Nona C. is a freelance writer and photographer who currently resides in Lisbon, Portugal. A native of the windy city of Chicago, Illinois, Nona craved the passion for creative writing and visual storytelling through photography. She has worked as a creative strategist and graphic designer for large advertising agencies in addition to doing freelance work in Europe. She took her talents and love for the Portuguese culture straight to Lisbon where she freelances for a magazine company and as a full-time photographer for a local Portugal food and beverage company. Previous to her big move to Europe, Nona lived in Chicago with her Vietnamese family that consisted of three siblings and her parents. She worked as Communication Specialist focused on collecting stories of clients from a local refugee community resource center. Nona shares one of her personal stories about her family who immigrated from Vietnam to escape the war and start a new life in the United States. Read further below for Nona’s story.
I heard a commotion coming from my sister’s bedroom and it sounded like an argument between my sister and my mom. She had opened up a credit card in her name that was somehow linked to my mom’s credit. My mom got a notice in the mail that my sister had spent over $15,000 on her credit card in a matter of 6 months and the bank is now sending the account to collections. She is unable to pay her debt with the bank. Like most young adults, we have unsettling debt in student loans. In this situation, it was a result of her lack of experience in life skills and my parents’ flawed method of parenting.
She was going into her 6th year of college without an idea of the pathway she wanted to pursue in life. It’s not totally uncommon to extend your typical 4 years in college nowadays, but its high in pressure to be clear with what students want to do with their future. Especially if education meant something to you or at least means more to your parents. Here, its the latter.
In the first few years in America, my parents worked day long jobs from janitorial services to sewing clothes in a factory. If it meant working hard to meet money, they would do it. For most immigrants and folks who come from an immigrant background, we all know that life wasn’t all that great back in Vietnam. During the war, some had to escape, change our last names (this was in my case), and make promises to meet our loved ones again at the end of the tunnel their escape.
My mom spent nine grueling days with her siblings on a boat at sea in hopes of reaching new land. They were hoping that wherever they land, they were going to able to make choices that would reflect freedom and opportunity. This was in 1982, seven years after the Fall of Saigon, Vietnam. My mom did not know the struggles she will face when she reaches the United States, but she knew that she wanted to give her children a better life. But what does that life entail? Freedom and opportunity mean something different to a lot of people and to my mom, that could only equal two things: education and money.
Granted, money can buy you lots of things. Like “billions and billions and billions” (get the reference?) of things. However, money can also be used as a tool to even buy relationships and especially, love.
Now, I’m not talking love like a relationship between a boyfriend and girlfriend. I’m talking about a relationship between a parent and a child.
As Wu Tang says “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” aka C.R.E.A.M., we are reminded of how much we wouldn’t know what money could do for you until you saw it. Money was hard to earn being an immigrant and not knowing an ounce of English, it seemed impossible. After years of being paid from low-wage jobs, my parents finally put together enough money to build their first business, a coffee shop. From a coffee shop, it went to a dry cleaner shop. From dry cleaning, it went a restaurant. From a restaurant, it then became a food truck business in 1999. My parents, then, still had their own part-time jobs. “Get the money/dollar, dollar bill y’all.”
Four years after my mom arrived in America, she earned a job working for the state (one of the most stable jobs you could have) and coincidentally, it was on the anniversary of her arrival in America. My dad wanted to go back to school, but couldn’t foster enough English and thus pursued a career in music and entertainment. He was a local singer at your typical Vietnamese event, MC at your wedding, and DJ at your party.
We grew up in a relatively safe neighborhood. We had a humble two-story house and my father had a slick, black 1990 Integra and my mom had a Ford Pinto she grew onions out of. My father is the quiet type. If and when he says anything, it was always very short but impactful. He also is a stay-at-home parent and broke gender norms since I was 5 years old; he cooks and cleans and watches the kids, while my mom goes to work. We lived a couple of blocks away from our elementary school.
My siblings included my younger sister and younger brother, and I as the oldest. My sister is the middle child. Other than what I have experienced as having a middle child sister in my family, I see that the middle child tends to be the most different. You are neither the adorned first-born groomed to succeed nor the lastborn who benefits from the attention of experienced parents. You were just, exactly that – the middle.
Apparently, according to studies, middles traditionally receive less financial and emotional support from their parents. They also have a less traditional relationship with their parents as compared to their siblings. This is typically true growing up in my household. My parents have always urged me to give my sister my hand-me-down clothes and toys. My youngest brother was enrolled in high honors classes and I got to go to every school field trip and participate in any extra-curricular activity I wanted.
