It was a very busy day in my Spanish class. I was trying to make a sentence about my mom’s profession in Spanish. I said: “Mi mamá es una manicurista.” My classmate asked me: “Your mom works at a nail shop, and she wants you to go to law school. Really?” I was shaking. I mumbled: “Yes!” That’s it. To him, it was just a simple conversation. To me, that moment kept playing over and over in my head.
My mom, at the age of 39, came to this country. She couldn’t even speak one English word. She had never worked before. She married, and her only job was to raise me and my brothers. The first day she came to work, I couldn’t sleep. I was wondering: What would happen? Would she be okay? She came back home, didn’t said a word, and immediately went to the kitchen to make me food. I thought everything was fine. The second day, she told me that her boss ended her training and allowed her to get customers. Usually, it took a few months of training for a manicurist. My mom told that she has a talent in doing nails. She was good at it, and her boss allowed her to work. She smiled. I felt relief.
I usually don’t talk about my mom working at a nail shop to my classmates. I mean who would believe me? I always dress nicely. I have the cutest outfits and a fancy backpack. I don’t tell people, but I don’t lie either. If they ask me about my mom, I will say that she works at a nail shop. I will tell them if they ask me. But, I will say it differently compared to the way that other students introduce their parents that are Davidson alums in a class’s icebreaker game. I will say it differently compared to the way that others talk about how their parents are lawyers, doctors, etc. You can see that when I talk about my mom’s profession. The confident person in me vanishes. Eventually, I change the topic of the conversation.
My mom raised me and my brothers by working 10 hours a day, bending down to clean someone’ feet. She raised me to go to college. She raised me to go to Davidson College, a college where children of lawyers and doctors attend. She makes sure that I have the best opportunities to become successful in this country. She is a manicurist but she’s willing to pay for someone $100 a week so I can have a ride to a better high school in the district. She never finished high school but she doesn’t doubt about the $2000 ACT prep that I asked for. She doesn’t speak English but she still understands the importance of education by willing to pay $40 dollar an hour for my ESL tutor three times a week. She cleans peoples’ feet so I don’t worry about anything besides my education.
She dreams of a better life. She can’t speak English but that doesn’t mean the idea of the American Dream is unfamiliar to her. That dream doesn’t require you to speak English. That dream belongs to anyone despite their languages, cultures, races, sexual orientations, genders, and religions. She works at that nail shop. People make fun of her broken English. But so what? She raises me to college, to Davidson College.
Later, I learned from one of my mom’ coworkers; my mom cried on her first day of work.
I don’t blame that classmate who asked me such degrading question. I don’t blame him when he doubted my success due to the fact that my mom works at a nail shop. I don’t blame those customers who make fun of my mom’s broken English. I don’t blame those customers at the Vietnamese restaurant that I worked this summer when they told me that I lied about the fact that I am going to Davidson College. I don’t blame that Davidson student who asked his friend: “Is that her real accent or does she have a speech impediment?”
I blame myself. I had an opportunity to fight back but I didn’t. I had an opinion to voice, and I retreated in silence. I avoided talking about my mom’s profession. I saved money to buy more fancy clothes so people would think that I am a typical middle-class Asian girl. I looked up American accent classes online in hope of speaking more like an American. I researched American names, looking for a way to change my name legally.
I sacrificed my culture, my history, my identity, and most importantly, my self-respect. My mother ‘s language, motherland, and my mother culture became unfamiliar to me.I wanted to escape, to have a better life for my family, and to achieve the American Dream. That were enough justifications for my assimilation.
I blame myself. I have a choice, and I choose self-destruction.
In the poem “Asian Art after “Black Art” by Amiri Baraka” written by Evan Yi’ 18.
“English is bullshit/ unless tongued/ by a boat child/ come from the womb of some/ napalm land set ablaze/ he later calls a continent/ decolonization is bullshit/ unless there are no more rusty land mines/ to blow up the boat child’s cousin/ on the other side/ of the pacific/ i want a community of/ fuck your model minority/ type Chinks/ i want a community of/ drown Tom Cruise in the village pond/ type samurai/ i want a community of/ anarchist math professors/ refugees holding a grenade to lady liberty/ Vietnamese manicurists ready to rip off jane crows’ fingernails/ brown cooks who refuse to learn English putting laxatives in the tikka masala/ Hmong grandpas marching down Chinatown screaming fuck the patriarchy/ Iraqi toddlers ready to bazooka their shoes at voluntourist kindergarten teachers/ adopted Chinese punks making a mosh pit of Jim Crow’s ribcage/ afghan men making love in a Mississippi barn as an eternal fuck you to Billy Graham”
I am broken into pieces. My past is foreign to me now.
Mom, I am so sorry. I am sorry to discredit your hard works. I am so sorry for my embarrassment and silence in front of my friends when I told them that you work a nail shop. What you do every day is beautiful? You are talented, skilled, and specialized in what you do. You make a positive contribution to this society. You raised me. You taught me to become a better person. You showed that there aren’t such thing as an easy way out. Mom, look at the smiles on that elder woman who her daughter picked her up from a nursing home every Sunday to get her nail done. You gave her a perfect manicure and look at how happy she is. Look at that bonding moment between a mother and a daughter. Look at the happy face of that girl when you gave her perfect manicures that go with her prom dress. Mom, look at that lady who brought you Christmas present. She appreciated the fact that you put your full commitment to make her prettier. You are an artist to me. You make this world becomes a more beautiful place. You love what you do. You inspire me. You give me a way out.
That nail shop did give me a lot of things. It gave me food, clothes, and a safe place to live. It’s a place that my mom can earn money through her talent. That nail shop is the foundation of who I am. No matter how successful and educated I am, without that nail shop, I would not have the opportunity to pursue my dreams.
I am a daughter of immigrants. My parents’ backgrounds are the foundations of who I am. They don’t prevent me from achieving my dream. They make me stronger, more resilient, and more hardworking. They gave me the tool to successful; however, they didn’t do it for me. They taught me how to get it. They reminded me of the struggles that millions of immigrants, who stepped on this American land, have to overcome.
My name is Uyen Nguyen. I am a daughter of my mother who works at a nail shop. I am also a Davidson student, a future lawyer, and a future world-changer.