"Mẹ" is the Vietnamese word for what I called my Mother most often. Yesterday was her birthday, and today is International Women's Day. It's fitting that I got to honor the day of her birth before the day of honoring women around the world for ... well, for anything and everything. Mẹ was the first of many things in my life. First to feel my heartbeat, hear my breath, soothe my cries, nourish my hunger, nurture my growth, ease my pain, chastise my bad deeds, cherish my good deeds, and send me off into this crazy world with solid wings. These are titanium wings crafted by her sharp tongue, her deep hugs, her generous heart, her cirro-status expectations, and her modeling of a work ethic like no other - raising 4 of us, running her own business, helping others, and internalizing in solitude the oppression of in-laws from the patriarchal pits of Hell. Damn them all for trying to crush Mẹ, but they did not prevail. For she, like the Phoenix, rose out of the ashes after every burn to create new life. She ran from the fire bombs at Tan Son Nhat airport in the 3 am darkness of the Fall of Saigon. She jumped from a moving jeep, bracing the fall with her knees as she clutched me in her arms. She ran full speed to hurdle onto a plane with destination unknown as blood streamed through her joints soaking her thinly woven cotton pants. The deep crimson stains intermingled with the sweat of panic and the tears of loss streaming from her big brown eyes. The loss of family, the loss of country, the loss of all she had known. Were you scared, Mẹ? No, never. Never be afraid, con gái của Mẹ (daughter of mine). I learned from Mẹ's words and actions (and sometimes in-actions) that fear will prevent you from changing and stunts you from growth. She was often quite fearless. She was never afraid to say or do anything that would better the life for her kids. But one of her traits that I struggled with was that she was very afraid of others thinking poorly of her kids. She wrestled with the hope that we would do all the right things for the approval of society while also hoping that we would be happy with our own lives. As a Vietnamese American girl, this dichotomy tortured me, and seeing me struggle tortured her, too. Growing into my own skin within the expectations of "do what society expects vs do what makes you happy" was further complicated by a set of intersecting dimensions: 1) assimilation into American mainstream society 2) preservation of traditional Vietnamese society 3) obedience and submissiveness by patriarchal society and 4) achievement by a "Model Minority" society It was a labyrinth in identity seeking. Looking for the personification of what I wanted to embody didn't really exist for me. I didn't see any role models with whom I could connect. The depths of these issues are for another blog. The short of it is that I wanted to be different from the crowd. Do things my way, on my terms, and within my own self-constructed moral compass. Sometimes Mẹ got me, and she was my biggest cheerleader. Other times, she didn't, and she probably wondered why I had to be her child. When it mattered most, though, she always had my back. And the times when she didn't have my back, she'd already taught me how to go at it alone. I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T. That was always her underscored message. Be self-sufficient so that you do not burden others and so that you can lift the burden of others.
Mẹ, thank you for being you - an International Woman of Power, Presence, and Perseverance. All the bits of goodness and achievement that I am were drawn from the forces within you.