Like many other immigrant parents, mine left their entire lives behind and jumped at the opportunity to come to America to pursue the American dream. Their lives in Vietnam weren’t bad. In fact, they were happy, successful, and comfortable. My dad lived with his family and worked on a quiet farm, while my mom lived with hers and worked at a local daycare center.
My dad is a stoic man; his facial expression if he were to win the lottery would probably be the same as if he were to lose his job. However, when we visited the motherland when I was a kid, I’d see his face light up in a way that I’d never seen before in America. When we’d visit his mother and siblings, his eyebrows were constantly slightly raised, and accompanied by a smile. I could almost see all his teeth in every sentence he spoke because he was smiling so much. When he ate dinner sprawled out across the floor with his brothers, his shoulders were dropped, and even if you didn’t know him, you would feel safe next to him, just from how comfortable and warm he looked.
This childhood home of his wasn’t big at all. There was only one floor and no real bedrooms, only large open spaces. There was one bathroom and an unfinished kitchen, yet the house was shared between his mother, his sister, three brothers, and their families. Still, my dad had everything he ever wanted all under that old, broken roof.
When we visited my mother’s side of the family, the feeling was similar. My mother would wear her traditional pajamas that matched her sisters. They would sit cross-legged on the bed together eating the fruit from their own backyards and sharing gossip for hours like they hadn’t just gone 10 years without seeing each other. My mother’s house was small like my dad’s, but it was located in a bustling city where everything you need is just a few minutes’ walk away. Unlike my dad’s home, there was four bedrooms, two even had air conditioning, and the place was fully furnished. When she visited her old work center, just walking distance from her home, she remembered everyone’s names and they treated her like a celebrity, running up to her with their arms wide open. She remembered where all her favorite street vendors were located and they, too, remembered her.
Whenever we visited Vietnam, all of my parents’ worries and burdens were only as vast as their humble homes were small, and they were at peace. I never understood why they would leave such a place, and furthermore, why they would want to go to a place where they needed a translator (me) just to order food at a restaurant. This contemplation always left a tightness in my chest. It frustrated me.
Growing up, I oftentimes would come home from school to find a manilla folder on the kitchen table, filled with crinkled packets and documents just waiting for me to translate them. Many of them were riddled with big words like “mortgage” or “standard deduction,” words that typical 11-year-olds just wouldn’t know the meaning of. I would sit around sounding out the words, looking them up on Google, and asking my friends for help instead of completing my math homework. When my parents would finally get home from work at about 9pm, they expected me to explain the meaning of the papers and help them fill it out.
“You learn English in school, don’t you?” my mom would ask clearly frustrated. “You can read the words, so how come you can’t translate it?”
Although Vietnamese was my first language, my vocabulary grew limited as I began to pick up English in school. I’d sit across the kitchen table from my parents, tongue-tied with a lump in my throat trying to translate the documents, but many times I just couldn’t. I watched with my head hung low as they snatched the documents and hastily passed them back and forth between each other. They would look at the words, at each other, and then at me, both of their eyes filled with emotion. My mom’s eyes were filled with disappointment, and my dad’s with stress. Though they were only within arm’s reach from me, their stares made them cold and distant. The stares were enough to make me want to retreat into my shell. I didn’t understand why this was my responsibility. It frustrated me.
Another obstacle I had to help them overcome was culture shock. I had to translate not only bills and work documents, but everyday culture as well. Every now and then, they’d come home frantic with tons of questions for me about what they heard about at work that day.
“Dianna, what is secret Santa? What do we wear to a baby shower? What do we bring to a cookout?” they asked 12-year-old me.
On one Take Your Child to Work Day—another tradition I spent half an hour explaining to my parents because they thought it was just an excuse to miss school—I finally convinced my mother to take me to work with her. My mother worked in a salon with people who only spoke English, and I had no idea. Until that day, there was never a time where I thought about what her day was like at work. I sat in a squeaky office chair right beside her all day, watching her make her customers feel beautiful, while she dirtied her hands and clothes over it. She always made sure that every customer got exactly what they asked for, whether it was a nail design or hairstyle, trying her best to understand their requests.
My mother scrambled in between customers to clean her stations and take a few bites of her lunch, because she always booked customers back-to-back in order to make ends meet for us. She smiled and nodded at the customers stories and rants, listening closely to everyone, and offering her advice. She would often ask me to explain something to a customer when she wasn’t sure how to translate it. I could not imagine the frustration she felt on a regular day at work when nobody was there to translate. I knew that frustration too well. I knew the dryness she must’ve felt between her tongue and the roof of her mouth from having so much to say, but no way to communicate it.
On the ride back home that evening, I was expecting to hear about these things—about how hungry she was, how tired she was, and how exasperated she was. However, that wasn’t the case. Instead, we talked about what I wanted to eat for lunch the next day and how I was doing in school. After her clearly exhausting workday, we talked about me. She had nothing to say about her day, and nothing to complain about. In seeing how humble my mother was about her struggles, it became clear to me that this wasn’t her dream. It’s nobody’s dream to silently face such isolating obstacles everyday of your life.
As I grew a bit older and faced more experiences like these with my parents, my frustration began to subside. I started to see things differently and became more compassionate about their situation. Any frustration I had left was for my parents, for the obstacles they had to face in their everyday lives, and no longer at them for needing my help. I realized that all the frustration I was put through wasn’t for their own dreams. Instead, it was all for mine. Their American dream was for me to accomplish what they couldn’t. From this, I developed an all-consuming love for them, and have become eternally grateful.