This first-person article is the experience of Tiffany Three, a writer, political leader, entrepreneur and community builder in Ottawa. For more on CBC’s first-person stories, see FAX.
If you had asked me when I knew my family were refugees, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. There was no single moment of realization—just scattered memories like puzzle pieces that don’t always fit together.
When we were children, my parents told my sisters and I about their harrowing journey avoiding soldiers and pirates, how they survived the stormy waters of the South China Sea and arrived in Hong Kong.
After nine days at sea, they waited another three days on a ship just outside the city before the United Nations intervened and they were finally allowed to disembark. They stayed in a refugee camp for four months before being sponsored to come to Ottawa in 1979.
Listening to these stories, I always felt like they were new adventures that were somehow far removed from my life in Canada. As a kid, I didn’t have the historical knowledge or understanding to anchor their significance.
Little was taught in school about the Vietnam War — just a few sentences sprinkled here and there in history textbooks. Movies about the Vietnam War have always been told from the point of view of American soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam ripe for cinematic footage of mud, blood and glory.
None of these Oscar-worthy performances resonated with the stories I heard from my family, which kept alive shards of hope and humanity despite the melancholy.
I suppose it was no surprise that my passing interest faded into easy ambivalence.
I ask my grandfather
My maternal grandfather was the driving force behind our family’s move to the other side of the world. My parents were dating at the time and my dad joined my mother’s family on a dangerous journey, leaving his parents behind. They surrendered their fate to the ocean and the immigration system.
Although my parents shared their stories of what happened, it was important for me to hear my grandfather’s perspective. He didn’t talk much about his past. Maybe it was the loss of my grandmother just a few years after coming to Canada, or maybe the suffocating humility of starting over made him not want to talk about his life.
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At family gatherings, I would give the obligatory greeting “Hello gong gong!”
“That’s good, that’s good,” he would say in return, nodding his head in acknowledgment while simultaneously waving at us.
The first time I heard him tell his story was at his baptism when he was 89 years old. The faintest trace of emotion crept into his voice as he talked about how life changed drastically during the war, about the incarceration and the numerous attempts to get his family out of the country.
With their savings depleted by extortion and the exorbitant prices smugglers charged for a chance at freedom, my family made one last attempt to leave Vietnam. Moving like shadows, they boarded a boat with several hundred people. After nine days at sea, a strong storm hit the boat and many of the passengers lost consciousness.
When he came the next morning, still alive, my grandfather couldn’t believe it. “And after all that we still couldn’t die!” he crowed in disbelief, still confused after all these years.
More and more I began to feel a pull, a nagging feeling that I needed to document these stories and honor this determination and resilience.
I would put these feelings aside to prioritize everyday life. It was only when the pandemic stopped all events and activities that I felt I had enough time.
I decided to try to capture this story, meeting a film producer and director whose family also moved to Canada during the Vietnam War.
The process was not easy. We connected with my grandfather on Zoom to learn about his story with my parents who were translators in different languages and generations.
Bombarding him with our list of prepared questions, we would wait, sometimes impatiently, as he sifted through his memories, stoic as ever.
Towards the end, we asked him what he missed most about Vietnam. He took a moment to think and said, “It’s hard to remember. Life is like a dream.”
I had more questions, but I could see he was fading as his answers grew shorter. We said goodnight and hung up.
That was the last time I spoke to him. Four weeks later, he was gone. Just as I began to tear down the walls he had built around his memories, and perhaps his grief, I found myself left with the ashes of what could have been.
For months I berated myself for waiting so long to document his story, for waiting for the perfect conditions to be created, and now it was too late.
Loss and unraveling
As I grieve, a question that director Han Nguyen asked during our first conversations echoes in my mind. “When do past and present meet before they separate again?”
I think about this as I walk through Ottawa’s Chinatown where my grandfather lived for the last few decades of his life, where Chinese herbal and acupuncturist shops are slowly being replaced by modern storefronts of microbreweries and cannabis dispensaries.
New construction will pave over my grandfather’s tracks even as I cling to the past. And my son, perhaps there is not a single moment where the past and the present meet. Instead, every step we take is a collision, every breath an interaction between past and present, a brief negotiation of our future.
It’s either a travesty or an enormous privilege, depending on how you look at it.
My message now is simple. Talk to your living ancestors. Discover the stories of how they moved mountains, cut oceans and looked away.
And know that the same strength lies within you.
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