The youth-written stories in YCteen give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Meeting My Angry Mom Most of the Way

“Miss, do you know where Baruch College is?” I asked a fashionable Asian woman on 50th Street. She had a bright oval face, brown glossy hair and thin cherry-colored lips. She looked friendly. I smiled, hoping she wouldn’t notice my red eyes. They were still teary from crying earlier that morning.

“I am not sure, I think it is way down there,” she answered, pointing downtown. She seemed eager to help.

Since her warm voice had no hint of an accent, I felt we were different. I had moved here just one year earlier with my parents. My father relocated his job to the United States so I could get a better education than what was offered in our city of Hanoi in Vietnam.

“Let me check my phone,” she said, showing me a map. I thanked her and followed the directions, thinking, “I wish my mom was more like her.”

Rushing through the city streets, I recalled the fight I’d had with my mother an hour and a half before. I’d walked silently around the living room trying to find my MetroCard. Like a ghost, I was hoping she wouldn’t hear me.

“What are you trying to find?” said my mother in a mocking tone.

I didn’t answer, as usual.

“I have told you so many times that you need to be organized,” she continued. “My words mean nothing to you, right?” she said.

I looked into her eyes as a way of defending myself. Once she got going, her insults kept coming. In fact, I was begging her from inside. Mom, please stop.

“I am just trying to find my MetroCard,” I said casually.

“You’re always losing things. Do those American teachers at school teach you to be irresponsible?” I smelled the chicken broth that was boiling in the kitchen, not sure whether that was the reason it felt hard for me to breathe.

“What are American people putting in your mind? Are they teaching you to become heartless people, who don’t know how to appreciate their parents?” she continued.

“No, why would you say that?” I said, unable to hold myself back anymore.

“Enough. Don’t talk back to me. Shut up,” she interrupted, pointing her finger at me.

Happier in Hanoi

My mother treated me differently when we lived in Hanoi. She had a short temper then too, but she was happier because she had a job and friends. She didn’t call me hateful or tell me to shut up. She didn’t mind that I was reserved and quiet.

I’ve always appreciated her, yet I’ve always found it challenging to express my feelings to her. Instead I wrote in my journal: “Mom, when I’m an adult I will do my best to make you happy, earning a lot of money to buy you clothes, send you on trips overseas, and purchase a luxurious house for you to live in.”

When we moved to the United States, our relationship turned sour. My mother struggles with the language barrier, her lack of a social life, culture shock, the foreign New York lifestyle, her own judgment toward non-Vietnamese people, and most of all, loneliness.

Except for going to the market, her life is confined to our four-room apartment. Now she wants me to talk to her all the time, even though that isn’t my nature. When I don’t, she says the same words: “You are heartless.”

One Saturday morning I was still in bed after spending almost the whole night reviewing for my SATs. I could already hear my mom yelling complaints about me to my dad in the kitchen.

“I ask her to clean her room and she ignores me and just stays on her computer. We finish eating dinner? Only after I ask will she do the dishes. She lives like this is a motel, following her own way. What is the use of having an American education, if they don’t teach you how to be humane?” she said.

“It’s 8 a.m.? Why can’t I sleep in peace?” I wondered. I pulled the blanket over my face. My eyes welled up with drops of salty water that trickled down my face and wet the pillow. Repressed emotions poured out like a flood. Anger made me punch my mattress. And I also felt guilt because my mother sacrificed so much for me yet I didn’t make her happy.

Not Warm and Fuzzy

image by YC-Art Dept

My relationship with my mother reminds me of a series of experiments conducted by a psychologist named Harry F. Harlow in the 1950s. I learned about it in my AP Psychology class.

Infant monkeys who were raised without their mothers were offered the choice of two “surrogate” mothers; one was made out of cold, hard wire and provided food, while the other was covered with soft terry cloth, but no food was attached to it. The babies preferred the comfort provided by the terry cloth mothers, even though the wire mothers had the food.

