As my mom poured some wine into my white teacup, her eyes twinkled.
“I can’t believe just yesterday I brought you home from the hospital. And now we’re drinking wine together,” she said wistfully. We clinked cups.
We were sitting in my mom’s pho restaurant in the LA area, which had just closed for the night. Her boyfriend had just left for a bit and would be returning shortly to help clean up. My youngest sister was rolling around the restaurant in her Heely’s, sometimes sitting down to listen to us talk and add to the conversation. I could smell the aroma of pho throughout the entire place, a loving reminder of all the hard work my mom has put in to get to this point. I glanced at the clock. 8:30 p.m.. We began to reminisce, and I soaked in the life lessons that are as present and comforting, like the smell of a home-cooked meal, in every conversation we have. These are some of those lessons.
Like a good bowl of pho, greatness doesn’t come quickly.
Great pho soup has to be stewed overnight. It has onions, herbs, and countless spices that have to be patiently cooked at low heat for hours before it becomes that rich broth that Vietnam is so famous for.
Over the years, I’ve learned that my mom’s success also didn’t come easily. At 4 years old in Rach Gia, a rural part of Vietnam, she had already started hustling — she would grow her own vegetables to sell at the local market. She came to the US and settled in San Jose as an Amerasian refugee of the Vietnam war when she was just 18 years old. She had no knowledge of English, a biracial appearance that Vietnamese and American people alike judged her for, and a grandma to take care of. But this didn’t stop her. From day one, my mom was a hustler and worked hard to overcome all the challenges that being in a new country threw at her.
Despite starting off with next to nothing, nearly 30 years later my mom opened up her very own restaurant, becoming one of the many immigrants, refugees, and women of color in the US to become a business owner.
When things get tough, remember what’s most important to you and let that be your beacon in the darkness.
My mom waved her second cup of wine around and says, “Sometimes, I wanted to kill myself. It was so hard, I worked so hard,” she placed it on the table and gently laid her hand on my youngest sister’s head, who was sitting to her right, “But that would have been easy. If I died, who would take care of you girls?”
My three younger sisters and I grew up in San Jose, California with my parents. My dad worked to take care of our family, but what most people don’t know is that for years my mom would balance driving us to school, volunteering in our classes, and enrolling us in extracurriculars with several under-the-table jobs for cash. On top of this, she was my great-grandma’s caretaker. My mom would wake up at 6 a.m. to start her day and not go to bed until 10 p.m. or later that night. People on the outside saw our family as lucky and rich to have a mom that was so involved and who always bought us gifts with what seemed like my dad’s money, when in actuality she was exhausted, depressed, and overworked.
She worked extra hours just to put my younger sister into a basketball program at the local YMCA. My mom saw potential in her, and she was right. My sister would later become captain of the basketball team in high school. I was in band from fourth grade all the way up until senior year. Regardless of her busy schedule, she went to every single concert from when I was a novice flute player to when I was lead saxophone in the district jazz band. My mom was there for every solo.
When her grandma died, she lost her best friend — the only person who loved her in Vietnam despite her being Amerasian. At the same time, my other sister’s behavior was getting worse. She was cutting school, drinking, and getting into all sorts of trouble both in and out of school. I remember that she toughed it out and gave my sister all the attention she needed to get better, even when my mom desperately needed help too.
What got her through it all was seeing our happy faces. We were her beacon.
You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.
In 2011, my mom drove from San Jose to visit me in college at UC Berkeley to tell me that she was going to legally separate from my dad. I was hurt. Despite knowing everything that my mom had gone through in the past and in her marriage, I was still so angry at her for leaving. I thought she was weak, that if only she had been stronger, she would have stayed to try and work things out. After all — who was going to take care of us, especially my youngest sister, who was only six at the time?
What I didn’t realize was my mom wasn’t taking the easy way out. She was being the strongest woman and mother in the world by making the hardest decision: to take care of herself in order to take care of us.
Later in 2011, my mom checked into a mental hospital at Stanford. She didn’t want to tell anyone because she didn’t want people to worry, including me, but she was there for an entire week. The doctor said that she had been stressing for so long that a growth had developed in her brain. During this time, she thought, again, “If I die, who would take care of my kids?”
The doctor said that without stress, people with a similar diagnosis could go on and live healthy and long lives. But with more stress, her health would continue to deteriorate. If she stayed in San Jose, if she stayed in her marriage, she could have been dead in a couple years.
So with only $48 in her pocket, she packed her bags in 2012 and left. My mom was always intensely afraid of the freeway, but she drove from the Bay Area all the way to LA to start a new life. She told me that when she looked back at San Jose, there was a darkness. Looking forward on I-5, there was light and she just followed it. She moved in with her boyfriend and for the first few months, she had recurring nightmares. All she wanted was to be back in San Jose to see us and be with us, but at the time, she knew she couldn’t.
So she came up with a game plan to reunite with us. She would work down in LA for a while, start her own business, then sell it in a couple years time. By then, she will be financially independent and in a healthier state of mind and body to come back to San Jose and live near us again.
In 2016, she opened up her pho restaurant in LA, called Pho Eastern.
The people who know nothing about you will be the ones talking the most behind your back.
My mom came back to visit in 2013 for my sister’s 7th birthday party. There, one of my dad’s friends, and a friend of my mom’s for over a decade, came up to her and casually asked her, “What kind of mother leaves her children?” She was initially shocked, but not surprised. While she was gone, of course people would gossip, and this was juicy news to them. She was hurt that someone who knew her for so many years never understood her enough to know that that she would never hurt us intentionally. Wouldn’t people understand that a mother would only leave her children under the most dire consequences?
Apparently not, because people will always believe the narrative they want to believe. This hurt my mom deeply. She abruptly left the party and I didn’t know why until years later. I was so angry. But while people who know nothing about you will be the ones talking the most behind your back, the reverse is also true.
The people who understand will believe you and make sure your story is told.
At this point, we were halfway through our second bottle of wine. It was now 11 p.m. and my little sister was sleeping peacefully on three restaurant chairs placed side by side. Earlier, she’d told my mom that she was sleepy and wanted to go home.
My mom had held her cheek and said, “Please stay awake a little longer. When morning comes, you’ll be going home with your sister and I won’t see you again for a long time.” My sister had murmured, “Okay, mom.”
I held my mom’s hand and told her how proud I was of her. She smiled and said, “I’m proud of you too! I love your writing, con. Maybe you should write about me!”
So here I am, at 3 o’clock the next morning, wide awake from all the wine I drank and writing her story while she sleeps peacefully next to me. In a few hours, I’ll be on a 6-hour bus ride heading back to San Jose with my sister, knowing that the next time I see my mom will probably be in a few months. But I’m okay with that because I understand her, and sometimes that’s all someone needs.
I can’t wait for the day that she comes home.