Mothers Stand Still...

so that us daughters can look back and see how far we’ve come.

1994Sydney, FranceMe and my mum


“We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they've come.”

This is a line spoken by Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie in the new Barbie movie. WHEW. This line took me out. The overall movie was fine, it was funny and saccharine and predictable, but this line alone followed me around like a lost dog for a week or so after I watched it. Levina, the friend I watched it with, also an eldest daughter of immigrants, started weeping immediately after hearing that line. 

I looked up the movie afterwards on Reddit to see what the people were saying, and some interpreted the quote as if it was an insult to motherhood, that the quote implied mothers sacrifice their careers and personal lives — they stand still — so that their daughters can leapfrog them in success and fulfillment. 

As a card-carrying eldest daughter of immigrants, the quote is more about the quiet tragedy of being from a different place than your child is born in. The fragmentation of cultures and language that occurs in the journey of migration. When you don’t speak the predominant language, where your food, your music, the way you discipline your children is unfamiliar and strange. 

Some immigrant mothers have had an entire other life’s worth of memories tied to a place and language beyond the reach of their children. 

I was born in Australia, and my mum was born in Vietnam. She moved to Australia in the late 80s because she was curious and seized an opportunity that was presented to her, lying to her family and knowing essentially nothing about the country she would go on to live in for 30+ years. She moved because she is curious, and adventurous, and brave. Things that have unfortunately never really crossed my mind as her child, because of the enormous cultural gulf of understanding that lies between us, rendering her into a 2d figure. 

My mum was hit by her mum, and so she hit me, until I hit puberty. I remember her saying, “you’re lucky - I can’t hit you here in Australia like I would in Vietnam”. I remember her telling me that I couldn’t sleep over at people’s houses, or stay out past a certain time because I am “not an Australian girl. You’re a Vietnamese girl.” There were so many examples like this, little moments that showed me the jarring differences between us. I was a child who didn’t listen, who laughed and spoke and talked back in a language she couldn’t plant her two feet in. 

I don’t know how it must have felt to assimilate into a new country, trying to make a living as a working class family while navigating a raise a kid you don’t really understand. Where do personal dreams and ambition fit into the heirarchy of needs? It’s somewhere below making sure you have enough money to get groceries.  

Daniel Kwan’s ecceptance speech when he accepted the Oscar for Best Director for EEAAO said, “ We are all products of our context. We are all descendents of someone. Thank you to my father who fell in love with movies because he needed to escape the world and thus passed that love of movies on to me. My mother,  who was a creative soul,  who wanted to be a dancer, an actor, a singer, but who could not afford the luxury of that life path, and then gave it to me.”

The reality is I don’t know if my mum is a creative soul. I couldn’t see much of her beyond caretaker and disicplinarian. 

I was the one who left for the other side of the planet, to create a life of my own away from my family. I look back at the family and the mother I’ve left behind in my writing, in my conversations with my therapist. When it is convenient for me. I’m sure my mum’s eyes never left my receding back, while I turned my gaze outwards onto the world, onto building a career in New York, falling in love, falling out of love, navigating a life that felt lightyears away (and still does) from her figure in bed, watching hours of Chinese dramas on TV in the home I had rushed to leave more than a decade ago. 

I would think about our home, my name scrawled in permanent marker on every single drawer of our inbuilt closet, the kitchen cupboards yellow with mildew, the plastic chairs we would sit on to eat dinner, and think about how that memory has stood still, and my mum inside it. It’s remained untouched in my head as a moment for me to compare my journey to, it’s my origin point, look how far I’ve come.

In reality, my mum’s life never stood still. She’s a much different woman than the one whose roof I hated being under as a teenager. She’s mellowed out, she’s physically much healthier because she’s doing a job that requires her to be on her feet now. Things are a little easier for her now. 

She laughs and apologizes when I bring up the things I remember from childhood that have landed me for years in therapy. “

I didn’t know better,” she says.

She’s been on her own journey of growth just as much as I have, both of us on opposite sides of the world going to work, washing dishes, taking care of dogs in countries we were not born in. She’s changed careers multiple times, navigated death and crises and then dealt with me, her first-born, leaving to go as far away as I could, as soon as I was able to, just like she did. It embarrasses me how easy it is to reduce her to a spot on the horizon for me to compare my own journey to, instead of a person dealing with fear, joy, mundanity just like me.

It feels like we’re at the beginning of a big boom in immigrant-led narratives in books, tv and movies, but sometimes the character of the immigrant parent feels like a caricature, reduced to only the tropes of lost dreams and stunted communication. 

It’s in our nature to locate where we are by comparing ourselves to the versions of ourselves and our families that exist only in memory. Maybe because it’s impossible to compare it to the person you are yet to become, to really see where you are going when everything feels so brand new. We fail to see the cycles and patterns that repeat in us from the places and people we come from.

For me, it’s because I don’t really have a present context of who my mum is to be able to replace the version of her I keep in my head.   

I’m trying to change that. I’ve been calling her on Facebook Messenger to ask her to tell me stories about what happened to her on the way to Australia. I’m in the process of putting together a book proposal (!) and it’s based on our tessellating lives, the patterns repeated between us. It’s usually early evening for me, early morning for her. The first time I called her, she had her fluorescent work vest on and was 15 minutes from leaving the house. I still haven’t figured out how to push her to give me texture or details about her stories that go beyond the broad summaries she’s giving me, but I’m so excited to keep calling her and to keep finding out. It feels like I’m unthawing my frozen mum from a lifetime of being stuck in my head as a one note person, a landmark in the past I can compare myself to.