I was 10 when my dad wanted to sponsor his parents and two youngest brothers over from Vietnam. My mother was an unwilling participant in the whole ordeal, as she had wanted time with just us, her family. Our family of 5 was never alone, however. We always had another one of my dad’s brothers living with us as he immigrated over with my parents in the late ’70s when he was 19 years old, but never had any aspirations or motivations to move out and do anything on his own. So, therefore, we were a family of 6.
To be brutally honest, this uncle is an alcoholic and lacked any care for the rest of the family. Birthdays and Christmases were non-existent with him, and most of the time, he was drinking away in his room alone after dinner, every day. This one time, my mom left my brother with him for a grocery run and he ended up intentionally burning my brother’s hand with a cigarette butt.
My mom was reluctant to sponsor my grandparents because not only was she taking care of her three kids, she was also taking care of this uncle too. She was his caregiver, packing his lunches, cleaning his bathroom and sometimes his bedroom and laundry as well. When uncle got wasted, he sometimes would have accidents and miss the toilet. Or I would find him in the fetal position tucked away in my bed, having mistaken it for his own on his way back from the bathroom.
There was always a lack of privacy, support, and mutual respect in my parents’ marriage too. My dad constantly threatened my mom that he would choose his own family over her and us kids. He never supported her, but rather would defend his brother in these situations. She would cave into his ways as she was scared of a failed marriage and a broken family. Because of this, she eventually also gave in to his wishes of sponsoring his parents over as it had become an ultimatum.
It also took my dad a long time to persuade my grandparents to make the move from Vietnam to Canada. They are creatures of habit and liked their familiarities. They didn’t want to move, but my dad insisted it was for their own good convincing them that in Canada there was a better health care system and he can take care of them and their needs. My grandparents finally agreed with the stipulation that he also sponsored both his youngest brothers over at the same time too, since my grandmother loved them too much and couldn’t bear to leave them behind.
In 1994, at the age of 13, my grandparents and two other uncles made it to Canada. My 1500sqft home had ten people living in it. Every room had at least two people sharing it, bunk beds, cots, or mattresses on the floor, were our furniture arrangements. Not one corner of the house was free to hide in.
My mom became even more emotionally and mentally unavailable as she was busying herself as a conflicted wife, putting on a facade of the respectful and loyal daughter-in-law, and acting as everyone’s chef catering to everyone’s diet – morning, noon, and night. My oldest brother, being 4 years older than me, was at the age where he was allowed to escape to his friends’ house. My other brother, 5 years younger than me, was too young to understand anything at the time and was happily preoccupied with video games. And by default of being the only girl at home with no social life, I was expected to help mom in the kitchen and do all other chores like cleaning the house and laundry service.
My grandmother barely gave me a second look since the day she came over because I didn’t have a male reproductive system and wasn’t pretty enough to be her favorite granddaughter. I’m not exaggerating that point either. My entire fraternal side of the family prefers males. In fact, my dad only has male siblings. In total there were 10 children from his family, three were female babies, but somehow they all ended up passing away at an early age. Only the males survived.
Grandma held high expectations of my mother and was nit-picky at almost every detail, including our living arrangements and food. My war-driven, egotistical, money-hungry, grandfather was constantly on my dad’s case, expecting this country that he immigrated over to be more of the fairy tale freedom country that everyone had painted, rather than one where you’d had to work hard to earn a decent living. Thus, my father, seemingly so, bit off more than he could chew as he was left to manage everyones’ expectations and emotions, yet he could barely control his own.
The tension was high within the four walls of my house and I could feel every bit of it. There’s a whole new set of rules and regulations to play by. I had witnessed the results of a poorly executed plan to bring over my extended family and the collision of Eastern and Western cultures. If I had lacked freedom before, I was now under a microscope with my mom, as nothing could go wrong to bring shame to the family. Nothing seemed real and normal anymore.
I guess it’s these emotional tensions that brought my mother to whipped me in front of all of them within two weeks of their arrival. What had happened was I had returned something that I borrowed from one of my new uncles, the youngest of the brothers who is 12 years older than me. But because his bedroom door was closed, I left it in front of the door, not realizing that he wouldn’t see it but rather step on it when he walked out. He was upset at me for placing it there and went and told my mom on me. My mom was furious. She called me up and without giving any reason as to why she ordered me to lay on my stomach, butt side up, in the middle of the living room and proceeded to punish me with a coat hanger – in front of my uncle. Yelling at the fact that I was not mindful and that she’s taught me better. Telling me that I should have known better to have made her lose face with my uncle, and if I ever did anything like that again, I’d get it much worse. When she eventually broke the coat hanger on my back, she said nothing else and stomped away to her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
When I sat up again, I realized that everyone was staring at me, not just my uncle. All four uncles, two grandparents, two brothers, and my father, yet no one said a word to her. I had become, what felt like a circus act, a spectacle put on public display for them. I was confused, embarrassed, and ashamed. The feeling of their eyes on me made me sick to my stomach and made my heart wrench. I gathered whatever I had left of my dignity, wiped my tears and slipped away to my bedroom. I hid under my covers and muffled my angry cries in my pillow. No one cared to ever check in on me or asked how I was feeling.
No one cared to show any compassion or even discussed what they had witnessed. If you’re curious, yes, I had bruises and long welts on my butt cheeks and my back, and although they eventually disappeared, the pain is still there and hurts just the same.
