THIS IS FOR MẸ: She Was The One

image credit: courtesy of Susan Lieu

In this excerpt of digital magazine, this is for mẹ, Susan Lieu intimately reflects on who her mother is and was, building a relationship with her in the spaces that were, and the stories that still exist. With reverence, honesty and nostalgia, Susan comes to know her mother, through knowing herself. 

this is for mẹ is a digital magazine for Vietnamese and API identified people to discuss mothers, motherhood, motherlands, mother-tongues and family.

She Was The One

What was she like?

When she was 16, she was the one who started selling lotto tickets in a small village in Vietnam, building an empire with people who sold tickets for her. That’s how she saved up money to pay for a boat ride that would fundamentally change my life forever.

She was the one who got the signal in the market and knew which night would be night to go. My mom and dad would wake up in the middle of the night, each parent with one son in their hand, and walk quickly to the docks. And if the Communists spotted the boats before they left, all the passengers had to run away so they wouldn’t get caught and thrown into jail. My parents had to take separate routes back so at least half of the family had a chance of making it. My mom would always lose her shoes when she ran. She would come home barefoot back at my grandma’s house. And my grandma would cry, telling her not to do it again, picking the thorns out of her feet.

On the sixth attempt, they made it to a Malaysian refugee camp. She was 23 and my dad was 27. My sister was born in that camp. We finally made it to the America in ‘83. I was born in ‘85.

She was the one who went from seamstress to nail salon owner, who, with my dad, bought their first home in just 8 years and then went on to sponsor three aunts, a cousin and a set of grandparents, and they went on to sponsor three more cousins and two more sets of parents, changing the lives of her 11 siblings, forever. We went from cake makers, fabric sellers and rice paddy workers who didn’t finish high school in Vietnam to becoming the “1st generation kids” who completed grad school and now maximize our 401ks in America.

She was the one would pick me up after preschool at my godmother’s nail salon and sniff kiss my cheeks evenly on both sides. She was the one who would say, “không ai cung mày đâu” which means “nobody adores you at all.” In Vietnamese, sometimes we say the opposite of what we mean to emphasize what we really think.

She was the one who pushed us. I got into Harvard, my two brothers into Berkeley. I like to say we make up the food ecosystem: one brother owns an almond milk company, my sister a chocolate company and my other brother, a dental practice. She was the ultimate Tiger Mom but because of her we’ll never go hungry.

Am I like her?

Yeah, maybe. She was fierce, kind and a leader. All of my family in Vietnam describe her as something like a saint. I’m not sure if they’re just telling me that because I lost my mom when I was 11 and any other narrative would just a be a slap in everyone’s face.

But the more I did this research on how and why she died, the more I learned about her flaws.

She was the one who had it all – two nail salons, a home in the wine country, trips back to Vietnam, elaborate house parties with all her friends, but then she couldn’t stop obsessing about her body.

She was the one who had breast implants. And then wanted more. She went in for a tummy tuck, the narrowing of her nostrils and a chin implant from Dr. Leslie Moglen, who I call Dr. X, a plastic surgeon who placed a large ad in the Vietnamese weekly describing how he had volunteered his time in Vietnam doing reconstructive surgery after the War.

She was the one who only told 3 people about the operation: her best friend Sunshine, my dad Ba, and her sister Phương, and figured she would be home the next day, with her beautiful new body.

She was the one whose death left a single father, to raise 4 kids on his own, living month-to-month.

She was the one whose death split up the family. We were 13 people living in a 4-bedroom house. After she died my aunts and grandparents moved out because they assumed my dad would remarry. She was the one who left 12 people to light incense for her every year on her death anniversary, and we still haven’t talked about what happened to her 22 years later.

She was the one that I probably wouldn’t be friends with. She could have become one of those people who when they smile you can’t even see the emotion on their face because they’re just made of plastic. I’d probably feel sorry for her if I saw her on the street.

I don’t know how much farther you would have taken your operations. I don’t know if when my skin touched yours if you could have felt me anymore even if you were alive. You were the one who didn’t know you were going to die. Maybe if you did know, you wouldn’t have done it the way you did. And even though I’ll keep on searching to know you through your siblings, your husband and even all these Dr. X characters, you were the one that I’ll never really know.

The funny thing is, I can relate to her flaws. I have courageous impulses. I also hate my body. I can get intensely angry. I can corral people to do great things. I can be kind. I can be all the things she was. I keep on searching to find out who she was, and maybe I am all of those things I loved and hated about her.

But since she’s gone, She is the one that I’ll never really know.

Susan Lieu is a Vietnamese-American playwright and solo performer whose parents are Vietnamese refugee nail salon workers.  Her one-woman show, “140 LBS,” is the unfortunate true story of how Susan’s mother went in for plastic surgery and died due to a malpractice incident.  At the time, Susan was 11 years old. The show weaves together several through-lines: the multi-generational immigrant experience; body insecurity and shame; repression and subsequent examination of personal loss; lack of accountability in the medical system; Vietnamese folkloric practice of spirit channeling.  In 2018, she has performed this show at the On the Boards’ Northwest New Works Festival and Bumbershoot.  Her work has been profiled in the Northwest Asian Weekly and is supported by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and King County’s 4Culture program.     

Susan began performing as a stand-up comic in 2012, at venues including the Purple Onion (headliner, San Francisco), Carolines on Broadway (New York City) and Jet City Improv (show cast member, Seattle).  Her training includes Yale School of Drama, Freehold Theatre, and Jet City Improv. She has a BA in Social Studies from Harvard, an MBA from Yale and is the co-founder of Socola Chocolatier, an artisanal chocolate company in San Francisco.  She is a current Artist-in-Residence at The Collective in Seattle.


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