Boat People

Why, he asked the three Trang sisters in French, didn’t you choose a French high school in Quebec since you speak French so well? The youngest, who at fifteen was effectively spokeswoman for her older sisters, grew wide-eyed at the naivete of such a question.

‘Parce que, monsieur,’ she replied, as if it were obvious, ‘l’anglais , c’est la langue du futur!’

Mr. Carter put down his pen, exhaled softly, and leaned back in his chair. It was the sort of answer he might have expected from Christine, forthright and uncompromising, and confirmed once again that these new ESL students, late arrivals from South Viet Nam, refugees from Ho Chi Minh’s successful drive to liberate and unify his country under Communist tyranny, were very different from the usual intake, largely anonymous transients from various former outposts of empire-- Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines-- polite, self-effacing, uncritical, unimaginative young people who parroted back to their teachers what they thought were the prescribed answers. It was clear that Christine Trang, deeply serious, ambitious, opinionated within the limits of her imperfect English, and devoted to her teacher, thought for herself and meant what she said.

Their father had been a lawyer in Saigon. He now took three buses to Gatineau, where he worked as a parking-lot attendant, and returned in the dark to a stuffy apartment he shared with his wife, her mother, their three daughters, and a young son. He had nothing but gratitude to Canada for taking them all in, he told Carter at a dinner at his home to which he had invited the young teacher and his wife. He had once employed a team of multilingual lawyers, was fluent himself in Vietnamese, French, Cantonese, and English, lived in style and comfort, hobnobbing with the privileged elite of his country, sent his children to private lycee and surrounded his family with the flattering attention of a battery of servants. He had lost it all when the triumphant Viet Cong invaded the city.

‘But now,’ he said, flashing gold teeth he had kept carefully hidden from the pirates who had intercepted their leaky boat off the coast of Malaysia, ‘I know my real riches are my children.’ He laughed at Christine’s pained smile from across the table.

The progress of all three girls was formidable. Unlike all the other ESL students, whom they quickly outshone, they always respected Carter’s prohibition against speaking their native language in class time. Half-way through the first semester, Carter persuaded a reluctant Guidance department to promote all three from his elementary to his intermediate class, where they began to read voraciously, devouring the little supplementary readers abridged for language learners that had long languished unread at the back of the classroom.

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Boat People

author
Peter was born in England, spent his childhood there and in South America, and taught English for 33 years in Ottawa, Canada. Now retired, he reads and writes voraciously, and travels occasionally with his wife Louise.
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