What Our Immigrant Mothers Don’t Discuss About Mental Health
I thought my mother and I were different, but our lives could not have been more in sync
My mother was raised in a house surrounded by fruit trees. In the summer, the trees would grow thick with mangos, guavas, bananas — there were so many different kinds of fruit that when I asked her about them a few months ago, my mother simply laughed after failing to name them all. That house is no longer standing. Instead, 15 years after immigrating to the United States from Vietnam, my mother oversaw the construction of a new home for her family. The new house is not surrounded by fruit trees. But there’s plumbing, at least, and the walls aren’t so easily destroyed by monsoon rains. And on days where the weather is mild, my mother’s family can eat their meals on the tiled porch. This new house is where we stay whenever we make it back home.
The last time I visited, my mother’s aunt shared stories about what my mom was like growing up. To hear Aunt Ba tell it, my mother was an industrious young woman who was well-loved by her family and community. According to Aunt Ba, my mother’s love for her family was so deep that she moved to Cambodia as a teenager to work and sent her earnings home to take care of them. I asked my mom about this recently, and she clarified that she hadn’t gone to Cambodia willingly. In fact, one of her aunts had sold her to a businessman’s family in Cambodia, and that family “employed” my mom to sell fruit at the ports when the ships came in full of hungry laborers.
When I asked my mom what her aunt used the money for, she said, “Gambling, alcohol. Anything my aunt needed to have a good time. She was not a good woman.” My mother then explained, for probably the hundredth time, that her family and community regarded her as dispensable because, as a Black Amerasian child born out of the Vietnam War, she was a sore reminder of the violence the country had endured at the hands of Americans.
But it was also more than that. “It was likely racism,” my mother continued, giving color to her words. “You know southern Vietnamese people do tend to have darker skin, especially those of us who are Khmer. But I was darker. And the texture of my hair gave me away.”