ON MY KARMIC VIETNAM-AUSTRALIA-CANADA JOURNEY
Phan Dam, P.Eng
My wife and I arrived at Vancouver
Airport very late one night in August 1969. Exhausted after two long
flights, we were glad that we were finally in Canada, the land of our
While other passengers were happy and excited to meet their relatives and friends at the airport, we felt lonely and lost as we had no friends, no relatives here to pick us up and to guide us in the new country. We did not know where to stay for the night. We had just got married a few months in Australia before we came here. There, we had many friends and our jobs, and now here in Canada, we had just the two of us and less than $2,000 in our bank account.
I asked the Information Officer for the cheapest place to stay. Following her advice, we boarded the bus for the University of British Columbia, where we could rent a room in one of the residences. It was a dark night and on the bus, we both felt dead tired, rather sick, lonely, and uncertain about our future in this new city. Yes, we were now in Canada where, hopefully, we could lead a peaceful life but what would be next? In the previous few months, we had been busy with our wedding, immigration planning, packing up our belongings and I had worked a lot of over time in order to save up as much money as possible…
We had a good sleep. The next
morning, we went down for breakfast. The cafeteria reminded me of the
time when I was still at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
Over there, I only had to concentrate on my part- time study, there was
no worry about money or job, and I had so many friends to talk to
whenever I needed some help. Here, in the new land, we had to start all
We both were eager to look for
jobs as we did not have too much money left in our bank account. Jobs
for professionals were very hard to find. I wrote many letters to
various engineering firms in Vancouver, Victoria and other small towns
in British Columbia. I made many phone calls trying my luck.
Having no job, our money in the bank account ran lower and lower and worst of all, in Vancouver, we did not know anyone close enough so that we could borrow the money from in the event that we ran out of it. We were so worried about our financial situation that we hardly bought any meat in order to spend the least amount of money possible. To entertain ourselves, we went to the public library to borrow books to read. My eyes were badly strained because I had been wearing a rather old pair of glasses for a long time. Having to buy a new pair of glasses for me did cause some great financial concerns for us. Some nights, my wife dreamed that we had found a full-time job. With some luck, she found a part-time job first, working 20 hours a week as a sales clerk in a shoe department. We were so happy receiving the first paycheck, even though there was not so much money in it.
Realizing that we could never find a professional job in Vancouver, we headed for Toronto at the end of October 1969. This time, we felt much better as our friends picked us up at the airport. They sheltered us for a week. They drove us around Toronto to look for a place to live. They showed us all the transportation routes and various places to look for a job in this new city.
I had worked for Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission for a couple of years in Sydney. I enjoyed my work as a dam design engineer and I wished that I could continue to work in that field here again in Canada. I must have applied for more than 250 jobs in different places in Canada. I was offered a job looking for mines in Manitoba, where the temperature could go down to -50 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. I consequently had to decline the job offer. After 11 months of job-hunting, I ended up working as a laboratory demonstrator in the Civil Engineering Technology laboratories at Centennial College in Toronto. I had to design and to teach the laboratory experiments testing soils, concretes, cements, aggregates, sands, asphalts, steels, aluminum alloys, and timber. I was quite familiar with the material- testing field as I had done most of the material testing when I worked in the two summers in Australia. I started to appreciate my Civil Engineering Program that I took at the University of New South Wales, particularly my summer work experience as a part of its curriculum.
Before leaving Saigon for Australia on a Colombo Plan scholarship, I was so eager to go overseas to study, but I never realized that I had a lot to learn by myself in order to adjust to a new environment, a new language and a new culture. Some typical examples:
On the plane from Saigon to
Sydney, for breakfast, I ate everything first except for my corn flakes!
When crossing some streets in
Sydney in the first few days, I was almost hit by cars as I tended to
look at the wrong directions because, coming from Vietnam, I was so used
to keeping to the right. Ironically, when we arrived in Vancouver, when
crossing the streets, I was almost hit by oncoming cars as I was so
accustomed to keeping to the left in Australia while in Canada, people
keep to the right!
In Viet Nam, I had known the metric system of measurement only. In my first physics tutorial class, it was hard enough for me to understand Aussie English and I had no idea how long one foot was, not to mention one mile and how really heavy one pound was! I had to learn the imperial system of measurement as if I had learned the English alphabet in my Grade 6!
