Just Keep Working Hard: My Thoughts on Writing a Book and AAPI hate

Credit: Image adapted from the Stop AAPI hate youth program with the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council

Tomorrow, March 23, 2021, is the virtual launch and release of All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss. We’ve had readers describe it as “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” but for pregnancy loss. The book incorporates my dear friend Kim Hooper’s personal experience (she had four losses–two ectopics, early miscarriage, second-trimester loss) along with insights from two mental health providers (myself included). 

I am proud of my contribution as a psychologist to amplifying marginalized voices and understanding the impacts of intersectionality within the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities and pregnancy loss(es). However, I also want to model what we shared in the book about the importance of holding space for contradictory emotions. We can feel both gratitude and anger at the same time.

And so I am ANGRY for the significant increase in AAPI hate and the tragic deaths in Atlanta last week. I am angry and want to amplify the voices of immigrant AAPI women, especially those in the service sector.

Please stop for a minute and think about the women who are doing your nails, watching your children, sewing your clothing, and working at massage spas/businesses (the usage of the word parlor is antiquated and has an underlying sexual connotation). Like many immigrants and other working-class caregivers, they struggle and work hard in hopes that their children will have a different future. They encourage their children to achieve the proverbial “American Dream” by putting their heads down, working hard, and not questioning authority. Most are fearful of the police and of doing something “wrong” that may jeopardize their basic safety and physical well-being.

As a child of Vietnamese refugees, I have watched my parents endlessly struggle since their arrival to the U.S. in 1980. My mother worked for nearly twenty years in various sweatshop factories (I sewed alongside her at different times in my youth). My father always worked two jobs, which resulted in his absence throughout most of my childhood. I am not sharing this to bring attention or pity to my story because, unfortunately, this is the all too familiar story of many first and second-generation families. Like other BIPOC folks, my family and I have been the recipients of various forms of racism and oppression, whether through macro or micro-aggressions. There are too many to list here and it is too painful to recount.

But all the while, my mother reminded me daily in Vietnamese, “Just study. Studying will be your way out of our place in the world so you won’t have to do manual labor like your dad and me. Just study, just keep working hard, and prove them wrong.”

So I kept with this mantra of just keep working hard even when I had acquaintances and employers ask me if I had an “easier” name they could use instead of Huong. This resulted in hating my name growing up, legally changing my name to an American name for two years and then changing back to Huong when it just did not fit my identity.

Just keep working hard.

Even when I had teachers and mentors not so subtly tell me that my English and writing skills were lacking and written as if English was not my first language. Well, in fact, English was not my first language. My first language was Vietnamese, and I did not learn English until Kindergarten. I was placed in what was then known as ESL classes for years and into the lowest reading and writing groups. I later added Spanish to the mix as well and am more fluent in Spanish than Vietnamese. But overall these comments and feedback resulted in too many wasted years of imposter syndrome and fears of contributing to this book.

Just keep working hard.

And so I did. I studied hard (got the doctorate my mother wanted) and continue to work hard. But there is a price that I, and other children of immigrants have paid for this dream.

Vietnamese-American poet and MacArthur Genius Fellow Ocean Vuong eloquently stated in this podcast episode that “so many of us immigrant children end up betraying our parents in order to subversively achieve our parents’ dreams.” I can relate to this as my journey to “success” has taken me around the world, physically farther and farther from my mother and the chasm between her junior high school education and my 24 years of education widen and oftentimes collide. I am both the Vietnamese American daughter she is disappointed in and is proud of. What a conundrum.

However, the most poignant part for me was when Ocean shared this scene of his mother at his poetry reading at the Mark Twain House.

“And of course, she doesn’t understand the English, but she was so proud to just see her son up there in the spotlight, a small spotlight. I read, people clapped, and they stood, and it was lovely; and I went back to her, and she was sobbing. And being the dutiful son, I said, ‘What did I do? What happened? Are you OK?’ And she said, ‘No, I just never thought I’d live to see all these old white people clapping for my son.'”

Ocean said he did not understand the importance for his mother until he saw her the next day at the nail salon.

“Her makeup’s off, and she put her nice dress away that she wore at the reading. She took her earrings off. And right out the gate, in the early morning, I saw her and watched her kneel at the pedicure chair before one old, white woman after another. It was so humbling, because, I thought, Finally. She was below their eye level for so many years. And for one brief moment, in Mark Twain’s house, they saw her, face-to-face, as an equal. And that’s when I understood, that is victory.”

What is victory to me?

Publishing a book? No

Obtaining a doctorate? No

Speaking up and recognizing that my liberation and freedom is tied to others? Yes

Until all marginalized communities are free, I am not free. And as Toni Morrison stated, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

So, I will keep doing what I know best. Working hard.

Just keep working hard.

I wonder if this motto is what Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng repeated to themselves, too, when they got up last Tuesday for work.

In solidarity,

Hương Diệp

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If you are interested in learning more about #StopAAPIhate, here is a good collection of resources. Also, Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong is illuminating. And please consider donating to the Asian American Mental Health Collective, which has a directory of AAPI therapists who offer culturally informed mental health services (and may offer pro-bono/sliding fee services).

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P.S. And in case you are curious, like Ocean Vuong’s mother, my mother will not be able to read my book either. I will give her a copy anyway.

1980. Newly arrived to the US at 22 years of age with a 7-month-old and a husband from an arranged marriage.