Child of a refugee

Buzzfeed recently released an episode of second generation Americans who had no choice but to translate for their non-English speaking parents at an early age. Buzzfeed asked these individuals, many of whom were of Asian, Middle-eastern, and south American descents, several questions:

  1. What is it like when your parents speak broken English?
  2. What makes learning English so difficult for your parents?
  3. What is it like being your parents’ translator?
  4. How does it feel to have had grown up with parents that struggled with English?
  5. Why do you translate for your parents?
  6. How do you feel about your parents now?

My parents are refugees of the Vietnam War. Their home land is Laos, but during the Vietnam War in 1975, there was another war that took place in the land of Laos called the “Secret War.” This war forced thousands of families, many like my parents’, out of their homeland, fleeing on foot with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They crossed over the Mekong River while hundreds met death before even making it to refuge in Thailand. From Thailand, my parents registered to start afresh in America.

Just like the young men and women in the Buzzfeed video, my parents, too, speak and understand little to no English. Since an early age, my siblings and I shared in the responsibility of translating for my parents. I remember speaking to adults on behalf of my parents since the age of 6 whether it be over the phone, at the front door or the supermarkets and department stores. To this day, I still hold onto that mediator responsibility.

Although my parents hardly understood English, they always attended my school conferences, greeted my teachers with smiles and handshakes, made friends with other of another language despite the language barrier, gave English speakers the benefit of all doubts.

But growing up, I remember there was this one time when my mom went to the grocery store to buy food to prepare for that night’s dinner. As she put the groceries onto the counter, the cashier immediately noticed that my mom, a non-English speaker, was alone. Upon realizing this, the woman cashier then snickered nasty, racial slurs in front of my mom. The woman’s eyes rolled and glared at my mom, and her brows wrinkled, giving my mom “that look.”

My mom came home upset. She felt hurt because of the way the cashier verbally harassed her for not understanding nor speaking English, and only because my mom couldn’t speak nor understand English, that cashier woman felt it was okay to verbally abuse my mom. My mom felt ashamed because she couldn’t understand nor speak English although she’d taken a number of ESL classes for several years, and to mention, she had to give up on learning the language just to work alongside my dad.

That cashier woman broke my mom to pieces. She didn’t consider the fact that my mom had to flee her homeland to a neighboring country as a refugee of war. She didn’t take a second to think about all that my mom had endured in life: leaving her homeland by force and saying good-bye forever to her family that she had left behind only to come to this country. She couldn’t find it in her heart to see my mother, a breathing and moving person, as another human being.

As a second language learner, born and raised in this country, I have heard countless stories from my parents and so, so many others like my parents who struggle daily with the English language and get harassed and bullied by people. Alone, it’s already hard making new friends, adapting and learning new things, asking for help; it never has to be like this.


The overcoming of emotions and fear to tell my mother this…

At the age of maybe 9, I was chosen to go up onto the stage. It was Mother’s Day at church, and the small congregation had their eyes on me. I was asked to answer a question by my pastor. The question was, “Do you think you are smarter than your mother? And why?”

A boy a year or two older than I didn’t hesitate when responding into the microphone that was held to his chin. “I am smarter than my mom. Why? Because I know how to do math.” The congregation laughed, and the boy hopped down from the stage back to his seat in the pew with his friends.

A teenage girl who was a little older than my oldest sister couldn’t answer the question without having to take pauses every few minutes because her emotions overcame her. I listened to the vulnerable girl answer the question. “My mother is the one who taught me all that I know. She is the smart one. And even though I let her down so many times, she is always patient and teaching me new things, loving me for me.” I watched as sparkling rivers of thankfulness streamed down her face. Her mother came up onto the stage and handed her a white kleenex. She received the tissue and pulled her mother’s arm into hers, and they hugged for a good minute as the audience awed and sniffled.

It was my turn. At this age, I was soft-spoken, more than I am now, shy and conservative. I wasn’t like my dad and second oldest sister who weren’t afraid of showing their emotions, expressing their gratitude, revealing their love. Heck, I wasn’t even good with my words or social skills, much like now.

The microphone touched my bottom lip. My lips didn’t move, but the only sound that I gave out was my heavy breathing, inhale and exhale. For a good 5 minutes, I let the congregation stare at me as I blankly stared back at them. I peaked to my mom’s eyes that twinkled and face that glowed bright in the crowd. She just smiled, revealing her pearly, perfect teeth as she always does. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I wasn’t lost for words; I knew exactly what to say. I was just afraid to say something not because it would’d been wrong or offensive, but simply because I was scared.

In my public speaking course during college, I discovered that public speaking is the most commonly shared fear amongst people. Fact: some (if not most) people are more afraid of public speaking than of heights, snakes, dying, etc. In this course, I learned a new word which oftenly describes me, anxious/anxiety. Some may say it is normal to feel nervous, but I get more than nervous. I freak out. I start shaking. My heart starts thumping so loud I could hear it in my ears. My face and ears boil up. Sometimes my vision becomes shaky. All of this happens before I approach a large audience, give a small speech, talk in a group, or even when confronting a single person. I don’t get anxious all the time. Some of my friends and family know me as the most outgoing, easy to talk to person. I can easily speak to strangers that I meet at the grocery stores or in the parking lot. I usually am the mediator when it comes to speaking on behalf of my non-English speaking parents.

