St John’s, Newfoundland (The Northern Pen): Trong Nguyen spent his childhood in N.L. as a Vietnamese ‘boat people’ refugee, and he is coming back for a visit
It may be more than 30 years since Trong Nguyen left Newfoundland and Labrador, but he remains forever grateful for how his childhood here — after his family arrived as boat people — changed his life.
“Growing up in St. John’s was the best thing that ever happened to our family,” he said in a memoir.
He told The Telegram that coming to this province inspired the family to become quickly immersed in Canadian culture, learn the language and thrive as they moved on to other opportunities. He is glad they didn’t go first to Toronto and entrench in refugee communities there, where it could be easier to get by with their traditional language only.
“One hundred times over. Trust me when I say that,” he told The Telegram of his appreciation of starting Canadian life in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Nguyen, a technology sales and marketing executive who now lives in Jersey City, N.J., will visit St. John’s this summer with his wife and three children.
Nguyen’s lifestyle now is the polar opposite of his introduction to this province in 1979, after his family fled South Vietnam, spending weeks stranded at sea on an overcrowded boat before making land in Malaysia. They were among the lucky ones.
According to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ website, refugees began fleeing Vietnam by boat in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, and communist North Vietnam’s victory in the Vietnam War.
But hundreds of thousands of people died at sea in storms and from diseases and starvation, the museum notes.
As refugee camps overflowed in places like Hong Kong and Malaysia, other countries were moved to accept the refugees, including Canada. They were known as “the boat people.”
In the late 1970s, the museum notes, a government plan proposed Canada would match privately sponsored refugees, and churches, groups of citizens and organizations got involved.
From 1975-92, more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees were admitted to Canada.
Nguyen’s parents, Kimba and Duoc, ran a coffee shop in Vietnam before they decided to head out and try to make a better life for their three children and Kimba’s young sister. Duoc, who had served in the military, supported the losing U.S. side during the Vietnam War.
Food ran out quickly on the roughly 25-foot open boat, and Nguyen remembers men who could swim diving into the water to try to catch some fish.
“It wasn’t a lot,” he said.
When they landed off Malaysia, they walked to find civilization and then were bused to refugee camps in Kuala Lumpur.
Nguyen’s book, “Winning the Bank,” is largely a dramatic take on the tech sales world, and he plans to publish it this summer on Amazon.
But in it, Nguyen recalls his early life in St. John’s and arriving in Canada at age seven.
The family was sponsored by the Corpus Christi parish.
“I was too young to understand it at the time, but the world was opening its hearts and wallets to help people like us,” Nguyen writes in his book draft.
When they saw the Kilbride townhouse that the sponsors had arranged for them to live in, they were overjoyed.
“We were used to sleeping on dirt floors, fighting for small scraps of nonexistent food and now, overnight, we were living in the lap of luxury,” he recalls in the book.
But there was culture shock as well.
“It was December 1979. It was freezing cold, snowbanks were 10 Trongs high (I was small back then), and we couldn’t understand anything when people spoke to us,” he recalled.
Nguyen was first placed in a special education class in school because of the language barrier and not knowing English. He excelled in math, but struggled to do other homework because of the language issue.
He pushed himself to learn English by watching popular soap operas of the era like “Another World” and “General Hospital” with his sisters and aunt, as well as other TV shows. He practised English elocution relentlessly.
Their father first went to work in a Bata shoe store, and their mother as a dishwasher, employment secured through the parish sponsorship. Duoc then learned refrigeration mechanics.
Nguyen joined Cub Scouts and played floor hockey, and eventually overcame the language challenges to thrive at school.
He still remembers the generosity of neighbour families who helped him get to those activities with their children.
“Our Kilbride neighbours were the best people in the world. They embraced us, helped us,” he told The Telegram.
“They were very welcoming and embracing across the board.”
Their early experiences with North American food are humourously recalled in his draft book.
One was the time his father brought home a surprise for the family on Nguyen’s sister’s birthday. It turned out to be a pizza and Nyguyen’s mother hated it and couldn’t understand why her husband wasted their hard-earned money. The children weren’t sure about it, but sided with their mom.
Another time, he brought home Kentucky Fried Chicken. They thought Colonel Sanders was actually a high-ranking U.S. military man who had stepped aside from that job when his hidden talent was discovered. They immediately loved the chicken, and Nguyen said KFC and pizza remain his dietary downfall.
Then one day, his parents announced they would move to Toronto for better opportunities.
Nguyen recalls being distraught over the announcement, but at least they got to say goodbye as they packed up a van and headed for Toronto, as opposed to leaving Vietnam in the middle of the night.
“I remember being sad and angry. I didn’t want to leave St. John’s. It was the best place to grow up as a kid,” he wrote of the experience. “I put up a good front, smiling a lot and saying I was looking forward to the journey. But behind closed doors or when I was by myself, when no one was looking, I cried.”
In St. John’s, the family particularly formed a bond with parish sponsor volunteers Shawn Dobbin and his wife, Loretta, who have stayed in touch with them over the years. Dobbin said he last saw Nguyen 20 years ago when the Dobbins visited the family in Ontario.
“I knew right away we were going to get along quite well,” recalls Dobbin, who was a vice-principal when he first met the family.
Nguyen said the Dobbins were real-life angels to the family.
Dobbin, then the president of the parish council, said parish members were generous and Msgr. Dermit O’Keefe supported every request Dobbin made to help the family get started.
In Toronto, Nguyen’s father continued refrigeration work and his mother found a job in a plastics factory.
Their first home, however, was drastically different from the townhouse in St. John’s.
“I think all of us were envisioning an urban version of the ‘niceness’ that we had in Newfoundland. Instead, we got a stinky, dirty, dingy three-bedroom condo infested with ants and cockroaches,” Nguyen recalled in his book.
But the family worked hard and eventually bought a home in Scarborough. Because they had converted to Catholicism from Buddhism in St. John’s, Nguyen was able to go to an all-boys Catholic School, Brebeuf College, where he excelled among elite, well-off students who drove fancy cars to school while he took transit an hour each way.
He went on to Western University.
Nguyen now works for a business software company, ServiceNow, and has worked for Dell, Microsoft and IBM. He also has a master’s degree in business from the University of Chicago.
When he visits the province this summer he will bring his wife, Natalie, and their three children.
His sister Trang lives in California, and his sister Trinh and aunt Nhien are in Toronto. His parents are retired and remain in Ontario, but have been back to this province for visits — the last time was in 1994, and Nguyen said they remain enamoured with their experiences here.
Nguyen traced some friends on Facebook and will get to see them when he arrives here in the summer. Her recalled a 1980s era of unlocked doors and kids playing happily together in the neighbourhood.
Colleen Reid lived next door to the Nguyens when they moved to Sesame Park from Kilbride — her parents still live in the same house.
Reid wondered over the years what happened to the family. She went to St. Augustine’s girls’ school with Nguyen’s sisters, while he attended Beaconsfield Elementary, and she was at their house a lot.
Dinner there opened her eyes to new food and cultural experiences.
Other than that, they weren’t seen as different — just a new family with new kids to play with.
But when they moved, there was no such thing as email or social media to keep tabs.
“When you were gone, you were gone,” Reid said.
When Nguyen found her on Facebook last summer, she was thrilled.
Reid had previously tried looking for Nguyen on the social media site, without luck.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “It shows the positive side of (Facebook). … I had wondered where they had gone and was delighted to find things had turned out so well. I am really looking forward to the visit. It will be nice to see each other in person.”