest of his siblings, except one sister who never left Vietnam, live in Winnipeg. His parents died in Vietnam.
He met Teresa in 1993 on a trip back to Vietnam, and married her the following year. She, by contrast, knew exactly what to expect when she arrived in Canada. She had gone to orientation sessions in Vietnam telling her about Canadian customs, geography and weather, and had learned some English there as well.
Now she goes home to visit her family every two years, and hopes to sponsor her mother for a visit later this year.
James went back too, but he didn't like it. "Too hot and too many mosquitoes," says Teresa.
James goes to an English Catholic school, but he speaks Vietnamese at home and goes to Vietnamese lessons on weekends. The family celebrates all the Christian festivals, and Vietnamese New Year.
Their friends are mainly other Vietnamese immigrants, but they have a few friends outside that community too. Teresa shops all over town and uses English when she does.
The Huynhs, both Canadian citizens, say they feel "half Canadian and half Vietnamese," and probably always will. James, however, a native-born Canadian, has had to learn his parents' traditions second-hand.
"He is a Canadian," Huynh says. "He was born here."
Occasionally, Huynh says, he will talk to other refugees about his and their experiences on the boats, but mainly they talk about the present. Besides, he says, most of the Vietnamese living in Vancouver now got here by plane.
"Look at her," he says pointing at Teresa and laughing. "Ten hours in the air, and she's here. Not like me. Not like my family."
Profile of and interview with Joseph Huynh.
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