Home Is What You Make Of It
I am a first generation immigrant. My parents decided when I was two that we should move to California in search of a chance for me to receive a better education. When we first came here, we practically had no money. We knew nothing about how California worked or even how to speak English, and my parents practically knew no one. However, my dad’s side eventually moved to California as well. We all lived in apartment homes next to each other on Cinnamon Creek.
Anyone need anything from the grocery store? My mom asked my aunts and uncles as she finished braiding my hair. In Vietnam it was normal to wake up early. People in our neighborhood often woke up at 5 am to get their shops set up for the day. Naturally, this routine followed us to California. My mom and I spent a lot of time together during our first few years of living here. With my dad off at work with the only car we owned, my mom and I often walked every morning at around 7 am to the grocery store near our apartment home.
Gosh these bags are heavy, my mom said while walking home. My mom is often in a lot of physical pain. Back pain, arm pain, etc. I quickly grabbed a bag from her hand and we continued on, singing Vietnamese kid songs together.
Once we got home, I helped my mom unpack. Together we cooked a homemade dinner for my family to eat together-and by together I mean I grabbed the ingredients for her while she did the real cooking.
Looks like we still had some bananas left in the apartment, my mom said as she opened the cabinet. My eyes widened. We got all the ingredients for our banana bread out on the counter after my mom cooked our actual meal. As we were about to start baking, my cousins, aunts, and grandparents came over. My aunts helped set up the table, while my cousins and I excitedly helped my mom bake, getting flour and sugar all over the floor.
Once my dad and uncles came home from work, we all shared a meal together. Talking over the dinner table, laughing and smiling. Sometimes it’s the simple everyday things in life that make it a whole lot easier when things are tough. California may never be like Vietnam, but family is what makes a home, not a place.
I love cheesy movies. I love the predictable plots and the way everything ends up being all happily ever after and all. A popular plot we often see in movies is that the “villain” of the story ends up having a sad backstory of how their parents never cared enough to show up to their events because of how busy they were with work and that’s why they are the way that they are. Fortunately, this was never the case for me.
In my elementary school we had these assemblies that featured the Imagination Machine. It’s essentially this company that’s supposed to encourage creativity in writing by acting out your stories in front of the whole school if you did well enough for them to pick your piece. These were my favorite kinds of assemblies. My eyes were practically glued onto the stage whenever they would come-something about grown adults acting out silly little kid’s stories is really entertaining. One day, my story got chosen. They don’t tell you until the end whose story won and they would often take a while to read them since teachers made every kid in the entire school submit a story, so I actually didn’t know it was my story until they called out my name. At the end of each show, they call up all the students who won to receive a certificate and take a picture with the actors. When I turned around for the picture I noticed my parents in the back, smiling with their phones in their hands. I had no idea that they would be there since I didn’t know that I had won beforehand, but the school had emailed all the parents beforehand to try to get some parent audiences.
It wasn’t much of a surprise to me that they showed up. I knew my parents loved me since they always expressed it in acts of service, but something about this moment made me remember it so vividly. I know a lot of kids aren’t as privileged to have their parents drive out in the middle of the day to watch them receive an award and that’s why I was so grateful that my parents took the time to do so when it wasn’t even a big award-in elementary school you basically get an award for anything you do, they literally gave me an award for going to an aquarium once. My parents are very hard-working people who never miss work unless it’s necessary, and yet for me they show up to everything. They went to dance recitals, every single award assembly, art exhibit, swim meet, etc. Every hobby they signed me up for, they showed up for. It’s such a simple thing, yet it meant so much and truly made me feel like I experienced a well loving childhood.
I hate when substitute teachers call out names for attendance.
Is Too-yen here? Sorry. Or is it Tween? They would ask.
It’s not like I don’t know my name is hard to pronounce. It’s a Vietnamese name and even my friends don’t technically say it correctly. Because of this, I’ve always gone by “Twin” and I don’t even know how that pronunciation came up in the first place.
Once, I asked my parents why they named me Tuyen for a writing assignment. They joked around for a bit, saying that my name in Vietnamese sounds similar to money in Vietnamese and they wanted to be rich-which I actually believed for a second, but they were just simply joking around. They eventually told me that they let my grandfather choose my name and he just liked the name Tuyen.
I don’t mind my name, but I hate the embarrassment of my name being pronounced weirdly. I know that substitutes don’t try to pronounce my name wrong, and they always apologize, but my classmates have always teased me about it and eventually you start wishing you had an easier name-or in my case an English name.
My parents have recently passed their citizenship test, giving them the opportunity to change their name if they decided to. My mom changed her name from Dung to Dianne and asked me if I wanted to change mine since them being citizens meant I was too. When my mom asked me, I instantly said no. For some reason, I found the embarrassment of changing my name more embarrassing than substitutes mispronouncing it. Changing my name would mean that all my friends would be calling me by two separate names and I just felt like that would be even more confusing and embarrassing-but that’s not the only reason.
