Life Lessons I've Learned as the Daughter of Immigrants

Being raised by Vietnamese immigrant parents is definitely an experience not every American has gone through, not even for some Vietnamese-Americans. My experiences as the daughter of immigrants have undoubtedly shaped the person I am today in many ways, for which I will discuss below.

Self-Identity

Growing up as a child of Vietnamese immigrants in a predominantly white suburban town left me with a sense that I was not quite like my peers. When I started pre-school, I didn’t fully understand English and spoke in a gibberish mixture of Vietnamese and English that naturally meant absolutely nothing to people. As I got older, I began having more identity crises involving my appearance compared to my white peers—this also involved my beliefs, my struggle with learning two languages and my social life. I constantly asked myself, “How do I navigate assimilation without losing connection to my former culture?”

I particularly struggled with my identity when I was in middle school as I was navigating through my social and love lives—or whatever love life you could get at the age of ten. As someone who was incessantly shy and awkward, I had little to no chance of my crushes reciprocating my feelings, which in turn deteriorated my self-esteem. It didn’t help that all of my crushes—yes, I mean all of them—rejected me for the same girl. The same pretty, white, blonde girl. On top of that, I wanted nothing to do with my culture, which I thought was too strict and traditional. Together, these experiences contributed to a growing resentment of myself and a growing desire to be white.

However, as I got older and had a better understanding of the world, I grew to be more appreciative of my rich culture and history. I began feeling more confident in how I looked and embraced all the parts of me that I once rejected many years ago.

Strength and resilience

Considering both of my parents came from impoverished backgrounds, lived through the Vietnam War, and fled the country to find new life in the United States with virtually nothing, it was only fitting that the importance of resilience was instilled in me at a very young age. Struggle is a part of life, and what comes out of it depends on how you treat it. My parents’ struggles seemed worlds away from the life in which I was raised but there was never a moment where I heard my parents speak of their experiences with even a hint of bitterness or complaint. Instead, they keep their chins up and soldiered on, eyes looking forward to nowhere but the future. For all the most painful and difficult times of my life, the strength I didn’t know I had to overcome were drawn from being their daughter.

Hard work and independence

The stories my mom would tell me when she recalled the life she had to live prior to having my brother and I were absolutely mind-blowing. Moving across the world to a completely new country, learning a foreign language at the age of thirty-something without the benefit of picking it up quickly at a young age and juggling three jobs that paid meager wages to support her parents and siblings were experiences I couldn’t imagine having now.

The hard work didn’t stop there—she and my dad worked tirelessly at the nail salon after marrying and became certified nail techs to provide for their children. My parents built a future for my brother and I from the ground up—futures that were much better than the ones they had. Every hour spent at the nail salon, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week, were endured for us.

Knowing that their efforts were put into securing good futures for us, I developed a strong sense of independence and work ethic from a very young age. While my parents were working in the daytime, I would spend my time after school doing house chores and looking after my little brother when my parents couldn’t. I even got the chance to help out at the nail salon when it got particularly busy. Additionally, due to my parents’ inability to speak English as fluently as I could, I frequently acted as their translator for various things, from calling an AT&T representative when our Wi-Fi was down, to talking to my parents’ health insurance agency when they needed to switch to a new insurance plan. Something to note is that I was around eleven years old when I had to do these sorts of things—I can’t imagine most normal eleven-year-olds having to deal with adult things like these. I had to grow up at a young age in order to support the family—for better or for worse—and all of these experiences contributed to who I am today.

Both of my parents showed me the value of working hard for what you want in order to accomplish your dreams. I couldn’t imagine growing up with the privilege of having your needs and wants handed to you, nor expecting that kind of life. Perhaps it’s this quality of wanting to succeed by working hard that I also have a deep fear of failure and rejection. However, when I think of my family, I am reminded that failure is not the end of all—it’s simply another opportunity to grow. The process of overcoming my fears and hardships involve reaching inside of me and emulating my parents’ strength to continue pushing forward.

Humility and generosity

My background of being the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants and coming from a low-income background has provided unique worldviews that stayed with me as I grew up and will continue to be with me for the rest of life. I can’t deny that the desire for a more fortunate upbringing had crossed my mind a couple of times throughout my life. But in all honesty, I would not trade my life experiences for anything else because I think they made me a much more well-rounded and conscientious person than I would be if I didn’t have them.

I am only here today because I have reaped the fruits of my parents’ suffering. My parents endured poverty, learned a completely foreign language in a completely foreign land, balanced more than two jobs to provide for their family, went periods of time without food—and yet their children have wanted for nothing. They place food on the table every evening and my brother and I eat often without stopping to consider how hard they’ve worked to make this simple act happen. They give so much of their hard-earned money to me as I’m away for college to ensure I am still well-provided for, even when I’m living fifty miles away from them. I am the product of everything they have sacrificed and braved. It’s because of this that I learn to give without wanting anything in return except for the wellness and happiness of the recipient.

Love in different forms

I come from a culture in which expressing love in words is not generally the norm. This may sound kind of shocking, but I don’t recall a time my parents have explicitly said the words “I love you” to me, or at least when I was younger. For many years, I was hurt that they didn’t do this for me because in American culture, saying “I love you” frequently was the norm and my white peers had parents who would do that for them. I genuinely believed for a period of time that my parents didn’t love me.

However, I became older, I realized their love was not expressed through words but through their actions and it is shown through many different forms. When my mom silently places a small plate of cut-up fruit on my desk as I’m studying, or when my dad insists on carrying my grocery bags after a shopping trip. Or when in kindergarten, my mother showed up to my class’s Father’s Day event instead of my dad when he couldn’t make it because of work, and she was the only mother in a classroom full of fathers—these are just a few of the many ways they’ve showed me they loved me.

After I went away for college, my parents have become more expressive with their love; my mother began verbally telling me she loves me before she leaves after coming to visit, and my dad has become more prone to hugging me or rubbing my head affectionately whenever he sees me. Maybe it’s because they’ve lived in the United States where affection is the norm for so long or maybe they’ve come to realize that their daughter is growing up and wants to connect more than they’ve done in the past. Regardless of the reason, the desire to express their love in a way their Westernized children could better understand is more than enough for me.