On the Words I Can Never Tell My Mother

Monday, April 30, 2018 - 12:32pm

Picture of my mother in Cần Thơ, Việt Nam, 5 Years Old

Picture of my mother in Cần Thơ, Việt Nam, 5 Years Old Buy this photo
Courtesy of Author

There exists this word, or sentiment, in Vietnamese: "đau khổ.” Individually, the words translate to “pain” and “suffering”, yet together, they form something along the sense of an intense anguish that transcends any attempt at a linguistic description. It’s more than just the sum of both pain and suffering, but rather, it’s this profoundly unsettling and deep-rooted unhappiness; it is a pain without promise. The phrase carries with it this intensity even in how it is pronounced; the harshness of the first letter in “đau” followed by the hauntingly questionable nature of the tone mark that is placed on “khổ”. Đau khổ is something best felt, rather than described, but I can’t really comment on how efficacious it would be to write this piece to serve as an avenue towards the feeling of this sentiment, so for now, my descriptive explanations will have to suffice.

My mother grew up as the eldest and least appreciated of five children. She was never supposed to have moved any further than the steps outside of her parent’s home. She had every expectation to stay back and care for her own parents and live a life of ennui in the same town she was born in, and yet somehow, some happenstance chain of events inevitably allowed her to come to America. She wasn’t expected to amount to anything more than just a simple woman living a simple life, but here she is, living with her husband and children in a home that nobody from her family back in Vietnam could ever dream of owning.

As a child of war, my mother was born in the midst of the most violent events to occur in Vietnamese history. She came of age during these gruesome years, and it was as if she was never able to live a childhood independent of đau khổ. All she ever knew from the moment she was brought into this world was both pain and suffering.

I remember stories that she would tell me while I was growing up; stories of how she saw the decayed corpses of soldiers being driven back en masse to her small town all to be redistributed back to their respective families. These soldiers weren’t people anymore. They were just vessels of rotting flesh waiting to be returned like property. She would tell me that she still remembers the stench, that disgustingly familiar aroma of death and decay. These things never really left her. I can’t imagine how things like that could ever leave a person, but despite these hardships and horrors, she endured and overcome so much.

There is so much of her life that I don’t know about. There is so much about my own mother that I still don’t know about. I want to understand her on a deeper level as I continue to grow into adulthood, but I have to come to terms with the fact that by doing so, I would be forcing her to revisit some of the most traumatic events she has ever witnessed. I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t want to pry. She saw so many horrific things during this war. She was only six years old then.

To say that I can empathize with my mother’s own đau khổ would be a stretch of the truth. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to comprehend the magnitude of pain and suffering she has so carefully kept hidden from me. The horrors of war, the tragedy and loss of seeing her entire country crumble before her eyes, the despair and discrimination she faced at the hands of the communist government; these were all kept a secret from me until I was taught about them in school.

I understand that people choose to cope in different ways, but I don’t really know what to even call this. I can’t blame her for anything she chooses to do, or rather, not do. It would be unfair of me to decide on how my own mother chooses to cope with trauma I could never even begin to grasp.

In 1998, my parents were given the opportunity to immigrate to the States. This was a pretty late time to come to the United States in comparison to the Vietnamese refugees who came here after the Fall of Saigon on the 30th of April in 1975. While a community was being built in Grand Rapids by refugees who had been able to make a living and thrive, my parents would be thrown into it with nothing to their names except the ill-fitting clothing given to them by others who had come here first.

Neither of my parents attained anything above a high school education in Vietnam. The communist government barred my family from obtaining any form of higher education. It was a punishment they felt fit the “crime” of my grandfather holding a major position in the South Vietnamese army. My mother left behind the only life she ever knew in a blind attempt toward the promise of a brighter future. She boarded the plane en route to the US, cradling me in her arms, not knowing when she would ever see her family again. Not being able to speak English, she would do her best to find any work in order to support us.

I don’t have it left in me anymore to try and mask the tragedy she has had to face with beautiful words. My mother has suffered through so much for me.

My mother is still afraid to go to stores alone. She’s been living in this country for almost two decades, but she is still so flustered whenever she has to speak in English. I don’t want anyone to judge her. I love her so much. I still go with her to the bank and Meijer to translate for her whenever I am home because of the stares. People don’t look at her how I look at her. They see her as somebody burdened by the inability to speak English. She tells me about their tone; the glares of disapproval and the judgment she hears when she stumbles on simple questions while grocery shopping. If only they knew how bright, wonderful and loving she was in Vietnamese.

These are all things I would like to tell my mother someday. I think it’s a combination of a language barrier and an emotional barrier. I don’t have the vocabulary necessary to tell her these things, and she doesn't have the emotional capacity to liberate herself from past trauma. It always brings her to tears. I take after my mother a whole lot. Everyone around her has always told her that I was born in the exact image of her. Sometimes I look at pictures of myself as a child and I can really see the resemblance.

As I’ve grown older, I've come to realize that my coping mechanisms mirror those of my mother in exactly the same way that my face mirrors hers. My mother internalizes so much of the pain she has encountered and continues to encounter in her life. She builds walls around this pain so that, while she won’t be able to see them, they continue to exist. I wish I could explain to her the concept of closure or at least the semblance of such an idea in a way she could understand.

My whole life has been built around a series of these walls. All of my life I’ve dealt with the inability to connect with my parents in the same way others did. Friends would often complain about how overbearing their parents were, but I distinctly remember longing for a life in which over-communication with my parents was a burden. It’s something I’ve learned to internalize as well. I wish things were different.

As selfish as this may sound, I’ve found that one of the major reasons why I want to understand my mother’s struggles and trauma is that in doing so, I believe that I can begin to understand myself on a deeper level as well. I always wonder why I am the way that I am. Perhaps my mother could answer these things for me on the off chance that we can find a mutual avenue of communication that lacks the barriers and obstacles we currently face.

Despite these difficulties, I know that the most significant piece of knowledge that we share with one another is the mutual understanding that I love her very much. I will never be able to thank her for the literal life she has given me and the life I continue to live to this day. Her story teaches me that even in the deepest trenches of đau khổ, there always exists some form of hope.