I develop software. I call my expectation for respect and impatience with misogynistic bullshit “feminism.” And although it’s apparently a mandate for all white people, I refuse to eat kale because it was sent by one of Satan’s many forms, Whole Foods, to defile all that is good, ethnic, and edible in this world.
So I guess by conventional standards, I am a strong, free-thinking woman of color. But by familial standards, I am nothing if not my mother’s daughter.
Towering at 5 feet tall, my mom looks like your typical sweet-faced Asian lady, and because of it, many people assume she’s compliant.
But that is their worst mistake.
I’ve seen my mom put the fear of God into Chipotle employees who tried to skimp her out on chicken. She built her own financial advisory company from the ground-up, and she rarely, if ever, leaves a negotiation without getting her way. She attended an Eminem concert by herself.
My mom’s a cool mom, but not in the Soul Cycling, lip-injected, Mrs. Regina George kinda way. She’s my mom.
In all my middle school pubescent glory, I had hairy legs, orange braces, and a really bad case of “confessional” OCD. Every day after school, I’d climb up the stairs to my mom’s office and confess some sin I’d committed that day: not washing my hands, thinking bad thoughts toward someone, saying a curse word I don’t remember saying but could have when I sneezed.
I was a bundle of hormones and anxiety. But everyday my mom would absolve me of my sins, assuring me for the bajillionth time that it’s okay to wash my hands for a number of seconds that’s not a multiple of three. And she still loved me.
Up until now, my mother has always been patient with me, and exceedingly supportive.
When I decided to start a volunteer organization in high school, she swam through legal paperwork to help me file an application for non-profit status. When I drank the Bay Area kool-aid and registered for my first half-marathon, she and my dad signed up to run with me. And when I started Women of Silicon Valley, she was the first to like, share, and comment on every posting.
Mom has always been just that: my mom, the woman who’s always been there for me. But it wasn’t until recently I began to realize my mom is her own person.
Born in Vietnam, Tan Khoa Ngo was raised the oldest of six children in a port city midway along the coastline called Da Nang. From what heartwarming childhood stories she’s relayed to me, she carried on your standard childhood: being chased by mangy dogs, eating occasionally spoiled meat, playing with rubberbands because her family couldn’t afford toys.
Then the War came.
My grandpa was high-ranking in the opposition against the Communist party, and staying in Vietnam was no option. So in a move of bravery that will never cease to amaze me, my grandmother packed up five children by herself and abandoned all she’d ever known for America.
Mom’s family was placed in a refugee camp in the country’s most racially welcoming state, Arkansas (sarcasm intended), and from there fate reunited them with my grandfather in Dallas.
Having spoken only Vietnamese her entire life, my mom was suddenly assimilated into a public school system that spoke only English and preached Texas was the center of the goddamn universe. Her name Tan Khoa was deemed too ethnic for pronunciation, so she was endearingly called the “Tank” by teachers, sometimes “chink” by classmates. She spent lunches eating alone in bathroom stalls, like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, if Lindsay Lohan was a malnourished Vietnamese girl.
School was hard, but afterschool was harder. Since both her parents were forced to take long, manual labor jobs to support the family, my mom was responsible for taking care of her 5 younger siblings at home.
And as a result of cooking, cleaning, yelling, and performing all the other civic duties deemed a reluctant teenage mother, she grew up fast.
She grew up fast, and she learned to teach people how to treat her.
One time a school bully walked by her desk and jabbed a sharp pencil in the back of her head for shits and sociopathic giggles. My mom approached him after class and threatened, Meet me in the parking lot after school. He never did show up.
Through all the struggles with English and juvenile asshats, Mom excelled in the universal languages, mathematics and hard sciences. She got into the University of Dallas on a science scholarship, and since American law dictates all Vietnamese women be named Tammy, Kammy or something French she became Gigi. Finally out of the house, Gigi was her own person.
She started dating my dad in Italy, started her own company in Chicago, and started a family of four very needy children in Texas, two of them dogs.
When I was born, it all came full-circle, and I was raised in a suburb just 20 minutes away from where my mom had lived. But our experiences could not be more different.
My biggest problems in high school were self-induced: lukewarm boys, Ivy League acceptance rates, “finding myself.” My mom’s biggest worries were responsibilities I don’t even have to consider today: feeding children, working multiple jobs, and affording life’s most basic necessities.
Because my mom experienced third-world problems, mine could be first-.
Because her childhood was so hard, mine was just easier — easier to make friends, do well in school, and go on to study Computer Science at Stanford.
And not only has my mom made many more options accessible to me growing up; in being a role model, she’s made many options more accessible to me in my future.
Since she started her own company, I can start my own company. Since she’s a working mother, I can be a working mother. And since she married a man who does 50% of the laundry, dishes and childcare, I can marry a man who does 50% of the laundry, dishes and childcare. Or cats. There’s always cats.
Now that I’m old enough, I realize how important these enhanced prospects have been, not only in my life, but also in my career development.
I stuck it through a Computer Science degree because my mom fostered a sincere self-confidence in my intelligence. I started Women of Silicon Valley because my mom started her own business. And whenever I encounter negativity I stand up for my self and my work because I’ve seen my mother do it time and time again.
As awareness of gender issues increases across the board, studies show that girls who have strong female role models are more likely to grow up confident and take on more career opportunities. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
Now I understand I am only proof. I am my mother’s daughter.