My mother grew up in rural Việt Nam. I can’t say that she was raised there because both her parents died by the time she was 11. Like many of those around her, her upbringing was beyond poor. In this patriarchal society, she wasn’t given an opportunity for an education past primary school, instead forced by circumstance to work. During the short period she was in school, she experienced a bomb exploding and witnessed her classmates dying before her eyes.

At 30 or so, she risked her life, left everything, and escaped by boat alongside her one-year-old son, husband, and a few family members. She arrived at a refugee camp in the Philippines, where she had another son. Because my Dad fought for the South, my family was allowed to immigrate to America. There, they had another son, and then me, their only daughter.

I, on the otherhand, was raised in America. When I was 6, my Dad died. Food stamps and housing assistance kept us afloat. My mom worked multiple jobs to support and shed us of government assistance. I was continually encouraged to pursue an education, jumping into GATE and magnet programs before making my way through Cal.

At 27, I moved to Cambodia by way of plane so I could learn more about the ways of the world. I had a suitcase with all my necessities, a decent living situation, and a community for support. I only had myself to look after.

In Cambodia, I see that people are poor. Many rural families don’t have electricity. Floating villages rely on the sullied water they live on for cooking, cleaning, and waste disposal. Education is not for all, as poor children are pulled out of school and forced by circumstance to work. In school, it is not uncommon for teachers to demand small bribes from students due to low wages. While young men can pursue higher education by living in temples during school, young women do not have such an option. That’s why the Harpswell Foundation exists.

Mom, was this how life was like for you in Việt Nam?

When I came to Cambodia, I thought I was just passing through before returning home to America. Now, I have all these questions about where home actually is, where I want it to be. These 7,000+ miles between us have actually brought me closer to my origins and to you in ways that Little Saigon could never do. It’s still in America after all.

Mẹ ơi, next month when I return to Việt Nam for the first time in 9 years for Ba’s đám giỗ at Ông Nôi’s house, I hope you can understand my decision to stay in this region indefinitely. I’m finding my roots to be closer to you and our family. I want to know what it’s like to be surrounded by the music of our native tongue, to continue to see faces that look like mine. I want to have more moments with Grandpa since he’s 93, and I’m not sure if I’ll get that chance again. It’s been way too long since I’ve had Cô Sương’s phở. I want to get to know my cousins, their spouses I’ve never met, their children I didn’t even know existed. I desperately yearn to understand what it’s like to be Vietnamese in Việt Nam.

I know you disagree with me taking my Berkeley brain back to the country you fled from. But in Cambodia, I’ve learned so much about the meaning of family, ancestry, and tradition. Imagine what I’ll learn when I’m actually in the place of our origins. (Okay, maybe I’ll learn nothing and hate it and quickly return to America.)

I’m sorry I can’t celebrate your birthday with you today. Please know that I’m thinking of you and love you very much. Happy Birthday Mẹ thương của con!

mom and jennie le
Me and Mom, in front of a casino, as Vietnamese people do
  • Tracy Hellafly Nguyen

    going through your amazing posts! this one deeply resonates.

    • Tracy! Thank you so much for reading. I’m happy to hear that you can relate.