Stories My Mother Told Me
Medium: loose collaged photographs
My mother was born in 1961, the year of the Tiger. My father said that her zodiac sign was responsible for her endurance—her being so tough—in the face of hardships that were thrown at her. She gave birth to me in March 1991, during the early stages of Doi Moi to better the Vietnamese economy. I was considered to be the lucky child of the family: the first to ever drink Similac baby, the first to wear second-hand clothing shipped from the West, the first to receive a green card.
In 1986, the Vietnamese government decided to change its gear from the Soviet Union’s model of central planning to a socialist market economy under state guidance to pull the country out of stagnation and poverty. My family no longer had to depend on ration stamps or wait in line to buy food. I was the baby of hopes and prosperity that my parents had dreamt of when they got married in 1985.
When my mother turned four, America started to bomb North Vietnam under the Johnson Administration. Congress gave President Johnson the clearance to carry out the war of attrition to “kill the Vietnamese until they give up.” Out of the 8 million tons of explosives dropped on North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia throughout the war, one bomb had paralyzed my grandfather’s mandibular control, making the war a problem much closer to home.
To support the family, my aunt Huong worked as a factory technician in Czechoslovakia and used to starve herself to send home a portion of her. "In my life, I never had a new shirt; I never get to eat to the point of being full. Whatever we had, we left it for grandfather," my mother told me.
My grandmother, seeing the deterioration in her husband’s eyes and listening to his talks of suicide, spent every night from 1967 to 1970 sleeping in an upright position while holding tightly onto my grandfather’s legs.
My grandfather passed away during Tet in 1971.
In 1972, only twenty years old at the time, my uncle dropped out of college to join the army. In December of that same year, the U.S. military carpet-bombed urban areas of North Vietnam with two-hundred B52, leaving behind country that resembled much of the World War II aftermath.
For all of the pain that my mother had seen in her life, it amazed me to see how much she had left behind in order to move forward.