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Dr. Phong Thanh Bui, an optometrist based in Toronto, had a turbulent early life. But that didn’t stop him from becoming a respected practitioner, philanthropist and an active participant in the Vietnamese community. After many failed attempts at fleeing war-torn Vietnam, Bui finally arrived in Canada at the age of 20 through sponsorship by his brother, whose final escape was successful. Bui took on odd jobs to get by – garbage sorting, nail painting, maintenance work – until he decided to return to school as an adult. He completed his high school diploma through an independent correspondence program while working. Two years into his Bachelor’s degree he was admitted to the optometry program at Waterloo University where he completed his doctorate degree. He has made impressive strides forward in his life – perhaps the most impressive are with his family at home. He is happily married and is the father of three children, with another one on the way. Here are his answers to questions about career, education, family and balance.
What was it like when you first came to Canada?
My brother sponsored our entire family. All nine of us were crammed into a small basement that we would call home for the next few years.
Why did you decide to pursue a higher education?
My first job here was picking up garbage. I then moved to Global Upholstery where I did piece work. One Friday I finished work and left for home one hour early. I guess something was on my mind and I hopped on the wrong bus which led me straight to the York University campus. I stared in awe at what surrounded me – it was gorgeous! I looked at the students who boarded the bus. They were around my age, yet they were studying for their futures while I was dressed in tattered work clothing. I came home that day and told my brother I wanted to go back to school.
What difficulties did you face returning to school as an adult?
When completing my high school diploma from home, I wasn’t motivated. I only studied when I felt like it. I was also working part time at a nursing home doing maintenance work. One day, I asked my supervisor if I could come in late the next morning because I had a test. He told me to pack my things and get out because since I was studying, that meant I wouldn’t be holding the job for long. I was furious. The moment I got home, I pulled out my books. I finished all my credits in three months. Afterwards, I applied [to university] and was accepted.
Why did you choose optometry?
As a student in Vietnam, I had wanted to become an engineer. But working at Global, I saw that an engineer’s job is strenuous. When I came to work, they were already there and when I went home, they were still there. That made me decide that I wasn’t going to become an engineer. I needed to get my eyes checked so I called to book an appointment and they told me the waiting period was two months. I thought that was ridiculous. There was only one Vietnamese optometrist at that time so I went to him to get my eyes checked. On the bus ride home, I decided “I’m going to become an optometrist!”
What is your advice to new immigrants who want to get ahead?
Everyone’s situation is different. My advice would be to hold firm to your knowledge of when you left your homeland and when you arrived in Canada. Continue to ask yourself two questions, “Why did I come here?” and “Where am I from?” Remember your answers and you’ll get ahead.
You actively give back to the community. Tell us about that.
I examine under-privileged people for free. For example, new refugees who need glasses for work or children who need them for school. There are also elders who come to Canada on vacation to see their kids. They are embarrassed to ask their kids to pay for their eye exam, so I see them free of charge.
What role does your wife play in your life?
I always knew that I wanted to start a family with a beautiful and intelligent wife (smile). This contributed to my determination to be successful. When I was deciding what career to pursue, part of the reason why I decided on optometry was that my girlfriend at the time (now wife) had eye problems. She gave my life direction.
I help my wife out a lot with the chores. I teach my kids every weekend to tidy up the house and take their clothes down to the laundry room. They ask me why they have to do it, and I tell them, “You have to learn so that one day you can help your wife.” From the age of four or five they have to start learning these lessons.
Having attained a higher education despite your setbacks, what do you expect from your kids?
Truthfully, kids here, even if you try to tell them what to do, they won’t do it. I will let my kids try everything they want to try. If I’m lucky enough to have one child who follows my career path, I will be happy. We can’t control our kids, but we can guide them in the right direction and lead by example.
What is important to you as a father?
Being involved in my children’s growth is what is important. My friend once asked me, “Do you know what kind of milk to feed children for them to grow smart?” I told him there are two kinds, a mother’s milk (‘sữa mẹ’) and a father’s milk (‘sửa cha’) [the words for “milk” and “change” sound identical in Vietnamese]. Confused, he replied, “I’ve heard of mother’s milk, but what’s a father’s milk”? My response was, “A father’s ‘milk’ is ‘change’. If you used to smoke or drink, change that for your children. Don’t smoke or drink in front of them. Play with them, change their diapers, bathe them, and love them. That is how your children will grow smart.”
How important is culture in your family?
Back when I was growing up in Vietnam, my parents were too busy trying to survive to teach me cultural values. Culture was actually the toughest for me to adapt to when I arrived, because I spent my childhood on the streets in Vietnam. Here in Canada, I had to unlearn my street attitude and behaviors and relearn how to be a person. So, when I remember something about Vietnam, I teach that to my children.
Your advice for other Vietnamese parents?
I teach my kids, nieces and nephews four phrases that will serve them well in Canada, “sorry,” “thank you,” “hello,” and “how are you?” Our Vietnamese culture does not use these phrases enough.
How do you balance work and family?
I believe I was extremely lucky having chosen an occupation with flexible hours and where I can train others to take the workload off myself. My wife and I share the same mindset. We budget for each project and if we’re making over that amount, we work less hours.
How close are you to your extended family?
If we’re free, we take the kids to see their grandparents, aunts and uncles who are all in Canada. We treat our parents the way we want to be treated by our kids in the future. One time, we were leaving our parents’ house and my son refused to say goodbye to his grandparents. That night, I asked him why he did that and he said “Lately you have forgotten to bid farewell to them too. If you do it, then I’ll do it as well.” That gave me a big shock.
What is your philosophy for a happy household?
The more the merrier! We have one son and two daughters ages seven, five and three and we are expecting another son. I find that the more children you have, the happier your home becomes.