This short story, "Mother" by Natalie Dinh was written in 2021 and received a Scholastic National Gold Key and American Voice Award. The story explores the intersection of womanhood and being a first-generation immigrant. It examines a mother's relationship with her children and her own deceased mother, examining the themes of responsibility and grief across generations. 


by Natalie Dinh from Houston, Texas in United States

There’s something pleasing about the silence at the fish market. In the early morning, there are just enough customers browsing through that you can still hear the conversations of the merchants unlike its afternoon rush hours, where the aisles become crowded and the noise drowns out their chatter. The merchants, made up of elderly women or Bác(1), sit together and drink coffee since the market isn’t busy yet. At nine o’clock, I have the best pick of today’s fish.

The Vietnamese elder stood up from her stool, her oversize T-shirt and turtleneck falling in the balance of her swift motions, and put on her gloves. “Hello, Bác. I would like five of these big catfish.” She ties the bag quickly and weighs it on a scale. The elder asks, “Lots of fish, huh? What’s the celebration today?” Grabbing the cash from my wallet, I answer unfazed, “It’s my mother’s first death anniversary.” Her face blanks for just a second before smiling, “I wish you a good ceremony.”

I’ve always despised the stench of the fish market not because I couldn’t tolerate the odor of raw seafood, but it always brought back unsolicited memories. 1982 Saigon, Vietnam. I was ten years old and crawled out of bed at five a.m. each morning. Why do I have to wake so early each day? Why can’t I only worry about school like my siblings? Grabbing a light jacket, I held tightly onto my mother’s warm hand and walked into the dark streets. In a monotone voice, Mother advised, “You can tell if fish is still fresh if the eyes are clear.” As we walked each morning, she always shared her insights with me. Years later, I wonder why I recalled her advice but why can’t I recall the words “I love you” from my mother just once. Arriving at the harbor each day to wait for the fishermen was a daily routine for my mother and me—her eldest out of five children. Eager for survival meant making sure we visited the fishermen before our competitors, so we could purchase the highest quality fish to resell at the downtown market.

Thump! I drop the sack of rice on the floor. “Honey, I’ve arrived home! Help me with groceries please,” I shout as I carefully step over the Legos on the floor. “Phong, didn’t I ask you to clean up after your baby sister? Please pick up these items now.” I shake my head. “We have guests coming over today.” My ten-year-old son asks, “For what, mom?” I bend down and place my hands onto his shoulders, “In our culture, we honor the day someone passes away each year with a feast. We are honoring grandma.” His round eyes widen and his mouth slightly drops open for a few seconds before quickly gasping. He turns around and rushes to his room, shouting, “I have to finish this round of my game first!” A sigh escapes from my mouth, “Come back here!”

I begin cooking my mother’s favorite dishes, closely following her recipes. As I place the catfish into the brown, clay pot, I am reminded of how much I disliked eating fish back in Vietnam. As we repeatedly ate the leftover fish my mother couldn’t sell, I grew a disrelish for the taste of fish altogether. Suddenly, my older son shouts, “Mom, can you bring fruits to my room please?” I look up from my pot, “I’m cooking! Come get it yourself. You’re thirteen!” I smirk after a moment of silence thinking I was finally left alone. Then a final shout comes in, “But I’m studying!” I rinse my hands, sigh, and cut several persimmons into tiny slices. Thump! I place the plate onto my son’s desk, who does not notice with his headphones in. While walking out, I pause for a moment at the door. Silence. I mockingly chanted, “You’re welcome!!!!” As expected, I hear a reply of “Oh. Thanks, Mom!” With a sigh, I return to my kitchen.

I flip through her recipe book again. My mother taught me a few important tips. If something boils, don’t let it boil long and return it to a steady level. As the eldest daughter in my family, now a mother too, it is my unspoken role to maintain the atmosphere of our home. I chop the fat from the meat. Chopping was another one of my mother’s tips. Chopping away negative feelings to preserve the peaceful environment of the home. Some things are better left unspoken if it makes everyone happy. Lastly, I mix the chili flakes into the stew. My mother said mixing in what everybody wants rather than what I wanted could keep us all at peace. In my culture, it is the unannounced role of the eldest female in the household to protect the home.

“Sweetie, are you okay?” my husband interrupts my train of thought. “I’m almost done cooking,” I reply tiredly. He scans the kitchen, “Need any help?” I shake my head. He smilingly replies, “I’ll pick up some beer before the guys arrive.” I roll out the traditional red tablecloth and set the lunch table. Then I place the smaller plates of beef stew and the braised catfish onto my mother’s shrine. It’s customary to have separate dishes of food for the deceased to enjoy as well. As I light the candles and add the incense, the doorbell rings.

I open the door and warmly smile. A tiny woman in her 60s, who’s no taller than five feet, appears at the front door, dressed in a long black trench coat and grey sweats. Her grey hair is permed and cut short so it’s parallel to her jawline. She has large, round glasses and a youthful grin— wide enough that her eyes shrink into tiny crescents. In her hand is a bag of the tiny, guava-flavored, hard candy that comes in the green wrapping. The ones that left a slightly bitter aftertaste. “I brought your mother’s favorite candy!” I laugh and usher her in. “Cô(2) Thao, how have you been? You’re here early.” She obnoxiously gasps, “How could I not be early? I’m your mother’s best friend.” She comes in for a hug. “And you’re practically my child too.” Being in Cô Thao’s embrace was comforting. When I was twelve, she became mẹ nuôi(3).

1984 Saigon, Vietnam. The year my mother bought me a ticket to board a stowaway ship, giving me a chance to migrate from Vietnam and start a new life elsewhere. I was confused, but I thought she would take all of us on that refugee ship. Songbirds are known for pushing their offspring out of the nest early even if the chick hasn’t learned how to fly yet. A month later, I discovered I would be the only one from my family boarding that ship. I would have to embark upon a dangerous trip, but I wasn’t scared of the fall. What I dreaded most was leaving my family behind— because I was the eldest child pushed out of the nest.

It was Cô Thao who migrated with me. At age twelve, I feared separating from my family permanently. I knew my mother stayed back to take care of my younger siblings for whom she couldn’t afford tickets. But I couldn’t help but be jealous of them. I wasn’t angry but baffled at how this was forced upon me because I was a few years older. It seemed as if our few years difference had a wider gap than I believed. Again at the harbor, I scrunched my nose at the odor of fish. I held tightly onto Cô Thao’s hand that night and I watched my mother as she slowly walked away without turning back once.

Splash! Cô Thao spills her teacup. “Oh, I’m so sorry. At this age, I’ve become so clumsy!” I reassure her it’s okay and quickly grab paper towels. She asks me, “Are you okay?” I look up, startled by the abrupt question. Am I really okay? Without further thinking, I open my mouth, “I’m—” Suddenly, at a loss for words, “I’m alright, Cô Thao.” I awkwardly smile to reassure her. “Thanks.”

Shortly after, my two sisters and two of my brothers gradually come in one by one. “Kids, come here! Greet your aunts and uncles!” As my husband also comes back, we make our way towards the shrine. In two rows across the living room, we drop onto our knees, place our palms together, and pray. I look into my mother’s photo at the center of the shrine, and there is something unspokenly sad about her subtle smile. Maybe it’s something about her eyes, which looked as if they were earnestly searching for something greater. There’s a surge of unfamiliar feelings and ineffable thoughts, and as I try to put them into words, my head is filled with this unrecognizable noise that feels like a great mass weighing me down. As I bend over and bow, my siblings follow me, and our children follow us.

Between the years 1984-1987, my family traveled on separate voyages to refugee camps in Malaysia. I took the first voyage with Cô Thao. My mother took the second voyage with the eldest son and youngest daughter. My father made the last trip with the second-eldest daughter and youngest son at the time. We were all lucky to not only arrive in America safely but also reunite in the same city. The door cracks open, and my youngest sibling, who was born here in America, arrives dressed in worn-out jeans and a bomber jacket. Unlike the rest of us, he is tall and has a wide build. He takes off his baseball cap, and his eyes well up with tears. “Chị Hai4,” he calls out in a delicate voice as he crouches towards me. I wrap my hands around him and slowly stroke his head.

One year ago today, his head also rested on my chest as I patted his shoulders in the hospital. While my siblings all wept, I came to each one and hugged them tightly. My youngest brother, Brandon, wept the longest. He wasn’t just shedding tears, but gulping and whimpering from the hospital grounds through the cab ride home that night. Watching him cry I felt as if his tears were more than enough to make up for the absence of mine. That day, I followed him in silence. If he talked about Mother, I would listen. If he needed to smile, I would tell a joke. That’s exactly what I did one year ago because he is my baby brother.

Twenty-four years ago, in 1990, in San Jose, California. Brandon was a little over a year old, while I had just turned eighteen. My mother and father worked several jobs to make ends meet. They left the apartment by five a.m. each day. I woke up around five-fifteen to prepare cereal for the children. As dawn appeared, I took Brandon to Cô Thao, who lived next door, to babysit. By six o’clock, my four siblings and I boarded the school bus.

Typically, I arrived home by three p.m., would pick up Brandon, and made sure my siblings did homework. By five p.m., I started preparing for dinner. Often, I saved two servings of food for my parents to eat long after we'd fallen asleep. That’s how we usually spent our days. I remember one winter night in 1990, where I was coddling baby Brandon on my shoulders while rocking back and forth and humming a melody, that I heard the word, “mẹ”— the Vietnamese word for mom. Startled, I pulled him back and looked into his almond eyes. “No,” I corrected him. “Chị Hai— eldest sister.” My troubled expression confused him. Crying erupted. Now in a similar motion, Brandon’s shoulders rise and fall quickly in between sobs. “At

least come in first before you cry,” I tell him. Fists still clutching onto his cap, he walks into the house and asks, “Where is Mother’s shrine?” I force a smile, “It’s in the back.”

