“My Mother’s Journey” by Kelsey McDowell

Posted: June 3, 2013 in Vol. 3: Spring Essays 2013

IMGP4715When I learned that we would be interviewing someone for our next essay, I instantly knew that I would interview my mom about her immigration from Asia and about starting life in the United States.  To be honest, I knew that her family (her parents and brother) left a communist country for better opportunities in the States, but I didn’t even know exactly where she came from, horrible as it sounds.  I always assumed she was from China since she is full Chinese, but I vaguely remembered her talking about Laos, Thailand and Guam in the past—never mentioning China.  With all this confusion in my head, my interest was sparked to learn more.

I don’t live with my mom, so when I asked her to do the interview, she offered to come over to the house I live in with my dad and brother.  My mom seemed excited to answer questions, perhaps because we don’t have a very close relationship, and we don’t get many opportunities to connect.  She eagerly asked what I wanted to know, and what started as a structured interview soon became bonding time.   My intention was to construct questions to ask my mom that I could relate to Chinatown, because when I was a child, I remember going to Chinatown to eat lunch, buy groceries, and visit my grandpa’s workshop. I figured that since Chinatown had played such a role in my early life, it must have played a significant role in my mother’s life as well.  I mean, what better person to ask about the importance of Chinatown than a Chinese immigrant herself?  Not only that, but I assumed that since my grandpa worked there, she might even be able to provide me with firsthand information on the Chinatown evictions that I planned to research for a later paper.  However, my mom revealed so much more than I was asking for.  I had gone into the interview simply searching for answers that would aid me in writing another essay but came out having learned so many amazing things about my Chinese family.  I was really shocked at what my mom had to go through growing up.

As we began, I confessed to my mother that I wasn’t really sure where she came from.  She appeared shocked and her jaw dropped, exclaiming, “Hell-ooo, I was born in Laos.”   She went over details nonchalantly, providing short, direct answers like she had the interview in the bag: from Laos she had traveled to Guam, and then to the United States as a refugee.  It was all very monotonous; her arms were crossed as she recited answer after answer.  However, when the questions got deeper she began to open up, and her short answers became stories filled with gestures and emotion.

My grandparents and their two children, my mom and her brother, came to the United States in 1975 with a mere 600 U.S. dollars.  My mom was only five years old.  “We were on food stamps,” my mom revealed.  “Your gonggong and popo”—my grandpa and grandma—“delivered newspapers for a living.  We used to sit in the car with them while they delivered papers.”

“Really?” I exclaimed.  This seemed crazy to me; I always pictured delivering newspapers as a job that high school students took on to earn a little extra pocket money.  How on earth did my grandma and grandpa make a living off that?

My mom shared that after this, my grandpa found a job at a furniture company.  From there, he trained to become a self-employed handyman who worked out of Chinatown.  My grandma was able to save up enough money to buy their first place; she found work in the restaurant business.   “So where did you live when you moved here?”  I wondered.  What kind of home could you get with $600? Had they been homeless?  My mom replied: “We lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment right by the old Hard Rock Café on Kapiolani.  It’s still there in fact, that little two-bedroom apartment.  Then we moved to Palolo, expanded, but it was still two bedrooms.  And then your popo was able to save so much money that we could move to Salt Lake, and it was a three-bedroom apartment.  And then, she saved up so much that she was able to buy us cars.”

I watched my mom intently as she shared this recollection.  I could tell that she remembered each place fully by the distant look in her eyes, plus the fact that she did not stutter or pause once while sharing.  She even said that one day she’d take me to her old apartments to see them.  I thought that it was tremendous how much money my grandparents were able to save after coming to the United States with basically nothing.  They were even able to afford to send my mom to private school, and they bought a house in Kunia that they paid off in half the loan time. They still live there today.

So now, I had a new question: “Was this life in the U.S. really even much better than what you had in Laos/Guam?”

