My mom turns to my cousin and exclaims, “At least I’m not as crazy as your mom! She was running a whole restaurant by herself. Doing everything! Even I couldn’t do that. I don’t know how she did that!”
My aunt in question takes a sip of her tea and responds, “I had to. What else could I do?”
It’s the last night of our week-long summer bliss in California and we are all sitting around the kitchen table, eating Chinese bakery sweets and drinking tea. My cousins and I are arguing with our parents, telling them that they should treat themselves more often. This week of vacation has been absolutely blissful, but it came after years of watching our parents dangerously overwork themselves.
As expected, we get the response that we always get: “We can’t. We have to pay the bills!” They ask us, with a not-so-subtle accusatory tone, if we realize how great we have it compared to what they grew up with. Then they ask us if we realize how much they love us, because that’s why they work so hard.
I bite my tongue, but the questions angers me. I can tell my cousins are angered too. In the eyes of the adults, we probably seem like spoiled millennials who had it too easy. Granted, we can never begin to fathom what it must have been like to leave everything you knew to come to a new, foreign place where you are suddenly seen as an “other.” However, this does not mean that we do not know what it means to struggle. Our struggles as children of working class Asian American immigrants exist as truths that go hand-in-hand with our parents’ sacrifices.
We respond, telling them that we, of course, understand how much they love us. We understand that they work hard for us, because we’ve watched them do it tirelessly for our entire lives. We know they do it out of their love for us, because we carry the weight of our guilt and our gratitude. However, we also fear that for years we have been watching our parents work themselves to death. We sincerely wonder if the next 12-hour work shift will be their last.
As the conversation continues, we begin reminiscing about harder times. Our parents think back to daunting credit card debts, the traumatizing process of bankruptcy, and periods of unemployment. My mother and I recall my father’s deteriorating mental health when we lost everything, which made him extremely volatile. My memories of my parents consist almost entirely of two images: my parents working or arguing. Sometimes they would do both simultaneously, sneaking off into the back of our family restaurant to scream at each other so customers wouldn’t hear them, only to walk back out smiling in English, the language of the capitalist nation they had to survive in. Every argument revolved around money, or rather, the lack thereof.
My cousins and I ask again why our parents had to do everything for everyone but themselves. They scoff at us, noting how all the stories of struggle they just shared are the exact reasons why they can’t stop working. They accuse us again of not understanding how hard they have to work to pay for our future. It is something they “have to do.” We push back, however. We do understand what it means “to do what you have to do” at the expense of our self-care.
We express to them, probably for the first time, how much much pressure we feel to be perfect, to live up to their expectations, and to “pull our weight.” We still carry the weight of the adultification we experienced as adolescents, which forced us to grow up extremely fast, internalize their unhealthy work ethics, and impossibly high expectations. We came home from school to empty houses and fell asleep to the soft sounds of crying or the crashing of harsh Vietnamese being thrown in an argument. We outgrew our clothes in the back of Chinese restaurants while folding menus and trading Pokemon cards. As children who grew up in poor families, we juggled adult responsibilities, school, and immense stress. This is how capitalism damages communities and their children—by passing on economic strife, trauma, and broken models of behavioral health.
As Vietnamese-American immigrants, this unhealthy work ethic my parents carry is further entrenched because they have seen first-hand what happens when their hard work pays off. My parents left Vietnam to come to the United States with no belongings and no English, but they eventually worked themselves up from nothing to being able to own a home and financially support their four children. How could hard work not pay off when they have reaped the rewards before? Eventually, however, their hard work started to become more detrimental than fulfilling, but this didn’t stop them from trying.
I pour fresh, hot tea into everyone’s tea cups. The conversation shifts to address a question I heard way too often growing up, “How do you do it?”
How did my mom raise four boys, work, cook, and clean every day without breaking? How did my dad work day and night with no health insurance and no vacations? How did my aunt manage to run a restaurant from open until close every single day by herself—hosting, answering phones, taking orders, cooking, serving, cleaning the tables, washing the dishes, prepping the food, everything. “How do you do it?” they ask. It’s a question that’s always asked with a mixture of pity and fascination that I always hated.
I say under my breath, “By killing yourself a little every single day.”
Everyone takes a slow inhale.
My cousin, realizing just how risky her mother’s work habits have been, desperately asks, “Why did you do that to yourself, Mom?”
Everyone lets out a long, careful exhale.
She asks again frantically, fighting back tears, “Why did you do that?! You can’t do that anymore. I want you to grow old. You don’t need to do that for us anymore. We’re going to be okay. I’ll give you money. Stop, please!” She is sobbing at this point, and everyone around the table is sobbing too.
I turn to my mom and whisper, “You too, Mom. I love you. Please, don’t work so hard.”
For the first time in what seems like our entire lives, our parents don’t push back. This is usually their cue to dismiss our worries, telling us instead that we don’t understand the demands of life, but my cousin’s unignorable vulnerability and desperation pierces through all of the pretenses and we all finally saw each other.
The air clings to our shoulders. The heaviness reminds us all how sore our backs are from carrying this silence for so many years. My cousins and I are not used to having any room for vulnerability, because vulnerability has always been a privilege we could never afford. This is the first time my family is all sitting down together to ask how we can begin to unlearn toxic work ethics in order to start keeping each other accountable to our health and happiness, despite being cash poor. This is the first time my cousins and I are finally able to ask our parents to take care of themselves without them labeling us as young, naive, and ignorant. We finally express our gratitude for their sacrifices without turning them into martyrs.
The rest of the night, we wiped away each others’ tears, exchanged apologies and thank you’s, and basked in our strength and power. That night made up for a lot of the nights I cried myself to sleep, thinking to myself, if only we could talk to each other—if only we were brave enough to say, “I’m hurting, and I know you’re hurting too.”
My family are the hardest working people I know and I wished that wasn’t the case. I wished we could stop accepting that working past our limits is just something we “have to do.” I dream for a better tomorrow where our worth is not tied to our capacity to work, but to our capacity to love.
If we took the time to genuinely ask one another how we were doing and coping instead of how we were participating in a dangerous, unhealthy, capitalist system, we could move away from this false notion of independence, and start moving towards creating more loving, interdependent communities. If we prioritized another person’s well-being instead of how they made money, maybe we could all start to heal.
After that night, I began wondering: Instead of asking, “How do you do it,” what if we were asking, “How are you doing?” A simple question in theory, but radical in practice.
Because my family finally shared our wounds, we saw each other for the first time. My mom finally listened and said, “I’ll try,” after I asked her to take care of herself. Healing is a journey; that night, we joined hands and exposed our hearts as we began.
Alex is passionate about educational access, racial, economic, and queer justice, sexual violence prevention and education, and healing as a political practice. He graduated from the University of Michigan and currently works in a Philadelphia public high school as a college advisor and advocate. You can reach him on Twitter @alexrichardngo.