My parents are Vietnamese boat people who sought asylum in America with the hopes of finding a better life. To provide for their families, my parents felt they had to leave them behind. Embarking on a long journey to the other side of the world, my parents carried with them the hopes of achieving more. More for themselves, more for my grandparents who still needed money after the war and more for their someday kids. My má believed in the American dream, even when it shattered into the American illusion and she was ushered into a life of urgency and limitation. In her 20s, she fled Vietnam with nothing more than the clothes on her back. Her whole life became a question that she spent everyday answering and trying to work out a path onwards. So, she carved out her own path, moving forward even when she was filled with hesitation.
Early on, she learned her means of survival through trial and error. She took what she learned and taught her kids to work hard and dream big. An industrious workaholic, she still believes in moving her body in concert with her economic goals. The more she moves, the more she makes. In her world, which had been terrifyingly unpredictable and uncertain, she found consolation in the proven exchange of hard work and security. While she gave us kids her knack for reinvention, she also inadvertently passed down her worries and insecurities.
Growing up as a teenager in the Midwest, my mother and I had many things in common. I inherited her eyes, her roving hands and her inability to sit still. But then, all I wanted to do was develop an identity outside of my family. I turned away from my heritage in a bid to connect with my classmates, who never seemed to fully accept me and my other-ness. I stopped speaking Vietnamese in favor of English, dyed my hair brown, and traded phở for burgers. The more I pushed away from my family’s culture, the more the distance widened until it became intimidating to bridge the emotional gap. My mother didn’t understand my attempts to fit in with my white, preppy peers. Similarly, I couldn’t understand her narrow view of living: I thought life was about more than just working and saving for a rainy day. I never felt like I belonged and wanted out of my sleepy, rural hometown. As soon as I graduated from college, I purchased a one-way ticket to New York.
. . .
When the pandemic hit, my mother had already been preparing for it for months. An avid consumer of the news, she caught wind of COVID-19 before the headline reached the states. She was worried it would reach Vietnam’s borders, and her fears only intensified when my oldest sister booked an impromptu 3-week trip to Asia in mid-January. My mother was a live nerve, fretting over my sister’s every waking moment as the public health concern frenzy escalated and reached fever pitch. Soon, there was talk of airlines closing down, potentially stranding international visitors. My sister quickly returned home a week early, and my mom’s fears were assuaged, though still boiling over.
During our video calls, I would assure her of my safety in my Brooklyn railroad apartment. The virus felt far away, and I was in a flurry of work events and travel. COVID19 was the last thing on my mind. As New York City became the epicenter for the virus, she tutted over me, her worried face pixelated over FaceTime. In March, the second week of the mandated lockdown, she turned 60 and temporarily shut down her business for the first time in almost 30 years. She is worried, but she is calm. Calmer than she’s been for a long time. Her whole life has prepared her for the end of the world. Again and again, it's come for her throughout her lifetime. She finds comfort in the eye of a tornado. She understands chaos and what it's like for your world to be overthrown, never the same again.
It's strange to wake up every day in an unsettled world. First, the pandemic. Then, Black Lives Matter, one of the most historically important movements in our lifetime as we fight to dismantle white supremacy and abolish the police. In a time of fear, the resistance gives me hope. Everything feels open for transformation. It can be terrifying, but I find an unexpected comfort that I am walking down a familiar path of uncertainty in my life. An ambiguous path that má walked in her early years as a refugee when she was reeling from the war, isolated from her community and re-imagining a new life for herself in the states. It helps me feel closer to her, even when we are thousands of miles apart. It’s terrifying to face this new grief in its enormity while also in quarantine. To stop my anxiety from devouring myself, I try to shift my perception of it by stretching its contours, to fill it with possibility and positivity. I am doing my best to count my blessings during this time. I busy my days cooking my favorite childhood recipes (Cơm gà Hải Nam, Sườn ram mặn, Bò Lúc Lắc) and asking má about our family's history, things I wish I appreciated and asked about as a child. I am grateful to have extra time with my mother where I can learn about her story, albeit virtually. Through her, my perceptions on beginnings and endings have been expanded, forever changed.
Now, we meet at a place of imagination and curiosity with each other, unraveling our dreams and hopes for the future. I am seeing her for the totality for who she is, outside of solely being my mother. My relationship to home has also been reformed. I miss the comfort of its identical suburban houses and the cul de sac lined streets. I don’t know what the future holds but with certainty, I do know what one of those days will look like. After the pandemic is over and it's safe to emerge from our homes, I will be purchasing a ticket to fly home to my family and má. I can already picture myself getting out of the car and walking up to greet her outside of my childhood house, as she is tending to her garden blooming of roses and fresh herbs.
Julie Nguyen is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is interested in exploring relationships, culture and identity through her work.