Photos courtesy of the author.
I 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.
But 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.
“Mẹ” 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.
So 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.
Their 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?
My 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.
When 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.
Despite 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.
So 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 Netflix binges.
Surrounded 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?
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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.