An article written for and published in Reader's Digest Our Canada

An Enduring Family Friendship

That first taste of spring rolls is my most vivid memory of the Lunar New Year party on a bitter winter’s night in 1980, in the church basement of a backwoods Northwestern Ontario town. Like underfed stray cats, my two sisters and I pounced at the heaping platters, still glistening with hot oil. The ground meat and vegetables in the filling were familiar enough to us. But the unfamiliar ingredients – the thin sheets of delicate rice paper in which they were wrapped, and the dipping sauce made from exotic fish sauce infused with chillies, sugar, and lime – introduced us to foreign and unforgettable flavours. Since those days I have eaten many such Vietnamese spring rolls, but none have tasted as exquisite as those served that night by Ginny and Thuy Vu, refugees from the Vietnam War.

The Vu family first arrived in Fort Frances just 3 months prior, on November 3, 1979. Ginny, just 4’10” and 30 years old, was the matriarch and family spokesperson. Her personality was as fiery as the chili in her spring roll sauce. She was fluent in French and English; trained as a lawyer and a teacher in Vietnam, she was poised, articulate, confident and ambitious. Thuy, a year younger than Ginny and her opposite, exuded calm. With a weaker command of English, he concealed his strength of character and stoicism behind his quiet disposition. We learned he had fought in the South Vietnamese army and when the country fell to the communists from the North, he spent three years doing hard labour in a concentration camp. The two little boys, Binh 4, and Cong, 2, clung to their mother’s legs, but with some coaxing, they delighted in the story books my sisters and I often read to them.

Why in early 1980 were Canadians across the country celebrating the Lunar New Year with newly arrived Southeast Asians? In 1978 Canadian newspapers relayed story after story about dilapidated boats teeming with people desperate to flee communist regimes, mostly from Vietnam but also from Cambodia and Laos. Images on television revealed the squalor of Southeast Asian refugee camps where the “boat people” languished, awaiting resettlement. The plight of the Southeast Asian refugees resonated with Canadians across the country and spawned an unprecedented surge of citizen activism. In July 1979, public outcry prompted the Progressive Conservative government under Joe Clark to restructure the Canadian refugee policy to allow private citizens to sponsor refugees. In the following two years, a total of 7,600 private sponsorship requests were filed to admit nearly 40,000 refugees, including the four members of the Vu family.

In Fort Frances, two church congregations sponsored families as did a third group, who called themselves New Horizon. The private, non-religious affiliated group was comprised of twenty-five civic-minded families including my own. In fact, thanks to the help of such private sponsorship groups, Canada absorbed more Southeast Asian refugees per capita than any other country. In 1986, Canada received the Nansen Refugee Award, awarded annually by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in recognition of our exceptional assistance to the boat people.

My mom explained that our family got involved in the refugee sponsorship program for reasons much like other families across Canada; my parents felt it was their turn to help those in need. In the 1950s my mom watched her father, an immigrant who arrived from Germany in 1929, help people who were displaced from the war in Europe. “They came with nothing,” she said, “and they were so appreciative even with just the wee bit of help he gave them, like money to buy a stamp to write a letter or help to find a job and a place that was half decent.” My mother choked back tears when she told me that on a personal level, it felt good to help the Vus settle in Canada.

Recently Ginny and I spent an evening reminiscing about that first Lunar New Year party and those years in Fort Frances when her boys were about the same age as my own sons are now. She told me she and the other refugees organized the party to show their appreciation for the help, support, and kindness of their sponsors. The Lion’s Club donated $300 to help with the cost because the newcomers didn’t have the means to fund such an event just three months after arriving from the refugee camp in Malaysia, with little more than a few items of clothing. Many of the sponsoring families also helped prepare for the event, just as they assisted with so many of the daily activities’ routine for Canadians, but unfamiliar to new immigrants.

Sponsor families provided the Vus with a monthly stipend of $600 a month for the first year, a cost of only $25 a month for each of the twenty-five sponsoring families. This paid the rent and provided for staples like food and clothing. But sponsorship support extended beyond the financial. “There were little things here and there, but they meant a lot to us,” Ginny told me. Sponsor families helped with paperwork like getting OHIP cards, took them to apply for jobs and looked after their children when they were at work. “They furnished the apartment that they rented for us with everything – even paintings on the walls,” said Ginny with obvious gratitude.