I feel like living in America for such a long time has influenced me to become more “American-like” and sometimes I’m afraid I might forget my culture. Because I only speak Vietnamese with my parents, and I speak English at school and with my friends at home when I call or text them, I feel like when I go to college and move into a dorm I might forget how to speak it. It’s important to me to remember Vietnamese not so that I can use it to get a better job, but more so to be able to speak to my family. I would be devastated if I traveled back to Vietnam and wasn’t able to communicate with them. To me, my name brings me back to my roots. It reminds me of my mom’s sacrifices and of the family we have back home. My name is like a string that connects me to them and I felt like changing my name because I was embarrassed of it being pronounced wrong. It was like me cutting the string-cutting the connection to my culture.
I feel very privileged to experience the childhood I had. Growing up with not a lot of money has made me learn to appreciate the little things in life-one being my mom’s cooking. I honestly think that if she wanted to she could go onto some Asian food cooking show and make it decently far in the competition. Her home cooked meals have always made me appreciate our culture and made me glad to be able to experience such a diversity of foods.
I’m sure everyone has heard the story of how an immigrant child starts going to a public school with their cultural dishes as a lunch and gets picked on by other kids for their food looking “weird.” Then, they go home to their parents and ask for more “American” lunches and they eventually learn the lesson of how they should appreciate their culture instead of trying to fit in.
Honestly, I feel like my parents were more concerned about this situation than I was. For the longest time they packed me simple bread and meat sandwiches to bring to school and it wasn’t until I asked them to stop that they decided to pack me homemade meals. I guess part of me was scared because being picked on is hard and makes you feel so isolated from the others, but my elementary school was nothing like this.
In Vietnam there’s this thing called cha bong which is essentially just dried shredded pork/chicken. It’s popular to eat with rice and all you have to do is grab a handful of it from the store container and put it on rice and that’s considered a meal. It was easy to make and didn’t take a long time to do in the mornings so my dad would easily make this at least once every week.
I had this friend named Morgan. She had dirty blond curly hair and was the most positive and energetic person I have ever met. She was always very curious and asked a ton of questions. We sat next to each other during lunch and she was always interested in what meals my parents had packed me. When she saw the cha bong in my lunch box she immediately laughed-but this wasn’t a harsh laugh. It was a curious, innocent kind of laughter. Cha bong is like a brown yellowish color and she told me it reminded her of her own hair. I let her try a piece and she eventually got obsessed with it. Every time I would have it for lunch I would ask my dad to pack a little extra just so Morgan could eat it with me. Her eyes always lit up and she would tell me how delicious it was, while we laughed over how similar it looked to her hair. It was such a simple act of kindness that she did and she probably didn’t even think of it that way since she genuinely enjoyed how it tasted, but it genuinely affected how I view Asian lunches for the rest of my life. Ever since that day I have never been concerned or embarrassed about how others may view my homemade lunches and every time I open up my bag I think of Morgan. She ended up moving away and I never saw her again, but I still think about her from time to time and appreciate the kindness she showed me.
My mom picked up her phone, her hand trembling in fear. She had been on call with my aunts and uncles in Vietnam for hours everyday. My grandmother had gotten sick and had been staying overnight in a hospital bed for days.
Getting hourly updates, and seeing that she was not getting any better, my mom decided to quickly book plane tickets to Vietnam. The closest one we could buy boarding this weekend.
The flight from California to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is about 16 hours. Usually during this time my mom sleeps, but this was the first flight that I have ever seen her wide awake. A couple years before, we lost my grandfather the same way, so my grandmother being sick had made her devastated and you could see it on her face.
From Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang was another hour flight.
Once we got off the plane, my uncle greeted us at the door, ready to drive us home. At this point I didn’t think my grandmother was too sick. I was still young and didn’t completely understand the concept of death. I even asked my mom beforehand if she would be there to greet us at the door.
It wasn’t until the conversation between my mom and uncle in the car that I realized what was going on.
It was an hour ago. My uncle said to my mom.
She still doesn’t understand what’s going on. She replied back. I looked back at my mom from the front seat. I could hear her holding back tears and all the sudden I started to connect the pieces. At first I doubted myself, considering that maybe I was wrong.
Once we pulled up to the house, I realized that I wasn’t. There are three signs that I noticed that pointed me to that conclusion. One, white fabric. It is a Buddhist tradition to wear a specific piece of white fabric tied around your head when a loved one dies. Two, flowers. In Vietnam there is a popular tradition of bringing this big circular bundle of flowers to the house of someone who’s loved one has passed away. There were a lot of these. Three, crying people. I have never seen so many people at our house at one time, most of them I didn’t even recognize.
I’ve lost other grandparents before, but no loss has ever hit me the same way my grandmother’s has. Moving away from home was a hard decision for my mom to make and I could tell my mom had regretted not spending more time with her before she passed away, maybe even regretting moving to California in the first place. I was never really close with any of my grandparents because most of them died when I was very young, but my grandmother was the one grandparent I adored more than anything. I was miles away from home and still felt her love through a screen. I was mad at myself for months-mad that I didn’t spend more time on call with her, mad that she might have died not knowing how much I genuinely loved her. We were only an hour away from home when she died and I don’t think I will ever fully recover from knowing that I was a short plane ride away from seeing her alive for the last time.