by Pearl Nguyen
Công cha như núi Thái Sơn
Nghĩa mẹ như nước trong nguồn chảy ra
Một lòng thờ mẹ kính cha
Cho tròn chữ hiếu mới là đạo con.
Công cha như núi Thái Sơn - a father’s sacrifice is as strong as a mountain
After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the government dimmed the lights of the country and placated global outcries with artificial optimism and “re-education camps". A victory gained at the cost of their people. Ba, you escaped a country that was no longer recognizable for what it once was, painstakingly leaving behind your mother and sister. You and many others overcrowded a small fishing boat, floating in an open water of uncertainty, hunched over with a collective hope that the next light you saw was from the ship of an ally* or the rising of the sun.
When I ask you what happened on that boat, your answer is devoid of sentiment and instead, you discuss the times before you fled, you talk about the after, but hardly ever the in-between. I wonder if there are things you want to tell me, but fear that your emotions would just get lost in translation. That maybe, there are nuances within the Vietnamese language that I cannot comprehend because I was born here and not there.
And that talking about it reminded you that you were here and no longer there.
The first time I heard the song Lòng Mẹ, I saw your eyes glistening. You are my steadfast father - always with a solution, a refuge of tranquility, my protector from all things damaging. It was not until I grew older when I realized the depth of your family’s decision and how challenging it must have been to separate the family, the magnitude of your trust in that decision, their faith in your return one day, and how difficult it must have been to say goodbye to Bà Nội without a guaranteed reunion. The song reminded you of how long it has been since you last saw her, and evoked an emotion you suppressed by constantly working and remaining focused. You learned the English language as a teenager upon arriving in America. You pushed yourself through high school, stayed self-motivated in college, and started a family of your own - while remaining a pillar of fortitude for your family in Vietnam. Have you had the time to care for yourself?
Nghĩa mẹ như nước trong nguồn chảy ra - the love of a mother is boundless as that of water flowing from the source of a spring
I notice how the number of times you reflect upon a specific memory relays the significance of its impact on your identity today. If that holds to be true, then your journey to a refugee camp** in the Philippines and then to America is a distance that pales in comparison to the distance you carried water from the well to the village. Maybe because the former was beyond your control and the latter required your personal strength to accomplish the task. You talk about the things you did but rarely how you felt; it makes sense though, because I have always known you to be a womxn of action. If your unwavering support for me and em is represented by the number of times you challenged society for us, then we are lucky to be on your team.
The way you make your bed every morning and the crisp way you fold bedsheets is a remnant of your first job in America where you cared for others before you cared for yourself. You have always been a giver. Má, I hear how loudly your heart beats for our family. I see how you never subjected yourself nor our family to the Western culture, and instead, did your best to have our home rooted in a resilient heritage that has its people still singing many miles away from home. How did you keep that consistency in our home when your kids returned from school a little bit more Americanized? When our fluency in two primary languages began to erode with waves of the English language we swam in for six hours each day? I wonder whether you felt you were losing us. I wonder how often your heart felt heavy when we challenged you without making the effort to understand your perspective. Did you have the time to care for yourself?
Một lòng thờ mẹ kính cha - in my heart, I honor and respect my parents
Cho tròn chữ hiếu mới là đạo con. - to uphold filial piety is my duty as a daughter.
Quê Hương means “homeland”, but what is lost in that one-worded definition are the feelings of nostalgia, pride, and hope compounded in stories like yours. You both left a life handed out in increments by the government for one measured in opportunities. The way you still speak fondly of your good memories motivates me to protect those memories and that feeling of aspiration. All this time, your lessons were not about assimilation, but accommodation. Something you have been doing your entire lives. You were trying to convince me that it was okay not to conform to preconceived archetypes. Ba Má, even if I took a misguided step, you were there to help me find my way again. You gave me a life of choices, and ultimately raised me to confidently forge my own path the way you carved out yours.
As a teenager, I misinterpreted your teachings as a restriction of my independence, for my perspective was morphed by Western standards of what teenage independence should be - a perspective further amplified by a lack of cultural representation in mainstream media. I unknowingly rejected a culture you both try to preserve and immersed myself in values that contradicted the ones you taught. I was drawn to the assuming openness of the American culture and viewed the mannerisms of our culture as strict formalities, instead of viewing them as ones that embody respect and consideration. Now, I want to challenge those who reject the authenticity of our culture in favor of recreating an identity that fits their mold of who they want us to be. Because of you, I am confident being unapologetic about what I do, who I am, and where I come from. It was the absence of a cultural identity that finally made me aware of my own.
I remember when I memorized the poem above. It was at our old baby blue house, in our dining room filled with the comfortable ambience and aromas of a family dinner that just concluded. Má was tending to em. Ba was reading a Vietnamese newspaper. I was tired from the recitations, mindlessly cycling words that had just enough variability from their inflections to hold my attention. However, as always, Ba Má listened to my flustered stumbling with enthusiasm and responded with encouragement. For one day, they would finally hear those words spoken with a measured cadence, embellished with personal accents and interpretations, by their little girl who now aspires with conviction, hopes with compassion, and lives with their resilience. Let me take care of you now.
Pearl Nguyen (Cleveland, OH) graduated from the University of Washington where she pursued pre-medicine and minored in Global Health. She recently moved from Seattle to Cleveland to pursue her Master’s Degree in Medical Physiology and Biophysics at Case Western Reserve University. In her spare time, she enjoys hikes, 5K races, and jazz hip-hop. An evolving collection of favorites: Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, Sarah Kay’s No Matter The Wreckage, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Laws of Medicine, and Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. You can follow her adventures on Instagram: @_pearlngyn