My Mother - MẸ TÔI
To celebrate her 75th birthday 75 (2008)
My mother’s birth name is Tran Thi Ai; her Buddhist name is Nguyen Ai. She was born on December 20, 1934 in Vinh Hoi Village, An Nhon, Phu My District, in the Binh Dinh Province. She spent her youth in this beautifully romantic coastal province located in the central region of Vietnam. This area is now known as Vinh Hoi Village, Cat Hai Commune, Phu Cat District, Binh Dinh Province.
My mother was the sixth child in a family of ten children. Her father, Trần Hoành, was a leader of the village. Her mother’s name was Trần Thị Nhĩ. My mother was born into a family with Confucius beliefs, which was also infused with principles of Buddhism. In her childhood, her parents took her and her siblings to the Linh Phong Buddhist Temple where they took the Three Refuges and Five Buddhist precepts. The Dharma seed was instilled in her through words, actions, and examples. She was always soft spoken, gentle, patient, modest, and willing to make sacrifices. Growing up, she helped take care of the family, did housework, and tended the garden. She went to the village school until second grade, after which she stopped attending in order to help her family. She was well-known in the village for her gentle ways, kindness, and beauty. Like many other girls in the village, she worked strenuously in the fields. Through it all, my mother was embraced in the loving teachings of her parents and absorbed rustic viewpoints, such as “A clean fast is better than a dirty breakfast” (Đói cho sạch, rách cho thơm), to “Other’s success is your own success (Ta nên tất thị mình nên)”, and “Kỷ sở bất dục, vật thi ư nhân; Điều gì mình không muốn thì đừng nên làm cho người (The Golden Rule).” Her parents also instilled in her basic principles of Buddhism such as karma and reincarnation of causation.
My mother recalled that when she was a young girl, the young men in the village would ride by on horseback and tease her. She would always look away shyly, thinking the handsome young guys wouldn’t win her heart, since at the time, her viewpoint was believing in ‘arranged marriage’ (Ba Mẹ đặt đâu con ở đấy). The love story between my parents is a beautiful one. One day my father (her future husband), my paternal grandfather, Mr. Ba Ước, and Mr. Bốn Kha sailed over to buy firewood; but in actuality they were coming to see my mother. My mother brought water to the invited guests while still wearing her farming (work) clothes. My father and paternal grandfather instantly loved her for her honesty and impartiality. On the surface my mother and father appeared to be opposites. He was 5'3'', muscular, and the eldest son in a family with nine siblings. He grew up with the sea and resembled it in passion and boisterousness. My mother was tall, beautiful, and compassionate. They were more similar in character; both gentle and hardworking. In 1953, when she was nineteen, my mother married my father.
My mother was resourceful, kind, and lenient. In the early years of their marriage, she worked tirelessly on behalf of her husband’s family. In their sixth year of marriage my mom would have her first child. Over the next 21 years, my parents would have five daughters. In an effort to give my father, the eldest son, a son of his own, my mother became pregnant a sixth time. This pregnancy was very unusual, so my mother thought with great happiness that this would be the son to carry on the Bach family. But this was not so and my mother delivered a sixth daughter, Bach Thi Xoa. Despite their hopes for a son, my parents loved their daughter very much.
By this time, my parents were both over the age of 40 and decided not to have any more children, but instead adopt a boy from an orphanage in Quy Nhon. Their son, Thảo X. Bach, was the child of an American soldier and Vietnamese mother. Not long after the adoption, they discovered their young son suffered from epileptic symptoms. This was very hard on my parents but they continued to love and raise their handsome child. They were content with their family and so were happily surprised when my mother became pregnant. Their youngest son was born on the day of the full moon in July, in the year of the Dragon Year (1976). They named him Phe X. Bach; a name meant to bring him much health. Phe X. Bach would be the grandson of the sixth generation of the Bach family from the Phước Lý fishing village.
In Phuoc Ly (now known as Nhơn Lý hamlet), everyone thought highly of my mother because she was always considerate of her family and thought of others. She was good at cooking; often doing so for weddings and special occasions without any complaints of being tired. Even though she was from “Nhà quê” (the countryside), she knew the best ways to ferment fish and squid. She worked hard and saved every penny to help build a house for her husband’s family. She helped take care of her sister and brothers-in-law. She was involved in every aspect of her husband’s family and was able to support them immensely.
