A semester at sea: back to my roots

As I stepped off the ship in Vietnam, one of the last stops on my Semester at Sea, I searched the crowd for one of my ma’s childhood friends. I spotted him as he stood sporting a San Francisco Giants hat, the same one my step-dad had given him a year ago. He promised to wear it upon my arrival so he could be distinguishable among the crowd of locals.

“Welcome to the Motherland,” he said, greeting me with an affectionate hug. Little did I know that the next five days in Vietnam would drastically change my perspective on life.

Two hours later I found myself in Cu Bi, the little village my ma grew up in. As I got out of the car, I was immediately greeted by a crowd of her childhood friends.

“You must be Le’s girl, you look just like her,” they said. “Two identical water droplets.”

I heard this often during my stay in Vietnam. Many of ma’s pictures were destroyed during the war or lost during her immigration to the US, so I never knew what she looked like when she was my age. It meant the world to me to hear that I resembled her when she was 20 years old. Those of my ma’s siblings who were able to successfully immigrate to America ended up living on the east coast or in Canada. Most of my family I have yet to meet. So to go back to the place my entire family originated from, and to have this innate familiarity with people I have never met before, made me feel more connected to them than ever. To sit here in the house my ma and her 12 other siblings grew up in during the war and hear about all the mischief she got into, but also the reverence these people had for her, changed the way I looked at her and the way I saw myself.

”She was the only woman who made it out of our village. She is our success story,” my ma’s friends said, continuing to rave about her.

As I sat on the back of a motorcycle and cruised the same groveley dirt paved roads my ma once used to run down, I heard stories about how she would be the only girl who played soccer with the boys on the street and dared to stand up against anybody of any size if they rubbed her the wrong way. It was entertaining to hear all the stories about how she came to be the independent, strong and inspiring role model I have in my life today.

Stopping by the local coffee house, I got off the motorcycle only to be met by a flood of more locals, eager to see me for the first time and share the experiences they have had with my ma. As I sipped on coffee and engaged in their enthusiastic and hilarious stories, I felt a sense of fulfillment. I never thought I would be able to visit the same coffee house, schoolhouse, noodle house or even nail salon my ma used to grow up going to.

I had thought that my ma’s voice was lost after her immigration to America, but now I realize that it has only become stronger as she learned to rebuild it into another language, another country, another culture.

As I reminisced on everything I thought I knew about my ma, a lady gently grabbed my arm and leaned in.

“Your ma, she has a good mouth,” she said. “That mouth can speak words that will charm anybody and is the reason behind her likeability and success. You are still too young for me to know if you will have the same wit and charm your ma has, but I sure hope you do.”

She gave me a quick pat on the back and resumed to drinking her coffee and the conversation at the table.

I sat there, mulling over what she just told me. In the Vietnamese culture, having a “good mouth” means having the capabilities to speak eloquently and persuasively, which they believe will take you far in life. I realized then that my ma never lost her voice, not even when she came to America. Even after not seeing her for twenty-five years, these people still raved about the impact she left on them. If anything, her immigration to America has made her voice stronger because now her voice can be heard across two different countries in two different languages. I strive to embody my ma’s strong voice, to be just as hardworking and determined, and all with her sense of grace that ultimately distinguished her among the village she grew up in.

I thought going abroad my voice would be silenced, that I would face more oppression as a woman. However, upon reflecting on my trip, my voice has grown stronger than ever. I have come to understand cultural differences and relate it back to my own. I had thought that my ma’s voice was lost after her immigration to America, but now I realize that it has only become stronger as she learned to rebuild it into another language, another country, another culture. All the empowering women I have met on my voyage have encouraged me to continue to exercise my free voice in society. From the Ghanaians I met who taught me the importance of hard work and unyielding strength, to the Indian women I met in Kerala who showed me knowledge and education are the most important traits women can obtain no matter what part of the world they come from, I am so hopeful for the rise of women from all over the world. Hopefully someday I can have a voice as strong and memorable as my ma’s and the incredible women I have met on my trip.