I Ran From My Vietnamese Heritage — Until My Mom Revived The Childhood Ritual I’d Always Craved

Photo: Original Photo of Jane Mai Ngo and Her Mom
Photo of Jane Mai Ngo and Her Mom in Vietnam

Vietnamese is a useless language. Everybody in Canada speaks English. 

This is what I told my mom when she insisted that I take Vietnamese language lessons at school to honor our culture. I felt embarrassed because I was the only Vietnamese kid in my class, and decided I’d fit in better by sticking to English. 

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My mom, a Vietnamese immigrant, fled her city during the war by hopping on an animal cargo transport truck heading to the Philippines, leaving behind her entire heritage. 

Photo: Original Photo of My Mother (Jane Mai Ngo)

She ran from war to bring me, her daughter, to Canada and I spent most of my life running from my Vietnamese heritage. 

I wanted my life to emulate the childhood I saw on TV, including the classic North American bed tuck-in after a mother read their child a bedtime story. However, my mom who spoke tattered English would look at the children's books I held in my hands and shake her head no, saying her English wasn't strong enough. So, I flipped through the pages on my own, each flip of the page widening the gap between us. 

I regularly came home from school to change the television displaying my mom’s Vietnamese soap operas to my beloved cartoons. Dinner time carried calls for McDonald’s instead of cá kho tō (fried fish). 

Photo: Sergey Pekar / Shutterstock

Books filled with English words piled beside my bed instead of my Mother’s Vietnamese Bible.

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Like my mom’s resistance to Canadian life, I ran from my Vietnamese heritage as though it smelled like a revolting stench of Durian and fish sauce that sat on our dining table. 

Photo: Addilyn Ragsdill Unsplash

Photo: Jim Teo / Unsplash

Our differences cluttered our relationship like an unkempt home.

I refused to address our contrasting views of life. Attempting to make her understand me felt as useless as learning Vietnamese. I carried years of resentment over what my mom was unable to do for me.

The bedtime stories could have been a way for us to bond. Reading to children before bed results in a secure attachment between mother and children. Children can also learn about their own personal narratives through the stories they read with their caregivers.

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The lack of stories that I read with my mom resulted in me feeling that my mom was an inadequate parent. Instead of feeling secure with her, when I grew up, I moved away.

Eventually, though, as an adult and through my work as a therapist, I connected with other Vietnamese people.

I saw them struggle with English words as my mom did.

I heard the same stuttering and pauses that my mom expressed when she spoke to sales associates in clothing stores, hoping to buy the right sizes for me.

Once I became a therapist, I realized people feel more trusting when they feel understood. My mom never felt understood by me because I refused to learn her language.

Finally, in my late 20s, I decided to learn Vietnamese and picked up children's books for my mom to read to me before bedtime. This time, she didn’t object.

In choosing Vietnamese children’s books to develop my language ability, I learned far more than just tones and new words — I finally bonded with my mom and bridged the gap that once separated us.

A study to explore bedtime routine characteristics showed that around ten percent of parents never read to their children before bed, despite significant benefits in language development and bonding. "Bedtime stories are like closeness and an exclusive process that you don’t get the rest of the day," says an interviewee during a research project from 2011 by Booktrust and the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy.

Reading Vietnamese bedtime stories with my mom allowed us to really listen to each other. It was a closeness that we never experienced throughout our relationship.

My mom reading to me in her language invited me into her world, giving her the voice that she was desperate for me to hear. It was the same voice that sang a song of her escape from Vietnam during the war and retreat into the Philippines, in which she didn’t speak a word of English or Tagalog.

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It was the voice that I saw as incessant yelling when really, she was calling out to her only daughter for connection. 

Finally, through the words in her native language, I heard and answered her call.

Photo: Original Photo of Author (Jane Mai Ngo)

Jane Mai Ngo is a Canadian writer and therapist currently based in Bordeaux, France. She writes stories related to mental health, diversity and culture, relationships, food and travel, and the intersections between these areas.