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For má and me

Bá, Má and me in Hong Kong

First, I need to let you know that the following words, fueled by the sacred work on Vietnamese Boat People, have been received in such meaningful ways.  I wholeheartedly thank Tracey and team for this gift. 

Let me start at the beginning. My parents were Vietnamese refugees. My father, a South Vietnamese naval captain, navigated a boat with my mother and 54 other people across the South China Sea. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, I was born the following morning at 3am at Tsan Yuk Hospital. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 200k-400k Vietnamese boat refugees died, but my family made it. Our entry into Hong Kong was fortuitous with the backing of Hong Kong's humanitarian philosophies. Other countries were turning away the massive number of refugees. My family’s narrative has served as the foundation of everything I do personally, as a mother of three, and professionally, as a bilingual speech-language pathologist, advocating for the communicative and educational rights of children.

While I navigate the daily grind, I must say that my mother’s absence is the nucleus of my woes. She passed away 15 years ago and did not meet my children. I have learned to honor my grief. There’s value in this space, and joy always finds its way back to me. The ebb and flow of it all brings me comfort. Upon becoming a parent, I began to hear the quiet whisperings in my motherly heart, further digesting my family's narrative. As a motherless mother, I desperately miss Má’s stories, and I lament the details I did not think to ask as a child. The words of Thanhha Lai, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Thi Bui, Ocean Vuong, and many others have been a salve, healing my wounds. They have gifted me insight - details of wartime Vietnam, of boat journeys and new beginnings, of hardship and tenacious spirits, and finally, of redemption.

Now, I can’t help but think of my mother’s sacrifice to step upon a small wooden boat to cross the sea over four decades ago. I give her full credit for keeping me alive those 11 days. Part of me thinks that my deep connection to her began on that journey. I wonder why I cry so much for her. My eyes are wet every single day. I realized that, perhaps, we kept each other alive. She and I. Working together to ensure both of our sacred paths. In my heart, through time and space, my tears filled the sea and brought her to shore. This magical thought brings me solace. With therapy and time, I have found writing to be my solace and healing. The following words are for má and me.

My mother’s calves were much too wide

My child eyes could see

She flaunted them in work and sweat

To no one’s envy


My mother’s legs were far too pale

My youth would judge once more

I pitied her indifference

For the superfluous I adored


My mother’s heart was laid to rest

My light dimmed that cruel day

I longed to feel her strength

Now much too far away


My mother legs are just as wide

My children’s eyes can see

I use their strength to carry on

Hold up motherly debris


My mother legs work endless days

My efforts they disregard

I continue because it’s my turn

And mothering is so hard


My mother heart will tend the work

My sacred path I foresee

I look ahead and then behind

For my mother still carries me

Phuong Lien Palafox spends her days serving children and families that are most vulnerable, those who do not know the language, who exist within humble environments, and who share a history similar to that of her own family. By sharing her stories with educators, she provides perspective on serving people of color and English Language Learners, a mission she refers to as her sacred path.


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