”It feels important to see people who look like me”

Sonja Åkerström Nguyen and Khai Nguyen
Sonja Åkerström Nguyen and Khai Nguyen

He fled barefoot from Vietnam in a monsoon and she has grown up with both feet on the ground in Skellefteå. Both have made journeys that made them better understand where they come from.

Skellefteå 5 juli 2023 12:00

Khai Nguyen was born in Vietnam and as a 7-year-old in the post-war 1970s his parents started planning an escape. After having collected supplies in secret they took off in the father’s fishing boat one chilly night. With their lives at stake they sailed off in the middle of a monsoon to avoid detection. Their only hope was to reach an international navigation channel and be rescued by a ship. 

After several weeks they started to lose faith. The ten people on-board, including Khai’s mother who was six months pregnant, started becoming desperate. After surviving storms with high waves, thirst and hunger they finally reached a desert island where they had to eat what they found. At night, sea turtles came and laid eggs on the beach, which they ate. After having finally been picked up by a naval vessel they came to a Filipino refugee camp on an island where Apocalypse Now was being filmed at that time.

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Youngest picture of Khai in the refugee camp in Manila while waiting to depart for Canada.

It is a long way from there to the kitchen island in the house in Skellefteå where his daughter Sonja Åkerström Nguyen is slicing up an avocado as she enthusiastically talks about her first year as an adult. The family lives on Vitberget in a spacious newly built house where the summer light flows through the open sliding glass doors. 

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Sonja Åkerström Nguyen and Khai Nguyen

Sonja graduated last year, enrolled at folk high school but later dropped out. A sense of wanderlust had arisen in her and she booked a ticket to New York. When Norrland was at its very coldest and darkest she left and she immediately felt at home in the American metropolis. 

– I could get on the subway, start talking to someone and then spend the rest of the day with that person. You can’t exactly do that Skellefteå, Sonja laughs.

She then continued on to Virginia where the Operation Smile headquarters is located. The aid organisation that provides surgery for children with cleft lip and palate. Khai and his family eventually received asylum in Canada where he grew up and got a scholarship to study. When the trade embargo with Vietnam was lifted in the 1990s Khai travelled there to trace his roots. At that time he also came into contact with Operation Smile when they needed someone who could interpret in Vietnamese. That led to him getting involved in the charity organisation and he has led several missions to Vietnam since then. 

In Virginia Sonja got to stay with a republican catholic family and she went with the organisation into schools to talk about the charity work. She discovered some interesting cultural differences.

– My instagram algorithms changed completely. I suddenly saw posts about republican politics, baptism and churches. The people I met also had opinions about Sweden. When I told them about the Swedish parental leave some people thought it was fantastic while some people thought it was horrible. They wondered how the national economy could survive when people aren’t working, Sonja says.

Sonja then travelled on to her father’s hometown in Canada to see the family and she discovered that it is a good feeling to be surrounded by people who look like her and act like her.

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Sonja Åkerström Nguyen at Vitberget.

– I realised a few years ago that I only have blond friends. I’ve never felt ostracised, but I’ve still tried to suppress the Asian side of me. It feels important to see people who look like me.

By travelling around and meeting people who Khai got to know in his youth Sonja also gained a new perspective of her father. 

– Strangely enough I got to know dad better by being away from him and I understood a bit more about why he is the way he is by talking to his friends. And I gained enormous respect for him when I saw the place where he grew up, how he’s made it all the way here to a house he built himself in Skellefteå. 

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Khai Nguyen

Khai, in his turn, understood more about his parents when he visited his country of origin as an adult. 

– When I came to Vietnam to explore my past I got new-found respect for my parents and the journey they made. Now when I have children of my own it's difficult to imagine what it was like for them to be forced to put themselves and their children on a boat into the unknown.

Khai ended up in Sweden after having met Sonja’s mother and he now works as a doctor at a Skellefteå health centre. He has lived here since 2006. The darkness was difficult in the beginning but he has adapted to the Swedish climate and spirit. 

– Sometimes I just want to get a coffee and be on my way but people want to talk so much. Perhaps I’ve become more of a Norrlänning, Khai says with a twinkle in his eye.

Now back in Skellefteå Sonja has a summer job at Rönnskärsverken. The future is not crystallised yet but there are plans to both backpack around Asia and study at university somewhere in Sweden. One thing is certain though. The wanderlust has only grown.

– There’s nothing wrong with being content in your hometown but you might also lose something if you never travel and see something else. I recommend other young people to go travelling. It requires knowledge and courage, especially if you travel on your own but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.


 
 
 
 
 
 
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