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We left Vietnam with 6 spoons. The one that remains serves much more than its purpose

This is a First Person column by Vien Huynh-Lee, who lives in Ottawa. For more on CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

This is the story of a spoon. 

Made of stainless steel, it originally came in a set of six and was used by my family in Vietnam. It became one of the few possessions we brought with us as we left in April 1979 — seeking a better life in the aftermath of the Vietnam War — with just one bag each. It was an entirely utilitarian choice. These durable spoons stacked compactly into our limited space and the deep set style meant they worked for almost any type of food.

After five days, our fishing vessel drifted close enough to a deserted island off the Malaysian shore, allowing the 202 passengers to jump into the water and then swim to shore. I was six months old at this time, and as my mother stared down at the water with me in her arms, she worried about how we would make it to shore safely. Only when she saw people willing to help, she dropped me into the crowd below where I was caught by waiting arms. 

Somehow our bags with the spoons made it ashore. They stayed with us through five different refugee camps where we used them to consume rations from the UN. My brother used to scrape the remaining rice grains from a metal pot with a spoon, likely from that set. 

In September, my father heard the family’s names through the camp’s loudspeakers. A home had been found; Canada had adopted us. The spoons then made their way with us on a plane journey to our new home in November 1979.

A family dressed in ‘70s fashion stands in a kitchen.
Vien Huynh-Lee, as a baby in her mother’s arms, with her immediate family shortly after arriving as refugees in Birtle, Man., in 1979. (Submitted by Vien Huynh-Lee)

In Canada, the spoons were deployed into our family’s regular cutlery set. It became a feature whenever heaping bowls of phở or bún riêu were served for family dinner. My parents became the owners of N.L. Restaurant, in Rossburn, Man., in 1982, determined to provide for their four children in Canada. Our family’s house was attached to the restaurant, and only a swinging door separated our home from the frenetic pace of cooking and serving customers.

A newspaper clipping of an article with the headline, “Huynh family buys a local restaurant.”
Huynh-Lee’s parents kept a clipping of a 1982 Rossburn Review article on their restaurant opening in rural Manitoba. (Submitted by Vien Huynh-Lee)

Even in the busyness of running a restaurant in rural Manitoba, my mom insisted on

family dinner five times a week. It was in our small, modest kitchen that she cooked traditional Vietnamese and Chinese staples, with the Canadian-Chinese cuisine being served in the front of the house just a few feet away. 

Over time, the spoons made the next journey with us to Calgary as my parents sold the restaurant and we started another Canadian chapter. Years passed, and over the decades, five spoons disappeared. 

With just one spoon remaining, my oldest brother fished it out of the cutlery drawer and we gave it a place of prominence on the mantel of our home. It had come to represent much more than its utilitarian purpose. The spoon was resilient, strong and unbreakable.

An illustration of a spoon inside a heart-shaped bowl of food and a Chinese character above it.
Huynh-Lee’s sister, Tran, and her niece, Lien, created this illustration of the family spoon reaching into a heart-shaped bowl of phở. Above the illustration is the Chinese character of the family’s last name. The illustration symbolized family unity and their hope to be brought together after pandemic restrictions eased. (Tran Huynh-Lee and Lien Huynh)

It became a symbol of the Huynhs in Canada. It embodied what it served — food was love, an inextricable link across our family. My dad once declared, this family will never eat just rice, soya sauce and broccoli! And we didn’t. My parents spent years making sure their children and grandchildren were full to the brim. My stoic parents shared their love through thinly sliced cucumbers, braised pork, sprigs of cilantro and basil, flavourful dipping bowls of nước chấm and heaping bowls of fragrant soup.

A large family gathering on an outdoor patio table set up for Chinese hot pot.
Over the years, the three generations of the Huynh family have shared many fond memories and meals over the dining table, such as this hot pot meal in the summer. (Vien Huynh-Lee)

The spoon stayed on the mantel until August 2021, when my mother passed and we

packed all of the belongings in my parents’ home. With both parents gone, the family home would change hands, and we searched for new ways to preserve the legacy of our family. 

The spoon has now reached its final leg of the journey and sits in a place of honour in the Queen’s Park Mausoleum in Calgary, where my parents have their resting place. It is here where I will look and remember each time the resilience and strength it represents of an unbreakable family legacy.

A family portrait of a large family sitting together by a riverbank.
Three generations of the Huynh-Lee family. (Thanh Huynh)

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