OBSTACLES, COMING TO CANADA
It was painful for the Lais to flee their native Vietnam, especially the agony of leaving loved ones behind. The Lais hoped for a better life in Canada, but had no idea what to expect. They arrived in the dead of winter, in cold and snow. It was totally different from the stifling heat of their own country. They moved to the Bessai household in Edmonton, Alberta, with a family of strangers. English was completely foreign to them. They worried about adjusting and finding jobs.
The Indochinese arriving in Canada prior to 1986 came under acutely traumatic circumstances. They had suffered through poverty, violence, the death of friends and family, and often the total destruction of their traditional way of life. Their escape involved tremendous personal risk as they survived near drownings, pirate attacks and starvation. Often they arrived in interim refugee camps only to stare out onto an uncertain future waiting for permanent resettlement. Once in Canada they were immersed in a foreign western society that was industrialized, urbanized and highly individualistic in its way of life. They faced extreme psychological, social, cultural, political and economic challenges, usually with little preparation. (6)
Once settled, Vietnamese refugees hurried out to find a job. Employment was the measure of success. This task, harrowing in the best of times, was made more difficult by the poor economic conditions of the post-1980 period. Despite some initial downward mobility in struggling to find their feet, most were willing and eager and soon found employment and established themselves economically. Learning a new language and reconstituting a sense of family were also crucial factors in how effectively the Vietnamese adapted to their new home. The Canadian sponsorship programs were invaluable in helping the Vietnamese find balance.(7)
Many of the ethnic Vietnamese refugees were fluent in English or French. Most were well educated and skilled in various trades(8). Bao and Binh Lai had received a good education in Vietnam, and they had some French. Together with the Bessais boys' basic school French, the Lai and Bessai families found an improvisational way of communicating and getting by.
The Lai boys were talented tailors. They borrowed Mrs. Bessai's sewing machine and started making their own clothes. Mrs. Lai shared her traditional Vietnamese recipes with the Bessai family. She took over the kitchen and prepared elaborate dinners of Southeast Asian delicacies. In return, the Bessai boys introduced their Vietnamese brothers to the quintessential Canadian game of road hockey. These were the kindnesses that brought two disparate cultures together; the weave of gestures that made Vietnamese refugees like the Lais feel at home in a new home called Canada.