• James Armstrong

Labor Day marked 35-year reunion for Vietnamese boat people in Montreal


PHOTO BY JAMES ARMSTRONG

The members of the McBride celebrate the 35th anniversary of their foster son’s arrival. Seen here are parents Anne and Peter McBride (seated) Cao Cuong Dinh McBride and his wife Ann with Sonia and Dan McBride.

It’s been three and a half decades since Cao Cuong Dinh arrived in Montreal, more specifically Pierrefonds, at the age of 16 and his family name was not yet McBride. He and his companions were part of the exodus of refugees from camps in Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore. The term ‘boat people’ refers to the 800,000 people that left Vietnam between 1975 and 1995 according to Wikipedia. About 30 of Cuong’s original group got together last Labor Day Monday with their families and foster families to celebrate and reminisce about their arrival in Montreal September 12, 1980.

“We were too young to predict what our future would be,” said Cuong who later adopted the surname of his foster family. “My focus was to stay with my foster family and continue my education,” he said. Without the ability to speak either English or French, he felt totally lost in this new land.

It was with the aid of Saint Thomas à Becket Church in Pierrefonds that the young refugee met his foster parents, Peter and Anne McBride. “Our son, Danny, was instrumental in this, he sort of took Cuong under his wing,” said the elder McBride in reference to the young lad’s adjustment to a new culture. Anne McBride pointed out that her son was looking forward to having a brother as he already had two sisters, Sandra and Michelle. Language and communication were the first important issues for the family. “That only lasted about a month and a half and then Cuong could communicate really well,” said Peter McBride. The family relationship developed rapidly and soon Cuong was referring to his foster parents as Mom and Dad. Throughout the years, they have made a point of getting together on a regular basis.

At the beginning, the cultural exchange was somewhat one-sided. “We didn’t learn much Vietnamese,” said Peter although Anne did attempt to cook the sticky rice that Cuong requested. “I like to cook Vietnamese food, so that is what I make when we get together,” said Cuong when asked whether or not he taught his foster family how to prepare Vietnamese cuisine. “It’s very important to us, because it is special to us that he refers to us as Mom and Dad,” added Peter.

There were a few bumps along the way as the new McBride family member acclimatized. Coung found a part-time job in a local restaurant. “One night, while walking home from work I saw a man asleep on a park bench,” recounted Cuong. “It was raining, and I thought because this kind family (the McBride’s) had taken in a total stranger like me, that’s what they do here.” So, Cuong woke the man up and invited him home. “I wasn’t too pleased to find a strange man in the house in the morning,” said Anne with a laugh. It had been late and the family was sleeping when Cuong and his guest arrived. That didn’t prevent her from making sure that her surprise guest left with a full stomach and freshly laundered clothes.

Like many of his companions, Cuong left family and friends behind when he embarked from Vietnam. His mother died when he was 12 and his father eventually remarried and moved to Australia. “Our parents had to pay big money for our escape,” Cuong said as he described his dangerous voyage out of Vietnam. “The boats were small and a lot of them capsized,” he said.

The similarity of Vietnamese boat people with the current rapidly developing situation with Syrian refugees is not lost on the McBride family. “We would like to sponsor a family,” said Cuong. Peter noted two Vatican parishes were setting the example by sponsoring families. Locally, the decision is being made as to whether individual parishes will sponsor families or move the financial commitment to the diocesan level. “It costs between $27,000 to $34,000 to sponsor a family and there are some parishes that cannot afford to do that,” explained Peter.

Food and unabashed friendliness were the hallmarks of that Labor Day reunion. Hosted by the owners of Pho Asie Restaurant, Nguyen Hoang Quan and La Ngoc Diep, they served up a variety of delicious Vietnamese dishes. There were lots of hugs, laughter, smiles and a few tears, the latter when it came time to part. “After 35 years, we are blessed with your presence,” Peter McBride to the assembled guests. “It is an occasion for us to say thank-you,” replied the host as he attempted to control his tears.

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