However, sometimes to counter anxiety, other emotions drive me to conquer my greatest fear. To answer that question now, as I’ve learned and matured since 9, I’d say, “My mother is the most wisest person I’ve ever known. She is far more intelligent than I am. Her discernment and judgement are not of disaster but of prosperity and good. As her second youngest child, youngest daughter, of all her daughters, I have lived with her the longest and counting. I’ve seen what she had endured and overcame. Her characteristics rubs off on me. Her gentle hands that caress the hairs from my face. Her sharp tongue that scolded me when I did wrong. Her heart that has loved me unconditionally even before she knew me. I don’t think I could ever be as insightful, thoughtful, caring, loving, wisdomous as she.”

I don’t really care

Since an early age, I had pretty deep morals set in stone. As a senior in high school, I went vegetarian, gave up meat completely for a little over a year. The commitment was perhaps a phase, but it started because I gave up meat for Lent and then saw a PETA video of farmers neglecting chickens, GMO inserting steroids into animals resulting to animals being so plump that their legs broke being unable to support their bodies. During college, I minimized my living style not only because I was a broke and in debt college student but also because I believed I had too many excessive, unnecessary things that I was becoming materialistic. I thought about people in other nations, third world nations. I thought about all that I had and questioned if they all were necessary things. I tried carrying my entire life in my backpack. Everything of importance to me was in my pack on my back. After watching a PETA video of helpless, innocent sheep getting their wool coats viciously ripped off by workers, I cleaned out my closet, read every label tag that I had, and rid everything from wool. Surprisingly, I didn’t have many. Most were my winter sweaters and socks, but I had no regrets, plus it downsized my closet which reminded me of when I was a child. As a child, I chose to have only two pairs of underwear although my parents bought me new packs each season. Having two was all I needed, really. I didn’t mind having to hand wash my own underwear in the shower every or every other night.

As a child, I blew my parents’ minds and expectations of me when I babysat our neighbor’s daughter for 2 hours and was given my very first “paycheck” for work (except I was paid in cash). It was eight dollars. My mom took me to the grocery store to buy a carton of eggs, a jug of milk, and a small chip bag for me. With the eggs, my mom was able to make a meal for my entire family of five siblings. Ever since, both my parents would still tell that story and speak of my generosity and thoughtfulness. They remind me that I have a huge, soft heart filled with love for others, for people. They remind me that giving to others, sharing with others with what little you have is the most selfless, kindest act a person can do to show love. Although I choose to make these sacrifices without ever knowing if they would impact others, without ever knowing if my sacrifices would help anyone or anything, I don’t really care. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I don’t care because I care about other things that are more important. I don’t care because I chose.

A Quarter of a Century Woman

I’ll be turning a quarter of a century in a little over a month, and I am actually pretty excited. I was never really a party gal. I’d rather sit outside in a lawn chair with a few close friends and sip on cold orange juice from wine glasses or maybe go to a coffee shop and let my clothes absorb the smell of coffee beans as I lose myself in a good book or in some writing, and then take pauses to spy and eavesdrop on strangers I may never see again. Conversations over coffee are always the most interesting.

Getting older is kinda nice. You start to feel more mellow. You want to spend your time thoughtfully. You start to enjoy being in the moment. You become more present in your conversations as they get deeper and more meaningful.

Your days are longer because your body has become alert at 7 or 8 a.m., and your nights get shorter because you probably prefer to be home by 9 and in bed at 10.

People will assume you’re pretty wise and experienced. So sometimes they will ask to hear about your plan for your life, but you know they’re just reminding you your clock is ticking. There is a little pressure in wanting to respond with something impressive, so they wouldn’t get the chance they’re waiting for, the chance to give you a life lecture. But tell them the truth in a surprising way because unlike you, surprises never get old. And no surprised face can ever look the same or be repeated.

You start to crave steamed sticky rice stuffed in pork sockets. You also want to wash that down with the bland veggie soup, the kind your mother makes for your father. Home cooked meals become what satisfies your appetite.
On sunny days at the park, you chase your nieces and nephews on the playground, and although you are short and petite, you feel like a giant, and you doubt you can make it through the tunnel, yet you still try. You run and run until you feel too old for kid games. (Breath) But it makes the inner-child in you happy. You think about your age, and you tell yourself to not be too serious.

In the midst of waiting and not understanding

For the past few days, it was without a doubt emotionally challenging and draining for everyone in this nation. The many deaths all over the United States shook the lives of every breathing civilian. The deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the Dallas Police Officials, and many, many others were results of fear and anger, the prime emotions that drive perfectly sane individuals to do the unthinkable, the unimaginable.

So much had happened in a matter of days. Tragedy from all over the world, from different communities, other states, but one personal tragedy broke my heart to its core in the midst of this nation’s turmoil. My heart couldn’t be more torn. Sadness couldn’t had affected me more.

I have so many questions, so many. But I know that my questions may not be fully answered. They may not be fully clarified. And I may not be able to comprehend or even agree with the answers, but in the midst of waiting and not understanding, I will remain faithful and know that my God is still the ruler, that this is His world. I believe that these doings were not of God, not from God. (I can get into it more, but I’d have to pull out my philosophy books and formulas. I don’t know if I’m ready for that.)

Anyway, I am lost for words. The only words that I can bring myself to say (or sing) are the words (or lyrics) from a hymn written decades ago…


“This is my Father’s world. O let me never forget.

That though the wrong seems often so strong, God is the ruler yet!”