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"She survived so I could thrive." A thank you letter to my immigrant mum this Mother's Day.

According to my kombucha-making, Grey’s Anatomy-loving, 59-year-old mother, there have only been two truly difficult periods in her life. The time right after she got married in 1986 and the years after she moved to Australia in 1991.

At the age of 31, my mum, Susan, moved her entire life from Shanghai to Sydney in search of a ‘better life’. Three decades ago, the Chinese city was not the sprawling metropolis it is today. This combined with rigid class structures, conservative values and a lack of opportunity, thousands of immigrants like my mum left their homes for a more progressive and hopeful future.

Like many other children of immigrant parents, my brother and I are the result of my parents’ hard work and sacrifices, and yet she describes that period of her life in a calm and seemingly unaffected manner.

“It wasn’t the material side, it was emotionally difficult,” she recalled, speaking to me over the phone as I quiz her about her immigrant experience.

One of the few times we’ve ever talked about it.

“In China you’re established but in Australia, I felt like I couldn’t do anything. You can’t speak properly and you can’t show your ability, so you can’t help but doubt yourself.

“You’ll always miss your own country. I missed my friends and family. In Australia you have your husband and your kids but it’s difficult to make friends. You can’t talk as deeply and the language is a big barrier.”

mothers day 2019 immigrant mum
Image: Supplied.

Like many first-generation Asian Australians, I'm aware of how different my adult years living out-of-home in Sydney look in comparison to my parents. While re-studying to be a nurse, she got her first job bottling juice in a now upmarket Sydney suburb for $9 an hour, while my dad worked as a kitchen hand and waiter. His 'English' name, Bill, wasn't inspired by a celebrity or movie, but given to him because he was given the 'bills' to process at the restaurant where he worked.

In comparison, I now work in a profession I studied for at university, just a few suburbs away from where my parents got their start.

There's a lot that's been written about the the relationship between Asian immigrant parents and their children. The term 'tiger mum' gets thrown around, as does the stereotype of the super strict, academically-minded matriarch whose high standards are matched with her hatred of sleepovers, dating and the f-word: fun.

And while some of it can be true - it all comes from a good place. A place where that mother wants to give their child the opportunities they didn't have - something parents the world over can relate to.

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Reflecting on the cultural and generational divide, one friend came up with a particularly poignant phrase, "They survived, so we could thrive".

Looking back on my childhood, it's only with the benefit of hindsight that I can spot the different ways this manifested.

My mum sitting next to me at the piano when I was eight, fixing my technique for hours on end to the point where we were both in tears.  Her buying me a voice recorder the day I started my journalism degree, even if she still to this day reminds me that it's not too late to go into 'government relations'. I don't think she knows what that means either, but I've learnt to appreciate the sentiment.

She's just looking out for me.

mothers day 2019 immigrant mum
So many tears were shed at this piano. Image: Supplied.

There are some things about my mum's past that I won't ever be able to relate to on a personal level, but I know she selflessly wanted it that way.

I'll never know what it feels like to leave your home in search of a purely imagined 'better future' which she built with hope and hard work.

I'll never know what it's like to arrive to a new country, with a half-learnt grasp of the language and having to start from the ground up.

And I'll never know what it's like bringing up a family in a culture that's completely foreign to the one you grew up in, only to be attacked about it by an obnoxious 16-year-old daughter who thought she knew better.

Like when I got annoyed at her for hiring me an English tutor, but didn't realise why until I heard Dad explain to a family friend that, "neither of them were ever in a position to help me with my English".

Or when I asked her why we never did anything on the weekends like my friend's families did, when I knew she worked worked double shifts at the hospital so she could stay at home with us during the week.

I'm sorry I didn't get it, but it's made me a more empathetic person today.

In order to ensure my life would be filled with the opportunities I've been given today, she had to take a very significant gamble on hers. And there's never a day I'm not grateful for that.

So, to my wonderful mum: Thank you for everything you've done and continue to do. Happy Mother's Day.

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