I am inspired this Sunday by Sunday Scribblings #5 to continue this little story I wrote some years ago: Always Saigon.
The trip from our refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur to the airport was exciting. We were taken in a small open bus at night through the streets of the Malaysian capital. I recall the sights and sounds of a very vibrant city. I particularly remember the night markets with shanty-looking noodle joints and strings of light-bulbs that adorn the fruit stands. There were people going about enjoying their night activities. To say the least, this was a welcoming change from nine days in a life-and-death struggle with the seas, fifteen days on a small and barely inhabited island waiting for the Red Cross to pick us up, and four months in the prison-like compound of the refuge camp, where the four members of my family shared a bed in one of the many small concessions lined in rows and rows of what resembles an outdoor flee market. That ride on the bus was an eye opening view to freedom. At that moment, it seemed, all of the past five months didn't matter, because we were alive and we were on our way to a new beginning; a new life; a new land - one with apples and chocolate!
Much of my first airplane ride was a blur to me, except the memory of my mom being sick from the flight and the constant worry of my parents of what will come next. Understandably, my parents were still operating from a position of fear and anxiety. I remember my parents tightly gripping their only worldly possensions, which consisted of some clothes and a couple of one-hundred US dollar bills sewn into the hems of my brother's and my shorts, and firmly holding our hands as we were lead from one point to the next through the airport and into the plane. I am so proud and grateful of my parents for all of their struggles to bring us to where we are today.
Strangely however, I do remember enjoying the airplane food - it was, as you can imagine, quite enjoyable. I also remember the cute little stainless steel airplane cuttery and a photograph of an Air Canada airplane that my brother and I each got from one of the flight attendants.
When my family got to Canada, our first destination was Edmonton, where we stayed for three days to endure much needed full physical examinations. Our initial impression of Edmonton was how simple it was. The houses and buildings weren't as spectacular as we had imagined they would be in the new world. We weren't particularly impressed, but we were nonetheless grateful that we were there.
We were housed in a military base during our three-day manditory visit in Edmonton. To our relieve, we got a fresh change of clothes. My most memorable experience in Edmonton was the first meal my family had in Canada, in the buffet-style cafetaria of the military base. Everything was new to us (well, at least to me) - the crackers for the soup, the jellos, the roast beef and mashed potatoes, the salads, the ice creams and (in hindsight, most hilarious of all), the lemons, which were so big that my parents argued over whether they were actually oranges!
Our translator in Edmonton told my parents that our final destination was going to be Toronto. To the relieve of my parents, she also said that we were very lucky to heading to Toronto because it was a clean, safe and multicultural city. She was absolutely right.
My family arrived in Toronto on October 10, 1979. At the airport, we were greeted by our sponsors, a group of Christians from United Church, including the minister and his family. I remember the confusion of my parents as all of these folks came to our aid. They were still operating in a mode of fear and anxiety and continued to clutch tightly onto their bags as they were being assisted, but I sensed that much those feelings dissipated when the minister, Mr. Rodgers, introduced himself and his group, and warmly welcomed us to Toronto.
The group gathered for a few pictures with my family, making us feel so special, when they were the special ones. We stood in the centre of those pictures, but I don't feel we were the centrepiece - our friends from the United Church were. To this day, my family feels indebted to the generosity and warmth of our sponsors.
From the airport, Mr. Rodgers drove us to our new home. Along the way, he gave us a guided tour of the city. I didn't understand English at the time, but I understood him. My family and I were incredibly impressed by the beauty of Toronto - the skyscrapers; the CN Tower; the wide, clean streets.
I can distinctly remember the smell of the pine cleaner when we entered the lobby of the apartment buiding on Woodbine Avenue in the east end of Toronto. It was like a dream come true. Our United Church friends had given us a wonderful home. The apartment was fully furnished. The fridge was full of food. The closet was full of clothes. Our life was full of a new sense of hope.