Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Story of My Mother

A block of ice and a small bag of sugar

We were having lunch one Saturday at a Vietnamese restaurant. As usual my mother was asking her usual question, “Nhan how are you and your girlfriend?”

“We’re fine”

“Does she love you?” she gives me that nosey look.

“I don't know, Mah.” Remembering the last time she asked me, yesterday.

Seeing my irritation, she changes the subject slightly. She talks of how different life is when you marry. Then she looks off to my right as if that’s where her memory was. She recalls what it was like to live with her mother-in- law, how her mother-in- law and my oldest aunt went to the market to buy food and shop for new clothes in the spring time. She said they got her a used dress - small and ugly. My mother had to smile and take it. She had to say “cam on,” (thank you) and act grateful for such a gift, because a good wife does not complain. She pauses to turn and look at me. I look back at her. Then I looked for the bill. What I really wanted to do was jump out of my seat and run away. She looks off to the right again. She kept on repeating that it was very hard, “kho lam.” She did all the hard work and never complained. I asked “where was dad in all of this”. My mother said my dad didn’t understand. Then she began to explain that when you marry someone, you make sure that person really loves you - loves you more than her family. “Put each other first” I think she was trying to lecture. We left the restaurant I drove down Valley Blvd her in the passenger seat. It was quiet for several minutes and then she broke the silence with a question,

“Do you remember Indonesia?”


“You were too small,” she pauses, still just looking ahead.

“I remember we had to make our own hut from sheets and wood from the boat, you were four. Do you remember?’

“No Mah”

“Kho lam. We didn’t have very much money. We were afraid to spend money because we didn’t know how long we were going to be there.” This time her voice cracked as she paused. She looked forward but it was not the road that she saw. It was a place in her memory. 

“We were lucky,” she said “you and your sister didn’t get sick. Other people that came with us were sick some died.” She stalled in thought and then looked out the side window.

“Your father was sick. He almost died,” she turns back to the road.

“I had to earn money. Your aunt Thrinh and I decided to go to the mountain to buy fruit to sell. At that time your aunt was unmarried, remember? We went up to the mountain to buy fruit from the farmers and then we were going to sell it at the market place. The farther we went, the cheaper the fruits. We had to go across a bridge and then up the mountain. Once we got there we had to tie the fruits to a wooden pole. That was the only way we could carry it across our backs. Then we sold it in the market for a little profit.” She turns to me.

“You know ‘che’, the sweet rice desert?”


“Your aunt wanted to buy some.” She turns and smiles at me but her voice was still shaky.

“I didn’t want che.” Her smiles turn to tears so fast that they catch me by surprise.

“I couldn’t eat... thinking of you and your sister there hungry.” She is crying now.

“I couldn’t eat thinking of you and your sisters, kho lam, kho lam (it was so very hard).” I put my left hand on the wheel take my right hand off the wheel and put it on her shoulder. I wonder if I would have cried if I were not driving. She finished the story with tears and pauses to wipe her nose. She never bought any che but instead bought a block of ice and small bag of sugar. What she did was make snow cones, for all of us waiting at the makeshift refugee camp, my sisters, my sick father, and myself.

After her story I was numb. I looked at the road… what I saw was the road of black concrete and cars. No memory no story.

When I got home that night I was flooded with so many thoughts and images. I was gasping for air. My head was light, my heart was sinking. I grabbed my sketchbook. I had to write, draw, scribble, doodle, smear -whatever my pen can produce. These are some of the words that fell to paper.

If I could

As I drive us from lunch

You share a tale of sacrifices with tear filled eyes

I listen

I want to be your mouth

I will find the words that you have hidden in your past

To tell the truth you share

Let me talk of sacrifices made in love

Put your mind at ease

I will be your voice in this foreign land

I will talk of journeys past

Trials overcome, tears shed, pains felt, wounds hidden

Let me shout in this nation of immigrants

I will utter the words you could not

I will speak with confidence and conviction

Unashamed of what I will say

I want to be your hands

To bring you pride

To fulfill your dreams

I will be an extension of you

You will be the source of my inspiration


My Mah shared a piece of her history. Usually these stories are accompanied by shouting and abusive
language intended to teach me a lesson in family, sacrifice, or thankfulness. These types of lessons
mostly fall on uncaring ears and rolling eyes. These stories that I have heard a thousand times before
became real. I started to remember. The little flashes of my memory from when I was four became clear in focus like a dirty lens that has been finally washed. I believe that it happened I was there I was part of that journey. I lived in the refugee camp. I slept in a boat. Felt the cold of  rocky roads.

From that moment on I saw my Mah with new eyes, as if I was a child again -seeing her feed me for the first time, seeing her bathe me for the first time. She was no longer the nosey woman with the
questions, no longer the critical woman but a woman from the pages of history, our history, one that
holds her family together by her sacrifices.

I look now around my room. I see a warm bed, three pairs of shoes and a computer, the product of a
block of ice.

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