(April 30 is the day the Canadian government has chosen to commemorate the acceptance of 60,000 Boat People into Canada in the early eighties when North Vietnam took control of that country under communist rule. This short story is a piece of historical fiction by David Hughes http://straightspeak.com Memoir, the focus of my blog, is generally true stories; however, sometimes the truth can be more compellingly revealed through the weaving of truth and fiction. All the memoir details about Mr. Ngo are factual.)
I’ve seen him before. Not often, but before. Diminutive. He’s maybe a hundred-and-twenty pounds and just a head higher than the counter. And today he seemed even smaller, standing in line between two strapping, thirty-something, white guys—truck drivers probably—looking as if he might be crushed if the line moved too fast. And everybody was in a rush for a coffee hit. It wasn’t eight o’clock yet, and no coffee meant an edgy line of single-minded addicts grumbling their way to a caffeine rush with a sugar chaser. Me too. I love my toasted cinnamon bun with its icing swirl that transforms into white drool and sticks to my fingers like flypaper. It sits right next to my medium, not-too-large, not-too-small, double-double. Just the three of us hanging out at our usual observation station watching the locals gather like cattle, chewing on their morning ritual. A process that goes on for hours, sucking the coffee, tea, sugar and flour out of the Doughnut King’s kitchen in trade for a few dollars of hard-earned pay or unemployment benefits. Young, old, big, small, odd, ordinary—mostly odd—trudging across the morning stage in a performance that is re-enacted every day in thousands of doughnut dispensaries across the country. It’s big business. What addiction isn’t? I come at least three times a week to slurp and watch. Never on Sundays.
He comes by bicycle. One of those foreign ones. Black. Simple. Dilapidated. It’s a girl’s bike, no crossbar. I guess he’s too small to get up over the crossbar on those man-mountain bikes. He leaves it on the far side of the parking lot. Up against a tree. Doesn’t lock it. Who does that today? Only a trusting fool. I tell myself to keep an eye on his bike.
There are more than a dozen people in line, but he appears to be the only one who is not restless or impatient. He stands quietly, pensively, while all around him shift, shuffle, twitch and tweet. If they aren’t mesmerized by their phones, they’re gawking at the floor, ceiling, lineup, doughnuts. Or the wait-staff—with a stare that says, Com’on move yer butt? Occasionally they look at me, looking at them. I’m relaxed. I don’t blink. It’s my morning entertainment. The younger women drop their eyes immediately. Most of the middle-aged women are empty-eyed, not there—gazing in my direction but lost somewhere in the noise of life. The old guys squint and scowl but don’t see me. The middle-aged guys blink, then their eyes shade into that primate question: Hey buddy, ya’ gotta problem? And the young guys glance at me like they’re still battling someone in a video game. But not the little man. He’s looking nowhere in particular but seeing everything. Eyes calm. Full. Alive.
Observing the world over coffee and a cinnamon bun is not new for me and the tableaux before me is the common herd of humanity at a convenient feed-trough. But today, more than before, the little man seems to exude a purity and grace, like a unicorn amid the morass. It’s a modern Noah’s ark, the animals coming two by two and one by one for a modicum of salvation—if caffeine and sugar can do that—and in their midst is this pondering presence, a deep harmony.
I sip my coffee without taking my eyes off the little man. I ignore my cinnamon bun. As he silently moves forward in the gangly line, I try to know him. He’s Asian. Maybe Chinese. I’ve never been good at analyzing anything foreign: food, language, clothes, people. Well, I’m okay with the people, I just don’t know much about them. Me, I am Canadian, through and through. And damn proud of it, although I’ve never been sure why I’m proud. Because it’s a big country? Nice people? Lots of lakes? The RCMP? The beaver? The true north strong and free – whatever that means? Or because I worked here all my life at the Royal Bank? Or for no good reason other than I was born here? I wonder if he has reason to be proud of his homeland? Where’s he from? How old is he? Married? Children? Where’d he get that bike? Where does he ride from? Why does he look so content? … Oh shit! He’s walking toward me. A large coffee and two doughnuts on a tray. This time I blink. He smiles. And sits down at the table next to me. It’s as if I am alone with him. The incessant hum of the feeding fuss fades and all I hear is the coffee bubbling between my lips as I try to be inconspicuous. He smiles again. A knowing smile. I say, just above a whisper, “Morning.” He is so unassuming. Tranquil. Pleasant. In my head I see a picture of the Dalai Lama. Could it be him? In disguise? There is that peculiar looking mosque or temple over on the other side of town. He could be visiting from wherever it is he comes from? India? The Himalayas? He nods ever so slightly. “Morning.”
The silence passes as quickly as it came. In what seems like just a minute or two, he rises, smiles and leaves. I’m disappointed. Sad. Slightly empty. Like when a friend leaves. I eat my cinnamon bun, lick my fingers and finish my coffee. That’s when the guy at the next table catches my eye. As soon as he locks in on me the woman with him speaks as if she’s been waiting all morning to gossip. By the disapproving look on her fake face—too much botox, too few wrinkles—I think she’s going to express disgust with my finger licking. But she tilts her head in the direction the little man went. “He’s such a lost soul, isn’t he?” My mouth doesn’t move, my eyes yell, What? She adds. “So sad. Pathetic.” I stick two fingers in my mouth—so I don’t blurt out what I want to say to her—lick them with a succulent sound, get up, and leave.
