May 2023 Community Service
Nightmares and Dreams
“You’re having the same nightmare since 1975?!” I asked my mother in Vietnamese.
“Yes,” my mother replied stoically over the phone.
Yet again, I was in shock– which had happened quite often during those last couple of weeks in March of 2021. Two weeks before then, my mother was complaining about having horrible headaches. She said she went to church and felt like she was going to faint. A few days later, her headache was so severe that she vomited in the toilet, and said she felt something had popped inside her head. We took her to a neurologist who couldn’t find anything in her brain scans, and she left with a few prescription orders and no answers.
Together with my brother and husband, I visited her one evening and bought her gifts to check on her and to cheer her up. She was in bed, and though she was very weak, she tried to show gratitude that we had come to see her. It was tough to see my mother, who normally cannot sit still and is constantly cooking and cleaning, completely resigned to her bed. After our visit, the three of us decided to grab a sushi dinner to decompress ourselves from the emotionally draining visit. As we sat down to eat, my mother called my brother, crying and begging us to take her to the hospital. My mother hates the hospital; she always assures her children that she is fine and that she can tough out any situation.
Her admission to the hospital was followed by an anxiety-ridden week composed of numerous doctors of different specialties attempting to diagnose her and ordering many more tests and scans to figure out what was happening to my mother. Every day of that week, I was the point person to call the hospital, translate to my mom in Vietnamese what was going on, text the family group thread on her condition, and coordinate who would be the next person to visit her during the visiting hours, heavily curtailed by Covid-19 restrictions. Until finally, the neurosurgeon called me back.
“We just discovered that she has a brain aneurysm. We are going to take her to the operating room in 30 minutes. We are allowing one person to be here in the waiting area, but you must be here within 30 minutes.”
The hospital was 20 minutes away and that doesn’t account for parking and racing through the maze-like hospital wing where she was being kept. I ran out of my house and ran as fast as my legs and lungs would allow me, not caring what anyone in the hospital thought of me as I huffed and puffed along.
I opened my mother’s hospital room door and saw her turning towards me slowly, looking pale and exhausted.
“I have a few last words in case I don’t make it,” my mother said to me calmly and slowly. She started to tell me her last wishes.
“Stop!” I told her. I whipped out my phone and started to record. I was not going to take any chances that I would mistake or forget any of her last words. I didn’t want this burden.
As I recorded my mother’s last wishes, I tried hard to hold the phone still and not let any tears fall from my eyes.
She asked for forgiveness if she failed or disappointed anyone. She spoke of her hopes and dreams for our immediate family members, so that they could live a successful and happy life. It was all things that I knew I would not have the heart to deliver if none of us were to see her speak in person again.
The operating room nurse knocked and came into the room, and so the video had to be stopped after about 5 minutes of her narrating her final wishes.
I followed the nurse as she wheeled my mother into a white, wide, and bright operating room. There was a table on the other side that looked like a large table saw. The room was filled with nurses completely covered up; the neurosurgeon was putting on his gloves. They all assured me everything was going to be okay, but the vastness and coldness of the room compelled me to think otherwise.
It was time for a nurse to take me away, to stay behind in the waiting room. As I was being pulled away, tears came streaming down. I cried and spoke to my mother in her native tongue. I promised I would see her when she woke up – a promise I wasn’t sure would happen. I saw my mother crying as I wiped my tears away and the doors closed on me.
As I sat in the empty waiting room crying, my mind raced with thoughts. Was this the last time that I would see my mother awake? Would the last moment I had with her be one where we were both crying, my mother left behind in that cold sterile room and myself helplessly being led away?
Is my mother going to die?
Alone in my thoughts, I thought about the Atlanta spa shootings that had just happened – eight people were killed, of which six were women of Asian descent. It was a hate crime that shook the whole Asian-American community. I remembered reading about one of the victims, a hard-working woman who left behind two young boys. I thought about those young boys who unexpectedly lost their mother and I started to cry and grieve for them, as I cried and grieved for the very real possibility that my own mother might die.
