Heroine

 

Hero  /’h??ro?‘/  n  -roes 1 heroine  /’?h?ro??n’/fem. – a someone who is admired for their bravery, goodness, or great ability, esp. someone who has performed an act of great courage under very dangerous conditions: a war hero.

April 23rd, 1977. Almost two years after our defeat. Kim was only nineteen as he stood there on the dock, dazed and startled at the reality and unreality of what he was about to leave behind. On his left hand, a golden ring. 24 carats, slightly chipped; a family heirloom. He brought only what he needed –  a bag of sugar, nine lemons.

That was how my essay began. It was written four years ago for this competition celebrating Refugees and their Invaluable Contribution to Australian Society. I was only in it for the three thousand dollar first prize, which I didn’t get. What I did get was a Certificate of Participation and $50. My mother, as always, came to the award ceremony and clapped loudest when I came up to collect my loser-consolation prize.

I think she was proud of me because she bought fifteen copies of my essay when it was published. It was her idea in the first place that I interview Kim. Kim is my uncle, her brother and everyone’s hero. He says things like, ’No matter how hard things get, there’s always a business to run’ and is the only person who can make a refugee camp sound like a holiday resort.

Kim comes from a generation of warriors. I come from a generation of party drugs, sex and R’n’B. I would like to think of my generation as capable of bravery, goodness and great ability. I would like to think that, in circumstances of great danger, we too are capable of great courage and sacrifice. But my generation has never been tested, and I am perfectly happy to keep it that way. I face enough danger jaywalking and trying to cook. To be honest I don’t mind sitting here, just basking in the reflected glory of people like Kim who have done amazing things – he is a great man, an excellent uncle and a brilliant role model. But there is somebody else I have to mention.

The decision to write about my mother came unexpectedly as I was recalling my story about Kim. This is the woman who has been to all my plays, debates, competitions and ceremonies, who has driven me all around Melbourne at odd hours of the night to make sure I get home safely. I guess somewhere along the line I realised that she wasn’t put on earth to look after me, although it’s what she seems to do anyway. But it’s not easy to suddenly stop thinking of this woman in terms of me.

A Vietnamese woman is expected to spend her life in the service of other people. Mum was the second youngest of six children, the wife of an angry husband – the mother of an ungrateful daughter. Wherever she is, she is always giving giving giving, and asking for nothing in return. Here’s where I might dramatically declare that she is a heroine in her own way, but that conjures disturbing images of elephants and breast plates and war flags1, so I won’t.

I guess part of the reason why it’s taken me so long to see her as a separate entity is because sometimes I really do feel like I am the centre of her universe. Please note that I am not going to use this as an opportunity to whinge about my mother, because it is only through Western eyes that I would consider her to be dependant, obsessive and slightly neurotic. In any case, it has taken me a long time to realise that you do not have to fight in a war to be a hero, nor own a thriving business, or simply to be male – even if you are Vietnamese.

Lately we’ve started to drift apart and I don’t know why. I guess in between soccer training and Uni work, boyfriend, girlfriends and other commitments to run off to, there is no longer time to eat home cooked meals, help around the house, talk or even say hi to my mum when she gets home. My life has made her a stranger to me.

Nowadays, if I do come home, I go straight to my study and shut the door. I have emails to write, essays to complete and I no longer feel the urge to sit with her and recount everything that happened that day. I find some of her analogies lame (Some fingers are long, some fingers are short. Some people win, some people lose…) and get annoyed when she makes me translate each minute detail on the gas bill or read the electricity provider’s fifty page energy policy for home and content owners. I don’t find her reassurances reassuring (It’s okay to be mentally ill), I am embarrassed when she talks to salesman in her pyjamas and I don’t like it when she speaks Vietnamese in public. I hate it when she haggles, repeats everything five times and most of all I hate it how she barges into my room while I’m changing.

If I injure myself I get yelled at (Why did you fall for!) and if she injures me I get yelled at (You were in my way!). One time I was really sick and she told all my friends I had diarrhea, but she doesn’t understand why it’s rude to tell old people they look like Santa Claus. I am forbidden to read in toilet and listen to music while I’m studying, because multitasking would make me crazy. I am not allowed to eat what I want because I’ll get indigestion and die and I am not allowed to go to sleepovers because I might get kidnapped and taken to Iran.

And yet… and yet… this peculiar, meek, self deprecating woman comes to mind. I guess it cannot be easy being a single mother in a foreign country, especially when you’ve got someone like me as your daughter. She makes it harder for herself, I think, because she’s too proud to accept Centrelink money from my dad and wouldn’t let me pay any bills (Just focus on your study!). I asked her once whether she was happy and she said yes.

She seems genuinely happy with the way things have turned out, although she came to me the other day saying it made her sad that she didn’t see me much anymore. It’s hard for me to make time for her, but sometimes it breaks my heart to see her work so hard.

It is dark when she gets up in the morning and dark when she comes home at night. Straight after work she is cooking away a storm in the kitchen. I’m not entirely sure why she still does this because most of the time I am not even home to eat her food. I think she does it on the off chance that I might come home early and have dinner with her. Nevertheless, by the time I get home there are always bowls of food lined on table, a suspended dinner, hermetically sealed in cling wrap or with a microwave-safe plate over the top for me to reheat at a later time.

I have never heard her complain, but when I touch her hands they are dry and coarse. They are small hands, not slender, feminine but covered in band-aids to heal the paper cuts she gets from her new job. In her old job she was soldering metal balls onto a circuit board for about twelve hours a day, six to seven days a week. She handled the soldering iron pedantically, meticulously, knowing that her creation would wind up in a large container with everybody else’ in the end. She took pride in the knowledge that someday someone somewhere would own a first class washing machine that never broke, and it would be because of her.

When you are young I guess you think your parents are invincible, incapable of fear or loneliness. Mum knew everything – there wasn’t a maths problem she couldn’t solve or a word in English she didn’t know. She taught me my ABC, my timetables and how to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar in Prep. She towered over me physically and psychologically, and I thought that with her arm resting on my shoulder I could take on the world.

As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realise certain things about the relationship we have. She is still there next to me, but she can no longer reach my shoulders. She is still my mum, but she is not invulnerable. She is important to me, but we are not inseparable.

{mosimage}The other day I rolled out of bed, I think it was like eleven o’clock, and there was a sandwich on the table. She got up at five thirty to make that sandwich. I don’t know why she made it. I don’t know why she does any of the things she does but she does, generously, unquestioningly and stoically. Having said that I am probably the only person in the world who would single her out as a hero – Mum would be the first person to call this essay ridiculous (you’ve got nothing to write about!) But this small, fragile woman is larger than life, and this is something that I need to get down on paper. It takes great courage, ability and a lot of goodness to be who she is, and in some small way I want her to be recognised for that.

Helen Huynh

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