Vanessa Stone reflects on the cultural differences between her own generation and her immigrant mother’s upbringing.
A few years ago on a sunny afternoon in June, I turned 27 years old and discovered my hero — my immigrant mother. It was on our way to Uwajimaya, an Asian food market in Seattle, Washington, when my five-foot, Filipina mother gave me the most tremendous gift: the freedom from my illusion that I was a badass.
Prior to my discovery, my identity as a badass was as secure as boobs in a sports bra. In college, for example, when my roommates invited me to go out with them on a Friday night, billed to be The Greatest Night Out in Town, Ever, I simply said no. My badassery continued well into my part-time gig as a sales associate where I confronted my coworker about stealing my idea: cut each of the Friday morning doughnuts into quarters so that none of us would feel guilty about our calorie intake. It was precisely these moments that caused me to believe that I was brave enough, smart enough, and witty enough to face the harsh realities of the world, and that I could be a gutsier woman. I believed that I, Vanessa of the House of Stone, Sayer of No to The Greatest Night Out in Town, Ever, and Confronter of Coworkers, could do anything I wanted. Had I known that my mother would be the Moby Dick to my ego’s Ahab, I would have recognized long ago that I was simply a poltroon.
So there we were at Uwajimaya — food paradise for all Asian moms. The goal was to get exotic foods. On my mother’s grocery list were banana flowers, durian, some longan fruit, and a Maneki Neko, the beckoning cat, for luck. I asked her what else was on her list.
“I’m returning dis bad apples I bought last week,” my mother clarified.
Bewildered, I told her, “No, you can’t do that, Mom. You can’t return apples. We don’t do that here in America.”
She snapped back, “Oh, dat’s in America’s Constitution now, Banessa?”
From my calculation, I only had two blocks to persuade this tiny, brown woman that to return the apples was not only wrong but downright unethical.
My mother stood outside our car watching her reflection as she tousled her short, curly hair.
“Mom, you can’t return the apples. They won’t let you,” I said.
“Oh, really, because da receipt doesn’t say that, Banessa,” she said.
“Mom, they won’t believe you that these apples are their apples,” I said.
“I hab da receipt,” she replied, aggressively flashing her receipt in my face.
“Mom, you realize that we’ve touched these apples already and had them for a week?” I said — my voice increasing with panic.
“The parmers, distributors, and grocery teenagers, who prolly don’t wash der hands, have touched dis apples, too,” she said.
I was no match. In we went to Uwajimaya, and as I watched my mother pull out the apples one by one and place them on the customer service counter, I realized how pathetic I truly was. Deep down, I was just a wannabe badass who was really concerned with what people thought. I was embarrassed to admit that I was scared of looking foolish. The apples, all two pounds of them, were returned. My mom folded the new receipt and tucked her five dollars and some cents into her wallet.
“You’re a pussy, Banessa,” she said, smirking.
It was well into autumn that I realized I couldn’t stop thinking about this incident. I didn’t want to accept the fact that I may truly be a pussy, as my mother called me. I didn’t want to be a pussy; I wanted to be brave like her. I knew there was only one way to settle it — return some goddamned apples to a store. After purchasing some apples, I then waited for a few days to pass. Finally, the moment arrived — the apples were at their mushy peak. I now had a reason to return to Uwajimaya. I got in my car, drove down I-5, pulled up to the front of the grocery store, and parked my car. I turned off the engine and breathed. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I walked toward the counter, greeted the clerk, and, just as my mother had, laid the apples on the counter. The clerk asked what she could do for me. I paused. I could feel the receipt in my sticky palm begin to soak from the moisture.
“Ma’am, can I help you?” The clerk with whiskers above her lips asked.
My heart palpitated. There was a fire in me, and I could not quell the perspiration. “Yes, can I return these apples?” I asked trembling.
“Is there a specific reason why?” she interrogated.
“They are not the apples I like,” I said — unsure if my answer was good enough.
She gave me a hard look. “Sure,” she said as she grabbed my receipt, clicked a few buttons, and produced five dollars of my refund money.
I exited Uwajimaya, breathing laboriously. Though I knew my trip was a success, I couldn’t help but think of the deeper seam in my fear of embarrassment. Mining this vein, I recalled the times I had to be my mother’s translator of not only English language but also American culture, expectations, and norms. My mother grew up in poverty where the rule of the game is survival. While her bluntness, hustle mentality, loudness, and brownness were qualities that helped her survive, they were also qualities that made her a mockery to children I grew up with in my elementary school in the U.S. They made fun of her strangeness, and in my attempt to protect my mother, I, in turn, became ashamed of her “otherness.” Carrying out a task like returning produce to a store isn’t as simple when you consider the potential of its loudness. But in its loudness comes its inherent power, too. It means that you can recognize your own desires, act on them, and stand up for them.
My grocery store runs with my mother, for the most part, continue to exist completely ordinary, picking up peppercorns for adobo or mango for our sticky rice, but they remain a strong reminder of how to be a real badass. I have my mother to thank for this.