Now that I am older, I got to see our family dynamic from this point of view. It wasn’t until my sister started to ask for the attention that she lacked in her 20 years of life. She was being overlooked. What mostly troubles her was that fact that no one else seems to really care – a typical fate for middle children.
So where do we go from here? She had to get to a point so low in her life to finally get the attention from my parents; the emotional and financial support.
My parents strived to work hard so that their children did not have to. It had its own failures though; I felt like I was not learning to be hungry by having everything handed to me on a platter. It was one thing to be privileged and another thing to understand and recognize privilege. This is where I started seeing a problem. After the heated argument that night between my mom and sister, I thought there was going to be a huge consequence for my sister. Instead, my mom just said, “as long as you just stay in school, I will pay if off for you.” I was fuming. It was not like we were wealthy yet my mom was so adamant in making sure my sister did not resent my mom and that she stayed in school at any cost. My sister is naive and she gets poorly influenced by the people around her. We found out later that it was actually her troubled boyfriend who had been using her credit card.
My mom was afraid of her children resenting her and instead of teaching wrongs from rights, she accepted the wrongdoings instead, no matter how bad they were. My mom did not even urge us to get a part-time job or ever repay her back for the debt. “You can pay me back by going to school,” my mom always said. And I have seen this method of parenting expressed to myself to my sister to my cousins and her sisters, my aunts. This fascination and obsession over education sits highly on a pedestal. But what can education do if money still is a factor in all of this?
Family members flock to our doorstep because my mother is the most educated out of her 13 siblings. After arriving in America, she completed two years of high school and earned some college education. She established a stable income and a lot of people come to my mom to borrow money or have my mom hold asset titles in their large investments or property.
My mom has a hard time saying no and she likes to keep everyone happy. She doesn’t like anyone to feel like a disappointment even if it burdens her to repudiate their emotions. She gets prescribed medication for her inability to sleep. If she cannot make people happy, she is not happy herself. If she can make other people happy by solving their problems with money, she will. It started out that way because you had to have money if you wanted to escape during and/or after the Vietnam War. The more family members that were coming with you, the more money they wanted. It’s a big risk after all and if anything, money granted my mom’s freedom.
There are consequences though of a financial privilege upbringing. More and more, it seems like the sacrifice of parents to give their children a better life and opportunity would somehow would end up like this. At point do you most love your child so much to deprive them of their ability to have a conscious to make their own responsible decisions?
So what happens to my sister’s debt now? The bank decided to work with us and to freeze her account to make payments on it. My mom is still making payments on it while my sister is still unemployed. She does not have a job, nor is looking for a job. She feels bad for my sister, and thus she has given my sister her own credit card. I strongly did not agree with this decision. My mom has not pressed my sister on this issue to take responsibility for her own actions.
Pixar recently released an eight-minute short film preview to the Incredibles 2, “Bao,” directed by Domee Shi (the first female to direct a Pixar short, gasp!). Now if you watched that film, you’ll know where I’m going with this. But if not, its okay, spoilers ensues. This story was especially touching to me. I felt this with all of my insides. The juxtaposition between the Westernized expectation for children to leave the house by 18 and the expectation for children to stay with their parents long until marriage was a struggle for children of immigrants to face. This story depicts a life that resonates beyond racial boundaries through its depiction of loneliness and children coming of age.
Still at 27 years old, my mom has pressed for me to stay and live at home. She said that she will pay for my school if I were to stay at home. Although I work full-time to also help pay for my tuition, I still live at home with my parents. Sure, I take advantage of the benefits I do get for living at home with my parents: free food, rent, utilities and more. Though I feel like I am missing out on an opportunity to learn valuable life skills that come with living on my own. This reconciliation with my parents has resulted in this guilt to make them happy by being there for them at their every wish. This traditional notion of unspoken love and gestures to make your kids just stay in school and/or to not resent your own parents in fear of loneliness.
Now I haven’t found a resolution to all of this, but could my parents choice in this method of parenting stray away from what the future of being children to immigrants are? This notion that we lose a sense of our own identity when we are acting as a reflection of what our parents wanted to be but couldn’t achieve. That they believe that this is the absolute best for us and here we are wandering in this dysfunctional familial atmosphere, now just lost in translation.
So, sorry mom, but you can’t buy my love because I already love you.