My mom cocked her head to the side and seemed to stare into space as she pondered.  “Well, honestly, I was too young to remember much of my childhood there.  But I don’t really remember feeling like I was suffering.”  When my mom lived in Asia, she was not old enough to attend school or really understand that she was living in poverty.  She couldn’t have a job, so she didn’t experience having to work hard for little money.  However, one thing that my mom did remember was having fun playing in dirty rainwater.  Her uncle would pull her in a raft in the flooded streets, and she would have the time of her life.  I was appalled!  The water was probably contaminated with diseases; how could my grandparents let her play in that?  My mom explained that they didn’t have much, so they had to do whatever they could to have fun.  Since they were already living in such a minimalistic way, living here without having much didn’t seem bad.  When I think of the areas my mom lived in, I picture terrible living conditions: dingy, dirty, and run-down; nothing I have ever had to experience for myself.  I don’t know how she and her family did it, but they got through it and it must have contributed to their work ethic and the appreciation they have for everything today.

After hearing about my mom’s childhood, I decided it would be the right time to ask if Chinatown played any role in making her feel at home in Hawaii.  “So what about Chinatown?”  I asked.  “I know you never lived there, but did it play a big part in your life when you came here?” I asked.  “Like, if businesses had gotten evicted and Chinatown closed down, would it have changed any aspect of your life?”

“Oh, of course,” replied my mom.  She began to explain: “Your gonggong and popo used to go grocery shopping for dinner in Chinatown everyday.  The local Chinese businesses have the freshest vegetables, and at wholesale prices.  We supported these businesses.  If they had been taken away, I don’t know where we would have gotten our food.  Not only that, but Chinatown also helped me to realize that there were other people like me.  There were other families like mine.”

I could have assumed this, but it was a confirmation to hear my mom explain what an impact Chinatown had on her life.  Since we had started discussing Chinatown, we moved on to talk about how my grandfather had run his handyman business there as well.  I wanted to know how this came about, and if he had been at risk of eviction.  Although my mom did not know about the evictions personally, she shared all that she could.  She started off by describing how my grandpa began doing small jobs here and there for acquaintances in Chinatown, using the knowledge he had gained from working at the furniture company.  His friends began referring him to do jobs for their friends, and so on; that’s how it all began.  Eventually, everyone around Chinatown knew of my grandpa and his quality workmanship, including the owners of Chinatown property.  One owner, Campbell Estate, offered him an alley workspace in one of their buildings—free of charge!  However, this was short-lived.  My mom explained: “They [Campbell Estate] let him run his business there because they knew he was such a good worker, but because the new ownership came in, he had to slowly move his stuff out.”  I was shocked.  I knew the workshop had closed down but never would have thought to connect it with the Chinatown evictions.  The beauty school next to his shop closed down as well.  It’s crazy to me because I remember visiting these places myself when I was a child, never realizing what might have been going on at the time.  It seemed that my grandpa had gotten evicted himself.  After the shop was taken away, he lost a lot of his clientele in Chinatown.  My grandfather passed away in 2003, and my uncle (my mom’s brother) and my dad took over the business.  They now have trouble finding work to do.  However, there are a few faithful clients of my grandpa’s that always hire them back and give them cookies, fresh fruit, and money every Christmas.  During this whole portion of the interview, my mom was very wistful.  I could tell she missed her father a lot but was proud of him for what small legacy and life he had left behind for her.

This was pretty much the close of the interview, as we moved on to irrelevant topics.  I was really glad that I got to talk to my mom about her life growing up, something we had never really discussed before.  I was also thrilled that I got some information for my research paper.  Despite my mom’s struggles and experiences throughout her childhood, she stayed positive and content.   Now, I can see what made her the strong woman I know today.  My mom sacrificed so much to give us the lives we have today; she is a hard worker, following in her parents’ footsteps.  She appreciates everything she has and tries to teach my brother and me to do the same.  I admire her so much for this and am glad I got to learn more about her.


Work Cited

McDowell, Karmen. Personal interview. 28 Feb. 2013.


Written for Cara Chang’s ENG 200: Composition II


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