by Allison Light

When Tam Nguyen first arrived in Winnipeg in 1980, there weren’t many other Vietnamese people yet – the city wasn’t the diverse immigration destination it is now. He had left Central Vietnam after the army tried to conscript him to fight the Khmer Rouge, fleeing to Malaysia by boat at age 23. He knew his chances of resettlement were low in the United States – he had no connections to the US army. He was like “garbage” to the US, he said. Instead, he set his sights on Canada.

Now, Nguyen is a prominent community member, owning both a successful tailor shop that he started in the 80’s and a Vietnamese Pho restaurant opened two years ago. He casually talks about tailoring clothes for movie stars like Brian Dennehy and Patrick Swayze. Canadians Helping Kids in Vietnam is a charity he’s started to send aid back home. He told us that the Vietnamese community here has transferred some of the political conflict from back home. His peers are quick to accuse him, he said, of communist sympathies because his charity sends support back to a home country run by a communist government. “You put me in the middle,” he told them. The charity gives $25 a month to sponsored families, as well as helping build schools and providing healthcare.

I took away a few major ideas from our conversation with Nguyen. He raised the issue of political conflict within the Winnipegger Vietnamese, which got me interested in the idea of microcosms, and left me wondering how other expat communities here have retained and still reflect their home countries’ divisions. Does this reflect in the geography of Winnipeg, the way the divide is north/south in Vietnam? He also spoke about how he could not have built the life he did without the generosity and kindness of Winnipeggers who helped him upon arrival, and how that gratitude motivates him to give back to new refugees arriving now. When he mentioned the Congolese family that he helped, I wondered if there are chains of assistance across Winnipeg’s immigrant communities – that is, refugees helping refugees who’ve gone on to help refugees and so on, specifically across different backgrounds (as opposed to Vietnamese helping new Vietnamese, for example). He didn’t have a specific example from his own experience, but it could be interesting to trace helping hands across the city.
Finally, on a lighter note, I loved the comment that he worked six days and on the seventh went to the Jets game, and I was really interested in his first reactions to hockey as a sport, as well as how memories surfaced of kicking leaves wrapped in a banana peel around in the Vietnam sand as a makeshift soccer ball. I feel like looking at refugees as hometown sports fans could tell an interesting story of assimilation and loyalty – we didn’t ask him point blank if he “felt Canadian,” but a newcomer’s process of understanding and appreciating the local sport obsession certainly seems like a reflection or facet of their overall integration narrative. Maybe there’s a story in that as well – is team loyalty a cause or effect of national loyalty?