Between wartime memories and his quest for beauty, renowned fashion designer Andy Thê-Anh tells his story

Text: Andy Thê-Anh

Version française

I was 16 years old when I arrived from Vietnam to Sainte-Thérèse in 1981, with my grandparents, my two sisters, my uncle, my aunts, and cousins. We were ten.

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I landed in the middle of winter on a carpet of white snow, although the green fir trees were not foreign to me. My immediate integration into French high school was quite easy. In Vietnam, I learned French at primary school. I did not feel or experience discrimination. At the time, there was a wave of sympathy for refugees arriving in large numbers by boat from Asia, commonly known as "boat people". I was lucky! I arrived by plane! Our family was sponsored by one of my aunts who immigrated to Montreal in the 1970s.

I am from Saigon, from a bourgeois intellectual family. My grandmother was the cousin of the last Vietnamese emperor. I am the only boy in the family. I grew up during the war, protected and spoiled by my grandparents. They hid everything from me. It allowed me to be oblivious to what was happening outside, outside of my universe, of my self.

In Montreal, I have adapted so well that people think I was born here. It's rare that I am asked questions about my life or my origins. Maybe I've adapted too well, who knows!

My motto has always been: "If we look too much at the past, it prevents us from moving forward". I always said to myself: you are no longer in Vietnam. Now, you are here, in Quebec. And if you want to integrate, then forget the past!

One can understand that I lived a period where I gave up my culture, my origins, my country. But later, I realized that we couldn’t deny where we come from.

Three events brought me back to my past

First, a news story on Télé-Québec about "re-education camps", as the communist regime liked to call them. I saw the former soldiers of the regime of the Republic "held" at the camp - one might as well call them prisoners! They all had a greyish complexion, absent eyes, and a bony face but the government said they were treated well and their lives were not in danger! The injustice, the lies and the suffering experienced by these people caused me to reconnect instantly with my country of origin. I cried… 

The second event occurred during a trip to Toronto. Every year, I go back to see my family and as I was enjoying some leisure time, I listened to a television report about Vietnam. It was particularly touching. The story related the lives of people still living there and facing many difficulties to make ends meet. Young children aged 7 or 8... working in the street to help their parents... I broke down when I saw the images! Again, I started to cry...

Afterwards, I tried to stay away from everything related to Vietnam to avoid such emotions. But a second report on the lives of people who lived through the war got the better of me. Hearing the testimonies and voices of these people (rather than those of the government), seeing how these people live in a country in the grips of 30 years of civil war, nearly a century of French colonization and more than one millennium of Chinese rule... And again, I cried...

I felt guilty, guilty for running away. Seeing the misery in these stories led me to think that I could have been one of these people. Guilty of having a better life without effort ... Guilty of having a life full of freedom while loads of my countrymen still live in censorship and poverty...

After so many years of distancing myself from Vietnam, I finally returned to my culture, my country. But this time, without guilt. I accept my privileged status, I have a better understanding of my situation, and I have more control over my emotions. I am becoming aware of what is happening in Vietnam, without judgment... I listen to Vietnamese music and watch Vietnamese films with a certain indulgence. I observe the evolution of this country, my first country, without criticism... I managed to make peace with my guilt, with myself.

I was acculturated before arriving in Canada. I was already learning French at school in Vietnam. But when I see refugees arriving in Quebec, I know it's not easy for them. For me, it was easy enough. For my aunts and uncles, it was very difficult, more difficult to adapt, to find work, to integrate. They had to move to Toronto. In Vietnam, my uncle taught French at university and my two aunts were respectively an accountant and an English teacher. When I arrived in Quebec/Canada, my uncle worked as a janitor and my aunts had 3 jobs each to make ends meet. I admire them for their strength and their attitude... They have been in survival mode all their lives, both in Vietnam and in Canada...

A few years later, my uncle was hired again as a French teacher, one of my aunts as an accountant for an organization helping immigrants and the other, as a secretary in a medical clinic. All kept their respective jobs until they retired...

