Looking to my Roots

For this series, the WSP counselors were asked to interview an older family member with a childhood experience different than their own. These pieces focus on the family member’s past, particularly his or her goals or aspirations. The purpose of this assignment was to get the counselors to engage with an important family member and to learn more about themselves and their family history in the process.

Growing up, I was never close to my mother. My mother was too busy working to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads to really talk to and get to know my brother and me. She also had bigger problems in the form of my terrible father who hounded us and made us feel like we had to run for our lives.

For this blog, I was tasked to interview an older family member and thought it would be a good opportunity to finally sit down and talk to a woman I respect so much, now that the dust has settled down. Because I moved to Los Angeles for college, I had the pleasure of chatting with my mother over FaceTime. I already knew some of the things we talked about, but our Sunday call revealed parts of her I never knew existed. Here, I’m going to share a few of the questions I asked my mother and some of the answers she gave me.

Question: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I ask her this, I kind of already knew her answer, so it isn’t a surprise when she tells me, “I wanted to be a cosmetologist.” Growing up in Vietnam as a child and then in America as a teenager, my mother was obsessed with makeup and hair. I laughed when she told me she would help all her friends in high school cut their hair. I can imagine my mother chatting up her friends and expertly chopping their bangs into the signature Jennifer Aniston look of the 1990s. She interrupts me, as she is apt to do, by teasing me. “In fact, I’m the only person who you even let you cut your hair. That must mean I’m pretty good right?” Yes. She’s right. Literally no one has ever cut my hair except her and myself every now and then. She actually did work in a salon in her 20s, though she moved on from that career path when my brother and I grew up and started going to middle and high school.

Question: What was it like to move to America as a teenager?

I always knew it was hard for her adjusting to American life because she was thrown into the hostile environment that is the American high school. My mom is the youngest of six children and all her siblings were too old for school when they immigrated to the US. She thinks about the question a little and tells me, “It was shit.” I love when my mother is frank with me. “I could barely speak English, so classes were not easy. I did make a lot of friends with the other girls who recently moved here. I spent a lot of time swimming for the school.” At this point, I chide my mother for not teaching me how to swim when she was on the varsity swim team. It is then that I remember the reality of why she never had the time to do that.

Talking to my mother today wasn’t easy. Because we never talked much growing up, I almost felt like I was talking to a stranger at times. I realize that this isn’t anyone’s fault and I just want to fix this bridge between us. As I grow up, I increasingly have become aware of my own mortality and that of my mother’s. If I don’t talk to her now, there might be a day where I don’t have the opportunity to learn about someone I care about so much.

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