When I was younger, my mom would tell me stories at dinner. She was no story teller, yet her words sparked worlds in my imagination all while I was holding a pair of chopsticks. King Lac Long would battle the giant fish as we stuffed our faces with rice. Two seconds later, the woman who loved peaches would reveal herself to be a goddess as my mom poured soup into my emptied rice bowl. As the sweet and tender meat of the jackfruit would hit my tongue, she would recount the great war waged between China and Vietnam.
This was my childhood. I grew up with fairy tales — parables abound with chivalry upheld and lessons hard-learned. However, one story always stuck with me after all these years.
“There were once a mother and a daughter lost in the jungle. The thicket was dense, such that no light passed through save for the needle-thing rays which lanced through the leafage. The pair walked for days, a single basket of food to feed them, until one day the mother reached into the wicker and touched the tangled knots of the basket she had woven.”
“ ‘Mother’, asked the woman when she noticed her mother’s forlorn look, ‘I will set off to find food for you. Wait for me.’ And so the old woman waited. The lances of light faded around her, plunging her into darkness. Finally, the woman came back, her left side wrapped in a deep-red shawl which made the air pungent with iron. In her other hand lay her severed arm, wrapped in countless banana leaves.”
Admittedly, the fable might have been a little too morbid for a seven-year old. The more surprising thing was how stone faced my mother appeared to be. She calmly picked apart the salmon on the table as she spoke. There in the gaudy, white light of our kitchenette, she seemed less like a mortal and more of a heavenly being. I saw in her eyes what she really meant to say.
“Mẹ nuôi con, con nuôi mẹ.”
“La familia primero”
The benefit of living with a host family is that I’m able to fully experience Mexican culture. I’m staying with a couple and their two sons, who are about my age. We eat breakfast and dinner together, and I’m invited to the same things that the whole family is invited to as well. All in all, I’ve been able to see just how important family is to the Mexican people here. When I was invited to a graduation ceremony, there was an immense family gathering at the house. At mine, my parents and a couple of friends showed up.
It’s incredible to see this difference in our cultures, to see how the extended family can rally together. I say this, remembering the circumstances in which I grew up. I don’t come from a typical Vietnamese household. I was raised Catholic, making my part of the family the black sheep of the flock. Unlike my host family, we often go months without hearing anything from our relatives save for invites to dinners that we turn down. There’s less of an incentive to connect with anyone besides your immediate family.
If I start thinking about how my host family functions versus my own, I almost wished that I could have been a better son. As people around here say “Mi casa es tu casa”, I think only of how different my parents and I are from each other. The biggest falling out was over religion. It’s the main point of contention, and has been for many years ever since I told my mom about my decision to be Agnostic. Since then, my mother and I have been an ocean apart in our relationship.
Still, I contrast this with Mexican culture. I see the intimacy that parents and children share, and I get a little bit jealous. It’s rough around the edges, raw, and untamed affection, but it’s real. This is air. Walk a mile in any direction here, and the parent-child bond will be just as strong. So then, it must be true that thousands of miles would make no difference to that bond. We are bound then, by blood. It makes one think. Rip away the contention, all those shouting matches and tearful misunderstandings. When you start to see your family for what they really are, what’s left of them?
Let me tell you who I see. I think of my mom as a maiden at times. She’s the person who made the trek across an ocean to give me a better life. I like to think of my mom as a crone, too. Sometimes, she appears to be the same ocean’s distance away from me. In terms of religious, cultural, and generational barriers, we’re so entirely different.
Even with all these things that my mother bundles up, being in such a family-centric country lends clarity to my mind. I learned something about my family during my time here: not all families have to be typical. My host father mentioned to me once in a conversation that he didn’t believe that his family was “traditionally Mexican”, but that it didn’t really affect his day to day life. Maybe I can start to see my own family the way he does.
I think of her as the mother, a woman that refused to let up when her son couldn’t do his times tables. The stubbornness which got me into MIT, that came from her. And although we are nowhere near the picturesque representation of a mother and her son, we’re still family. No matter where I am, I still carry her fairy tales within me.
Perhaps one day, then, I can tell her mine. Of the boy that grew up in ways that his mother never would have expected. Of the child that tried to run away from his ancestry, but never could. Of the son that still remembers a goddess, living in the suburbs of California.
Johnson Huynh is a rising sophomore studying Mechanical Engineering. This summer, he is working with a team to develop a drone that can 3D print onto any surface in Aguascalientes, Mexico.