Birthday in the Camp

By Vinh Nguyen Posted March 10, 2015

Medium nguyenvinh

This photo always makes me laugh, even though, or precisely because, I don’t seem to be having much fun in it. It is my seventh birthday and we had been living in Ban Thad, a Thai refugee camp, for some time. My family and I arrived here after having escaped Vietnam as “boat people.” This was a limbo camp, where we waited and waited to be called to move on to a processing or transition camp, and then hopefully, a new life. The photograph was taken just shortly after we had gotten news of my father’s disappearance at sea. My father, who had survived years of war, and re-education imprisonment in its wake, did not make it to us. So, my mother and her best friend decided to throw a party, to ease the heartbreak perhaps, or to offer me the semblance of a “normal” childhood in such an extra-ordinary place. A beautiful gesture, for sure. And here I was, refusing to offer a smile for the camera, to complete the happy scene that everyone was trying to create. As you can see, the spread was delicious—spring rolls, fried noodles, soup, and jelly. The crowning item, however, was the box of raisins sitting in the middle of the table. Despite their attempts to hide it from me I’d found it days earlier and asked if it was candy (and if so, could I please eat some!!!)—I hadn’t tasted candy in such a long time. They lied and said it was medicine. I remember feeling relieved that it wasn’t medicine, but also disappointed that there would be no candy either. The sweetness of raisins would have to do. The intense flavour that lingered on my fingers when the last raisin was gone tasted like the love and abundance on display here.

This was the first birthday that sticks to memory. There haven’t been many parties after it. To this day, I dislike celebrating my day of birth, finding the attention too much to bear. Maybe many years ago in Ban Thad the raisins were just a little too bittersweet.

Vinh Nguyen lives in Toronto. He is currently a doctoral candidate in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. In the summer of 2015, he will begin an appointment as Assistant Professor in Diaspora Literature in English at Renison University College, University of Waterloo.