A wave of anger, sadness and despair came over me as I sat in the waiting room. I was upset that people would want to kill someone for being Asian and tear apart and traumatize their families. I was angry about the rapidly increasing surge of hate crimes towards Asians, that the main targets were elders and women, that Asians everywhere were being blamed for COVID-19, that all these hate crimes were barely gaining any national attention unless multiple lives were taken. I felt helpless that this was happening to my community and to people who look like me, and that I was helplessly waiting in a godawful waiting room as someone worked to readjust my mother’s brain.
After hours of spending alone in my thoughts and wiping away tears and snot, I hear a voice.
“Your mom did great during the surgery. She’s very lucky. In cases like hers, about half of the people die before making it to the hospital.” Even though I thought I had run out of tears, I managed to cry tears of happiness. I managed to have my mom still, unlike those poor boys whose mother was shot by a man who blamed Asian women for his unwanted lustful thoughts.
A week later, my mom was still recovering from her surgery and she called me from the hospital.
“I need you to translate. There’s a doctor here and he’s asking me questions. I’ll put you on speaker phone,” she said.
(This was nothing new to me. I have been my mother’s personal medical translator since I was a young child.)
“Hi, I’m a psychiatrist and I’m here with an assistant who is shadowing me. We’re evaluating your mother and I’m understanding she is saying she has had sleep problems for quite some time.”
“Yes, my mother has had sleeping issues for as long as I remember, and she has a sleep doctor and has been through some sleep monitoring.” I replied.
“Can you please ask your mother how long she has had sleep problems?”
I asked my mother in Vietnamese.
“My mother said she's had sleep problems since 1975.”
“So she told me she has had recurrent nightmares since that time too” the doctor said.
“What?!” I exclaimed. The nightmares were new information to me.
“Mom, you have been having sleep problems AND nightmares since 1975,” I asked in Vietnamese.
“Yeah, ever since the war happened and your dad left the country,” my mother responded in Vietnamese.
“Can you ask your mother what the nightmare is about?” the doctor asked.
Recounting what she tells me, I translate: “It’s the same nightmare. She just dreams that she is being captured. During the war in Vietnam, many people tried to flee the country. My mom tried to do that in her early 20s with my two older brothers who were toddlers at the time. Their boat got caught and they were in jail for 10 days and were released because they were women and children.”
“Can you ask your mother if she feels she’s in danger or if she feels she’s going to be caught?” the doctor asked.
“No, she knows she’s safe and that she won’t be captured by anyone. She says she’s just having the same recurring dream.” I translated.
“Has your mother ever gotten any sort of help from a psychiatrist or psychologist?” the doctor asked.
I knew the answer, but I asked my mother anyway.
“No, she hasn’t, doctor.”
“Would she be open to going to see one?”
I also knew the answer to this but again I asked my mother.
“No, I don’t need it. I’m okay. I don’t have many major problems,” my mother replied in Vietnamese.
“Doctor, she said she doesn’t feel she needs it.”
“Oh, okay. Well, can you ask your mother if she is willing to take medicine that will help her sleep and help make the nightmares go away,” said the doctor.
“Yes, doctor. My mom is open to medication to help her have less nightmares.” I responded.
The doctor began to take leave and my mother thanked the doctor repeatedly and complemented how nice and successful he seemed to be because of how young he looked to her. Meanwhile, I was in shock.
“Mom, I didn’t know this. All my adult life… I never knew this. How am I just finding this out at 33 years old when I have been going to your doctors’ appointments for years,” I told her on the phone after the doctors left.
My mom casually responded that it’s okay and she has literally dealt with it for most of her life.
“Mom, this is not normal. You should not be having this experience and re-living such a traumatic moment over and over. I think you need to get help for your mental health.”
“It’s okay! Really! I am one of the lucky ones. There are many other Vietnamese people out there who lost their families or died.,” my mom replied.
