My parents and I disagree on a lot of things. How I dress, my future career goals, what music I listen to, the list goes on and on. When I was younger (and sometimes even today), I would dismiss my mom and dad as “old-fashioned”. I used to think that they were too attached to the lives they once led in Vietnam, which inhibited them from adapting to the Canadian society in which I was born and raised. During the height of my teenage angst, I never wanted to go home: we had nothing in common to discuss, and oftentimes whatever conversation we would have would devolve into an argument anyway. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of our relationship was that we couldn’t confide in each other because my parents rarely showed any emotion. They were either angry or not.

All of this changed when my aunt died. It was the first and only time I have ever seen my father cry.

Twenty-four hours later, my father and I packed our bags and flew to Vietnam to attend her funeral. I didn’t know much about my aunt or my father’s life in Vietnam prior to that trip, and while I have visited Vietnam before, I was able to fully appreciate my ancestral homeland and communicate with both my extended family and my father. With the help of his siblings and liquid courage, my father eventually retold much of his life story to me, answering the questions I had about my parents that before I was too afraid to ask.

He told me that he lived in a displacement camp as a teenager.

He told me about how he courted my mom, and how much my grandmother didn’t like him at first.

He told me about relatives who died in the war.

He told me that when it was time to marry my mother, he borrowed a suit from a friend because he couldn’t afford his own.

He told me about his experiences in famine and in jail.

He told me that on the day he fled Vietnam, he lied to my sisters, who were only eight and six at the time, and said that he was going to work and would bring them ice cream when he got home.

He told me how he coped in his first few years in Canada, a strange land where he knew no one and had nothing.

Being able to open up and speak to each other honestly lifted a burden on both my father and me. For him, he found solace in being able to confide in his children, and in knowing that his memories and struggles were appreciated. For me, I gained an appreciation for where my parents came from and how these experiences shaped my own life. My existence as a first-generation Vietnamese-Canadian, the first ever in my entire family, is the literal product of my parents’ sacrifice and triumph in their search for a better life for my family.

Today, our relationship has significantly improved. It took a lot of courage, communication and open-mindedness for us to become comfortable with one another. While we still disagree on many things, we have also found much more to agree on. I’m getting better at speaking the language every day and hope to one day chronicle my parents’ life. My parents also deserve some credit: they are slowly coming out of their shell, exploring Toronto more and listening to new music (my mom loves Shakira and my dad recently expressed approval for Lauryn Hill).

While it was a long and difficult process in the making, my relationship with my mother and father, two individuals with extraordinary life stories, has been a blessing. On top of supplying me with the best Vietnamese food in the world, they have raised me in a way where I simultaneously live two lives: one as a Canadian, and the other as a Vietnamese. Even though a mixed identity presents its challenges, I also get the benefit of learning from two different perspectives, having a unique historical background from many of my peers and finding peace in both Toronto as a whole and in my home, a tiny microcosm of Vietnam.

And that to me is a beautiful thing.

Originally published with Sail Magazine: