When I was growing up in Vietnam, my mother would take my sister and me to the Chinese opera in Saigon every Sunday. It was our regular family routine. My father would spend the day out with his friends while my mother took us into the city.
On those mornings, she would come into our room and wake us up. “Come on kids, let’s get ready. It’s going to be a big day today,” she would say in Cantonese. “‘Butterfly Lovers’ is playing and you’ll love it!”
My sister and I would get dressed and brush our teeth with the toothpaste that my grandma from America had sent us. We would then catch the bus to the city. The ride took an hour.
As soon as we arrived, my eyes would glow. There was so much to buy in the city. Vendors hawking clothes labeled “Adidas” lined one side of the street while vendors serving food in makeshift tents lined the other.
When it was time for lunch, my mother would take us to the vendor serving warm and fresh Pho noodles. The three of us would sit down and eat, and every so often my mother would recognize friends of hers passing by, and she would wave hello to them.
After lunch, my mother would walk us to the playhouse, buy tickets, and take us to our seats. As soon as the curtain opened, I was transported to another place, another time. The lights dimmed and all I could hear was wonderful music. All I could see were actors embracing their characters and putting all of their emotions into the production. I was captivated and I knew that when I grew up, I would become an actor.
When we got home, I would entertain my parents and my neighbors by singing to them songs from the opera we had just seen in the city. My mom would laugh and tell me I was going to be a big star someday.
I was six then.
When I was nine, I was caught trying to steal a toy out of a cereal box. My family had been in America for almost two years then. We were shopping in an Asian neighborhood grocery store. I was bored and proceeded to open a new cereal box to get to the “free cool toy inside,” as the outside of the box read in big blue letters.
When I looked up, a manager was walking toward me. He escorted me to the front of the store where my parents happened to be standing in line. The manager went up to my parents and told them what happened. After an exchange of words, the manager decided to let me go if my parents agreed to buy the opened cereal.
During the drive home, there was silence. I knew I had gotten myself into big trouble. When we got home, my parents took me to my room.
“We’re not angry with you, son, just very disappointed,” my father said sternly. “You have to know that it’s wrong to steal. Do you think we can’t afford to buy you this cereal? Never shall you do this again, do you hear?”
That day, I vowed to myself that I would never disappoint my parents again.
When I was sixteen, my mother would wake up in the middle of most nights to come into my room to turn my lights off for me. I was a high school senior at the time and acquired a habit of falling asleep with the lights on and a textbook in my lap. I would be startled when she came and in my daze, all I could make out was the outline of her face.
“Good night, mom,” I would say. I knew she took a bit longer then necessary to close the door so she could look at her son a few seconds longer. She was proud of me and would be even more proud later when she found out I had been accepted to MIT.
I’m twenty now. I was shopping for groceries by myself at Star Market in Porter Square the other day. I was in the ice cream aisle trying to decide whether to buy Breyer’s All-Natural or Ben & Jerry’s. I realized that if my mom were there she would suggest I buy the less expensive brand. She wasn’t. I chose the Ben & Jerry’s.
It’s amazing sometimes when I look back at my childhood and see how much I have grown. I am an adult now and have been one for quite some time now.
How fast these twenty years have gone by.
Kevin Choi is a member of the Class of 2001.