A Mom's Tough Standards, Imported From Vietnam

Theresa Nguyen and her daughter Stephanie in Morrow, Ga.

Theresa Nguyen and her daughter, Stephanie, in Morrow, Ga. StoryCorps hide caption

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After emigrating from Vietnam, Theresa Nguyen and her husband raised two children in the United States. But they kept alive the traditions and language they brought from Asia.

Recently, Theresa, 48, and her daughter, Stephanie, 24, spoke about how they balanced the two cultures.

"Many times when I look back on your upbringing, if I had to do it again, a couple of things I would have changed," Theresa admits.

"What would you do differently?" Stephanie asks.

"I would be a little more compromising," Theresa says, thinking of one example in particular. "Remember some boy gave you a necklace?"

"And you made me go back to school the next day and give him back the locket," Stephanie says.

"OK, I was taught from my mom, do not accept presents from strangers," Theresa says. "Because if you accept presents from them, you have to repay them; it's a debt you have to carry to your grave."

If she were able to go back and do it again, Theresa says, she would try to be "a little more understanding. I might ask to go swap it out for something cheaper."

After leaving Saigon in 1979, Theresa married her husband, Mai, in Ohio in 1983. Around the house, the couple regularly spoke Vietnamese with Stephanie and her younger brother, Matthew.

"Most of your friends are Vietnamese too, right?" Theresa asks. "And, um, I don't know if you ever compare, 'If your mommy is tougher than mine?' "

"I don't even know where to start with that," Stephanie says. "When you're 12 and your whole world revolves around who got to sleep over at whoever's house, it's not fun to say, 'Oh no, I can't do that.' "

"I know, a lot of times I am living in this country trying to acculturate — but at the same time, I want to preserve the Asian culture. I want to keep the family together," Theresa says.

"And sometimes when I look back I ... I do realize that I was a little bit too tough."

"I wouldn't say that I resent you in any way for that," Stephanie says. "I think I learned a very strong sense of right and wrong, and working hard."

"I know many, many times I'm very proud of you — but I just don't say it," Theresa says. "And Daddy gets on my case all the time: 'You don't say it, you don't say it' — and I would tell him, 'But she knows I feel it.'

"I don't know if you do know or not," she tells her daughter.

"I'm glad that you're proud of me," Stephanie says, "because most of the time I feel like I'm a disappointment."

"No, you are not!" Theresa says.

"I am just one of those old Asian moms. We never say we love you — we expect you to see it through our actions. But I'm learning, I'm learning. When I go away from this life, I want you to remember my love for you, that's all. I don't care for anything else."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo. Recorded in partnership with WABE.

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