Thien Tang was 14 when he boarded an overcrowded boat in Vietnam and began a journey to Canada during which he would be robbed by pirates, shot at by police and beaten by guards at a refugee camp.
“We live in two worlds where expectations are different. When you are a refugee you are always a refugee. I accept this as a disability of my life – to never be completely free in my mind,” he said in a report carried by The Journal Pioneer newspaper in Canada.
Thirty years after that dramatic escape, Tang has written a book on his experiences that he hopes will help educate people on the hardships and prejudices faced by refugees. Called The Other Side of the Sun, it is a shocking tale of a boy’s efforts to survive extreme challenges.
He admitted that it meant “digging into the darkest corners of my mind to haul out the bits and pieces of sorrowful memories, while carefully handling them like hand grenades”.
Trang is the son of a wealthy Chinese businessman, then living in South Vietnam, who was targeted after the communist takeover in 1975. At his father’s urging, he joined the exodus of ethnic Chinese in 1979, sailing through the treacherous South China Sea to Malaysia.
“We had heard on the radio about boats being attacked by pirates, getting lost at sea, starvation and typhoons,” he admitted, adding that the scariest part was being at sea: “It was the anticipation of death.”
‘I was the first in their sight, the first that would die when they reached the boat’
His overloaded boat was boarded by pirates armed with knives who methodically collected anything of valuable from the frightened passengers, including the money Tang needed to start his new life.
“I was the first in their sight, the first that would die when they reached the boat. I still remember the feeling of watching them getting closer, while swimming with knives between their teeth and the feeling of death approaching,” he recalled.
The refugees survived that encounter, but there was worse to come when they reached land. They were shot at by Malaysian police, then taken to a refugee camp enclosed in barbed wire where they were tortured, beaten and deprived of food by ruthless guards.
“My father always had high expectations for us, but when we became refugees we were so beaten up physically and mentally that our view went out the window of being wealthy. We were just happy to be alive then,” Tang said.
His ordeal ended 37 months later when he was accepted by Canada for resettlement. After becoming a Canadian citizen in 1983, Tang was able to sponsor his parents and older sister for residency in his adopted country.
He now lives in Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, where he works as a computer programmer with his own company.
Tang hopes his book will inspire other refugees to tell their stories.
“There are many refugees in the world and I suspect they all have personal stories without a venue to tell [them]. Perhaps the next time you meet some refugees, you will be able to tag my story to those nameless faces and feel as if you know them,” he suggested.