As for me, the job I chose opposes the images and facts of the war. I chose a trade to promote beauty! I am a fashion designer. I broke the Vietnamese stereotype: the stereotype that every Vietnamese is a doctor, a pharmacist or a lawyer. In my efforts to promote beauty, my values remain respect, integrity, and honesty.

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My parents, how quickly they have gone...

I don't know them well... I lost them when I was 3 years old. My maternal grandparents raised me.

Here are some of the memories and stories I was told...

My mother was to marry a man of her standing (nobility), but she fell in love with my father and decided to marry him even if he was a simple soldier. My father came from a modest family in the countryside, with no title or big fortune, and his job was precarious. The classic scenario!

A few years later, when I was 2 years old, my father reached a high rank in the Vietnamese Republican army. There are two theories about his death: he either died in a helicopter accident, or the communists murdered him... My father was the first fallen division general because he was leading troops on the front line.

My mother always traveled with my father because she took care of wounded soldiers, widows and children of soldiers. I followed them everywhere. My parents often took me with them while visiting wounded soldiers between battles.

But on that day, fate decided otherwise... This was the last day I saw them alive...

My father's helicopter was defective. Americans offered them a ride. I wanted to follow them even though there was no room for me... When I climbed aboard, my mother told me, "Get off, get off!" So I stepped down on the tarmac to join the guardian, a soldier in my father's service. My parents died 15 minutes after take-off...

I understand that my life was meant to be lived.

My grandmother, my inspiration

My grandmother came from royalty. She was raised in principles, dignity and wealth. When the Communists arrived, we lost everything... Piece by piece... My grandmother was selling one piece of furniture at a time to feed the family. It was very strange to come home and realize that things had disappeared... a piece of furniture, a vase, a painting...

We were a target for the regime. My older sister was excluded from university. We, the military children of the old regime, had no future in communist Vietnam.

My grandparents' family fled the war 3 times. My grandmother lost 2 of her 5 children and her son-in-law during the war. She kept smiling through all these events. Every day when she got up, she appeared all dressed up, hair and makeup done, ready to go to the market. She was full of dignity even though it was sometimes difficult to find during these periods of uncertainty and misery. I never heard her complain. Not even once...

For me, she has been and will remain forever an inspiration, a model of resilience and strength, and a model of beauty! If I were a writer, I would tell her story!

Today

Growing up in Montreal and evolving in the fashion world, I never felt the need to be someone other than myself. I always assumed who I was, including my sexual orientation. I always said to myself: You're gay, OK. It becomes who you are rather than a topic of conversation. I never felt the need to adapt my behaviour. I have always been who I am without rushing things. My motto has always been and always will be to respect others and they will respect you. I have never experienced discrimination or racism in any shape or form.

Today at 52, I still need change, movements. I like to challenge myself. Static or stable things bother me. Maybe it's an immigrant trait to experience difficulty in accepting the peaceful side of quiet happiness? I still have this feeling of "My God, what will happen to me?" I always wonder if it's because I'm an immigrant or if it's my personality... Maybe it's just the nature of a survivor?

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But again, at 52, I believe I am lucky! Even more so as I have recently married the man I have loved for 25 years. We exchanged vows this summer in front of family and friends! In front of the people who are dear to us and have always been there, at every stage of our lives.

Like all immigrants, we each have our own history, our way of evolving, adapting to changes in society, as every immigrant or refugee arriving in Quebec with his or her own history and experience. Everyone can find their place in society, in their own way, at their own pace... We simply need to support them, guide them and above all, to not judge them.

We often ask immigrants to integrate without taking the time to explain our lifestyles and how our society works. This leads to confrontations. No, we must not accept everything, but there is what belongs to us and what belongs to others... We agree that immigrants must adapt, but we must accompany them in their integration, because:

Our freedom ends where that of others begins...

Andy


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