My immigrant mom

Thursday, April 28, 2011

[This post is part of a Mama’s Day Series by The Strong Families Initiative. To follow all of the Mama's Day events, visit us on Facebook and Twitter.]

By Yvonne Tran

I always knew my mom worked hard. She would wake up at 6:30 AM every morning to wake us up and make us breakfast (buttered toast with sugar, my favorite) and sometimes, even lunch. Then she would get ready for work around 2 PM and go to work till 11 PM or 12 AM. I remember her coming back late while I was up late doing homework. She would eat the dinner that my dad saved for her and watch TV till she fell asleep. She would wake up the next morning and do it all over again.

When I was 7, I remember doing laundry with my mother in the garage. She decided to make me her counselor and divulged way to much for my 7 year-old mind to comprehend. Reasons why she's upset with my dad. Naming his flaws. Her unhappiness. Her young days dancing the night away. Her dreams. The what-ifs. Her life before me. Before two jobs, two kids, two dogs, a house, and a husband to support.

At the time, I didn't fully understand the depth of her words, I just knew she was unhappy and her life was as hard as it was back home, in Viet Nam. My mom has worked hard her whole life to support her family, herself, and now her kids. She worked so many jobs growing up that I refused to leave my godparent's house when she came to pick me up. She was unfamilar. Unknown. Missing in parental action.

My mother never gained the skills necessary to move past low-wage work in the electronics/tech industry. Although she was immediately placed into required "skills building" classes for recent immigrants after coming to the U.S., she was laid off again and again when the tech bubble burst in Silicon Valley. She had no other "marketable" skills and could not find work for almost 2 years.

I'm the incredibly happy Birthday girl
on the right.
In those 2 years without a steady income or health insurance, the stress level from dealing with our family's financial instability finally dug itself deep into her blood, her kidneys, and her ultimately throughout her body. She became progressively more and more sick, one ailment leading to another to another, until she collapsed in 2005 at her new job and was rushed to the emergency room. I remember that day clearly, receving the news from my sister at 11 PM on a Wednesday and deciding immediately to drive the 300 miles home from college to be with her. I ended up staying a week at the hospital to keep watch and to keep her company. In the last 6 years, watching her body age so dramatically beyond her 54 years and seeing her emotional health go with it took a significant toll on me and my family.

I make myself red with anger thinking about how hard my mom has worked in the 30 some years she's been in this country, never taking a "real" vacation, never failing to provide, never resting. She raised two daughters who were able to complete a college education. My mother has done nothing but support her family at the cost of her health. I am angry thinking about how this country has ignored people like my mom. Saw her as inferior because of her inability to grasp the English language. Saw her as dispensable with her "low wage skills." Saw her as a resource drain when she depended on welfare to keep my family afloat. Her citizenship meant nothing next to her perpetual foreignness.

I want to honor her work, her love, and her consistent ability to take care of us despite whatever state she's in. My mom is my life, my love, the inspiration that drives me to do social justice work. Her pain drives mine and her injustices are mine to own as well.

I wanted to share a poem that I wrote several years ago in the heart of the darkness when my mother was very ill. It's titled "Butterflies" because my mom once told me she wished to come back as one in her next life. I asked her why and she got poetic on me. She told me she wanted to exist in a moment of transformation, fly into beauty, and die with quick grace.

for my mother.

How can words capture butterflies?
Born out of soft ugliness
Transformed into soaring grace
Existence in a handful of moments.

My mind use to beat my heart into tears when I thought of your nonexistence

Laundry time heart pouring
Dreams cycled in and cycled out
Damp with overflowing frustrations
Words connecting hopes onto lines of reality
Your happiness put out under the sun to dry
Fading colors and shriveling hearts
Hearts that become raisins
Dark, wrinkled, and ambiguously sweet

Your recipes captured my tongue's imagination
Filling my tummy with warmth and undeniable love
I use to resent your lack of affection
Until I realized you poured all of your love,
your pride
your sense of self
into this bowl
Powered by these chopsticks
With every bite you hope I will know the pungent depth of your love.

I hope to never capture your grace
Rip the nets and bend the poles
I want you to soar into the sun
and land on sandy flowers
I want you to transcend your pain
and be overwhelmed with calmness

You broke your wings
and fell on your back
stared back into the sky
and drank up the cerulean
You sighed and wished for darkness
I hold your hand and wished for shooting stars

My heart beats my mind into amnesia.
Numbing tears and locking cries
Over your broken wings
Like Pandora's box
I attach wings to hope
Hope to clouds
Hoping you will soar again.


  1. Well said, homie. This was so touching it almost brought tears to my eyes as it reminds me of my parents and their struggles. Thank you for sharing this as it details one shared experience of so many immigrants to the U.S. who have little formal education and lack of fluency in the English language. I hope your family stays healthy and strong. M.T.

  2. beautiful :) that's you and your writing.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Yvonne! Gorgeous words. Here's to health and happiness for your and your mother...and your whole family.

  4. Simply beautiful. I am an immigrant my self. If one day my son can write something similar to this. I'll know I've done my job.

  5. Simply beautiful. I am an immigrant. If my son can write something remotely similar to this one day. I'll know I've done my job.