Growing up, I was raised by my grandma while my single mother worked long hours. When I was younger, I didn't understand why my mom didn't spend more time with me. All I wanted was a family like I saw on TV: a nuclear family that sat down to eat together for dinner, but that wasn't us. My mom would go to work from 6 or 7am and come home at 10pm.
It wasn't until college, through joining Asian-American organizations, that I finally realized I wasn't the only one. It's a trend in the Southeast Asian community. Many of our parents are limited English speaking refugees forced to leave under the horrendous conditions that the Vietnam War (or the War in Southeast Asia or as they call it in Vietnam, the American War). What else can they do but work? Language here is so important, and if you can't speak English, you will always be stuck with the low income job. Language is power here. Our parents HAD to work the long hours to pay for the rent, the food, the children. All they ever wanted was to give us an opportunity and a choice in our future.
I know now that I am one of the lucky ones. Many who grew up in environments where their parents were constantly working went to find another family. They needed someone's presence, someone to be there for them. They needed brothers and sisters, and while searching for a sense of belonging, many found themselves in juvy and jail. One of my uncles went to jail for being with the wrong people at the wrong time. He was young, impressionable and found with people who had shot someone. He didn't commit the act, but he was with them and the first time I saw him was when I was in high school when he came out of jail. Sometimes I can't even imagine that he had gone to jail. He is such a SWEET uncle, taking us around the city and telling us ghost stories. Another one of my uncles was addicted to cocaine at one point and has a huge dragon tattooed on his arm. He's also the same person who played video games with us from SuperNintendo to Sega to Playstation to XBox and on and on and got us chips and helped us work out our game systems. People make mistakes, especially people who need a place to belong. They're vulnerable.
As a mentor encouraging minority high school and middle school students to consider higher education, I shared this pride with them: we, born as Asian-Americans, are the children of courageous refugees and immigrants who challenged the unknown for a better future, yet in this unfamiliar country, we struggle, often with low knowledge of the American system, limited English proficiency, low sense of belonging, and low income. However, we shouldn’t feel shame in our circumstances but take pride in how we deal with them.