As social media becomes flooded with adorable photos of everyone and their mother, my calendar also recognizes another special event: today just happens to be my father’s birthday in addition to Mother’s Day. And while I love and hope to appreciate my parents every day of every year, this time I can’t help but dwell on all their sacrifices a little more than usual.
As my time in Tennessee is coming to a wrap, and the culmination of all my schooling, training, and preparation is coming to a peak; I stand at the top and look back on how far I’ve come. I’d be a fool to think I made it here on my own, nor do I think the story starts with my first step. My story is just a chapter in my parent’s greater story. And they would tell you their lives are just a tiny chapter in His greater story. So where to begin?
Both my parents are Chinese born and raised in Vietnam. This was not particularly unusual, as many Chinese families came to Vietnam for a variety of opportunities and reasons. My father was the son of a successful and reputable business owner and my mother worked at the local cafe down the street. If you’ve ever met my parents, what eventually happened next is pretty predictable. They married and began to plan a life together like anyone else, and had many advantages to look forward to. But before my oldest brother was out of his diapers, the political turmoil had reached a point where my parents knew there was no future for them if they stayed in Vietnam. Escape was the only acceptable option, but escape was easier said than done. By that time, if your intentions were known, neighbors, friends, and even families turned on each other and reported you to the authorities for a reward. My parents were one of the fortunates, my father’s side had a little gold–enough to bribe the officials to turn a blind eye to them as they snuck away with very few possessions, hopeful to reach a boat that promised to take them out of the country and to a land with opportunities now lost from their own.
I’ve always wondered what thoughts swirled in their minds as they stepped on that boat. As my mother clutched my brother and steadied herself, did she realize at that moment she was no longer a citizen, but a refugee–one of the many “boat people” as they would come to be known? Did my father think about how that step marked him as an enemy of the state and therefore forfeiting his property, his possessions, and his good reputation to become nothing but another immigrant in a foreign country with nothing? Perhaps all these things would have been forfeited under the new government regardless if they had left or stayed. But it is certain that if they had chosen to stay, they would not have faced the many trials that faced the boat people.
Thai pirates took advantaged of fleeing refugees during that time, and the boat my parents had boarded was no exception. They lost everything of value except their lives and my mother’s wedding ring, which she had tucked away into my brother’s diaper, hoping no one would think to search there. Every refugee camp they came to was a crowded mess of humanity, disease, fear, and the unknown. My brother became so sick he refused to take nourishment and my mother, desperate to do anything to make him well again bought an unknown bottle of medicine from a stranger and made him take it. For all we knew, it was just as likely to kill him than cure him, and to this day she is not sure it did any good. But he eventually pulled through, although he’s never had much of an appetite even now. The doctors who examined him in the US shortly after their arrival could find nothing wrong and pronounced him malnourished–a diagnosis even my mother could have made. Regardless, she was relieved–they had arrived to America. My parents sold my mother’s wedding ring shortly after arriving to get some food and other necessities. Thanks to the charity and outreach of American Christians, they were able to get settled and reach the few family members who had escaped a few years before them, although it would be many years before they found out what happened to all the rest of the family members who fled. Some died on the journey, some did not make it out, some have new lives elsewhere.
Together they helped my parents establish a new life of their own in America, like so many immigrants have done before and continue to do today. Most importantly, those Christians shared the love of Christ to my parents who had prior to then, faced their trials without knowing God’s peace. How hopeless and destitute their situation must have seemed without it! I will never be able to experience it for myself. By the time my next brother and I were born, they had given their lives to Jesus and we were raised to share the same faith in Christ. And so that is why my parents would say their story is only a small part of His greater story. And while their lives would continue to be showered with blessings and accomplishments, the greatest thing that came from their journey from Vietnam was the opportunity to meet Jesus on the other side.
And so at this point in my life, where I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to accomplish and begin to plan my own life ahead of me, I think about what my parents have been through. All the ups and downs of their trip to America in order to adapt to a new place, a new language, and a new culture that did not always understand or appreciate them. And I am reminded of the quote: Man proposes, but God disposes. I don’t know what my life has in store for me, but I hope that if it does not go to plan, I face it with the same courage, humility, and grace my parents showed when their lives took a turn. They never once spoke with bitterness about what they had lost or gone through. Although my mom has always been vexed that our high school mascot was a pirate. “I don’t understand why they have a pirate represent you. Pirates are bad people!” My brothers and I laughed at the notion and I still don’t have an answer to that. I am just glad our mascot does not look remotely Thai. But the fact that we can laugh about it now is a beautiful thing. My mom still to this day does not own or wear a wedding ring, even though they could have easily afforded to replace it long ago. Perhaps after all they had been through, such things no longer matter. I hope I never forget that perspective they gained, which cost them so dearly. I hope I never take for granted what amazing people my parents are and how much they love me.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom and Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you both!