Vietnamese Boat People: Stereotypes and PTSD

I didn’t know I was that different until I was in fourth grade. My friend Betty told me I wasn’t allowed over at her house because her parents said ‘your people’ steal things.

Let’s backtrack a bit.

Of course I knew I was Vietnamese. My parents taught me to speak Vietnamese, I went to Vietnamese school on Sundays to learn how to read and write Vietnamese, I went to Vietnamese Buddhist temples with my family and yes, my mom made phở for dinner. But it wasn’t until that day that I realized what it really meant to be a Vietnamese-Canadian.

Both of my parents are entrepreneurs. When they landed in Canada they took up menial jobs for a while then began to build their lives here; my dad opened an autobody shop and my mom a popular café in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. A few years later, my parents opened their second business, then third. I thought my family, ‘my people’, were pretty normal.

But Betty’s comment really rattled my curiosity and so I began asking my parents questions.

“Mom, why did you and dad come to Canada?”

It’s hard to explain the look in her eyes; it was as if I had knocked on a door of emotions she had long forced shut. For a split second, I could see she was transported back to her childhood where danger lurked around every corner.

The door remained shut.

“Why would you ask me something like that? Do you want to get me in trouble?”

“Umm… it’s for a school project,” I replied deceitfully, while thinking to myself what trouble? We were sitting safe at home at the dinner table…

“Go ask your dad.”

I didn’t ask my dad. I tucked away my curiosity for years.

It turns out Betty’s comment was only the beginning of racial stereotypes I, and many other Vietnamese-Canadians, would endure, be it about drugs, gambling, weed, nail salons, Kappa, dyed hair, etc.

Recently, I decided to revisit that curiosity I once tucked away as a young girl.

My parents came to Canada in the late 1970’s as refugees fleeing North Vietnam’s communist regime. When they arrived in Canada, my mom found refuge in a church and my dad…. well, to be honest, that’s really all I know about my parents’ journey to Canada (and most of that I pieced together from what I learned in textbooks).

In the last decade there has been increasing study and acknowledgement of the effects of war related trauma, now known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, there has been minimal study done on Vietnamese “boat people” who fled Vietnam from 1975–1985. Go ahead, do a quick Google search, I’ll wait.

I read the material that was available, it was very tough to get through. Quickly it became very clear as to why my parents, still to this day, have not spoke about their journey to Canada.

Boat people have since come forward explaining having been starved to near death at sea, being brutalized by pirates, watching their loved ones drown, being turned away from seemingly safe borders left to die, rape, murder, dehydration, literally being cooked alive under the sun, the list continues. I can’t even come close to imagining the toll this would take on a person’s psyche.

I believe that many Vietnamese refugees continue to live with symptoms of PTSD, living with issues such as, survivors’ guilt, aggressive impulses and anxiety. Today, this remains a very difficult topic for Vietnamese youth to address with their parents as mental illnesses such as addiction or depression are still sometimes viewed as simply a curse, a choice, or considered a family matter that is to be dealt with discreetly and not to be discussed with anyone outside of the household.

PTSD can also be passed onto the children of Vietnamese Boat People, something researchers call intergenerational transfer of trauma. This can manifest in different ways, from harsh punishment to an inability to connect emotionally with their children due to the horrors they once faced.

It’s been 20 years since I first asked my mom about why she and my dad came to Canada, and I finally got around to asking my dad. He showed me a very faded tattoo he has on his shoulder, now just a blur of three sentences written in Vietnamese. He said he got the tattoo when he was in Vietnam as a teenage boy; it was a promise to stay loyal to a free Vietnam, never surrendering to communism.

At the start of my quest to learn more about my parents’ past — and in turn myself — being Vietnamese-Canadian meant simply accepting not knowing the truth.

Today being Vietnamese-Canadian means working to help heal a community of people who have lived through unspeakable experiences.

The next time a Vietnamese stereotype crosses your mind; I challenge you to think twice and this time from your heart.

Tết Trung Thu Vancouver 2017

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