One day, my husband, Paul, casually commented that I often used the term “okie dokie”. To which I smiled, replying, “Okie dokie reminds me of my mother”.
When I was young, I was embarrassed by my mother. She was so different from other moms and she spoke very broken English. She had no idea what a cupcake was, so when it came time for school bake sales, she always came empty-handed. To make things worse, I was forced to don unfashionably colorful sweaters that she seemed to love knitting. Feeling completely embarrassed, wearing them made me feel like a walking crayon box. I thought that my mother’s sweaters were as uncool as she was. Sadly, I was too young to understand that she was actually a hero.
Mom grew up in comfort, which continued when she met my father. Dad lavished her with expensive jewelry and gifts. After marrying Dad, her afternoons were filled with hosting luncheons for her friends, having her nails done, or hiring new servants. She never needed to lift a finger because we had housekeepers to take care of everything.
Her life of privilege was abruptly ripped from underneath her when the communists overthrew the existing government of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975. My family and I had to flee the country, leaving just one hour before Saigon fell to the communists. A black curtain had fallen.
Losing virtually everything, we boarded a dilapidated cargo ship to escape from our war-torn birthplace. The ride on this ship was emotionally exhausting and physically dangerous. Stories abounded about people perishing from starvation, sickness, or exhaustion on ocean journeys such as ours. But not my mother. She held onto her will to survive in that dark, damp, stinking ship.
After several weeks of this precarious ocean journey, we finally reached Guam. Eventually, we landed in Camp Pendleton, California. After living at Camp Pendleton for three months, and later living with our new American sponsor family for several weeks, we found a home in California where Mom’s life drastically changed again.
America was a big, scary country where everything seemed to move at lightning speed. She had to perfect her English in record time and learning to drive a car on the fast-paced California roads became a seemingly insurmountable task for Mom. Still, she learned to navigate the streets and she drove wherever that she needed to go: the Asian grocery stores, discount shopping marts, and to her first job in America.
Given the significant change in our economic circumstances, she took a difficult job where she did assembly work. If overtime work was available, she always took it. On those days, she arose around 4 AM and worked very long hours. Work life was not easy for her when she was subjected to racial prejudice. Being a Vietnamese refugee in 1975 was no easy task given the unpopularity of the war. Some people would call her disrespectful names and ridicule her English. As a result, she often broke down in tears. Although this was an awful time for my mother, she forged on.
After a full day’s work, she cooked authentic Vietnamese meals from scratch, an often arduous undertaking in and of itself. Then she would clean the kitchen so that she could start all over again the next day. This exhausting cycle continued for years. Miraculously, Mom managed to feed our family of six on a weekly grocery budget of only $ 25. And somehow, she still found a way to save money, truly learning the value of a dollar.
Surprisingly, considering the hardships of her new life, Mom still managed to maintain a sense of humor. She would make me laugh with her funny exaggerations like: “It’s so hot my head is going to explode” or “I’m so hungry that my stomach disappeared”. Despite the vast cultural differences, Mom learned to enjoy the simple pleasures of American life. She loved watching TV and could easily break the world’s record for most sitcoms watched by a single person on any given day. Okay, I might be exaggerating, but you get the idea. When I asked if she wanted to watch her favorite TV shows with me, she would reply “okie dokie” with a twinkle in her eye, giggling all the while.
She had the cutest, little giggle. It sounded like something you would hear from a sweet, innocent child who had not witnessed substantial heartbreak and loss like my mother had. These were the moments when I realized exactly how resilient she was. Despite her circumstances, she smiled brightly all the time. What a remarkable lady. My mother stood by my father’s side and together they completely rebuilt our lives. Words cannot express the gratitude I have for my mother. I thank her for being exactly the person that she was. I thank her for the hardships that she endured. I thank her for instilling me with high standards and the will to persevere. I thank her for being a wonderful, strong mother who loved me dearly no matter what I did or said, no matter how unkind or unthoughtful.
My mother survived a fall from the highest mountain and managed to rise from the abyss, rebuilding a foundation that was stronger than ever. When life got crazy, my mother rose to the occasion beyond everyone’s wildest expectations. And she did all of this with a loving spirit. If that isn’t a hero, I don’t know what is.
Given the hardships that she experienced, my mother could have easily become hardened. Anyone else might have given up, but she didn’t. Her “okie dokie” seemed to embody her will to survive. It was her lighthearted response when life threw her a huge curve ball. The way she navigated through her new challenges and held onto her dignity despite her many hardships, taught me that when there is a will, there is definitely a way. In her presence, I learned that extraordinary transformations were possible.
Mom passed away ten years ago. Recently, I saw a sweater that she knitted for Dad. I thought about how my mother, a woman who was accustomed to the finest clothes, knitted humble home-made sweaters after sweaters without complaint, to save what little money we had. Furthermore, the realization that her sweaters were knitted with love moved me tremendously. Today, I am no longer embarrassed by those sweaters. Now, I cherish them. In the grand scheme of things, whether she spoke broken English or couldn’t bake a cupcake is totally irrelevant to me. What is relevant is the lasting impact she made on my life and the lessons I will never forget.
Recently, one of my relatives reminded me that my parents had to rebuild their lives not just once, but twice…In 1954, when Vietnam split into two completely different regions, my family had to leave their birthplace in North Vietnam and relocate to South Vietnam, once again leaving their earthly possessions behind to rebuild a new life. The thought of having to rebuild my life just once already overwhelms me. I could not imagine having to do it twice in one lifetime. And yet my mother somehow found the determination to do just that.
Today, each time I say “okie dokie”, I am reminded of what I learned about courage, strength, sacrifice, love, laughter, and triumph from my mother. It is one of my favorite phrases because it encompasses the core being of an amazing role model - a woman with an unforgettable smile and an incredibly resilient heart.
For me, “okie dokie” is the anthem of a refugee, a survivor - my mother.
Kristen Mai Pham is a published inspirational author and screenwriter. She has written eleven autobiographical short stories that have been published by the iconic Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. Her autobiographical essays have also been published by the Orange County Register, Coast Magazine, and the Camp Pendleton Historical Society. Her autobiographical short stories, WELCOME TO TENT CITY and THE WALK HOME, have been accepted for inclusion in the University of California, Irvine Libraries Southeast Asian Archive for preservation.