Its taken me a while to write about seeing my family again for the first time in 20 years.
I’ve written so much and deleted just as much because nothing I’ve tried to convey seems to do the experience justice.
As I lounge by the pool here in Karon Beach, Thailand, I can’t help but reflect back on my trip to Saigon and seeing the family. It’s crazy to think how attach you can become to people you have only really known for four days.
I last visited Vietnam when I was four years old. At the time, not only was I the only girl but I was also the family’s only child on my dad’s side. My uncles tell me I was very spoiled when I was little- they all used to fight over me to take me anywhere and everywhere.
It’s not the same anymore. My uncles are now all married and the family has been blessed with four girls and two boys since I was last there. It’s a lot to take in during one short visit.
My first night with the family was over dinner. Everyone had gathered at one uncle’s house for the occasion. The family and I more or less played 21 questions for the next few hours. They were curious about my life in Canada- how I learned to speak Vietnamese so well for someone who left Vietnam as a baby, what I studied in university, whether I had a job now, what I do in my spare time back home, whether I had a ‘lover’ and if I had plans on getting married soon. They were the typical questions for a 25 year old- if anything, they were particular concerned that I was relatively late on the marriage part. Between mouthfuls of food, there was much staring and smiling in disbelief- my uncles couldn’t believe how much time has passed since they last saw me. My uncles still all looked very much the same except that they obviously aged a few years but nobody was unrecognizeable. There were moments that night I’ll remember and replay in my head for a long, long time.
The next few days I spent some time with my dad’s youngest brother- he had taken a couple days off work and since I was staying with him, there was ample time to catch up. I wondered now and then about their life here- what they do for a living, their hours of work, how the kids are raised and various other aspects of their lives that might be different from what I know growing up in Canada.
My dad was the oldest brother and left for Canada when he was 30 years old. I’ve wondered for a long time why my uncles had not joined us. As it turns out, my family had numerous opportunities to immigrate to Canada and the States but all the times had come with hardships. There were instances when their bags were all packed and all it took was a phone call to get to the airport but my grandmother who was still alive at the time would cry and beg them to stay so that was the end of it. I asked him if the family had the option today to leave, would they? He pondered for a bit before he said their only goal now is to have their children grow up in a good place with a good education and job awaiting them. I suppose what he means from that is they have been living there for so long now that although times may be hard, it would be harder for them to go. It’s what they’ve called home for the last 40 or more years that to think of moving was now simply a distant thought. It makes sense and I understood.
I learned that my cousins who range from ten to eighteen years of age are in school 7 days a week. The days are long and taking courses after a regular school day and on weekends was a given and not an option if the kids wanted to succeed and keep up with their classmates. Weekend classes were for English lessons as the kids are normally taught in Vietnamese for all classes except for English itself. It was hard seeing my 10 year old cousin wake up at 530am to get ready for school and return home at 5pm only to do hours of homework before bed at 930. While I look forward to sleeping in on weekends, she and my other cousins were up no later than 630 to review their notes before heading off to class. The kids worked just as hard in elementary school as I did when I was in university. I’ll never understand how that’s fair and this part kills me because I’m a big believer in letting children be children the longest they can and have them build childhood memories.
It was really during these few days that I realized how grateful I am to be able to read, speak and write in my native language. I’m not sure how else I would have communicated with the family.
On our last night, my family and friends all met together for dinner at a family favourite restaurant Bo Tung Xeo. We all feasted on crickets, scorpion and alligator with a side of beer (iced coffees on my part) and a lot of laughs by everyone. We wandered out for dessert after before it was time to part ways.
It was the hardest part- I sobbed and cried as I hugged everyone. They did so much for me in the little time I had with them. Taking days off means sacrifice- all to stay home and share stories with me, to show me around the place I was born, and make me the most delicious home-cooked meals. My aunt even made me a couple dresses and tops to bring back home.
Most importantly though, they taught me that love has no bounds. You don’t love family any less because you haven’t seen them in 20 years. They didn’t hesitate once to speak of the family’s hardships during the war and post-war or even the difficulties they face today. I can only look at them with admiration and inspiration.
It’s always so hard to say goodbye but I’ve fallen completely inlove with Saigon and it won’t be long before I come back to visit again. I miss you all terribly.