Forty-two years after leaving everything he knew behind — his family, his friends and his country — Khanh (Ken) Tran has very few regrets about choosing to start again in Canada.
From his comfortable North Saanich home, Tran sat down with the PNR for an interview on the eve of Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation. He wanted to talk a little bit about his journey from Vietnam in 1975 to Canada, as a young man. But mainly, he wanted to express his gratitude to a country that took him in at the end of the Vietnam War.
Tran escaped his home country in his mid-20s as Saigon fell to the Communist forces in 1975. He endured attacks while on a boat sailing out of the country, eventually making it to Guam. He was a refugee from Vietnam, or as he puts it: stateless. He no longer had a home and would be putting his life at risk if he were to return to his place of birth.
After three months in a refugee camp, Tran chose to come to Canada, along with a few others from Vietnam. The first stop in this country, was Ottawa, where he stayed for seven years.
“I left behind everything and everyone and came to Canada,” he said. “I had very little of anything but fortunately, I had some knowledge of French.”
There were significant differences between Vietnam and Canada, he continued, most notably the people.
“Everyone was just so nice,” he said. “It was also very quiet and very clean.”
Yet, he missed his family very much, he continued, and would often find himself crying due to loneliness. Ottawa in the mid-1970s didn’t have a very big Vietnamese community and most things he was familiar with — including food — just didn’t exist.
“There was really nothing in Ottawa at that time. I think I missed fish sauce the most. But 20 or 30 years ago, there were a lot of differences.”
Of course, the weather was also a departure from what Tran had grown up with — snow being quite the novelty at first.
Yet, despite his loneliness and change of living conditions, Tran said he set his mind to making a new life for himself in Canada. Thanks to his knowledge of French and the skills he had already gained as a young man, he said he found a job after only about three weeks in Ottawa.
“When you first came to Canada, you accepted any job that came along. In Vietnam, I was a marine engineer and I was really good at that job.”
After taking some tests, Tran would find work as a power engineer, working in a local hospital. It was a good job for the time — but for Tran, it was only the start.
He would, in 1978, meet the woman who would soon become his wife. Mai had arrived in Ottawa as part of the Vietnamese “boat people” as they were known at the time — a large group of people fleeing that country. He and Mai married in 1981.
Tran worked hard the whole time, eventually earning his ticket as a chief engineer. By 1982, he was working with the Department of Public Works in Ottawa — and then found a job with Fisheries and Oceans and he and Mai moved to Vancouver Island. Tran worked continuously for 37 years, retiring from the Canadian Coast Guard, Pacific Region, as a chief engineer and project manager. He said he never once was without work — apart from some training and education time — and never applied for employment insurance. His last vessel was the Coast Guard vessel the John B. Tully, which is often seen in Pat Bay.
He pointed out that was important to him — to earn his keep and make is way in a new life in Canada, without ever being a burden to the country that took him in.
“Everyone who came here with me was happy to get a job, even if it was a a dishwasher.”
Tran said when he left Vietnam, there was no going back. The state of that country at the time and the cultural ramifications of him leaving made it extremely difficult to do so. He has however, been back to that country a few times, as relations became better between Vietnam and the West. Still, he said, “nowhere is better than Victoria.”
He said he worked hard to integrate into the Canadian community, as he had chosen to come here to start a new life.
“I wanted to be a good citizen, the be educated and gainfully employed, and then contribute to the community we were living in.”
Tran said he’s been retired now for five years, adding he is very grateful for the last 42 years in Canada — only a short amount of time in the country’s 150 years of history. He said he hopes that new refugees coming to Canada recognize the kind of opportunity they can have in Canada — whether they wish to stay like he did, or to one day return to their home countries.
“If people do come here and they are willing to work hard, they will have a good life in Canada.”