I am now older than both of my parents when they made their move from the East to the West
[Read part 1 of this series here]
I recognise that I, like many others, have or will at some point, move away from home. That is the point right? To create independent lives born from the lessons of our parents. But, in understanding the depth of character embedded in the history of my parents and their migration stories, I have to challenge myself and ask, even if I do move away from home, will I really understand what it is like to truly leave home?
My first home was the quaint Northern-Irish town of Craigavon. A small town of brick and mortar which along with a few other neighbouring towns, became home to a community of Vietnamese refugees who had been granted asylum in the wake of the Vietnam war.
My mom at 16 years old would find herself in this unfamiliar territory having spent the majority of her childhood in Song Mao, Vietnam.
I wouldn’t blame you if you hadn’t heard of Song Mao, I hadn’t either.
When thinking of Song Mao, I imagine a typical rural village. My mind paints a scene of a thinly paved road sweeping between a chorus of rickety stores lining either side. A rice paddy worker silhouetted against a setting sun off into the distance. I see older Vietnamese grandmothers returning home from a day at the market, weaving through a sea of people on their bikes with all the grace and ease of Olympic cyclists. I imagine a playful din of chatter coming from a slow-moving crowd, a sustained rhythm of honks and beeps emanating from the passing road traffic, smells from grilled meat soaked in lime and chilli, and I realise I’ve likely painted an image familiar of any south-east Asian village, but one far-flung from the concrete and industry of the western world.
Google maps isn’t the best tool to help place Song Mao, but my mom says my mind’s eye is painting an accurate picture of it. Song Mao is a small but peculiar rural village east of Saigon. Peculiar in the sense that Song Mao, whilst similar to many other Vietnamese villages, is home to a community of ethnically Chinese people to which my mom was a part of. She recounts that she only spoke Cantonese growing up and had little to no exposure of the wider Vietnamese area let alone the language spoken by the majority of her countrymen and women. A Chinese migrant in her country of birth, with little formal education and even less money.
She tells me a story about her childhood which not only encapsulates the economic poverty of the time but also speaks to a deeper understanding of what it means to leave home.
When she was younger, my mom was sent to live with family friends in another village as her parents (my grandparents) struggled to feed her. These family friends, obvious strangers to my mom, took her in but they contended with their own economic issues and had my mom work in their crop fields to contribute to her living there, labouring away as she was bullied by their older sons.
She remembers an instance of the sons, lumbered with the responsibility of watching over this measly child, leaving her in the crop fields as they left to go home. In the dark of night, my mom was forced to find her own way back home, a story she recalls with humour and an air of aloofness, but one that strikes deep at my heart to hear.
But she goes on. She tells me that her father, my grandfather, would visit her, taking a long bus ride which separated the two villages. He would leave early in the morning to visit my mom, spend time with her and his friends, and leave in the evening to catch the same bus back. My mom recalls that there was no actual schedule for this bus, her dad would trek back to the bus station and likely wait hours to see if the bus would come. If it didn’t, he would head back to the friend’s house and try again the next day. During one visit, the bus didn’t come for a few days. Great for my mom as she got to spend more time with her dad and lament him with her desire to return home.
The next day, my mom, teary-eyed, begged her dad to let her at least accompany him to the bus station to say goodbye. They would silently walk together to the station and wait for the bus, thinking they would be saying goodbye to each other for a while.
The bus would actually come this time. Almost serendipitously. She can’t remember the conversation which ensued but as the bus doors opened, my grandfather would take my mom back with him, paving her way back home only for her to wind up in a random town in Northern Ireland.
It’s difficult to empathise with a story like this as a first-generation migrant who has lived in relative comfort. Like many migrant parents who ascribe to the adage of working hard to give their kids the life they didn’t have, I could never truly appreciate the complexities of migration and the jarring experience of finding yourself in a world drastically different from one that you know. My mom was 16 when she left her country of birth, and younger when she had to leave her family, even if temporarily.
I look at my mom now, powerful and independent, shaped by her experience not just as a refugee, but as a child who pierced a cultural veil to carve out a new home in a new world.
I appreciate that my mom’s story isn’t unique by any margin. I’m sure any migrant or refugee of any background reading this can find a strand of relativeness. There is a unique strength owed to the refugee community in overcoming past and present barriers. I look at my own experience and contrast this with where my mom was, and what she came to be, and it’s a strange and humbling feeling when confronted by our own privilege.
I am not just the child of a refugee. I am the ungrateful child of parents who had surmounted the greatest odds.
[Read part 1 of this series here]