I must admit after all these years my mother still remains a puzzle to me. The only things I am certain of are my own childhood memories.
I grew up in Vietnam with 1960s-80s French songs—those of Joe Dassin, Alaine Barriere, and France Gall. I knew since I could babble or sing that my mother spoke French. At seven, when I refused to go to classes, my mother became my first English teacher. Later on, I found out she also spoke Russian. In college, she studied biochemistry and was always ready to apply her studying by handing us Omega-3 every day to improve our eyesight. My being constantly sick did not alleviate her health paranoia. She often took me around the market to find vintage clothing. In her five-foot frame, with her signature Leona Lewis-esque perm, she rode a giant hunched-over dark blue Suzuki motorcycle—on occasion while wearing Vietnamese traditional dresses (Ao Dai).
She was an elementary schoolteacher.
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My mother always insisted on doing things her own way. Growing up, I always assumed I was different. When other kids went to extra classes after school, my sister and I understood we must study independently and sleep eight hours a day. We had arts and piano classes (cost subsidized by the governmental child center) and for the most part did not hang out with other kids in the neighborhood. Being odd was our normal.
We are all the antithesis of our parents in some way.
My mother grew up during the war and could not afford new clothing, so she over-compensated by making us wear suits to school. My grandma insisted that her children become doctors, so she guided us to not fixate on academic achievement. She was forced to learn Buddhist teachings, so I was raised agnostic. My grandma was fanatically political, so I was discouraged from even joining student government.
I became an activist.
During my late teens, I could not wait to fly away and construct my own lens through which I view the world. Interestingly enough, it was activism that let me understand her better; she has always been a proud canary, refusing to stop singing her own tune. It was this act of living—the insistence to retain one’s sense of self—that injected in me her very logic of happiness.
And that is advocacy.
She is still ambiguous about my political convictions. We never talked about it. We knew not to. But I’d like to think she had come to terms with who I am.
For all she is, I am always thankful.