Ring, ring, ring…
How are you? Are you well?
I’m fine. Just the same. Nothing changed.
How are you? Are you well?
I’m okay. Mhm, I’m doing okay.
Have you eaten yet?
Mmm, yeah. I just ate.
Have you eaten yet?
No, not yet, I don’t have the time, but soon!
What did you do today?
Nothing much. Just at home. I went out with your aunt yesterday.
What did you do today?
I just went to classes and meetings, since 10AM. Mommy, I have so much to do. I almost slept in class!
I love you! I love you very much!
Even though I loved you since I was a child, as your daughter, the youngest, I didn’t know what that love meant. I knew that I was devoted to you and I would do whatever you say; I was your best friend, professional translator, personal assistant, and full-time therapist. At a really young age, I had to learn quick on how to support you. You relied on me and I relied on you. While it was tough, I tried my best to make sure that you knew I loved you. I didn’t want to disappoint you like the world has been disappointing you. You’ve gone through a lot. You’ve gone through enough.
But I have to admit: I didn’t know what it meant to love. I didn’t know how important I was to you, until I left and was 100 miles away from you. I didn’t know how important you were to me.
Nonetheless, that distance did us good; it made me question what that love was. Did I love you out of obligation? Was that love based off of debt and repayment? Or could it be much more? Can we make our love become something more, more revolutionary, more restorative, more strong, more soft, more warm? Is there a way for us to push past the trauma and love each other as not just mother and daughter, but two human beings who enjoy their time and existence together? I would like to believe so. Because, Mámi, that’s the direction we’re going towards.
I started holding your hand. You were so bashful, that you would fling my hand to the side and do that nervous giggle of yours. You would tell me how dad tried doing that to you while you two were dating, and you got so embarrassed that you flung his hand to the side just like you did to me. You would tell me this story all of the time. He stopped doing it after that first try. I kept going.
I started kissing your cheek and hugging you. You would giggle and ask me what’s wrong with me. I would scream that I just love my mom so much that I can’t help but love her. You laughed and pushed me away. But you would call your friends later and I could hear you tell them how embarrassing I was, with a smile. You would tell me that you were too afraid to kiss and hug my siblings and I when we were babies, no matter how cute we were, because you were afraid that if you kissed us, we would develop scars on our faces. Disease spread a lot quicker back then. I still kissed and hugged you.
I started telling you I love you and that I miss you. You usually play it off all cool, ask me if there’s anything else I had to say, then immediately hang up. You still do this to this day. But sometimes, I would ask you if you miss me and love me, and you would either go soft and tell me, "Of course”, or act all tough, “If I didn’t, do you think I would’ve raised you to this point?” I still tell you, even if you pretend you don’t want to hear it.
I started acting silly around you; I did ridiculous dances in front of you, sing along to your favorite songs, and argue with you over little things. You used to scold me to stop and behave. Then you laughed at me. Now, you laugh with me. We both love poking fun at each other. We both love being silly and embarrass the other person. We both love being together. I guess we’re a lot more similar that we used to think. We keep doing it.
I started talking to you. I remember we would just go to places together, usually in silence. Whether it was at a doctor’s appointment, grocery store, or even at a friend’s house, we never really talked much. I realized I didn’t know much about you. I wanted to know. I wanted to get to know this womxn: What was her family like? When did her great-grandmother immigrate to Vietnam? How did she escape the Vietnam War? What was it like to move to a completely new country? When did she first dream of being a fashion designer? How does she know how much star anise to put into the phở? Does she have a favorite place to go to? Will she ever tell me what she actually wants for her birthday? Why does she keep making fun of me for always wanting to eat bún riêu? I didn’t know how to start that conversation smoothly, I’m too awkward. So I would just ask. You used to ask me why I was all of a sudden so interested in you and you would call me nosy. Now, you take a pause and trace back the date, the step, the moment. Though my Vietnamese isn’t perfect, I try to listen and occasionally write things down. I want to know you and you to know me. I know my children will want to know you too. I’ve started making you laugh while we talk. I made you laugh today. I hope I can keep that up. I love your smile, mommy. We need to keep talking.
I started forgiving you. We used to yell at each other a lot; You have to admit, our family was a mess. But it worked, even though it was really tough. We pushed each other to the edge, and before I knew it, I needed time away from you. Then I needed more time away from you. And now I’m 100 miles from you, where I go weeks, if not months, away from you. No matter how much you deny it, I got your temper, mommy. But that could be fixed, and we’re working on it. Whenever you ruin another one of my new shirts in the wash, take a joke too far, or completely disregard my feelings in front of your friends, I take a breath and talk it through with you. You’re starting to forgive me, too. I can see it. We talk. We’re not perfect. We’re working on it.
I started treating you like a human being and not just my mom. I think growing up, I never really got to see much besides the strong, resilient fighter who defied all odds to make sure her kids got what they needed to make it in the world. I have to admit, I didn’t see you as anything but my mom. I remember during my first year, I was sobbing and texting Sister because I was terrified that something was going to happen to you while I was away. I wasn’t used to being away from you yet. But Sister told me that I needed to trust you, that you were a grown womxn, and that I needed to have faith in you that you would be okay. It took a lot of time. The anxiety is now gone. Though there are some things you need to work on like your anti-black beliefs and sexist comments, you’re working on them, slowly changing how you think, and questioning things. Maybe it’s because you feel like you have more time to think now. Maybe it's because your daughter is stubborn and keeps forcing you to question those hard-held beliefs. We’re changing together.
Though the past four years have been some of the hardest years on my mental health, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else because of our love. You are the love of my life. You are one of the reasons why I decide to live another day. You are one person I would never give up. While I’m still not comfortable telling you how much pain I’ve been going through or how dark my thoughts have been lately, you do see my struggles and efforts at least on the academic level and acknowledge it. It’s all about baby steps.
Your baby isn’t a baby anymore. There are so many things I want to tell you, some really hard things, some amazing things, some things in the grey area. But we’ll come to that when we do. Until then, I look forward to more days with you, Mámi. In two months, I will wear my áo dài, walk on stage, and get my diploma. I will finally finish that dream you’ve been talking about since I was a kid and start the next stage of my life. I will hold your hand and take as many pictures as you want, because you love feeling like a model. I will finally leave that campus and come back to you.
Here’s to many more years together. Here’s to a healthy life together. Here’s to a better, stronger, radical us.
I love you.
Your whiny baby