While she was in the hospital recovering, I continued to bring up that I think it would be good for her to try to see a mental health professional, whether it be a psychiatrist or psychologist. There were not many counselors who were also fluent in Vietnamese, but I even managed to find a psychiatrist office with a therapist fluent in Vietnamese.
“It’s okay. Your brother called me, and I told him about the nightmares and how you think I should see a psychologist. Your brother doesn’t think I need help. He even told me he sometimes has similar dreams.”
“Mom, I think mental health services would help both of your nightmares.”
“We’ll be okay,” my mom said.
May is recognized as the month where the heritage of the AAPI (Asian-American and Pacific Islander) community is celebrated. It also happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month, and the month where Mother’s Day is celebrated.
This month’s feature article is supposed to be about my lived experiences as an Asian-American woman, but I can’t help but reflect on the concurrence of these three occasions of celebration, and how the story of my mother is one that might be relatable to many of us in the Asian American-community, or anyone from an immigrant family, or just about anyone else whose mother has endured a hard life and dealt with trauma.
In my previous article for LDL titled “Food and War,” I wrote about the complicated process of discovering my identity as being both American and Vietnamese, as well as on the trauma of the Vietnam war on my upbringing, and the healing effects of learning how to cook my own cultural foods. I also touched on how I felt pressured to change myself because of the Western beauty standards I was steeped in, and how I fought to be perceived to be more “American.” I wrote about the teasing I received as a child for my ethnic eyes, and how I was almost at the point of surgically altering them.
My mom was the main inspiration for “Food and War”, much like she is for this present article. In “Food and War,” I described how her meticulous Vietnamese home cooking was the key inspiration for me to learn more about my culture’s cuisine, which led to a reconnection of my native roots. My mom’s coveted beauty was what made me want to also be like her and to be admired like her – she used to model ao dai dresses (as worn by me on the cover of this magazine) to advertise for a fabric company. My mother’s never-ending cultural pride is what inspired me to actively involve myself in finding ways to help the local Vietnamese community continue to thrive. Discovering that my mother has recurring nightmares is also what inspired me to want to change the pattern of intergenerational trauma and to start a new cycle for my own children one day. Like all mothers, she has had a big impact on my life from the beginning of my life and continues to do so.
Although I would see photos of my mom and others in my family proudly wearing the ao dai while I was young, I often struggled with not seeing the same representation of Asian women in broader American society. As a young adult, I overcame fears to enroll myself in pageants, to prove to myself and others that I could be confident and beautiful with my Asian eyes. I first started out with local Vietnamese pageants. I would later compete in national pageants for Ms. United States and Elite Ms. Earth United States. People may feel that pageants are vain and unnecessary, but for me, I met some of the most confident and ambitious women I’ve met among the participants. (Speaking of which: I met the creator of LDL magazine because we competed in the same pageant) It also provided me with a platform to advocate for causes that I believed in. When I completed in Ms. United States, my platform was advocating for resources for disadvantaged minority women; for Elite Ms. Earth United States, I advocated for green engineering and technology educational programs in higher degree education.
One thing I noticed while competing in pageants was that I was one of the very few Asian competitors, and I wondered why that is. After continuing with pageantry after the local Vietnamese pageant, my mother kept asking me why I kept competing. After all, I had already won first runner-up; why am I wasting my money? I told my mother that I’m almost always the only Asian competitor and that representation matters. After getting close to winning a national title more than once, my mother told me she is sad for me, because she feels that they want the Asian person to get close to winning, but to never actually win the whole title because we don’t look “American” enough. I assured my mother that is not the case, although I honestly did wonder if she was onto something. Nevertheless, I felt that it was important for me to show up, as it was my dream to prove that people who look like me are just as beautiful and deserving.
Though I never won the coveted national title, I never regretted competing in pageants because it challenged me to fight for myself and to believe in myself when I know I am going against extremely well spoken and beautiful women. This is one of the most important life skills I learned going through such a mentally taxing competition.
