“Tell me what you were like when you were my age,” I asked my mother, Chee Lee one winter afternoon when I was home from college.
My mother stopped her sewing and looked up, surprised at my question. After what seemed like a long time she answered, “I was never like you. I never dreamed of being a lawyer, professor, or anything, other than a wife, mother and grandmother. I was the eldest of twelve children, and every waking moment was filled with work and responsibilities to keep the family clothed and feed. Back then, there was only one career for girls, and it was being a hard-working woman”.
My mother grew up in Laos where, like most other people from the Hmong tribe, she lived with her family in a remote mountain village. She fled her homeland during the war in Vietnam, and became one of the thousands of Hmong people now living in the United States. Most Hmong refugees brought little with them but their traditions–including the custom of marrying young to preserve the race under adverse condition. In Hmong culture, honor, respect, and family solidarity take precedence over individual desires–and men, the bearers of the family name, take precedence over women. Most Hmong women like my mother accept this so deeply that unconsciously they put themselves down in social clan gatherings, in the presence of their daughters, nieces and grandchildren.
“Men are important,” my mother would tell me when I asked why women always ate last during any kind of a celebration. “They are stronger and wiser– therefore they always eat before us.”
WOMEN: Women have High status in Filipino society. Filipino women were given the right of suffrage long before some of their western and eastern sisters Women maintain a very high profile in public life. They have entered professions that in other countries are traditionally reserved for men. They are doctors, lawyers, and bankers and dominate the fields of education and pharmacy. They generally ...
That winter afternoon, I sat in silence and watched her sew, until she spoke again. “This story is shameful for me to tell you because I should know better than to hold a grudge against anyone. But I hated my mother when I was growing up. I worked so hard for her. Every night–before washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, and preparing rice for tomorrow’s meal–I would go into my parents’ bedroom, wash their feet with warm water, and tuck them in for the night. Not once did my mother ever said, ‘thank you,’ or ‘Chee, you’re a good girl.'” She fell silent and looked at me appraisingly.
I stared out of the window, remembering how I grew up, always wanting to hear a word of praise from her, and getting only rules and expectations I could never live up to. I remembered the years she made me get up at six every morning and cook breakfast for the family before leaving for school. I remembered the slumber parties, dances, and after school sports I missed because she didn’t approve of them. Most of all, I remembered the times she’d compared me to other girls my age and found me lacking.
I could feel my mother’s stare boring into me, but I kept my own eyes down. After a while, she looked back down at her sewing and began sewing again. I thought her finished and was about to leave when she continued, as if talking to herself.
“Nothing was ever good enough for my mother. I was glad to leave her when I married your father. Well, it’s too late to tell her now, and she wouldn’t understand anyway. And I know she did love me, even if she never said so. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have cared whether I did my chores correctly or not”.
I felt I should say something to comfort her but was too shocked to speak. Growing up, my mother had never initiated a serious conversation with me. It was always lectures about my attitude, clothes, and hairstyle; about how I’d have to control my anger and thirst for knowledge in order to be a good wife.
Through generations of famine, disease, and war, Hmong women had taught their daughters what they needed to survive: how to cook, clean, haul water, and manufacture textiles; how to be productive, obedient, respectful, and patient. But as a teenager growing up in America, I found it hard to take these lessons as evidence of love. I moved to get up and my mother spoke again, with a tenderness I had never heard before.
Mother Teresa's Unconditional Love The book, One Heart Full of Love, is a combination of speeches and interviews featuring Mother Teresa given during the 1970's and early 1980's. It's very obvious to me that Mother Teresa was a very simple woman. Each of the chapters in the book covers virtually the same information. The stories discussed in her speeches were all very similar. She seemed to use ...
“I told you this story for a reason. Yes, I have many children, and I love them all. But you are my first child, the first in everything to me. I’ve been very strict and hard on you, but I raised you in the only way I knew how. I am proud of you”.
I went into my room and cried. In the past, I’d often imagined the moment when she might ask for my forgiveness and I’d always envisioned myself strong and cold. I never expected to feel love for her again.
Later that evening, I went into my parents’ bedroom and found my mom on her usual stool by the window, sewing. “Why are you always sewing?” I asked her.
She smiled as if embarrassed. “I wanted to finish this before you leave again for school,” she said. She lifted her sewing from her lap and I saw that it was a beautiful “nyias”-– a traditional Hmong baby carrier.
“Someday,” she said, “when you’re married and become a mother, I will send this to you. When you carry my grandchild on it, you will remember me and who I am. You will remember the good things”. She looked up and held my stare. I saw that her eyes were wet with unshed tears.
Unable to speak, I found myself reaching for the nyias on her lap and bringing it to mine. Picking up the needle, I began sewing, in even stitches after hers.