When I was younger, my parents often told me stories about their life journey. Sometimes these stories came up when they were scolding my sisters and I, saying that they used to dodge bombs while walking to school, and that I have it good to be living here, and sometimes it was a chance for my parents to teach us where our true roots came from.
My parents left their hometown of Hai Phong, Vietnam with my newborn sister during the post-war era. Things looked shaky in terms of economic stability, and there were rumors of western countries filled with opportunity for new beginnings and creating a life for oneself. One day, they snuck onto a cargo ship filled packed to the rim with other people fleeing Vietnam. After grueling days at sea, they finally landed in Hong Kong and settled in a refugee camp, where my other older sister, Linda, was born. From there, they went to another refugee camp in the Philippines, and when Canadian officials visited the camp, my mom decked my sisters out in Canadian gear, giving them the chance to apply and get accepted to immigrate to Canada. This entire journey, which this paragraph truly does not do justice to, took around 6 years. These 6 years were filled with uncertainty, isolation from family, nostalgia, and heart-break, as my parents made sacrifice after sacrifice, missing out on integral family events back in Vietnam because they wanted so badly to provide a fruitful life for my sisters and I.
In 1995, they came to Canada and started their new lives. My mom babysat the other Vietnamese (and not Vietnamese!) children in the neighborhood, many of them with parents just like mine, while my dad worked odd jobs, studied for his G1 (which he failed multiple times because of the language barrier), tested for his G2, and purchased his first car by 1997, which was when I was born. Eventually, my parents found more fulfilling and better paying work, and we moved to my current home in the lovely and quiet neighborhoods of South Windsor. Here, they made sure my sisters and I attended good schools and got good marks while they continued to support us.
I know that this story is one that many can relate to, and one that strikes a chord for all. It’s the story of the immigrant’s dream. It certainly does not come without struggle, even now. Sometimes it’s big things, like the fact that my parents celebrate Lunar New Year over the course of one evening, as opposed to the week-long celebrations that happen in Vietnam. Sometimes it’s small things, like the cashier at Burger King who rolls his eyes when he asks my dad to repeat himself because he didn’t understand him the first time as a result of English that came from a mouth that was born and raised speaking Vietnamese.
Honestly, I am incredibly ashamed that I’ve ever been embarrassed to hear my parents speak English. Growing up, I’d hate having my friends over in fear that they would mock the way my parents speak to me, or the way that the conversation was just.. a little harder to get on, due to the slightly broken English that my parents spoke. This eventually turned into indifference to their accents in my adolescent years. I didn’t harbor negative feelings, but I certainly would rather not think about it. It wasn’t until I moved out for university that I truly began to appreciate the symbolism behind their accented English.
For me, their accents represent a life and culture that they know like the back of their hand. The accents represent the families that they left behind in order for me to seize the land of opportunity. They represent my mom spending hours on the phone catching up with her siblings and parents on Christmas and Lunar New Year. They represent my dad missing the funeral of his parents because he had newly moved to Canada, with no money and no documentation to fly back home to be with his siblings. They represent the long and crazy hours my parents worked to afford the house we live in now, the clothes I wear, and the education I am so honoured to receive.
While you can tell that English is my parents’ second (but certainly not inferior) language, you can also tell that their lives are incredibly rich in experiences, success, failures, love, and sacrifice. So when I see my mom practicing her Tim Horton’s order before she gets to the drive through so that the worker understands her, I can’t help but beam with pride.