After pageants, I mustered up the courage to start modeling. I couldn’t recall many Asian models in any of the media I consumed when I was growing up. I wondered: what if I could be a model so that my images could be seen by another young Asian woman? What if I could help someone feel seen and represented? I felt it was worth a try.
My husband and I were just dating in 2019 as we were walking in downtown Baltimore and getting ready to cross the street.
“OH MY GOD!!!” I stopped in my tracks with my eyes enlarged and jaw dropped.
“What is it?!” my husband said worryingly.
“IT’S ME ON THAT STORE FRONT PICTURE!” I said as I recklessly ran across the street without taking consideration of traffic.
As it turns out, I had done a runway show for DC Fashion Week a couple of years ago. I was picked by a few designers to walk for them. Some photos were taken but I did not think they went anywhere beyond having been shared on my social life. However, one of the designers ran a store near the Baltimore Aquarium and had placed my picture (and that of another model side by side),
which took up the entire glass display. I proudly stood next to the image while my husband snapped a few pictures. A driver passing by took note and pulled up with their car and said, “Is that you?”
“Yes! It’s me!” I said excitedly.
“Wow! Great job! Congratulations!” and they rode off with a thumbs up.
I signed up with my modeling agency a couple years after and since then, I have felt blessed and humbled every time a client chooses to book me and use my image. I know that with each commercial I do, with each photo snapped of me, and with every promotional material I partake in, someone will feel seen and think, “she looks like me.” In a way, I feel this is kind of a dream come true, even if it’s a small one.
In the “Food and War” article, I wrote about learning to cook Vietnamese food as part of learning about my identity. Another thing I did to reaffirm my Vietnamese identity was to serve in the local Vietnamese nonprofit and community. For several years, I was the internal Vice President of a national nonprofit called NOVAL (National American for Vietnamese American Leadership). Every year, we planned a big Vietnamese heritage festival called VietFest that was held in the summer in the Greater Washington DC area. At VietFest, we organized lion dances, cultural fashion shows, martial arts demonstrations, vendors that sold Vietnamese food, as well as sales of crafts and bamboo straw hats.
During that time and for years beyond that, I was also the Miss VietFest Pageant Director where I was responsible for all aspects of the pageant. There was a cultural dress competition as well as a Vietnamese Proverb competition where the competitors were tasked with choosing a Vietnamese proverb and to explain why that proverb resonated with them. I coached and mentored over 80 young women who went on to do public speaking and to display confidence under pressure. With my pageant experience, I wanted to pay it forward and ensure other Vietnamese women can continue to dream big and to pave the way and ensure that more women who look like us can be represented in the public eye.
Recounting all the above, I suppose that I am doing okay. I am making a very tiny dent in representation. My dream is that I continue to see Asian representation becoming more normalized, in everything. I do feel that is becoming more and more true. A couple of days ago, I went to a K-pop concert in Baltimore, and I was shocked by the diversity of the audience and how some were even singing along in Korean. When I was young, I never would have imagined a movie with an all-Asian cast like “Crazy Rich Asians”. Not only that, Simu Liu was cast as a main character in an action movie! I couldn’t think of anyone else that has done that since Bruce Lee in the 70s. Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan won an Oscar for their performances! I wished this was more common when I was a child, and I’m truly thrilled for this to be changing for the better.
Speaking of Ke Huy Quan, during his Oscar acceptance speech, he ended it with “Mom! I just won an Oscar!”
When that happened, I suspected that anyone watching who grew up in an Asian-American family immediately understood the meaning of those words and was crying tears of joy on the inside. It reflects the internalized obligation that we all share to make our mothers proud, which can result in a big emotional burden from childhood to adulthood that we never quite feel that we truly accomplish.
