The Motherland

At 18 years old, my mother faced a life-changing choice.

It was 1975 – the year Vietnam fell to Communism in the war.  My grandfather had asked my mother if she wanted to stay behind in Vietnam or flee the war-ravaged country with him and her younger brothers and sisters.  Stay where she had her friends and other family members, the familiarity of where she grew up.  Or to escape the Communist rule on a rickety fishing boat into the ocean, unsure of whether they would survive the journey.  My grandfather despised the Communists and would rather risk a deadly escape than to live under their regime.  My uncles and aunts were just kids, but my mother was a young woman who could decide the life she wanted for herself.  Stay or go?

She chose to go.

On their final night out in the ocean, their boat sprang a leak.  A storm was predicted to hit the next day.  As my mother and her brothers took turns throughout the night emptying out the water with buckets, everyone thought they were going to die.  The following day, a miracle happened.  They were rescued by a Pilipino captain on a ship.  He brought my family to safety in the Philippines, where they resided in a refugee camp before coming to America.

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My grandparents in San Francisco. One of my favorite photos of all time.

When I was 18, I faced different choices than my mother.  Privileged choices.  Choices like where to go to college and what dress to wear for prom.  I never had to question whether I would live or die.  I’ve heard the stories from my mom, my aunts and uncles, and other family members.  Nearly every Vietnamese family I know has their own traumatic version of a refugee story.  They all had to face hard choices.

I didn’t truly appreciate or understand what these hardships meant for my family.  Until last March when I visited Vietnam, my mother’s country, the motherland.  Until I found out that I was pregnant.

A lot of people say that pregnancy is hard.  Being a parent is hard, the most difficult job in the world, the hardest thing a person will ever experience.  Before my trip, I would have agreed.  However, going to Vietnam made me critically look at hardships and difficulties in a different way.

This was not my usual vacation.  For one thing, it was not filled with rest and relaxation.  Physically and emotionally, it was an overwhelming and exhausting trip.  I was still in my first trimester, barely 8 weeks pregnant.  It was a huge adjustment for my changing body and energy levels, while navigating the humidity and culture shock of a developing country.  I panicked over the food and drinks that I could eat.

Was this fruit washed with the local water?  Can I drink anything with ice cubes in it?  Are there bean sprouts in this spring roll…in this salad…in this soup?  Is condensed milk in cafe sua da pasteurized?  How do I ask for pasteurized or decaf in Vietnamese —does that even exist here?!  Oh my god, I’m going to starve on this trip. 

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Bun Cha in Hanoi. I only ate the fried part.

For two weeks, I selectively ate fully cooked or fried items or whatever seemed clean, while surviving off of Kind bars, Whole Foods trail mix, and protein shakes with green supplements.  The foodie side of me was sad and deprived.  There was the exhaustion on my body – jet lag mixed with hours of sitting on a plane or bumpy van ride between cities and the countryside.  I didn’t know whether to scream at the thought of being stuck in the van AGAIN for 3 hours traveling or to be grateful that I was in an air conditioned vehicle.  There was incessant smoke and pollution from the motorcycles that clogged the streets.  Smoking was a natural part of most nightlife settings like lounges, clubs, and cafes.  Partying at night was clearly out of the question for me.

In contrast, my husband and his friends had a blast in Vietnam.  Granted, his friends had stayed in nice hotels, partied every night, and ate every delicious thing sold in the food stalls.  One friend claimed Vietnam as his favorite place in the world to travel.  Even Anthony Bourdain LOVES Vietnam.  He always raves about the cafe sua da and the street food.  I was the exact opposite of the adventurous, exciting Anthony Bourdain: prudish, pregnant, and paranoid.  As a result, this is not my typical travel post with a list of places or recommendations.  For that, you can refer to Bourdain, the Ravenous Couple, and Michelle Phan.

While this was not the travel experience I imagined when visiting the Motherland for the first time, I do (want to) believe that my pregnancy state affected my experience in Vietnam.  And even though I didn’t get to do or eat what I wanted, I am humbled for what I did gain in abundance:  perspective.  

I was seeing Vietnam as a daughter of refugees, as a mother-to-be.  Even though the country has changed dramatically since the war, I still saw glimpses of the country where my parents grew up.  School children in uniforms riding their bicycles home together on a dirt road.  Families spending their days sitting by the front door, often set up as a tiny shop or food stall.  Kids taking naps on the kitchen floor for relief from the sweltering heat.  People making a living by selling lottery tickets on the street or rowing a boat for tourists.  Families of 3 to 4 riding on one motorcycle, a baby secured by just his mother’s arms.  Chickens and fruit trees in the backyard as staples for food.  It was a humble lifestyle with just the essentials.  Only what was needed to survive.  Life was still hard for much of the country, unless they were wealthy and living in the metropolitan areas of Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi.  Yet in the people I encountered and the extended family members we met, the spirit and resiliency of the Vietnamese people shone through.  They found a way to find happiness in the simplicity and in their struggles.

