When I was younger, I swore that I would never grow up to be like my mother. Unlike my cousin who wanted to grow up to be like her mother -- a brilliant doctor inundated with piles of research and work -- I would often rant to my father as he drove me to math or swimming lessons:
“Daddy, I'm never going to be like Mom! I'm going to let my children be free!”
My father would always respond: “Don't worry Michelle, you're going to make your kids do even more,” to which I would retort with a pout. With her stringent rules and the structured schedule that I lived throughout my formative elementary years, I resented the push and craved the lack of pressures that my fellow classmates had.
Now that I'm in university, this is my first year being away from home on Mother's Day. This is my first year being away from my mother. Living with the bipolar weather of the east coast, I suppose my mother is living her 'Canadian Dream' vicariously through me. I have the privilege of attending one of the best liberal arts colleges in the US and my mother often calls me to tell me how happy she is for me and to remember that all I have to do is “eat, study and sleep.”
When I relate Mother's Day events to the classroom, I see a strong correlation during the elementary years that drops off a tad during the high school years and then spikes again during university. During elementary school, there wasn't a woman left uncared for by the teachers. We had art sessions specifically for every second sunday of May. From colorful macaroni tins sprayed painted in a metallic gold to praiseful collections of poetry written in sparkly gel pens, women were being thanked. I often wondered to myself how Mother's Day felt for my best friend, who had lost her mother to cancer when she was only a baby. Her artwork was bestowed upon her Aunt or her Grandmother.
As we were initiated as young adults in high school, Mother's Day wasn't the 'it' thing anymore. Rarely did I hear discussion about what students were doing for their mothers and I no longer lay in bed jittery with anticipation to see my mother's expression when she woke up and opened my gift. Gone were the hand-made trinkets replaced by gifts bought by my new capital gain.
Gradually, after many tearful fights and strained relationships during those two years, our relationship took a turn in fortunes and my mother retreated and I blossomed. My mother became my ally. I went back to making hand-made gifts – albeit more sophisticated. It evolved from tissue paper flowers to oil-painted portraits of my mother's petunia and lavender plants in her ever-flourishing garden.
Being away from my mother has offered me time to do some reflection on her impact on my life and my impact on hers. Now that I have this spatial distance between us, I look back to see that my mother was my largest supporter throughout my life thus far. She didn't show her affection through affection, but chose to display her love for her children in a more cutting-edge fashion.
The woman was unafraid of adversity and expressing her opinion – to the point of being overly blatant at points. My mother is the canonical depiction of what I hope I can give if I ever have children, minus a few spanking episodes.
A dramatic escape from Vietnam
My mother is a stalwart soldier. She was a Russian literature and language major in Saigon, Vietnam before attempting to escape the country after the implementation of Communist rule. On her first attempt at escaping by boat, she was caught and jailed for a year under intolerable conditions.
She rarely glosses over this period of time in her life, but there were rare occasions when my parents would linger at our marble table after dinner to reminisce upon those unspoken days. Over a porcelain cup of fragrant jasmine tea imported from Vietnam, my parents would divulge into the intimate details of their escape.
My mother, a very strong-headed woman, decided to escape for a second time despite her first setback.
This time she succeeded. Twenty-three years later during a trip to Los Angeles, California, my second-cousin described how my Grandfather had frantically run to his home, breathless, yelling: “Help me! Help me bring Loan home. She is gone.”
My mother ended up in chaotic Hong Kong and as the only English-speaking person on her boat, she became the designated translator. Spending a few years at the Whitehead Detention Camp – where human rights abuses went unaddressed -- she had her papers approved to transfer to the Philippines where she ended up teaching and converting to Mormonism (she is no longer an active member but still holds that the Relief Society did tremendous work for the boat people during that period). The first person she met in Vancouver was a contact from the Mormon church on 41st near Oakridge Mall, who helped her settle in.
In many ways, I lived under the expectations of an immigrant family during my childhood. My mother, an educated woman who is fluent in English, Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese, expected excellence and thought that I deserved no less.
My birth changed my mother's course of life dramatically, preventing her from returning to school. From then until I turned 13, she came to the schoolyard every day without fail with a hot lunch of dumplings, macaroni and cheese with a dash of ketchup (just the way I liked it) or her favorite meal of pirogis filled with cheese.
When she started working again, I would still come home to freshly-cut fruit in the fridge and a clean-swept, orderly home. When she came home, she would claim the kitchen immediately to stir up flavors and aromas that made me salivate while studying. At night, she would stand under the antiquated wooden cupboards to cut cubes of radishes to make the kimchi that my father and I loved so much. Her wooden slate would contain fantails of shrimp and vibrant red peppers prepared for sautéing.
When I was seven, I was an ESL student. While at a teacher-parent conference, my mother recognized that I was struggling with English. Summer came and we drove to Kidsbooks in Kitsilano and my mother invested in McGraw-Hill textbooks. For every day of that summer, it was mandatory for me to sit down and to finish worksheets of English grammar. My mind was congested with auxiliary verbs and conjunctions. Every once in awhile I would interject with a plea to go outside and play. It would have been a lot easier for her to placate me and forgo all the tears and yelling wars, but she stuck by it.
I wrote compositions and I wrote essays. She couldn't possibly foresee that twelve years later, English would be my forte and that I had come under the influence of the humanities. I returned to school that September and was placed in a group of six students who were gifted in English. Eventually, my knack for the language was translated into journalism and it was my ticket around the world. My mother did not know that I would be contributing articles to the Toronto Star or reporting during the 2010 Olympics when she first sat me down to develop my foundation.
In retrospect, all that I am today is very much in part to my mother. I cannot deny that we have the same laugh that rings off the walls. We have the same mannerisms. We fall asleep in the middle of movies. We both love floral patterns, vibrant flowers and the bane of our existence is anything related to interior décor. We can't pass up on sales and we are far too passionate about shoes, statement jewelry and quirky, colorful clothing. I raid her closet and she raids mine despite the solid forty-something years we have between each other.
We're both stubborn and strong-willed so when we argue, the whole neighborhood is probably made aware of it, but our faults are also our strengths because once we set our minds to reach Point A, we will get there. We share a top ten book list that includes “Love you Forever” by Robert Munsch. I see so much of my mother in me today and when I called home to wish her Happy Mother's Day today, I couldn't help but chuckle when she said: “Hello Michelle! I'm currently holding a Yard Sale right now. We've just opened and I've made four dollars. I'll call you later tonight! Remember to go eat lunch!”
It is so typical of her to be productive on a day that she's supposed to be resting. Happy Mother's Day.