Although Harlow was looking at the bond between moms and babies, not adolescents, I could relate. I understand why I don’t feel an emotional attachment to my mom. She takes care of me by doing things like cooking my dinner, yet she never makes an effort to listen to and understand me—or nurture me. She is like the wire monkey, providing me with food but not warmth and affection.

After months of this, I realized I needed to change instead of expecting her to change. Even though it is hard for me to talk about my feelings, I decided to talk to my mother about our relationship. I wanted to try to understand her and see if I could get her to understand me. Coming to this decision made me feel exhilarated and most of all, proud. I was becoming an adult, daring to do what I had been hesitant to do.

I came home from school and my mom was reading her Kindle. She didn’t look up at me. I swallowed hard, putting my bag down on the sofa.

“Mom,” I said.

She didn’t look up.

“If I displease you all the time I’m so sorry.” My voice broke and I couldn’t continue. Tears oozed out of the corners of my eyes. “I don’t mean it. I am so thankful for what you and Dad have sacrificed for me.”

My mom looked up at me, finally. Yet, her distanced look made me shiver.

Opening Up, a Little

“I just want you to ask me one or two questions every day, but you are so reserved,” she said. “You study and study. I came here because of you, knowing no English and having no job. I am so lonely, and you make me so sad everyday,” my mom said. Her eyes were red. She stood up and walked into the kitchen.

I plucked up my courage to continue expressing myself and followed her into the kitchen. “Mom, will you listen to me? I have never been talkative. And I try to study, because I feel guilty that you worked so hard to bring me here! That’s why I try to do my best so I can make it up to you. I am so sorry.” I stopped to breathe, and saw that my mom was crying.

“I know you just say all those mean things to me because you are angry. I will try to change myself, Mom. I just need you to treat me like an adult,” I said.

All she did next was put her Kindle aside and ask: “Have you eaten lunch yet?”

Our relationship improved a little after that. I made an effort to initiate conversations, and she didn’t shout at me as much. However, I wasn’t running out of my shell, I was crawling. Expressing myself wasn’t easy. Along the way, I wanted to see at least some effort on her part to change, and I felt disappointed not to see more.

Mom would tell me stories about Vietnamese children in America who cut off contact with their parents, or say that she was terrified to see older Americans living alone. These stories made me understand that a lot of how she treats me is driven by her fear that I’ll leave her. But I still don’t think it’s fair. We also belong to two different generations; I am influenced more by American culture, but Asian culture is embedded in her mind.

Help From a Social Worker

A few months after that conversation, we were still fighting and I still felt bad a lot. I decided to talk to a social worker at school.

She explained that I’m at an age when I can have some control over how the relationship with my mother develops. I can influence it and change it. Although I had come to that conclusion when I first summoned the nerve to talk to her before, this helped validate those feelings and motivated me to try again.

I started taking the initiative to help her with chores, cleaning my room more, and helping my brother with his homework. It was easier to take the initiative than to wait for her to command me to do these things.

I also avoided talking to her about topics we might disagree about and focused on books and the news, which we both enjoyed discussing. I practiced asking questions, such as: “How are you?” or “What did you eat today for lunch?” None of this was easy but I loved my mother enough to try. She sensed my sincerity, and guess what? She surprised me by gradually becoming more understanding.

If my mom could hear me in a non-judgmental way, I would love to share everything about my life with her, like how I struggle to become more open with people. I’d also tell her that I know deep down she loves her children more than anything.

If she could try to understand me from my point of view, I would, in return, feel more comfortable to share. I could help her become more open-minded, expanding her perspectives about American culture and she could express why she is so reluctant to adapt to it. Most of all, I also want her to accept that my definition of a good life is different than hers; I want to be able to take risks and make mistakes.

We’re not there yet. But if we could manage it, this constant communication would build trust in our relationship, making it what I think it should be—a place where no matter how old I am, I can come back to her and feel that I’m not alone.

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