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.
"Men are important," my mother would tell me when I asked why women always ate last during any kind of a celebrations. "They are stronger and wiser-- therefore they always eat before us."
That winter afternoon, I sat in silence as I listened to my mother. "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.'"
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.
My mother looked down at her sewing and continued. "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 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 told you this story for a reason," my mother continued. "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."