The Yes Women

Kim Thúy Ly Thanh fled her conflict-torn homeland of Vietnam as a child and found peace, freedom, and a wealth of choices in the cultural mosaic that is Canada.

Kim Thúy Ly Thanh was just ten when she and her parents and two brothers escaped from communist Vietnam in 1978, fleeing Saigon in a makeshift boat. Surviving a squalid Malaysian refugee camp, they eventually made their way to Quebec and settled in Granby. 


Kim went on to earn a university degree in linguistics and translation in 1990 and another in law in 1993, both from the Université de Montréal. She has been a seamstress, interpreter, lawyer, TV guest and host, restaurant owner and author. In 2010, she received the Governor General of Canada Award for her 2009 autobiographical debut novel Ru—originally published in French—which chronicles her experiences as a refugee. She was also shortlisted for the 2018 Alternative Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Kim now lives in Montreal as a professional writer. And she declares that she is a Canadian through and through. “I am a Canadian by the fact that I feel so free,” she says. “It’s more than just citizenship. As Canadians, we have the freedom to think and the freedom to be. You don’t have to choose even if you’re Vietnamese, Ukrainian, Afghan or whatever. You can be both—and more!” 


According to Kim, that’s a lot for a person to grow on. “When am I not Canadian? Never. It’s my nature now. I would say that the Vietnamese culture is in my blood, and the Canadian culture is under my skin. I’m also part of Canadian culture—they’re stuck with me,” she says with a laugh.


On Being a Refugee

How does Kim reconcile her time as a refugee with her life in Canada now? 


“I don’t let go of any of those past experiences because I think they make me who I am,” she answers. “I was born very weak and allergic to everything, for example, but after the refugee camp I lost all my allergies. 


“If we have the chance to survive, we become stronger,” she continues, “and my refugee experience is part of how I encourage my fellow Canadians to be stronger and unafraid, and not scared of challenges.”


One trauma-related quirk she carries with her as a refugee is that whenever she sees a beautiful bathroom, she has to use it. “It’s because I don’t know when and where the next bathroom will appear. When I force my children to go to the bathroom, even if they don’t need to, I say ‘go because it’s clean.’ ” 


Kim feels even luckier because she didn’t have clean water for a while, and now she just has to open the tap and see water coming out to be happy. 


“I think if you’re born Canadian for the last three or four generations, you may not fully appreciate the peace that we own and that we have fought for, and that we are protecting that peace through democracy. So I think being a refugee makes me appreciate it even more. It’s crazy to say fight for peace, but you know that peace needs to be protected.”


There is one story she wants to pass along to illustrate that point. “You have two fish in water, and then a turtle plops in beside them. The turtle says, ‘Oh, the water is so fresh today. It’s so good to be in the water.’ And the fish look at the turtle and say, ‘What is water?’ ”


The Accidental Restaurateur

“Every meal that I eat, I always think maybe it’s the last one,” Kim says, “or that my allergies will come back. The refugee camp really strengthened me by giving me really bad water and bad food, but I always fear that they will come back. To be able to eat everything today is a blessing when you’re born not being able to eat really anything, like seafood, fish, milk and eggs.” 


She loves food and loves to share it, which led to one of her major career pivots—starting a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal, called Ru de Nam, to share her country’s cuisine with Canada. “It’s because I was a lawyer, and then I had two children, and I was based in Vietnam for a couple of years,” she says. “I thought, that’s it, my career as a lawyer is over. That’s how the restaurant started—I created a job for myself out of fear that I would not be working.” 


In Canada, she mentions, Japanese cuisine and Thai cuisine were considered upscale, and people accepted the fact that they’re more expensive. But because Canadians were introduced to Vietnamese cuisine through refugees, boat people, at small shops like noodle shops, Vietnamese cuisine was just considered to be cheap and healthy fast food. 


“And I said no, Vietnamese food is more than that,” she explains. “I decided to introduce Vietnamese food to Quebec. I knew that when we first arrived forty-five years ago there were no proper Vietnamese ingredients around. When I opened the restaurant, though, those ingredients were available, so there was no excuse for us not to produce authentic Vietnamese cuisine. It’s still not comparable because of the freshness of the herbs and the vegetables—Vietnamese cuisine is mostly about vegetables and herbs.”


Only around thirty-five people could fit into Ru de Nam, where Kim was both owner and cook. “But I learned just one dish a day, there was only one meal a day served, and it changed from day to day,” she says. “Customers congratulated me for this new concept, saying they love the formula. They didn’t have to waste time reading the menu. Now there are more restaurants in Montreal that offer only two or three choices.” 


By the end of the fifth year, she had gained the ability to cook just by listening. “I don’t need to see, for example, to know that a steak is raw or half-cooked, blue or not blue,” Kim says.


That may have something to do with her family background. In Vietnam, her family had many, many restaurants. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Kim put her knowledge into a cookbook called Secrets from My Vietnamese Kitchen: Simple Recipes from My Many Mothers (originally published in French in 2017, and the winner of an award from Taste Canada in 2018).  

Still Saying Yes

Canada gave her the chance for a new life, Kim states, and she took full advantage of that and along the way became an expert at reinventing herself. How did she do it?


“I failed,” Kim says. “Failures are great! They’re opportunities for you to try something new. If you’re successful, you want to stay on that track. If I’d been a successful lawyer, for example, I would still be a lawyer today, right? But I was only an okay lawyer. 

“Canada is such a rich country, not just in terms of money but rich in possibilities and options as well,” she continues. “All you need to do is say yes. People would say, ‘Oh, Kim, do you want to try to do this? Do you want to be a producer?’ And I would just say yes. In 2020, for example, I  was invited to be the host of a TV show called La Table de Kim.  And I didn’t know what I had to do. You just learn as you go.”