In this excerpt of this is for mẹ, Terri Le navigates the complex and loving relationship that she has with her mother – the woman who has made her who she is, but the woman she has also needed to step away from in order to define what kind of woman she herself will become. Le generously allows us to stand by her side as she says sorry and thank you to her mother, and looks forward with hope.
Inspired by Ocean’s Vuong’s letter to his mother in the New York Times, this is for mẹ lives online as a borderless mailbox for Asian identified people to share stories rooted in mothers, motherhood, motherlands, mother-tongues and family.
Eight years ago, I wrote you a letter. Or an email to be exact, arguing for my freedom and independence. I never knew if you read it all, or even understood it all, but I did my best to explain myself in the only way I could that I knew I couldn’t in person. You and I always struggled to understand each other, not only because of the language barrier but also because of our heightened emotions, which only you and I could trigger in each other. Our emotions of love, disappointment, and anger often always took away any logic or sincerity in our approach and clouded any good intentions we tried to convey.
Your blessing was everything to me. It still is. Moving forward with my goals and dreams, a lot of time has passed and the distance between us has grown. We continue the struggle to understand one another, as each disheartening action chips at our fragile hearts making it harder to fully forgive or heal.
Our love for each other is undeniable. I am proud to be your daughter. You are fierce, resilient, and unbelievably resourceful. Despite your disadvantages growing up — helping to raise eight younger siblings, maintaining farmland with grandma and grandpa, having limited years of education, and constantly working to help bring food to your family both in your homeland and in the foreign country that became your home for “better opportunities” — I remembered you to be the fearless bread-winner putting all of your kids through college as you worked multiple jobs. It amazes me that even though you didn’t have the luxury of going to high school or having a four-year college experience, you learned English however you could. You were a quick-learner and made the most of your opportunities while helping to find jobs for friends and family along the way. Your constant hard work helped pay off our home and mortgage, put your kids through college without taking out ridiculous loans (despite some of us not having scholarships or large financial assistance), and helped care for dad during difficult medical procedures. I respect, love, and am grateful to you for so many things.
But it was (and still is) a challenge to tolerate your impulsive and perpetuating behavior that almost always incites drama whenever and wherever. Sometimes I think it is a cry for attention to feel needed, loved, important, and cared for. Other times, I think it’s your way of lashing out to express your built-up frustration, anger, resentment, and disappointment. Undoubtedly, it is emotional pain that I cannot and may not know how to heal for you because I realized you yourself may not understand your own personal triggers and coping mechanisms.
It took me 24 years to move out and live independently in a place far from home for me to realize that it is hard to expect what or how you might need to heal. It is also a constant reminder for me to feel grateful to you and the sacrifices you made in your life to let me live the life I’ve always wanted for myself. And while I may be selfish for having chosen this path for personal growth and exploration, it let me open my eyes to see you, appreciate you, and love you for all that you’ve done against all the hurt and pain we caused each other.
Whether from circumstances or choice, you’ve made your family your whole world. It is your sole purpose and reason — to be a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and aunt — that may have stunted the time for deep self-reflection that might’ve allowed you to expand your mind and world.
In contrast, within the six years that I’ve been gone, I’ve done just that. I expanded my mind and broadened my world even further from the world you’ve provided for me in the 24 years that I lived under you and dad. And although I’ve come to this understanding, there is much more internal work I need to do of myself before I can be a better daughter and be more mindful of you and dad.
I know I’ve disappointed you and all the expectations you had of me. I did not become a lawyer, I haven’t returned home, I chose a career in the field of nonprofits and humanities and as as such, don’t make a comfortable living, I’m not yet married, don’t have children, and I don’t yet know if I want to return home. I know my absence makes you sad. I know my reactions of anger towards your lectures or complaining rants make you feel bad. I know that I am stubborn. For all that and everything, I am sorry.
I hope and wish for us to heal. I hope and wish for you to find peace within yourself to be happy, to worry less, and to understand your children. I hope and wish to make you proud of me someday.
Every year around this time, I like to reflect on my journey to understand how far I’ve come and to be grateful for all the experiences that led me to this point. In this reflection, I wrote you a letter. You are a fierce woman who loves her family unconventionally and unconditionally. You are the voice and reason that has driven me to do better and be better. You are a reminder of my family roots and cultural traditions. Thank you for the life and love that you’ve shown me. Thank you for letting me go to live this life that I love. I love you, mommy.
Terri Le has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for over six years after moving there from Montgomery County Maryland. She pursued her career interest in nonprofit and museums and completed a three-year dual degree MBA and MA in Museum Studies program at John F. Kennedy University. After her first year in undergrad, she discovered her love for working and supporting museums and cultural institutions. Terri has worked for a lot of great organizations in the San Francisco Bay and Washington D.C. Metropolitan area including The Phillips Collection, Glen Echo Parks Partnership, VisArts Center in Rockville, CalShakes, Habitot Children’s Museum, Oakland Aviation Museum, Charles M. Schulz Museum, and San Francisco Heritage.
She currently works as the Development Manager at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center and also consults on DVAN’s communication efforts. She sees herself as a “hardworking communicator with a passion for the arts, humanities, and culture” to help build vibrant communities for greater social change. Outside of her professional life, Terri enjoys baking, writing personal thought pieces, and finding new creative outlets to support the causes she believes in.