Annie Chau recalls an episode in grade two when a substitute teacher sent her to the “English as a Second Language” class. “Here I was Canadian born, and grew up in the English language. My classmates said, ‘Not Annie; she’s in the advanced reading group!’” Annie was too embarrassed to tell her parents.
Both landed in Kingston, Ontario, from Vietnam in 1979 as part of the “boat people” exodus. Their two children accompanied them; Annie was born three years later. She regrets not learning Cantonese, but her parents seldom spoke it at home with their children. “I think they really wanted to assimilate the family as much as possible.” Her mother had been a teacher, but in Canada she cleaned houses and sewed curtains for a local drapery. Her father, formerly a property manager and soldier, earned a diploma in welding, but became a cook at a Chinese food-chain restaurant. “They struggled with finding work. I think they sheltered themselves and still do.”
We knew we were visibly different. The foods we were bringing to school were different.
Annie describes their beginnings in Canada as “a shock.” Even their first Hallowe’en was confusing. “Children came to the door and they were turning out the lights and hiding.” Their focus was on daily life, living simply, and spending time with close friends. In the summer they would go to Toronto to purchase Vietnamese ingredients. Annie’s friends were mostly first and second generation, of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. “We knew we were visibly different. The foods we were bringing to school were different.” She vaguely remembers her parents and siblings becoming Canadian. “I always was aware that I was born in Canada and they were not. My parents thought that was good. They might have seen it as a safety thing.”
Annie’s sister is an IT project manager in North Carolina, while her brother teaches English at a Kingston College. Annie studied science at Queen’s University and worked as a respiratory therapist. She earned a B.A. at Western in media and social justice. She worked at a sexual assault centre; ran employment workshops with youth in slum communities in India; and worked for an NDP MP, an AIDS coalition and the Public Interest Research Group in Washington. Annie is now Project Coordinator at the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre & Sexual Assault Services Association.
Her interest in social justice comes from her mother who staged a protest on work conditions at a textile factory in Vietnam. “They were put in jail for a bit of time. She was telling me when they got out her mother said she’d never find a husband because she was in jail! She’s a strong woman who has beliefs of right and wrong. I love that story.”
Annie now has her Master of Adult Education and is mother to a baby boy. She is planning on a visit to Vietnam. Annie is proud of being Vietnamese-Canadian. “People of a certain age have memories of the Vietnam War. People are usually, ‘oh, that’s great’ that my family is here and doing okay. They are happy to be here and happy with peace in their lives, consistency, and security.”