Photo of my mom, sister, and I at a Chuck-E-Cheese birthday party in Cleveland, Ohio.
It was always mom
As Told By: Tricia Vuong
I didn’t read books by Vietnamese authors while growing up, never mind any that spoke to the experience of how I felt trying to assimilate. We had that same childhood bowl cut and I, too, was that quiet kid hanging out in the family business. Most weekends of my early childhood, I played Neopets and ate Panda Express takeout in the breakroom of my parents’ nail salon. The windowless, concrete room in the back was separate from the salon, which had eight tables and one of those clunky early 2000s television sets. The pungent smell of acetone wafted through the room, cutting into the sweet and sour aroma of our orange chicken.
When my parents divorced, my mom, sister, and I moved from Cleveland to Southern California, where my mom opened her own salon. During our first year, we all shared one bedroom in my cousin’s house. Although we were now on opposite sides of the country and our dad wasn’t around anymore, not much really changed for me. Yes, we had to make new friends and adjust to living in a new house. But my mom had always been our caretaker. She made sure there was rice in the cooker and food in the fridge. She took us to school and picked us up, paid the bills and threw us birthday parties. To be honest, I don’t have many memories of my dad except for when we were all at the salon together and the occasional Sunday dinner at Friendly’s. The days of sitting in their breakroom ended and instead shifted to quiet, lonely dinners at home—eaten in my room while doing homework—as my mom spent her nights closing up shop.
Writing this, I realized I still haven’t uncovered extensive details about my own parents’ escape from Vietnam. I do know my dad left as a “boat person” and was transported to a refugee camp in the Philippines. He was sponsored by a Baptist church and later arrived in Longview, Texas. My mom’s family—which included her parents, two brothers, and two sisters—came through the Orderly Departure Program (ODP). The ODP was signed between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in May 1979 after traumatic stories of Vietnamese fleeing by sea surfaced in the media.
Last year during the pandemic, my mom and I exchanged stories about life in quarantine. I expressed how it was difficult living alone and not being able to speak to a human face-to-face. My mom had a different outlook. When Saigon fell, her family didn’t leave the house for a couple weeks while they waited for the chaos to settle. Quarantine reminded my mom of those times. In her eyes, the pandemic was easy. She no longer had to commute to work, had a roof over her head, and meals to eat at home.
In 1984, my mom’s family finally came to the United States after a long paperwork process; the seven of them shared a two-bedroom house near Los Angeles’ Chinatown. My gung gung (Cantonese for maternal grandpa) worked as an assistant cook, my po po (maternal grandma) was a seamstress, and my mom’s first job was typing ads for a newspaper. Their family was middle class in Saigon; they owned a house in the city, my gung worked for an import company, and my mom had a private English tutor. But when they arrived in the United States, my mom couldn’t afford to attend college.
I never heard stories about my parents’ upbringing and how they came to America. I called my mom while writing this to ask her some of these things she’s never shared with me before. Even now as an adult, thanks to therapy and conversations with other Vietnamese friends, I’m working through how to process my family’s intergenerational trauma and unspoken history. I am incredibly grateful to have been raised by such a strong, smart, and powerful woman, and I hope to carry on her legacy through my work as a journalist.
But I am also grappling with feelings of guilt for not knowing more. For not having the verbiage to communicate with my ancestors and not being able to fully grasp what my parents endured, in what feels like another lifetime.