“Cheers!” Everyone’s glass clinks. The dinner table is clear of food and the sink now has stacks of dishes. The men in the family gather at the dining table and chug down many cases of beer. Meanwhile, all of the women are gathered on the living room floor, playing a game of cards. The children play what appears to be hide and seek. Watching my family play together was fulfilling. I continue to wipe the kitchen counter.

“Dear, stop wiping!” I turn around to face Cô Thao on the kitchen floor. “Come and help me cut watermelon,” she directs. I plop onto the floor. “My precious friend worked so hard her entire life. She was able to support her large family.” Cô Thao looks upward, “You were all able to earn good salaries and start your own families. I am happy knowing she is resting happily.” I give Cô Thao a grateful smile.

As I spread the newspaper over the floor, my seven-year-old niece peeks out of the pantry door. “Auntie,” she whispers loud enough to make me jump. I reply, “AH! What is it?!” She glances across the room, “I’m hiding from the others right now, but they take so long.” She frowns, “I’m bored. I have a question to ask you.” I direct her to speak what’s on her mind. “Auntie, why do we all act happy when we are here to remember Grandma’s death... shouldn’t we be sad? It’s just like a normal party.”

I raise an eyebrow at her, “Well, aren’t you a smart one? Very observant, I see.” Still confused, she just blinks at me. “A death anniversary is like any other family gathering, but we prepare a feast and all take turns bowing at the shrine.” I slowly say, “That’s because we have to keep living even when loved ones pass away.” Cô Thao continues where I left off, “So, throwing this party is a chance for them to visit the house. They’ll be at peace if they see us happy. Understood?” The child initially scratches her head and after a while, “Kinda.” She says, “I kinda get why we shouldn’t cry now. But Auntie, why did you not cry at all last year?” I freeze, unprepared for her words. I just stare at her with widened eyes and an expressionless face.

Suddenly, my brother-in-law approaches me, “Chị Hai, thank you so much for the lunch. I didn’t get a chance to thank you earlier for your hard work preparing such a nice meal.” I freeze again. “Thank you.” Two simple, yet genuine words. Unexpectedly, I start weeping. Hot tears stream down both sides of my cheeks and I am wailing muffled words. I try to catch my breath, but more tears rush out and I cannot steady my breathing. I wipe my tears and look down in embarrassment. I tuck my knees to my chest and burrow my face in between my arms. My husband pats my back and whispers, “Do you want to go into the room?” I just whimper in response.

Several minutes after I have managed to stop crying, I slowly raise my head and uncross my arms. It has been tensely quiet. I try to keep a poker face as I look throughout the room to see that everyone has stunned expressions. I feel my cheeks heating and I break composure, irrationally shouting, “It’s been so long since I’ve heard thank you!” I laugh nervously. My brother-in-law’s mouth opens in surprise. I look towards Cô Thao’s kind eyes and heart-shaped lips. She looks so much like my actual mother. As tears start to form in my eyes again, I gulp helplessly, trying to restrain myself. I can’t stop shaking, and eventually, the tears rush out all at once. I loudly confess, “I miss Mother!” Realizing I had not once said these words before, I sob even more as Cô Thao embraces me.

Just as I so desperately yearn to hear the words of gratitude in my life, I wish I had said “thank you” to my poor mother just once before she left. She might’ve never said “I love you,” but despite it being emotionally hard, she managed to push me out of the nest to give me my best chance. When a predator attacks the nest, the songbird pushes the chick out to give them a chance of surviving independently rather than being trapped in danger. Thank you for pushing me, Mother. Each one of my siblings comes and wraps their arms around Cô Thao and I until we become a large flock that is impenetrable to any danger. In between the warmth of my siblings’ and Cô Thao’s embrace, I wasn’t the protector; I was protected. Within my sobs, I realize it’s not one individual that makes the household strong, but rather when all of us stand together to create the flock.

The smell of fish doesn’t bother me anymore. “Dear, you’re back at the fish market already?” She slides on her gloves, “You are here several times a week now, huh?” I greet the same elderly woman who sold me the catfish, “Hello, Bác. I’d like two tilapia today, please.” She rings up the purchase, “Still, you always manage to come so early on a Saturday morning.” She passes me the bag, “It’s impressive.” I smile fondly, “I’ve been craving the fish dishes my mother used to make.”

  1. Bác– pronoun for women who are over 20 years older than you

  2. Cô– pronoun for a woman who is no more than 20 years older than you

  3. mẹ nuôi— adoptive mother or woman who acts as a second mother 4. Chị Hai– title for the eldest sister

Page created on 6/16/2023 9:18:55 PM

Last edited 10/23/2023 1:07:25 PM

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Author Info

Natalie Dinh is a fiction writer and graphic designer based in Houston, TX and St. Louis, Missouri. She currently attends Washington University in St. Louis, pursuing a BFA in communication design. She is interested in storytelling through prose and visual arts. She writes primarily in the short story form. As a hobby, she enjoys oil painting, digital arts, and making zines. She hopes to become a successful writer, artist, and storyteller of the Vietnamese community.