The Lessons My Mother Taught Me: Growing Up in a Vietnamese Refugee Family

Forward:

During Women’s History Month in March, the employee resource group at Demandbase, Women@DB, asked the #badasswomen at Demandbase to share their stories — whether they had a passion project, side hustle, or a woman in their lives who inspired them.

We often reflect on the contributions women have made to society. But where it all starts is at home, with our mothers. The more-often-than-not unsung heroes who are selfless in their love, who are resilient in their commitment to their families. We are honored that Thanh Cordell chose to share her touching and inspirational reflections on her mother. And we wanted to share her story with you, too. — The Demandbase Team

The Lessons My Mother Taught Me

by Thanh Cordell

I consider my 85-year-old mom a badass. She is my inspiration and the reason for who I am today. Growing up in a family of refugee immigrants, I used to think that the life we were exposed to was horrible. But now, reflecting on the past as a mother myself, I see why it was so important for my siblings and me to have lived through the childhood we had.

My family fled Vietnam in 1975 during the war. We left behind our home and the small boats with which my parents, so young at the time, spent most of their days fishing to make a living and to raise a family of 10 kids. I remember the story my mom told me of when we were rescued by the coast guard. My older brother, who was eight at the time, was severely ill, and my mom was holding up the line to get on the bigger boat. The people in line told my mom to just throw him overboard, saying that he wouldn’t survive the journey. But she refused to listen to them and boarded with the whole family, holding my brother tightly in her arms. He’s still with us today.

Another story she has recounted, which stays etched in my mind, is of being physically attacked on that same rescue boat by a lady who falsely accused her of stealing from her. My mom had only a few cans of milk that she carried with her to feed my younger sister. The lady said they were hers, and she took advantage of a moment when my father and brothers weren’t nearby to beat my mother with those cans. She left a terrible scar on my mom’s face that is still there to this day.

My mom is a true hustler, learning how to make different types of Vietnamese pastries and growing fresh herbs in our garden to sell to the Asian market under the table.

We owe a great deal to the kindness of the US, which gave us the opportunity to make a new life in America. We first spent a few years in Texas and then moved to Stockton, California. Starting out not being able to speak English nor having the skills to find a basic job, my parents did what they could to make ends meet. My mom was a true hustler, learning how to make different types of Vietnamese pastries and growing fresh herbs in our garden to sell to the Asian market under the table.

She made little profit. I’d have to rush straight home from school every day to help her knead the dough for at least five different pastries. And I remember one morning waking up at 2 am on a school day to help my dad fry the day’s sesame cookie balls because my mom was too sick. We’d also pick cherries at the farm, back-breaking work for which they’d only get paid fifty cents per bucket. I remember having to cook for the entire family when I was in the eighth grade, which became my main responsibility throughout high school. When I was 14, I worked for the Stockton Summer Youth program and earned $4.25/hr. I also worked as an office clerk, librarian assistant, and janitor. Every paycheck I had, I would give to my mom and, in return, I would get $20. That’s what we had to do so that my mom could raise and shelter us.

We were thankful for all the government assistance we received throughout my childhood, which also afforded me the opportunity to go to college because I was eligible for school grants. Out of the 10 kids, four of us were able to go to college, and we received degrees. I am thankful for that every day.

I was able to get an accounting job fresh out of college. I did that for about eight years before I got married and became an entrepreneur as a restaurant owner. Things were great for about seven years until the recession hit, and we lost everything: my 401k, our business, and even our home. We were homeless at one point. I had three babies at the time, and my husband had to quit college in his fourth year since we had no income.

Thanh-Cordell-and-her-mother

This is my mother and me today.

I don’t know how we did it, but I kept thinking of my mom and what she had to do to make ends meet. She gave me the strength to keep going and rebuild from the ground up again. The funny thing is that we’ve come full circle, and my mom is now living with us. I’m actually taking care of her now. I know the pandemic has wreaked havoc on many families, but what came out of it for us is also a blessing because I know now that my mom belongs with us.

I owe it to my mom to give back to her because she has sacrificed so much in life for me. Without her, I wouldn’t have come to America, gone to college, gotten married, and raised three beautiful teenage girls.

I owe it to my mom to give back to her because she has sacrificed so much in life for me. Without her, I wouldn’t have come to America, gone to college, gotten married, and raised three beautiful teenage girls. Also, another big gratitude is to my company that I love, Demandbase, and the awesome management that’s been so accommodating and supportive. I really feel like I’ve hit the lotto, being able to work remotely and take care of my mom at the same time. My kids appreciate having me at their disposal too.

Life is great and I’m thankful for what I have today. I hope that I can inspire my girls to not take anything for granted. By seeing and hearing the struggles their mom and grandmother went through, that they will work hard to make it in this world with my unconditional love and support.

Payroll Manager, Demandbase

At Demandbase, I'm responsible for all things payroll — from remitting voluntary benefit contributions to managing payroll workflow. I have extensive experience in this field and earned a Bachelor of Science in Accounting at California State University, Sacramento. Fun fact: I was a business entrepreneur, operating my own restaurant for eight years, before I settled on my second love: payroll.