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I observed my husband’s cousins, uncles, and aunts with their families and saw how their worries hardly reflected the common anxieties of modern parenting in America.  They didn’t have nurseries, so they didn’t worry about what crib or play yard to buy.  They didn’t worry about their babies eating organic food.  They didn’t worry about their careers or identities changing as a result of parenthood.  They didn’t even worry about the delivery.  One of his cousins said that she’d heard of women going into labor right in the streets!  She  had laughed heartily at my horrified expression.  In Vietnam, they just cared that their kids had food to eat and a place to sleep.

In contrast, what exactly was I so worried about?  So scared of?

It’s easy to fall into the common narrative of being anxious about being a new parent.  If I search for something to worry about, I’m guaranteed to find it.  And there’s an abundance of prospective worries awaiting me – the lack of sleep, the change in my marriage, the change in my friendships, the loss of my identity as a creative or career-driven person (see my previous post), the lack of alone time, the constant stress and anxiety about raising my baby right, the brand of strollers to buy, the sleep techniques I want to use, my birth plan, the design of the nursery, etc.  In the American view of modern parenting, there seems to be more to fear than to appreciate.  From conversations with friends and acquaintances, books, and blogs, there are two prevailing messages:  1) having a baby is the hardest thing ever, and 2) having a baby means life as you know it will be over.

I’m lucky that my first introduction to pregnancy were neither of those messages.  I hardly had time to worry about any of those things when I found out I was pregnant one month before my Vietnam trip.  The only thing that preoccupied my mind was: How can I keep myself and my baby safe while traveling?  Survival became the most important thing.

I’m now in my sixth month of pregnancy.  Even with the perspective fresh from my Vietnam trip, I occasionally feel overwhelmed.  Whether solicted or not, my husband and I have received our fair share of advice from family, friends, acquaintances, and books. Most of it comes in the form of “you should…”, “you can’t…”, and “you won’t…”  

You should enjoy your sleep now.  You won’t get any later.  
You should do all of your travelling now.  You can’t travel with a baby.
You should move into a bigger home.
You should have a natural birth.
You should get the epidural.
You shouldn’t rely on a birth plan.
You won’t have any time to work out when the baby is here.
You won’t have any time to yourself.

These cautionary warnings are well-intentioned and come from a place of love.  It’s intended to keep the parenthood experience real, not as an impossible ideal.  I do understand that.  And taken one by one, it’s not so bad.  However, once the shoulds, can’ts, and won’ts pile up, they morph into something terrifying.  These messages, oftentimes conflicting, are so ingrained in our culture that even people who ARE NOT parents unknowingly pass it onto others.  I was one of those people.

I have a co-worker friend, also the blogger and creator of Thin Line Collective, who is a new father.  Last year, he was preparing for paternity leave and was excited to stay home with his daughter.  He shared with me his plans of using the time off to learn Spanish, start an exercise program, and write more entries for his website.  I wasn’t pregnant yet, but I had plenty of close friends with babies and heard enough of their stories to believe I had insight to share.  I thought his aspirations were wonderful, but I didn’t want him to feel disappointed once he realized how much time and energy a new baby would take.

“You won’t have time to do all of that,” I told him.

He was amused.  “You really believe that in an ENTIRE day, I’m not going to find some time to do ANY of it?”

“I really do.  You’re going to be more tired than you think,” I replied in earnest.

“Well, my friends with kids have told me the same thing.  I’m sure I’ll find a way to make it work,” he said with a smile.

And to my surprise, he did it.  Everything he intended to do, he did it.  He was able to do a 30-minute workout every day, listen to Rosetta Stone tapes during in-between moments with his daughter, and write a bunch of articles for his website, such as his excellent series on sports, race, & fatherhood.  He even squeezed in frequent rounds of playing video games!  To the shock of his friends, he stayed in good shape.  He was delighted to prove them wrong, to prove me wrong.  I’m so happy that he did.  Happy that he didn’t listen to me and that my negative comments didn’t deter him from trying.

I’ve reflected on that conversation often and why I believed those things.  Recently, I approached him about it and apologized for my discouraging comments.  I was embarrassed that I imposed my limited view of parenthood onto my friend. In my attempt to be helpful, I was also projecting my assumptions onto his unique experience of being a father.

Being on the other side now, I can empathize with the feeling of going against the status quo.  To resist and overcome the won’ts and can’ts of being a parent.  Every now and then, I receive comfort in the positive messages people share.  Everyone’s pregnancy and parenting experience will be different and unique.  I’ll know what my baby needs when the time comes.  With effort and intention, I can build the life I want with my husband.  It will take some creative strategizing, but we can still do the activities that are most important to us.  Like traveling, staying active, pursuing creative projects, and going on date nights.  Hopefully, our baby will be folded into these parts of our lives.

Even with all of the unknowns that come with having a baby, I know that I have choices.  I can choose to do my best as a new mother.  I can choose to lead with love, not fear.  I can choose to believe that everything I give my baby will be enough.  I know this because over 40 years ago, everything my family fought to give me— my freedom, my survival, my opportunities—was enough.  It was more than enough.  It shaped the course of my entire life.  For this and for my future baby, I am deeply humbled and grateful.

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