I spent most of my days from that point onwards in my room, only coming out to help with chores and dinner duties but barely saying a word to anyone, and hardly anyone said a word to me. My mom would sometimes ask me “what’s wrong?” but I knew she wouldn’t be able to handle my answer and it almost felt as though it was a baited question. I was lonely but better than being beaten or used as an emotional weapon against others. Every day was like walking on eggshells at home. If things weren’t done right or if I had too many questions, I would get scolded at. When I wasn’t around to help, I would get scolded at. My parents were barely talking to each other, and if they were, it was in English, and it was to bicker at each other.
It wasn’t until years later did I learned from my mother that she was upset with all the emotional turmoil she was dealing with; she didn’t know what else to do other than use me as an example to make my uncle think twice about complaining to her over childish things. I’m not sure if this was her attempt to apologize or if she was making herself feel better. But to this day, I can’t understand why I was hung out to dry by my mother like that. She had chosen to risk my self-worth in an attempt to save her face and deal with her turmoils and marital issues. To satisfy her resentment towards the situation that she was in, a situation that I too was a victim of, she unleashed her inner storms out on me that day in front of everyone. She had submitted to my uncle’s immature idiocracy by taking out her anger on her child rather than having compassion and putting her child first.
A little less than six months after this situation, my grandparents called the cops on my dad. I can’t make this shit up. My grandfather had learned, from his friend in the USA, that to receive maximum financial aid benefits from the government he could claim that there was no one willing to take care of him. So he asked one of my uncles to make the phone call to the police, he staged a conflict with my dad and timed it exactly so when the officers showed up they would be a witness and take statements of it. He was quite a skilled actor for an old guy that didn’t speak a word of English, using just hand gestures and a Vietnamese-English dictionary. Believe me when I tell you that this wouldn’t be the first and only scheme he has pulled.
The entire ordeal blindsided my dad. He had spent the years before this fighting with my mom to fulfill his duty of filial piety to his parents. He had risked his marriage and kids in the hope of a relationship with them for them to be proud of him, and now there was no hope of that left. Not to mention the amount of money it costed us to get them over to Canada and the cost of supporting them the amount of time they were living with us. A few days after this incident, my grandparents and two uncles, their favorite sons, moved away, leaving behind the 6 of us again.
I find this whole situation ironic. We, as a family, were not financially, emotionally, or mentally in a position to have made this move. Both my parents weren’t working at the time. My dad was in a car accident years prior, and despite the fact he came out of it healthy and fully able to work, he decided that the best course of action was to claim workers compensation for the rest of his life. Which meant our household income was fixed. We barely made it month to month sometimes. I also remember moments of going through couch cushions looking for change so because my brothers and I had cravings for Pizza Hut, but we were short on cash, so we tried to scrounge up as much change as we can. To give my situation more preface, you should also know that my father is addicted to playing the lottery and has a bad spending habit. Every week, three times a week, he doesn’t skip a beat, and each play is at least $20, but there are times where I’ve heard him say he’s spent $100 a day. He would also randomly spend thousands of dollars on cars, stereo systems, newest and greatest TVs and electronics. The list goes on and on.
That to us was big money back then, especially when we’re looking for dimes in the crevices of couches so that we can buy food. I’m digressing again here, but in all aspects, we weren’t ready for this traumatic experience, and it was all for the sake of my dad wanting to prove his worth to his parents. My grandparents never wanted to come to Canada and had excused my dad of his duty to pay them respect, to take care of them. We, most definitely, didn’t have the financial means or a plan to support them. My parent’s relationship wasn’t strong enough to work together as a team, and this incident nearly tore them apart. The neglect of the needs of their children [my brothers and I] and to add more injury, the use of me as a punching bag for others emotional therapy. He could barely take care of his needs, wife’s needs, and children’s needs, let alone other people’s needs. Yet, my grandparents ended up breaking my dad’s heart anyway. So I question whether my dad did it for them, or did he do it for himself?
I assure you that if you give it some thought, you’ll see that all of your customs and traditions were never actually taught to you. Unlike bible study or Sunday school, most societal customs and traditions are hardly ever provided like a session one would learn in class by implementing facts, discussions and reasoning. Most of what we take on are from stories and/or threats during moments of disciplining that we hear from our parents, relatives, or passersby.
Traditions and customs have been altered to fit the circumstances or the person telling the stories more often than not. Additionally, the person who is doing the storytelling is not open-minded or equipped to provide any actual context or depth to supporting the person receiving the information to adapt and self-discover. It is like the proverb of the blind leading the blind. This, right here, causes so much suffering in all of us.
I’ve learned that we tend to blindly follow customs and traditions even when we’ve been excused from them; we still have a feeling of being held accountable. We believe it’s what we need to do because it was ‘taught’ by others to carry our roots and show respect. In my case, the need to show filial piety from my father to his father and from me to my mother was simultaneously was happening at once, in the same house, and yet no one stopped to question the morality in it. Without recognizing and working through the trauma that my grandparents and parents caused, I could be the one that’s repeating history, beating my own children into false submission. Or I would be the one neglecting my children’s emotional and mental growth – denying them of their humanity.
This is generational trauma. This is generational curse. We cause suffering in ourselves, our children and the generations to come. The fortunate ones will understand and will be conscious of this – they will grow out of them. The unfortunate ones will live in these predicaments, be stagnant in them and never move forward. We are held hostage to these personalized versions of customs and cultural traditions. We give up our humanity, who we are, for a chance to earn the approval and love from those who are supposed to love us, regardless.
Without awareness, we become incurable.
Be a voice not an echo, friend.