In the middle of a sweaty August day, he hopped onto a motorboat in Vũng Tàu, off the southern shores of Vietnam. The boat, small and cramped and uncomfortable, could accommodate little more than six or seven people without rousing suspicion of the cảnh sát, or local police. A handful of people were already on board.
“Hide, quickly,” the others instructed him, and lifted up the floorboard. He scrambled to get underneath it, and then looked up at the faces peering down at him. Their eyes met.
“Sorry, anh. It won’t be for too long.”
A couple of men gruffly heaved the floorboard back over the hole. The faces disappeared.
He had the voyage of a lifetime. In the rickety boat, buried in darkness, they reached open waters, where they were luckily spotted by a bigger, fancier ship; the French Chevalier picked up his crew and dropped them off at the Singaporean shore. A couple of months later, he boarded a plane and flew across the Pacific Ocean — his first transcontinental flight. He arrived in Canada; Canada, with her arms outstretched, took him in, and invited him to make her his home.
Learning to adjust to the North American way of life was both an adventure and a trial. Seeing snow for the first time through his motel window, he thought Toronto was raining white bugs. He rode city buses from one end of town to the other, timid and unsure how to signal to the driver his departure. He enjoyed Western delicacies like McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets and Domino’s pizza for the first time. His eyes light up as he remembers the first few bites he had in Canada. “So good,” he recalls.
Like my father, I have also traversed the oceans. Thirty-something years after his grand voyage, I embarked on my own trip of a lifetime. In Myanmar, I wandered from the ruins of one ancient temple to the next; in Israel, I walked through all four quarters of Old Jerusalem. In Varanasi, I witnessed over a dozen cremations along the burning ghats of Mama Ganga, and in Sénégal, I learned to enjoy thiéboudienne the way my host brothers and sisters do — without utensils, on the floor, and directly from the communal dish.
I went to many places far and foreign. I met many new people and learned many new things. And then, after eight months of gallivanting around the world, I came home.
I was raised by a refugee father and immigrant mother. We share the same skin; I have my mother’s wide eyes and my father’s thick nose. Like my mother, I write with my right hand and do everything else with my left (to the chagrin of her superstitious mother in heaven, I’m sure). Like my father, I have a knack for telling grand tales. “You are Tinh’s daughter,” his friends tell me, wide-eyed and amazed, when I’m done.
I know. I know the swells, the hills and the valleys of my father’s stories by heart. When he launches into a spiel over the dinner table, I can predict when his audience will burst out in raucous laughter or when they’ll stay hushed, silenced into wonderment by his every word.
I am my father’s daughter, a testament to my parents’ sacrifice, and Vancouver is my home. Home is a sip of bitter Starbucks coffee over the roaring fireplace. Home is the evergreen trees, frosty and snowy white in December, lining Grouse Mountain. Home is rain that never ends.
My mother tells me my father often talks about “coming home.” Arriving separately in Canada, together, my parents built a new life for themselves in this foreign country. Both doctors back in Vietnam, my mother handled silkworms in a cosmetics factory for a five dollar minimum wage, while my father humbly toiled in a geriatric facility for a living. After redoing medical school, they had their first daughter, then moved the family from bitter cold Winnipeg to beautiful British Columbia.
In Vancouver, their three girls reaped the fruits of their labor. Here, they sent us to the best private schools in the province and enrolled us in a billion different music lessons and sports classes. Here, they built a beautiful house for us in the tony British Properties neighbourhood. Here, they sacrificed their own happiness—just so we could call Vancouver home.
My father has a house here, but he will never have a home. Canada was gracious and kind; he is ever grateful. But my father still yearns for sticky summers and tropical thunderstorms in the spring. He walks into Blue Ruby intent on haggling down the cost of gold earrings, because “that’s how you get the fair price.” He imports organic honey from Vietnam and relies on the remedies of his childhood to keep him strong. Every Tết, he still insists on offering extra mooncake to my dead grandparents — “we can’t let them starve in the afterlife,” he reminds us.
When I was a child, my father returned to Vietnam at least every other year, sometimes bringing us with him on medical missions or to the big cities or to orphanages so we could see where we came from, and how lucky we have become. But on his solo trips, my father would pass most of his time out of the city and in the village he called home for many years. He would rent a cheap room — the cheapest he could find — and spend his days fishing. At the restaurant, he would never order from the menu. Instead, he’d take his daily catch directly to the chef. “That’s how us village people do it,” he tells me.
In the last decade or so, these trips have become less frequent. My father is getting old. His head, once full of jet black hair, is exceedingly grey; permanent wrinkles crease into the curvature of his brown skin when he smiles. But he still talks about coming home.
This piece originally appeared on Medium. It is the first post in a two-part series exploring parallels and intersections of the refugee experience, migration, and travel privilege.