It took all of my strength to hold back my tears when you sat on stage last week and found the courage to relive your trauma of the Khmer Rouge. When your voice shook as you spoke about what it was like to be separated from your entire family and forced to work in a labor camp. When your breath caught as you remembered the bullets flying inches from your skull. When your eyes closed shut as you felt the stinging pain of hunger and poverty. When your fists clenched as you recalled endless moments of bullying and tormenting from your high school peers for not speaking English. When you sighed with relief about making the decision to raise three children on your own. It’s no coincidence that every moment I choose to share something about myself, I inevitably share your story, too. You are the absolute core of everything that I am and everything that I hope to be. I wish I could be as incredible as you. As immovable as you.
Mom, you taught me how to be brave.
I remember in elementary school when I would return home from and seek refuge from the barrage of racial slurs being thrown at me. Chink. Why are your eyes so small? Did you bring another dog for lunch? Go back to China. I fought back tears and reminded myself that my mother dodged bullets and bombs for breakfast. These punk ass kids had nothing on me. Even now, I come home discouraged from the mental, emotional, and psychological exhaustion that comes with being a womxn of color in academia… but you remind me to stay rooted. You showed me that even though the world can seem unwelcoming, I truly belong here. I feel as though I lose myself every day, yet I manage to find myself again because of your guidance.
Mom, you taught me to be selfless.
After you came to the United States, you immediately took on the responsibility of raising the whole family. Working three jobs, going to school full time, and trying to learn an entirely new world. You remained in a broken marriage for years because you cared more about having a “whole” family than your own happiness. You wanted us to have the type of childhood that you weren’t able to have. You gave us the chance to grow up in safety and in comfort. You taught me that sacrifice didn’t necessarily mean giving something up, but gave us the opportunity to gain something greater, something better. You’ve shown me that sometimes, it isn’t about me or my exhaustion. It’s about warriors like you who fought for us to be here, to have the opportunities we have. You remind me that it is my responsibility to continue speaking out to ensure that our communities feel safer and braver in a society that refuses to recognize where we came from.
Mom, you taught me how to kick ass.
Literally… like that one time you flipped Brandon [my little brother] onto the ground after a single kick-boxing class. I don’t think you understand the presence you have when you walk into a room. An immeasurable strength radiates off of you; you make people want to stand up straighter, speak clearer, and believe in themselves just a little bit more. As a single mother, you dismantle the system every single day. You taught me feminism before I even realized that there was a word for it. That the only attention deserved by the men who have fetishized and objectified is a knee to the crotch. I prepare myself for battle every day and scrape the dirt off my knees because of your legacy. I advocate because you helped me find the power of my voice.
Mom, you taught me to love myself.
To know that I deserved more when I thought that my worth was based upon someone who didn’t respect me. That I wasn’t damaged, despite having fallen deep into an abusive and manipulative relationship. I watched you struggle with the decision to get a divorce, but know that I only admire you more for it. That you realized you deserved better and demanded better. You’ve shown me that I belong to myself. That no single person can define who I am without my permission. That loving myself is the first step to being able to love others. That when I look into the mirror and see a Khmer American womxn, I see a treasure because I am a product of you.
I admit, I could do much better at letting you know how amazing you are. You have the hardest job in the world, but you demand nothing in return. Everything we do is because we hope to give you all of the happiness that you’ve given to us. That every single one of our decisions and goals are shaped by your struggles and your belief in us.
You taught us that we don’t need heroes. We already have you.