After five years in Fort Frances, Ginny and Thuy uprooted their family again, this time to Toronto, for the same reason my sisters and I would later leave the north – higher education and opportunities for jobs. Unable to afford to take time from their work or children to study for necessary Canadian credentials, Ginny and Thuy have thrived working mainly unskilled jobs. By moving to Toronto, all dreams for advanced education and a better future were shifted to their children. These aspirations were eventually realized. The three boys (they had a third son, Liem, born after they moved to Toronto) all have flourishing careers: Binh now works as a corporate lawyer, Cong became an entrepreneur and founded a website development firm and Liem is a host for The Morning Show on Global TV in Toronto.

Ginny lifts her head and straightens her shoulders like a proud mother hen when she boasts about her boys’ achievements. As I listen to Ginny coo, I develop a swelling in my own chest because in some small way, I feel like my family had a hand in their successes too. While celebrating the Lunar New Year in 1980, we didn’t know what the future would hold for the Vus, but their obvious work ethic and drive led us to accurately predict they would succeed as Canadians.

An Afternoon with Friends and a Good Wine

I don't make drinking in the afternoon a habit, but I do make an exception for the fortunate coincidence of discovering a particularly interesting wine, and friends coming by to share it. Spring days increase the urgency to open a bottle as sunshine, like a mischievous friend, will always lure me into pushing all pressing tasks aside in wait for greyer skies.

That particular sunny afternoon I had invited Sarah and Keith over with their children. While a playdate for our kids may have been my pretense to get together, my true motivation was the knowledge that Sarah and Keith would appreciate whatever wine I chose for them to sample, and as importantly, listen intently when I recounted my story for selecting it.

My chosen wine was an off-dry, fortified white made in the style of a Portuguese Madeira or Spanish Sherry. The mild temperature of that day in May even reminded me of southern Spain, where only a few months earlier my husband and I had spent several afternoons sipping Finos in outdoor cafes. But the story I would tell Sarah and Keith did not involve reminiscing over our most recent vacation to the Iberian Peninsula, where some of the greatest fortified wines of the world originated. That particular bottle was a local one, so my story started much closer to home.

I had recently completed the last and most difficult exam from a grueling two year wine and spirits course. My husband and I celebrated my achievement (or rewarded my efforts) with a lavish dinner out. I had carefully chosen the restaurant using only one criterion: the reputation of the wine list. That evening we were served the predictable parade of chardonnays and pinot noirs; Priorats and Rias Baixas. All were lovely, but none would cause me sleeplessness while scheming to get my hands on a bottle. My single-minded quest of late, intensified when dining out, is to unearth something delicious, yet surprising; a wine I would not likely buy - or even discover - on my own.

My unexpected treasure finally presented itself with cheese. The sommelier informed us our Gouda was to be paired with a fortified wine, and my pulse quickened. Then he said it was in the style of a Madeira, and I swooned. l first lusted for these fortified wines while reading their fabled stories prepping for class. I learned that early Madeiras developed their distinctive ‘rancio’ flavours from sailing across the Atlantic to North America and back in the warmth of the ships’ holds; and that Fino Sherries develop their nutty notes in a ‘solera system’ where they are aged under a layer of yeast, called the ‘flor’. These wines, with their ancient production methods, define tradition and capture the imagination.

So, when the sommelier told us our fortified wine that evening was made in Ontario, I exhaled. I wanted to experience the romance of the old-world; I wanted to taste the tradition of Europe. I wasn’t ready for a fortified wine from a mere 100 km down the road.

Just like that, before the aroma reached my nostrils, before the glass even touch my lips, I had already formed the opinion that an Ontario wine, by nature of its provenance, was less than its old world counterparts. Like so many wannabe wine aficionados, I predetermined the worthiness of a wine on something other than the liquid inside the bottle.

Then, a series of sips between nibbles of cheese told me to give this wine a chance. I enjoyed the warmth on the palate, and the obvious acidity, balanced by just enough sweetness. The oxidative notes reminded me first of orange marmalade on toast, and then honey roasted almonds. There was plenty to ponder with this wine, and certainly enough depth to start a conversation. I had found my sunny Sunday afternoon sipping wine.