What My Immigrant Mother Taught Me About Privilege
"I Got It From My Momma" honors mothers and mother figures of every stripe, with one new essay appearing each day until Mother's Day.
The earliest memory I have of my mom is five-year-old me stumbling into the kitchen, nap-drunk and reaching out for her like a security blanket. She’s sitting hunched-back over a letter. This is the first time I’ve ever seen her cry. My grandmother, nestled away in sweltering Vietnam, has just passed away, and my mom, a fresh transplant to Quietly Xenophobic, Tennessee, is suddenly questioning everything. A couple years later, I ask why my grandmother didn’t live with us in the U.S. My mom’s response, as it is for many things: “It’s not that easy.”
It didn’t take me very long to realize how easy my life was and how easy hers wasn’t. She’d take me to Abercrombie & Fitch and run her hand along a wall of endless denim, telling me that throughout her teenage years, all she wanted was a pair of jeans. And now, here I am, 15 years later, living the New York City high life, working in fashion, and writing up stories like the Best Denim You Can Buy Right Now. I am a product of my parents’ hard work, labor, suffering. And they call me their fruit, their gem, their American Dream. Privilege comes in many forms: the white male, the trust fund kid, and in my case, the second-generation immigrant. I didn’t have to bear the burden of assimilating into a foreign culture as an adult like how my parents did. I just grew up in it.
My mom immigrated to the United States after the Vietnam War. She had one wish: a better life. She found it in a husband, a baby, and a house with a rose garden—the quintessential all-American-white-picket-fence dream. But that didn’t come easily or quickly. That’s just not something you can pick up in customs on your way in. War trauma lingers. Not to mention the innumerable injustices filed under “Assimilating to American Culture Without Knowing a Lick of English.” Over the years, I’ve witnessed countless micro aggressions directed at my mother. There’s the Cinnabon guy who mocked her accent. The pedicure clients who’ve complained about how much they hate when she and her co-workers would “speak Chinese to each other.” And what does my mother have to say about it? Nothing. I’ve never heard one word about it. Maybe it’s pride; maybe she’s just simply turning a blind eye. Or maybe my mother has just accepted that this is what being a brown immigrant is like.
For her and countless others who share her story, being an immigrant means working twice as hard for the same pay while earning less respect. It means realizing hard work does not guarantee success; you can put everything you have into something and still see it fail. Being an immigrant means never shedding your brown skin at the end of the day.
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I look back on the years I spent rejecting my Vietnamese heritage with great shame. All those times I laughed with pride whenever a classmate “complimented” me by saying, “Yeah, but you’re not like Asian-Asian.” Every time I skipped Vietnamese lessons. And all those self-deprecating “Asian jokes” I’d make (I’m a Twinkie—yellow on the outside, white on the inside). It was all an attempt to fit in, to make friends, to feel less like an outsider. But the ability to denounce your heritage and the ability to neutralize your identity is a grand privilege second-generation immigrants inherit.
I do not get mocked for my accent because I don’t have one. My opinion is not discounted because of a language barrier. And I do not have to sacrifice much because my mother—my first hero, teacher, and friend—shouldered that burden for me.