Five years ago, when Cam Tien met Lim Swee Chong, she never would have dreamed how much her life was about to change.
“Give me your phone number so I can order meals from you for delivery.” Those are the first words that Lim, a Malaysian of Chinese descent, first spoke to Tien. Tien had just arrived in Malaysia from Vietnam and was working at a diner.
She didn’t understand Lim, so she used Google Translate. Tien agreed to give him her number because she thought it would be good to make him a new steady customer.
Lim, a mechanic, soon began texting Tien regularly. When he learned that she was having trouble adjusting to Malaysian food and was thus eating mostly instant noodles for dinner, he began bringing her fried rice with eggs.
He also began giving Tien Chinese language lessons so she could communicate better, not only with him but with other local customers as well.
When she first started trying to speak Chinese with other Malaysian-Chinese, Lim was the only one who could understand her mispronunciations and idiosyncratic body language.
Cam Tien and Lim Swee Chong in Malacca, Malaysia. Photo courtesy of the couple
After a few months of dating, Lim brought Tien to meet his parents. They quickly became close.
Then one day, Lim’s mother told Tien she should marry Lim. “I can see that you work so hard every day but your family is not here to take care of you. You can be my daughter-in-law if you want. You will have an extra family here,” Lim’s mother told the woman 14 years younger than her son.
Tien never thought that she would receive such a proposal. Lim was standing on the other side of the room listening.
When Tien stayed silent, Lim was about to change the subject. But Tien then spoke firmly: “I want my family in Vietnam to be financially stable before I think about marriage.”
Tien is the eldest child in her family, followed by two younger sisters. Her parents are farmers in Cu Lao Dung District in the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang. When Tien finished 10th grade, her family couldn’t afford her tuition fees so she quit school and went to work in Saigon. A relative introduced her to a job in Malacca, Malaysia. In the new country, she worked 12 hours a day and tried to send home as much money as she can. For Tien, making money was the only goal.
After the failed proposal, Lim was embarrassed but still dropped by Tien’s diner from time to time. But mostly he just admired her sorrowfully from afar. He could see he did not hold a space in her heart, but still had hope deep down somewhere that might change.
In mid-2020, Tien had a horrific accident in which she fell four stories while trying to put clothes on a drying rack. The fall dislocated her neck, broke her thigh bones and put her in a coma for two weeks. The doctor said the only way to save her was a surgical procedure with only a 10% chance of success.
Tien’s parents didn’t have passports so her uncle went to Malaysia and take care of her. But even after pooling all the family’s money, Tien’s VND250 million hospital fee was still out of reach. Fortunately, Tien’s story was shared on social media and people came together to pay for her life-saving operation.
Lim heard about Tien’s accident through one of her relatives in Taiwan.
“They said Tien had an accident but didn’t know which hospital she was at, so they asked me to help,” Lim recalled. The city has many hospitals but Lim found Tien at the first place he inquired.
The 40-year-old man believes that it was destiny that brought them together again like that.
On the hospital bed in extreme pain after the surgery with needles sticking out of her body, Tien was easily irritated. But Lim was there every day to keep her company and encourage her. He asked her about the places she wanted to go, and what she wanted to do when she recovered.
“I will return to Vietnam when I can walk again. Now I need to focus on recovery so I won’t be a burden to my family. I will also have repay those who have helped me,” Tien said.
Lim remained silently by her side every day to take care of her. He even helped her practice walking again and gave her massages when she was in pain.
One day while practicing, Tien asked Lim if he believed in fate. “Destiny is God-given, but fate is decided by both of us,” he replied.
Tien then remembered her mother’s advice, given long ago: “only genuine people stick by you during tough times.”
Tien’s feelings for Lim then began to change. “I had been watching Lim for a long time and I realized that I began to miss the smell of engine oil on his clothes when he would visit me after work,” she said.
However, for a girl with injured legs, weighing only 35 kg, jobless and living off the kindness of others, Tien put aside all thoughts about love. Her only wish was to return to Vietnam.
Tien, Lim and their daughter in January 2023. Photo courtesy of the couple
In 2021, Tien planned to come back with her uncle, but because of a clerical error, she couldn’t return home. Her uncle went first and Tien stayed alone in Malaysia.
So, Lim asked her to stay with his family while waiting for corrections to her paperwork.
At Lim’s house, Tien helped his parents cook and clean even though her legs were not yet fully recovered. She and Lim spoke every day. Without any confession of love, Lim was always with Tien when she was angry, hugged her when she was homesick, and comforted her when she had nightmares.
Then one day Tien found out she was pregnant. “It’s my child and I will keep it,” she told Lim.
When she saw Lim’s smiling face she believed fate had finally tied them together. They went to the embassy to get married.
Their daughter, nicknamed Tra Sua (means milk tea in Vietnamese), is now 1.5 years old. She can walk and is learning to speak.
In the morning, Tien and Tra Sua visit Lim’s repair shop to help with chores then they return home to cook and sell food online. On weekends, Tien provides laundry and cleaning service for neighboring families.
When a busy day ends, the couple often take their little daughter for a walk around their neighborhood. Sometimes Tien has trouble standing or walking due to her lingering injuries, but she she’s able to count on Lim’s support. They hold hands, walk together and talk until the sun goes down.
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