Photos courtesy of the author.
called my mom one Saturday night, just to check up on her. She and dad were
probably so lonely -- my brother had just joined me as a freshman at UCSB, likely
magnifying the echoes in that now too-large and too-cold house. My mom had just
stopped working, and the difficulty of adjusting to life back at home was
probably exacerbated by its emptiness. My dad almost certainly came back from
his late shifts at the hospital utterly despondent. Perhaps my brother and I
would come home and visit them soon. Maybe treat them to a nice movie and
dinner, if we had the time. I knew they certainly had plenty of it.
the call went to voicemail. I called my dad next, no avail. At 2 a.m. I
received a text from my suffering mother: Me
just came back from Co Loan’s Tet Party, call u tmrw.
means Mom in Vietnamese, and in the Vietnamese language, you refer to yourself
in the third person. “Cô” indicates her friend Loan’s relationship to me, a
title that says she’s younger than my mom but her peer, entitled to my respect.
"Tết" was the recent Lunar New Year. The text, and my mom’s trademark patois, are both Vietnamese and English, following both grammars
alternately, saturated with current American (“tmrw”) and traditional
Vietnamese (“Cô”) lingo. It’s taken twenty years for me to grasp it --
this vernacular used in everything, including handwritten holiday cards -- by the
Vietnamese American housewives I know so well.
let me introduce you. These ladies mostly came to the United States as first-wave
refugees when they were in their teens. They all went to universities here, all
eventually married first-generation Vietnamese physicians, dentists, engineers,
businessmen. And now, they all live in Orange County, where they mingle and
meet at LA Fitness, drug rep dinners and physicians’ annual balls, and parties featuring Vietnamese American pseudo-celebrities -- singers and
comedians who star in musical variety shows like Paris by Night.
My parents at a party hosted by Ky Duyen, the MC in
Paris by Night.
current lifestyles are, at first, hard to distinguish from those you see and
judge on Real Housewives of Orange County. They party often, shop heavily,
and gossip a lot. Plastic surgery, fashion shows, and social alcoholism are casual subjects over Sunday morning dim sum in Garden Grove. Wait, dim sum?
mom’s daytime haunts include not only Louis Vuitton establishments and trendy
Newport Beach boutiques, but the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster, where she can
bargain for designer sunglasses and get OPI nail polish for 3 or 4 dollars a
pop, compared to the $9.50 she chides me for spending on the same at Sephora. In
the heart of Little Saigon, she comfortably gets her
Vietnamese iced coffee and investigates the markets for good deals on live crab
and tropical fruit (longan and dragon fruit among her favorites). In Orange
County, home to the largest Vietnamese population the US, my mother engages in
the aspects of Vietnamese culture she still largely identifies with, alongside facets
of upper-middle class American womanhood she picks up through the media.
My mom and her friends attend a Tết party in “traditional” áo dài dresses.
she finally called me back, she promptly filled me in on the details of her
night: who was there, what everyone wore, how much he or she drank, this
divorce(e)’s new girlfriend or boyfriend. My dad had already posted the pictures
on Facebook; I had the images to reinforce her account, whether I liked it or
not. After I made some disapproving remarks on the length of her dress or the
absurdity of her eye makeup, she asked me about school, if she should make my
favorite crab soup the next time I came home, how she wished my brother would call
more often. And then I remembered whom I was talking to: this person who had put
up with me all my life, this woman I
have always looked up to and do still.
engaging in the questionable antics I suspect are brought on by her late 40’s,
my mom’s absolute support and love have yet to falter. Her ability to embrace
aspects of both lifestyles, or the comfort and happiness she exhibits
while inhabiting the liminal space between the two, deserves more admiration
than consternation from me.
mom, if you’re reading this, please do not take this as any endorsement of
those sequin dresses you love or the blue eye shadow you wore the other week.
But do know that I am so grateful that you raised me, and for your continued
support in everything I do. That though I make fun of the absurd height of
your Jessica Simpson pumps, I am actually so proud that I have a mom I can connect
with in all aspects of my life, from our Saturday South Coast outings to Sunday
by these Vietnamese American women my entire life, I can only wonder what I
will be like in twenty years. Generational, cultural, and countless other
differences have forged the new vernacular of these women. If my mom is part of
this new breed of first-generation Asian Americans, then what variation of
second-generation will I turn out to be, that the world has yet to see?
* * *
Vy Ta is currently a student in the Biology and Asian
American Studies departments at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She
grew up in Tustin, CA, where she studied creative writing at the Orange
County High School of the Arts.