HANNAH CAO                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               about         books        index         ︎






They ask me a lot about my mother





They ask me a lot of questions about my mother. “When did she come to Germany?”

“The late 80s,” I tell them and they crease their eyebrows. Why was her German still lacking the authentic accent, the filling of words, the completion of a sentence? She’d had about twenty years to learn.

I try not to take offence, hear the ignorance, and I try to assume they don’t mean to insinuate laziness when I tell them I started helping her with paperwork and legal jargon the moment I learned reading in second grade. I tell them my mother read my school books with me. I practiced writing in cursive, told her all about history. And she taught me to be good in school because she’d barely graduated and missed out on university when she was offered to come here.

So I tell them, when she came here in her twenties (around my age now), completely by herself, she had a mission. And that mission was survival and a better life, and those missions weren’t selfish, those missions she carried out thinking solely of her family of seven siblings and even more nephews and nieces still living in the old ways in Hà Nội, Sài Gòn, Đà Lạt. The mission was to work hard for a better life. And working she did.

She worked in every sense of the word, she worked every single day, barely having time to learn everything there was to the new language that she hadn’t heard before in her life. She lived ninety percent of her life working, growing older. Once you grow older, foreign words don’t stick the same.
People aren’t always nice about it. “If you live and work here, you better speak the language.” Oh, she speaks the language. She understands you perfectly. She understands your mocking irony. She sees it in your face, in your tone when she says a word that is slightly off but anyone who tried could still make out what word it is. She knows the language. She knows every word that she used in early sewing companies, lingo on the market standing for an entire day in the cold winter, the small talk with customers in her own shop.

So the inability to speak a word the way you want to hear it equals stupidity? I dare you to name someone with more fire in her soul for the purpose of protecting family, of making their lives better than her own. I dare you to say that those acts are lazy, stupid. Don’t act clever when you can’t be kind. Don’t act superior when you can’t have compassion. When she understands less than half of your sentence, she can understand where you’re coming from. Can you?

My mother was one of many contract workers who came to Germany in the 80s when she was in her twenties herself, leaving her entire family behind for a better life, not just for herself but mostly to provide Better Things for her family members back home.

And the Asian noodle shop guy, the nail artist, the flower shop auntie all have similar stories. There were problematic notions about Vietnamese contract workers in the eyes of the public, which I won't go into here, but those notions led to what my mum ran into: ignorance. Because with moving away, there comes judgment from the people who know you don't fit in. That judgment concludes that you're lazy with learning a new language when your mother tongue is the only thing giving you comfort in a completely foreign land with only a handful of acquaintances.
I intended to write this with a different voice, maybe a different tone, about someone fictional. But the reality of it is just that. So yes, this cut right to the bone, hit home for me. I imagine my Vietnamese friends with parents with similar backgrounds can relate as well.

There have been many occasions where I saw, as a child and growing up, other grown people mock my mama. She KNEW that but she smiled back patiently corrected people who called us "Fiji people", pointing at a map at her shop where Vietnam was, and where the Fiji islands were. She was always kind when educating others who didn't know better, she also apologised every time for her 'bad German' and never complained when people looked down on her. As this country has also given her luck amongst the harsh bits, she never complained in her life. But I bloody will.

I guess today I’m here to ~educate~. I just wanted to put this piece out there because there has to be compassion. For there to be compassion, there has to be understanding. And by sharing stories, we can make people understand, therefore have compassion.

I urge that compassion to blossom within people, about other people.