I come again on Sunday. My wife, Ethel, is not pleased. Years ago she accepted that I was never going to go to church again but she still harangues about the Lord’s day. a day of rest. And that doesn’t mean resting and loitering at the local doughnut joint. But I want to see my Dalia Lama friend again. If he shows up. He does. Just about the same time. Again he smiles, says, “Morning,” sits quietly and leaves quietly. After another trip that week, in which the same ritual evolves, I find myself, on Friday, immersed in disappointment. It’s past nine o’clock, I am finishing my third coffee and second cinnamon bun and my friend—funny how I think of him as a friend when I don’t even know him—is a no show. I feel like I did in high school when the prom queen, who sat in front of me in science class, was absent. Makes the rest of the day a bummer. Then he’s there. In line. About eight places back. Behind a very fat lady – I mean obese. Yeah lady, that’s just what you need, another bag of doughnuts. Oh, and be sure to get the cinnamon bun too, it’s fantastic – at least five hundred calories. Although he can’t see past her, he appears content just being there. As I wait, I prepare. Prepare for what I suspect has been brewing inside me since last week. I have to know. He’s coming over.
I look up. “Good morning.”
“Morning.” That calm smile.
I see a heartbeat flicker in his eyes. Then, without a word, he slides into the steel and Formica chair opposite me. I’ve done it. And I sense, for the price of a few cups of coffee, I’ve met a new friend.
Nhiem Phan Ngo is Chinese. Well, not exactly. Here’s how he explains it. He was born in Vietnam. His father was born in China so although he was born in what was then North Vietnam, he is, in his culture, considered Chinese. His mother was Vietnamese. His father owned a “market” – more like our local farmer’s markets than a Rabba – and Nhiem was one of seven children. They also owned a car so that, plus the market, put them in the middle class. Life in a Hanoi suburb was “fine” for young Nhiem. He went to school, rode his bike everywhere, hung out with friends, worked through sibling rivalries and helped in his father’s market. In adulthood he managed the family market and married Xuan Thi Nguyen, who gave birth to five children in Hanoi. Normal stuff. But as the war between North and South Vietnam and the Americans dragged on it took a horrendous toll, well beyond the killing fields. The Ngo family’s life was decimated. They lost the market. He lost his father. And they lived a subsistent life. But they persevered. Until the bombs came.
It was 1972 and American B-52 bombers rained hell, fire and brimstone bombs down on North Vietnam. The shelling of Hanoi, Haiphong and the sprawling suburbs was relentless and US President, Richard Nixon made it clear that no cities were off-limits to the bombing. Despite a 1973 peace treaty, the war raged on for years as the communist party secured their hold on both North and South Vietnam. Millions of citizens were deemed “enemies of the state” and more than a million were sent to prison camps while a million-and-a-half tried to escape the country. Nhiem Phan Ngo and his family were among them. They became “boat people,” fleeing to the sea in anything that would float.
At age 49, Nhiem, with his pregnant wife, five children, two brothers and their families, twenty-one in all, had to escape. They set out to cross the South China Sea in a twenty-foot boat. A crude sail, rough winds, ten days and a thousand prayers later, they landed at Haikou an island off the southern tip of China. That was just the beginning. A few days later they set sail across the Beibu Gulf hoping to reach Hong Kong while enduring a second harrowing passage. It was another ten days of visceral fear. Eventually (I lost track of the timelines) Nhiem and his extended family came to Canada and settled in Winnipeg. The fact that it was a nothing-out-of-the ordinary, piercing cold, don’t-stick-your-tongue-on-the-steel-pipes winter, didn’t matter to the Ngo family. It was their “land of the free.” They had made it. everything else was incidental.
It was then a thirty-year journey from working in a Winnipeg paint factory to drinking coffee at Doughnut King, but none of that compared to twenty days on the South China Sea. Nothing. His family had not only survived but his children grew up safe, married well and were prospering. He is eighty-two, with twenty grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Recently, a “medical error” in a Canadian hospital took his eldest daughter, and his wife, Xuan, is tucked away in an old folks home, suffering from dementia. He rides two city buses for two hours, each way, to visit her—everyday.
During our chats, I always finish my coffee first because he’s doing most of the talking while I ask questions, trying to fill my shallow understanding of life with this man’s depth—his resolve, courage, peace, fulfillment … acceptance. In the middle of his story, he notices my cardboard cup empty, stops, stands and says, “I get you more coffee.” I can’t stop him and watch as he stands in line for five minutes to bring me another medium double-double. And a cinnamon bun. My “thank you” sounds like a distant apology as I try to persuade him that he doesn’t have to be so kind to me.
In just three sit-downs, over half-a-dozen coffees and more cinnamon buns than I should eat, he opens my eyes and heart to the beauty, strength and vastness of the human condition. As our third chat ends and he enjoys a final sip of his large-black, no sugar, we fall into a warm silence. I am oblivious to the surroundings. I see only my friend. He smiles. Stands. His eyes say thank you. I rise slowly. I am perhaps a foot taller. I move around the tiny table and put out my arms. There is no hesitation. We come together as if two very different, and yet, very similar worlds are embracing. In this moment, my life becomes more complete, more whole. No words are spoken. Then we step back. He offers the biggest smile I’ve ever seen, almost laughing. Pointing upward he says, “You big man, me little man.” The absurdity slices through me. And the truth tumbles out. “No Nhiem. You are the big man; I am the little man. What you have done, what you have endured … compared to what I have done … and who you are … No. You are the big man.”