My parents were not formally educated, but they worked hard and made sacrifices to ensure that all of their children were given the opportunity to pursue an education. My mother sold her possessions and at one point even had to borrow rice from her neighbors. Sometimes, she would cry in silence without letting her husband and children know. She constantly dealt with hardships in order to feed her children. Her daughters would be the first among the women in the village to study at the university in Quy Nhon City.
In 1988, my parents decided to apply to participate in the Vietnamese Amerasian Homecoming Act program. At first the family only had enough money to send Thảo to the United States, but due to his illness, the US Embassy would not allow him to travel alone. My mother made the decision to borrow money in order to take the whole family to Saigon and prepare for the journey to the US. While in Saigon, Thảo and Mother stayed at the Amerasian Transit Center in the Tan Binh district in order for Thảo to receive treatments for his illnesses. To survive, she sold items on the street next to the Đầm Sen theme park or bought fruit and other items to trade. One day, the police arrested her for selling fruits “illegally” and they locked her in a tiny toilet overnight. Feeling self-pity and scared, she cried all night. We, her children, cannot count how many times her tears have fallen for us and we can’t help but cry when recalling those moments now. It was a very difficult period for my mother, but luckily some aunts and uncles at the Amerasian Transit Center were able to come to her aid - Uncle Tùng, Auntie Tâm, Thu, and Uncle Hoàng.
Eventually the US Embassy allowed my whole family to immigrate to the US, except for those who were of more than 25 years of age. We were lucky enough to have an American doctor sponsor the family. The sponsorship allowed us to take a direct flight to Thailand and then to the United States of America, bypassing the usual six-month stop in the Philippines. My family happily yet ruefully left Vietnam on June 9th, 1991. While on the 18-passenger plane from Minneapolis, MN to Lincoln, NE, my mother became tearful when she saw a vast area of rice fields in the center of America. With mixed feelings of curiosity, anxiety, and hope, we arrived in the US on June 18th, 1991; first in San Francisco, California and then settling down in Lincoln, Nebraska. After six months of government assistance, my parents were able to secure their first jobs, working in a laundry. Their daughter Phượng studied during the day and worked at night to support the family and allow her siblings to go to school. The family is deeply grateful for her sacrifices, as well as those of Chi Hai’s. In Lincoln, my parents were very happy and proud to see their children growing up, graduating from universities, and starting families of their own. In addition, our parents found peace and contentment at Linh Quang Temple. Everyone admired them for their merit, virtue, and faithfulness in practicing Buddhism with all their heart and soul.
My mother has spent her life living and caring for her husband and children. On her shoulders she carried the burden of supporting relatives left behind in Vietnam. In 2000, the family moved to California and it was time for her to enjoy her golden years. She took great pleasure in caring for her grandchildren and watching them grow. As my parents began to approach their 80’s, they spent more time meditating and surrounding themselves with calmness. They often visited and practiced their meditation at Kim Quang Temple.
It seems impossible to fully describe how much my mother has loved and cared for us. Her love is a sweet miracle. My mother is a pure stream, as shiny as a thousand stars, as peaceful as the sounds of bells and praying. She is a Bodhisattva, as vast as a rice field, as great as the taste of fish sauce from our homeland. She is as wonderful as the scent of herbs, and as beautiful as a Vietnamese lục bát poem. My dear Mother! We don’t have enough words to describe you! Your love is immense and it overwhelms our lives.
Our Dearest Mother*
Hôm nay mừng tuổi Mẹ/ Today we celebrate your birthday
Các con lạy đền ân/ We bow to show gratitude and repay
Ơn Mẹ hơn trời biển/ Your merit is more than ocean and sky
Ơn Mẹ thật vô biên/ Your love is borderless
Mẹ ơi, con thương Mẹ! / Oh our dear Mother, we love you!
Sacramento, December 20th, 2008.
*This poem was written to celebrate my mother’s birthday
For Vietnamese, please click here - Mẹ Tôi