In 1972, you could find my mom as a baby at her home in Sài Gòn. Her home included an adequate amount of land to run around and play, a brick ranch house, a chicken coop, a pet pig Ụt Ịt and a dog named Lu Lu. My mom Trang grew up with three brothers, one older, Tăng, and two younger, Thăng and Tiến. She should have had a younger sister, Tú, as well, but Tú passed away before she could reach a year in this world. Before 1975, her father owned a restaurant and her mother worked for Pan Am Airways. After 1975, her parents took on a new line of work following a stronger communist presence, resulting in the closing of the restaurant and the departure of the airline from Vietnam. During the day, many people from the countryside would come to the city to sell food and when leaving in the evening, they would give the leftovers to her parents to sell, repaying them in food or money. While it may not seem like a stable lifestyle, it was able to comfortably support my mom’s family. In the meantime, you could find my mom jumping rope or playing traditional Vietnamese folk games like bắn bi and banh đũa with her two younger brothers and the neighboring children. When she wasn’t participating in these activities, she was likely following her mom shopping so that she could eat any foods that she craved.
If you wanted to find my mom as a teen, you could find her at a local chè shop with her friends as they treated themselves to rewards after getting a good grade on their exams. Sitting at their table, you’d see them licking the bowls clean because who knew when they’d get another? At 18, you’d find my mom on dates with boys, but never without her younger brothers tagging along so they would get a free meal too. According to my uncles, on late-night weekends you could find her sneaking into concerts with her best friend and the boys who’d asked them to go. And of course, her younger brothers came then too.
From August 1990 to August 1991, my mom could be found at a school, often referred to as trường chỉ dành cho phụ nữ, introducing young women to skills like cooking, sewing, how to arrange flowers and hair cutting, preparing them to be future homemakers or for female designated jobs. She was here rather than at college because her family had paperwork to be refugees, preventing her from enrolling. Her mom’s brother and sister were already in the U.S. and after enough time, their children and them had started building successful lives.
In 1992, you could find my mom on a plane making her way to America, the land of opportunities. Inside their new Michigan home, roaches covered the floor to the point where exterminators said they couldn’t move in until 48 hours after they sprayed the strong repellant. My mom and her older brother started working to support their family of five. My mom worked for her aunt and uncle, altering clothes for the clothing shop they owned. The struggles she and her family began going through made her wish she hadn’t left Vietnam.
Six months later, you could find her working in an assembly line, able to get to work thanks to someone she’d met in her neighborhood named Francisco, who had a car that required at least two people to start it: one pressing on the gas while the other gave it a push from the back. She and her older brother were able to save enough money to buy a slightly better home and their own car that ended up getting stolen, and for the next two years, they worked from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. in order to pay it off. Despite having better-off aunts, uncles and cousins in Michigan as well, her family was given little support, leading them to continue surviving off of food stamps in a bad neighborhood. Coming home from work, she would only enter through the back door because in the neighboring street, someone had been shot and killed while sitting on their porch. The constant fear of the night engrained in her mind has manifested itself into her now strict attitude when it comes to her daughters going out.
In 1996, following my mom’s late work hours, you would find her in ESL class at Oakland Community College where she tried her best to pronounce the “th” sound that’s non-existent in Vietnamese, struggling to say words like “world” and “earth,” and getting used to saying words that aren’t monosyllabic as they are in the entire Vietnamese language. And then in 1997, it took her one year to finish cosmetology school, longer than the average nine months. Her schedule followed 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. classes and work at a buffet from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. because money was still an issue.
But, if you want to find my mom now, you can find her in the kitchen. Like it’s a home of her own within our home, she can direct anyone where to find anything without even thinking about it, from where the thyme is in relation to the oregano to which specific shelf a certain plate is on. After so many years of cooking, she has become a household name amongst family friends when talking about food, getting calls left and right for tips on how to successfully bake her infamous Vietnamese honeycomb cake or to marinate different types of meat. With not enough words in any language to describe how amazing her cooking is, I can only ever say she’s the best chef I know.
In the future, hopefully you’ll be able to find my mom icing cakes for a living in the spacious kitchen of her dreams with eight gas stovetops and endless ovens so she can make anything she wants, as much as she wants. Hopefully, she’ll be able to cook all day and buy new pots and pans with no limit. Hopefully, she will recover from her trauma as it continues to influence how she acts and sees the world to this day. Hopefully you will find her happy that she stayed in America, looking back on the struggles she fought through and proud of the growth she made. Most importantly, hopefully she always remembers that her daughters appreciate her perseverance and the upbringing she gave them.
MiC Columnist Hannah Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.