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caption: Jennifer Nguyen (right) and her mom, Michell Nguyen.
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Jennifer Nguyen (right) and her mom, Michell Nguyen.
Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Nguyen

What 'working hard' means to two teens, separated by a generation

Michell Nguyen sets high standards for her daughter, RadioActive's Jennifer Nguyen. Jennifer sat down with her mom to talk about where those standards came from: Michell's experience working in a sugar factory in Vietnam at age 13.

[RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW's radio journalism and audio storytelling program for young people. This story was entirely youth-produced, from the writing to the audio editing.]

I look up to my mom, Michell Nguyen, more than anyone. She’s extroverted, emotional and hard-working.

My mom has worked as a hairstylist for 13 years. She helps my aunt with her salon. When my mom isn’t working, she learns English to better communicate with her clients.

“I learn English from the YouTube,” she says. “When I have time, I only learn English from there.”

Even though my mom is self-sufficient, sometimes she needs help. That’s where I come in. Besides doing a list of chores, I’m also a third parent to my younger siblings.

I feel like I’m Cinderella, and my little siblings are my "evil stepsisters" who I cater to.

caption: RadioActive's Jennifer Nguyen (top right) poses with her mom, Michell, and her siblings.
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RadioActive's Jennifer Nguyen (top right) poses with her mom, Michell, and her siblings.
Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Nguyen

With high school and a social life, it can get hard to balance everything. I asked my mom why it is that she keeps me busy.

“I want her to be like that, like me," she says. "Stronger, and we work and no complain. Work, work, work, work!”

Sometimes that’s OK with me; I can handle it. But sometimes it’s too much. It’s like she wants a perfect daughter, when that’s not really me.

I don’t see my friends’ moms asking the same things from them. What was different? What was it like for my mom growing up as a teenager in Vietnam?

“I grow up with my mom,” she says. “My mom, she got heart disease and she couldn’t work. So I have to work and make money for my mom survive. About that time, I’m only 13 years old. I work very hard. I work in a sugar factory. I worked until I feel very tired, feel exhaustion.”

I know why she pushes me now. Jennifer Nguyen

When she told me this, my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe my mom worked in a sugar factory at age 13. When I was that age, I sat in my room and watched Nickelodeon! My mom had to work to help her family survive.

“I don’t work and I feel bad. Where the money we have to survive? That’s why I’m happy to work,” she says.

I realized that I’m more similar to my mom than I thought. I help her with chores and parenting, and she worked when her mother couldn’t.

We both had childhoods defined by helping our mothers.

caption: Jennifer Nguyen (left) and her mom, Michell, lounge on the couch when Jennifer was a toddler.
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Jennifer Nguyen (left) and her mom, Michell, lounge on the couch when Jennifer was a toddler.
Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Nguyen

Here’s how my mom feels about my help:

“I got her help me, so I feel I OK now. If she don’t help me, I don’t know what I do.”

I’ve never thought about it before, but my mom is the most hard-working person I know. She’s my role model.

I know why she pushes me now.

“I don’t want someone to say, ‘Oh, this girl doesn’t know how to do anything. Maybe her mom doesn’t teach her,'" she says. "I want my daughter to know how to do anything. Now I’m still alive, so what I can teach her, I teach.”

I always thought my mom would be with me forever until I die. This conversation with her made me realize that this wasn’t the case. I’m grateful that my mom’s still alive and that I can continue learning from her.

But more than anything, I’m grateful to be her daughter.

This story was created in KUOW's RadioActive Online Intro to Radio Workshop for 15- to 18-year-olds, with production support from Mary Heisey and Charlotte Engrav. Prepared for the web by Charlotte Engrav. Edited by Sonya Harris.

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