Sunday, April 14, 2013

Daughter of Refugees: My Childhood School Years

Awhile back, my youngest daughter's school had Grandparent's Day, a special day for grandparents to visit the classroom. My daughter invited her grandma on my side of the family.

On the day of the event, my mom arrived and I explained to her what the event was and in general what they would probably be doing at school. Then I dropped my mom and my daughter off.

After school was over later that day, my mom and I were talking about how the event went when she asked me in Hmong, "Did you ever have events like this at school when you were a kid? Days for parents and grandparents to come...?"

I told her that I did. There were Parent's Day, Grandparent's Day, concerts, and many other school events.

Then my mom asked, "How come your dad and I never went to any of these things when you and your brothers and sisters were kids?"

I could tell that she was working through something in her head.

"Mom," I said. "It's okay. You and dad didn't know about these things when we were young. There were letters and invitations sent home by our teachers, but you didn't know. I mean, how could you know?"

There was a short pause. Then my mom said, "There were some kids today at school whose grandparents didn't come. Nobody was there to celebrate the special day with them. They were sad..."

Then she looked away, and I knew that it had clicked with her:
What school must've been like for my siblings and me... for us, the children of refugees and of parents who had never been educated and knew nothing of the educational system or of the experience of going to school... the homework, projects, and studying for tests that we did entirely on our own at home, whether right or wrong, because our parents didn't understand the subjects and couldn't help... the things we must've felt and gone through at school that she had never been aware of before.

The letters and invitations sent home by our teachers either ended up in the trash unread, or if they were read, they were not understood. My parents didn't know English, and back in those days, especially in our little town, there were hardly any Hmong translators or Hmong ESL aides to assist in bridging the Hmong home life with the American school system.

And to be frank, we were very poor and sometimes my parents were just too busy trying to support our family and needing to put food on the table, keeping us clothed, and paying for rent. Those were often first priorities over what seemed like trivial school events.

My mom was quiet for a long time, sitting on my beige couch, looking out the window.

Finally, I said to her, "You supported us in your own way, mom."

And I meant it. I really did. For refugees who knew nothing about America upon arrival, my parents have gotten us to progress farther in life than we could've ever done on our own. That I'm certain of.

But yet as I sat there watching my mom's reaction to Grandparent's Day, tears formed in my eyes. They were both sad and happy tears.

Tears for my mom, who could not have known about all those school events... for the lonely school child still in me.. and for my own kids' lives free of these kinds of issues.