Like all moms, my mom raised and loved me the best way she knew how. Immigrating to America as a refugee from Laos during the Vietnam War, she took minimum wage jobs and never spent a single dime on herself, saving everything for my sister and me and to send back to her family scattered throughout the entire world. When we were younger, I quizzed her on American presidents and the pledge of allegiance for her Citizenship’s test and watched proudly as she and my father received their legal pass to live the American dream as citizens. I knew even then that this meant they would gain more rights and have access to every opportunity.
That they were now American as well as Asian.
As I grew older, the challenges of raising a multicultural youth gave my mom some restless nights. As much as she wanted me to believe, I knew that the world wasn’t painted in blacks and whites, that things couldn’t be answered with her usual mantra of ‘no’, ‘get A’s’, ‘eat’, and ‘make a lot of money’. When I got into high school, dating boys was unthinkable, having a curfew past nine was blasphemous, and skipping a meal was asking for a death sentence. So I did the only reasonable thing I could do. I led a double life where I was the perfect child at home and did the opposite of everything I was told outside of the house. From friends, I learned that there was life outside of classes and learned about sex, development, and other taboo topics from school and media.
As years passed, life began to teach me that we were not viewed as Asian-Americans, but as foreigners. In a state with a small Asian and Pacific Islander population, we were labeled as ‘others’, never truly belonging to any group but adrift in our own isolation.
While other Americans got to live freely, we were chosen for random security checks. Practically every time.
Once, I remember security guards leading my father away to be questioned for an hour in a private room at the airport. His exotic name had caught their attention. When I started to get upset, my mother told us that this was normal, and that they were just following protocol for everyone’s safety.
The Independence Day after the tragedy of 9/11 occurred when hostilities towards foreigners were at an all-time high, my mom wanted to make sure everyone knew we were proud Americans. We flew flags in front of our house and even put up miniature plastic ones along our gate. My friend was visiting that day, and when she came to the door, she asked if we knew that one of the plastic flags was currently burning down in our front yard for all to see.
This is what happened. We had placed candles along the gate for better nighttime viewing of the flags to emphasize our patriotism when one flag accidentally got knocked into a candle as a result of a passing gust of wind, melting into colorful goo down our gate.
For the next few months, we flew flags in our yard just to be sure no one got the wrong idea.
When I got older and finished my graduate schooling, I moved in with my boyfriend and his brother to save on rent. From the point of view of my mother, even though I was living in sin, at least I was safe from burglars. This perspective of hers showed tremendous acceptance and hinted at her level of acculturation.
Throughout my entire life, my mother continues to be the backbone of our family. She speaks little and gives explanations less, choosing to instead lead through example. She protected us from poverty and made sure we had meals three times a day while shielding us from racism until we were old enough to understand it. I had a happy childhood listening to American music, watching Chinese movies, dressing in popular American styles, and running away from lion dancers and the loud, accompanying drummers every new year.
She let me embrace my American life while also continuing to respect and practice cultural traditions specific to my Asian roots. As I learned later on, she knew every detail about my double life, but allowed me to live it anyway. I learned about the intricacies of life through absorption of being a youth in America, but she taught me the importance of culture, family, and values through silence and action that I attempt to put into practice every day of my life. While my sister is a doctor to the poor, I have chosen a career field fighting for equality for Asians while simultaneously helping them adapt to life in America because, let’s be honest, although there has been positive and continuous change, there is still inequality, ignorance, and racism perpetrated on a daily basis through media, social interactions, and even scarier still, through implemented policies and laws that disrupt all immigrants and their families from leading healthy and productive lives. This line of work doesn’t exactly get me a mansion in Malibu like she may have once hoped, but my mother couldn’t be prouder. See? Acceptance!
So as the new year of the Dragon approaches and passes, I wish for all Asian moms to continue having patience for the children they raise in America and to teach them about their Asian heritage while also allowing them to embrace their dual American identity. I wish for mothers to have patience enough to respect their children’s double lives in the hope that one day they will learn how to embrace both cultures and lifestyles and fuse them into one strong and proud identity. And I wish for all moms to trust in the strength within themselves; even at times when children act in ways that could only be explained as idiotic and never seem to listen to the ongoing wisdom and guidance of all mothers because one day, they will remember all those lessons taught. They will cherish them and pass on what they’ve learned to the next generation of children.
As my mother puts out kit kats and starbursts in plates before our many Buddha statues at home, she tells me her new year’s wish. She told (not asked) me to give her grandchildren, whether I was ever going to be married or not.
Now that’s acceptance.