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A Letter from my Immigrant Dad

There are days where I don’t miss my dad at all.

But today, an X-ray machine brought me to uncontrollable tears, again. It was a fairly simple procedure of diagnosing and treating my shoulder pain, with needles and an arthrogram. I thought about how much MORE pain he was in and whispered “ba ơi ba” like I always did when he was alive. Silence. Tears.

Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He began chemotherapy right away. So many vials of blood drawn, so many MRI scans with die injections, then immunotherapy drip bags. So many bruised needle marks on his arms. I rubbed them gently and asked if injections and bruises hurt. He replied “no” with as much effort as he could manage, optimism still coursing through his veins.

I miss him. I wanted something tangible that we shared to hold on to. I rummaged through a vintage cookie box with our old letters, our only communication from 1988 to 1994.

There was a returned letter dated 1994, the year we arrived in Canada. I was 12 and my brother was 10 at the time.

Photo of the original letter my dad wrote in 1994. I opened it from a sealed envelope for the first time in 2022.

Calgary 14.02.94

Hai con yêu của Ba (My two dearest children),

I dare not scribble as I’m afraid you can’t read my writing. But tell mom I don’t have time to write nicely to her, I must catch all my thoughts onto paper.

When you arrive, I hope it will be summer or fall so that you won’t get cold, and I can take you to the museum, the zoo to see dinosaurs, stroll in parks, shop at the malls (take anything you want to buy, and pay later. Anyone who steals will be recorded on hidden cameras, and the police will catch them at the door!)

Are you and your brother feeling well in your body? Do you often play outside and visit friends living far away? On the weekends do you cook new dishes? Do you have thermal layers to keep warm? Do you crave any food? Do you often go to the cinema downtown? Do many people in Dalat have a video player? Where do you rent the tapes?

Is learning English hard for you? Do you like to listen and repeat English from the radio? Do you have a cassette player yet?

I always miss you two, your picture with mom is on my study desk. I anxiously await our reunion, remember to exercise and eat well to see me again. It’s fun to go to school here, there are all sorts of fun activities, including gym time and field trips. I will let you join Girl Scouts and Boy scouts to have fun and learn from Canadians.

I’m going to school and working day and night, 16 hours each day to have a career and money for things. I’m doing a practicum at car shop in Calgary.

I love you both so much. Try to be nice and train yourselves to be good people, outstanding students and be well-behaved at home. I miss you very much.

Hôn 2 con (Kisses to you 2)


Thích Nhật Hạnh explained death as your dear one taking another form.

Today, an unread letter written 28 years ago was the invisible string that connected us. He reminds me “I’m always here for you. I always love you.”

My dad was an active Scoutmaster in Palawan during his 5-year waiting period. He lived and breathed the 12 principals of Scout Law: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

On the back of another photo he sent us, he wrote: "Gửi tặng hai con Tâm Mẫn yêu quí của Ba. Mong xem ảnh 2 con luôn chăm học và nhớ Ba. Palawan 1991"- A gift for my precious 2 kids Tam and Man. I hope by looking at this photo you will always miss me and study hard. Palawan 1991


Fast forward 28 years, I am constantly reminded of his simple but ever-lasting legacy. He taught me to:

Never Stop Learning Dad was a life-long learner and teacher. Fiercely proud of his unglamorous and physically-demanding welder profession, he often reminisced about his days at SAIT, and the effort to get his B-pressure welder ticket. Being an exceptional welder, he closely mentored friends to become certified as well. After all, he did accumulate many welding textbooks, and spent many hours honing his craft.

Even in his final days under raspy breath, he spoke of welding like an artist explaining his masterpiece.

Dad was my first English teacher in Calgary. Unforgettable was the sheer quantity dictionaries he gave me during our first lesson. Some dictionaries he had lugged all the way from the Philippines refugee camp, acquired as a school principal. He was passionate about mastering topics such as theology and family counseling, and solidifying that knowledge by teaching. Hence, he encouraged me to teach from a young age, from piano, to tutoring, and teaching adults in the Vietnamese School he founded in Calgary.

He instilled in me the love for books, learning, and teaching.

A picture dad sent home depicting Tết in Palawan, Philippines refugee camp, 1991.

My dad's handwritten note on the back of his photo, 1991.

Text depiction in Vietnamese: Gửi em hình dịp Tết chụp ở Liên đoàn Hướng Đạo Ra Khơi ở Palawan.Mong lúc nào cũng nhớ anh và vượt khó như tinh thần hướng đạo của anh ở đây. Mong chúng ta sẽ sớm đoàn viên. Palawan 1991 Text depiction in English: Sending you a Tet photo taken with Scouting Group Ra Khơi in Palawan. I pray that you'll always miss me and overcome hardships like my scout spirit here. I yearn for our forthcoming reunion. Palawan 1991.

Say Yes to Challenges Throughout his life, dad was always pushing his limits to overcome challenges. He had failed numerous attempts to escape Vietnam after the 1975 Vietnam War, finally succeeding in 1988. While heartbroken to leave behind a wife and 2 young children, he risked his life for a better future. After 6 years of separation, our family reunited; together we tackled one challenge after another establishing a new life in Canada.

Dad inspired me to bravely step up to life’s challenges in all my endeavors. He would always say “You can do it, I believe in you” and provided all the needed support along the way.

Smile and be Optimistic with Determination One thing was for certain, dad was well-loved for his hearty laughs, his jokes, and optimism in the face of challenge. In his final year, he fought cancer with the same smile, optimism and determination that defined him throughout his life.

On good days, he got up and cleaned the house while whistling. On bad days, he got up and pushed himself to walk to stay active. Having grown up with dad’s smiles and optimism, I think a smile is the best makeup. I see the glass half full. And I’m always determined to see any project to the end. On days where his absence is dearly missed, I reflect on life lessons my dad had taught me by example like a true leader. I hope to inspire my daughter and future generation with these values.


Tam Nguyen is the founder of VietCan Bilingual Online Bookstore which aims to provide Vietnamese-English resources for diaspora Vietnamese parents. Her passion stems from becoming a mom to her mixed race child, and wanting to pass down Vietnamese language and culture in an immersive manner. She is a Chartered Professional Accountant, and an advocate for cultural diversity and inclusion based in Calgary, Canada. Connect with her on IG: @vietcanbooks


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