In my first few months in Sydney I
was scared to death to talk to Australians over the phone because
without seeing the person’s face, I couldn’t guess what he/she was
I very much appreciated the 3
months of learning English, the Australian ways of life, mathematics,
workshop and chemistry offered by the Commonwealth Office of Education
before we were sent to the University. This transition period was very
helpful for me to adapt myself to the new country, language, and culture
so that I could cope with many challenges in my first year at the
University. I also picked up invaluable interpersonal skills, Australian
ways of life when I stayed at Basser College among Australian and
foreign students and when I was sent to work in the Australian Outback
in two summers.
Living away from home for the
first time and away from our Vietnamese society, I felt happy whenever I
met my Colombo Plan Vietnamese friends. I enjoyed participating in the
activities organized by the Vietnamese Overseas Students’ Association
(VOSA) and the Vietnam Australia Association (VAA). During this time
period, I could never realize the benefits of getting involved with
these extracurricular activities until many years later after I had
immigrated to Canada.
I became a full-time faculty in
1977 and since then, I had to teach a new technical subject almost every
semester. I was joint-appointed to teach subjects in various departments
such as: Electrical/Electronics, Mechanical, Chemical, Architectural,
Robotics, Biological and Environmental. There were many nights that I
had stomach ulcers due to stress, lecture and test paper preparations
for these new courses. I had to teach myself first in a very short time
Canadian community college
students in the Engineering Technology field are trained to do all the
practical work and upon graduation, they are expected to be ready for
the job market right away. I could not depend on the textbooks or
reference books alone as the course contents depended on the equipments,
procedures, drawings, standards, specifications and new technology.
Fortunately, I had a network of friends and college graduates to help me
in getting the information for me so that I could teach myself first in
order to prepare for the lecture notes and their assignment/lab/test
Had I not been trained in
Australia and gone through tough challenges as I mentioned above, I
would not have been confident and resilient enough to train myself in
coping with these new technical subjects.
Dealing with students, their
parents, college staff, engineering personnel were hard enough and
student recruitment was another experience. Thanks to the interpersonal
skills that I gained in my years of studying and working in Australia,
and thanks to my “on-the- job” training at the college, I was able to
cope with that pretty well. I progressed steadily; I became a full
college professor and then department head. In my 32 years of teaching I
never felt bored with my college and community work. Students,
graduates, colleagues and college staff were just like an extended
family to me. Many times, during my summer vacation, I came back to the
college to meet our graduates, potential students, colleagues and to
I helped students and graduates of
our Civil and Environmental programs form their clubs in order to create
a link among students and graduates and to invite guest speakers for our
programs. In the eighties, I was invited to talk to many groups of
Vietnamese refugees or non-Vietnamese immigrants who were interested in
going back to college to get their Canadian education. As a result, our
College admitted quite a number of Vietnamese students in the fall
semesters. I was the founder and adviser of the Centennial College
Vietnamese Students and Graduates’ Association in 1985. I became the
President of Toronto Vietnamese Canadian Parents’ Association for 8
years then Founding Member and President of Society of Vietnamese
Canadian Professionals of Ontario for 2 years. I was a Founding Member
and Co-Chair for 2 years of “Vietnamese Canadian Community Scholarship
Fund” to annually select and to officially recognize 10 First Year
University Students (of Vietnamese origin) in Ontario for their
excellent academic achievements.
There is no doubt in my mind that
I had originally picked up the confidence, organization skills and
interpersonal skills from the time that I was the treasurer of VOSA and
a committee member of VAA in Sydney, Australia. As a faculty member and
as an active community volunteer in Toronto, I was able to get students,
graduates and other people to help me in organizing these
extra-curricular activities and volunteer work!
I had seen the benefits of my
practical experience as gained in the summer months when I was sent to
work in the outback of Australia. As the Civil Technology Department
head I pushed forward to implement the Civil Technology Co-op program
and the Environmental Co-op program in the eighties and the nineties
respectively. Our students were successfully sent to work with pay in
their Co-op semesters!
I took early retirement to have more time for myself. Upon reflection, I treasure my Colombo Plan Scholarship. I am certain that without this scholarship, I would not have been here in Canada and ended up as a Professor Emeritus at Centennial College when I retired in 2002.
I am amused, and also rather
proud, to be called by some of my Canadian friends as “the Vietnamese
guy who came from Down Under and who speaks English with his Vietnamese
and Australian accents!”
I am grateful that South Vietnam
and Australia had awarded me the Colombo Plan scholarship. I am thankful
that Australia had given me my invaluable and significant education and
training. I also very much appreciate that Canada had accepted me in as
a landed immigrant and had given me the chance to prove myself as an
Please take a look at my article
in English which appears on the Canadian Government website where, in my
Vietnamese language, I also verbally thank South Viet Nam, Australia,
Once again, thank you all!
Phan Dam, P.Eng
April 14, 2005