Of course, this is not specific to the Asian community at all, but I do believe there is a different kind of gravity for Asian children in the United States who grew up with Asian parents who immigrated here. Immigrant parents left everything behind - their precious homeland where their ancestors lived for generations, where they formed their core identity and memories - to take a massive risk of starting over in a completely different country across the world, with an entirely unfamiliar language and culture.
For better or worse, Asian children are taught to be successful, obedient, and to follow certain career paths because their parents sacrificed everything to be in this country – sometimes even their lives. Their children are made to feel that they need to honor the sacrifice as best they can. I personally believe it is every Asian immigrant parents’ dream for their children to be successful and happy, and to feel that all their hard work and sacrifice was not done in vain. Though this is all in good intentions, this puts a tremendous amount of pressure on their kids and unfortunately, it coincides with a big stigma in Asian communities on receiving mental health services if they feel they cannot meet such expectations. Even in Asia itself, there is a high depression and suicide rate because of how taboo mental health care is. It is commonly said in Asian communities that you do not want to lose face and be an embarrassment by seeking out mental health care, because the aunties and uncles in the community are talking about how emotionally weak you are.
As a child of Asian immigrant parents, I am very familiar with this constant anxiety and ever looming pressure to be a good, successful, and honorable child. I dreaded being compared to other children in my mom’s conversations with others. I breathe a sigh of relief when I do hear the occasional brag. To this day, I still feel myself tighten up from anxiety and frustration when my mother says, “but what will other people think?” I have always been hard on myself, and having the additional pressure from my family and community has compounded my anxiety. Like most immigrant children, the desire to make my family proud and feel that their sacrifice was worth it has never gone away, and I don’t think it ever will. Despite this, we can learn to live in harmony by respecting and understanding our parents’ wishes, but to first honor and prioritize our own mental wellbeing and happiness.
Earlier, I wrote about my mother’s recurrent nightmares because she suffered through a war. She is right - she is lucky because she did not die in the process of trying to come to this country, unlike other Vietnamese people. My mother and other Vietnamese immigrants from her generation have suffered greatly because of the war. If everyone you knew in your community is somewhat traumatized, then that normalizes trauma and makes it seem that having recurrent nightmares since 1975 “normal.” I don’t have the answers to how to fix this problem for their generation, but I do feel that as children of parents dealing with trauma, we can seek help ourselves. The painful cycle can stop with us so we can fulfill our own dreams, and not just those of our parents.
Unlike some in the Asian community in America or in other places in the world who, for one reason or another, do not believe in mental health services, I do go to therapy, and I highly advocate for anyone to seek professional help if they ever feel the world is too much to handle. Because of my experience with pageants and modeling, people tell me that they look up to me, or that I seem so confident and have everything together. I am always flattered, but I am also one not to shy away from admitting that I face my own mental health challenges despite it all.
With a keen awareness of the unresolved generational trauma that runs rampant in the Vietnamese American community and has also imprinted itself onto me, I am constantly working on myself, and I strive to be the healthiest and best version of myself for when I become a mother. I often wonder if it is sustainable to manage all the things that society expects us to – exercise, eat right, practice self-care, meet all your work obligations, keep your house clean and your laundry fresh, take care of pets and children, get enough sleep, make time for friends, and so forth. How can we possibly manage all this? This is something I don’t know either. But there is always something I personally remind myself quite often: all you could ever ask of yourself is to do your best.
"For the month of May, this special month in which we celebrate AAPI heritage, Mental Health Awareness, and Mother’s Day, I hope that you continue to try your best –in taking care of your mental health, in honoring your mother (or mother figure) who is also trying her best, and for my AAPIs, to remember that as long as you do your best, you are enough in who you are and in everything you do".
Cover Photo Credits:
Photographer: Patience Wolfe
Author, Model, Makeup Artist: Liz Nguyen
Hair Stylist: Jimena Mendez Roca Schmeidl
White Cocktail Dress Designer: Katya Suzdaleva
Ao Dai Designer: Ngan Huyen