Last October, I attended an Interfaith Memorial Service for the homeless at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in East Los Angeles. The service remembered the 472 homeless people who died on the streets in Los Angeles County in 2016. Seven of the deceased were under three years old.
At the service I thought of a girl who called herself Latoya, who I met eight years ago while covering an adolescent drug dealing story. She moved into a teenage drug dealer’s tent under an overpass in downtown San Diego after running away from her foster family. One year later she gave birth to a baby girl. She was fifteen; her boyfriend was eighteen. Social workers took away their baby because apparently, the parents were too young, on drugs, and homeless.
When I met Latoya, I was fresh out of journalism school and she was long out of school. She was seeking help from a volunteer attorney with a non-profit organization helping homeless children.
“She wanted to go back to school, get a real job,” the lawyer told me. “And eventually get her daughter back.”
That surprised me. I had assumed that drug-using, homeless, teen parents were irresponsible and careless people. The reality is that they love and care their children just like any other parent.
When the adolescent drug dealing story was done, I wanted to follow up with Latoya’s story, but my assignment editor decided to cut it because “following a homeless teen mom is way too resource consuming, we cannot afford it.”
In the end I wrote a short article about Latoya and her efforts. The piece was included in my first book “Wēi Zúyǐ Dào”, published in 2011. The book sold 80,000 copies in five years, but Latoya’s story remains incomplete. I lost contact with her, but in eight years I have never forgotten her. In fact, over the years I have met many Latoyas and their children.
One of the Latoyas was 25-year-old Venessa Ibarra, who last June set her SUV on fire, threw in her three-year-old daughter Natalie, and then got in herself. They both died.
The death of a homeless child gets very little attention, and the authorities have many difficulties determining their identities. These children are called “baby doe” and their stories are rarely told.
In the cases where these stories do get attention, the media tends to sensationalize them, playing up the deaths of the poor children, especially babies. A negative connotation that has arisen from these over-sensationalized stories is that less advantaged women are not to be trusted with babies. This has a backlash for homeless mothers who also need help.
I tried to follow up with Ibarra’s story, but it was difficult. The authorities said that she had experienced “issues and a little bit of a drug problem.” But many questions remained unanswered. There weren’t even records to show whether she had received medical attention, or whether any efforts had been made to prevent the tragedy.
I can’t stop thinking about Latoya, Ibarra, and other mothers who live out of cars, in tents, under bridges and on the streets with their babies. How well could they be coping while living on the streets? Homelessness affects every facet of a child’s life, inhibiting his or her physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and behavioral development. And without proper maternal care, the pregnancies of homeless women can be at risk from many preventable obstacles. As a journalist, I don’t just want to present the statistics stacked up against homeless mothers and their children, I want to listen to them. Yet they are so hard to reach, with most of them fleeing from the media and social workers. That is one of the reasons why this country’s child welfare program is unable to help homeless children. In addition, most programs serving the poor are underfunded.
Los Angeles has seen another sharp rise in homelessness and outdoor tents over the last year, as local officials struggle to identify funding for billion-dollar plans they approved last year to combat homelessness.
Last November, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure HHH, a proposal to create 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing and affordable housing for the city’s homeless population. The measure has not yet translated into visible effects, and homelessness remains an ongoing public health issue.
Two days after the Interfaith Memorial Service, the remains of the 472 deceased, including the children, were cremated and interred in a common grave with only one plaque marking the year of interment. Baby does didn’t get a name. Their story remains untold. It is Autumn again and the church is preparing for another service. More baby does will soon join those buried.
This is an original post for World Moms Network by To-Wen Tseng. Photo credit: Mu-huan Chiang
My husband is a software engineer who specializes in smart phone application development. Our four-year-old son described his father’s job as “very challenging.” He said, “Dad is always fixing phones, lots of phones. His lab is loaded with phones.”
I am an independent journalist and a freelance writer. Our son described my job as “very easy.” He said, “Mom is always playing with her computer, chatting on the phone, and traveling by air.”
So this is how my son looks at writing to deadline, phone interviews, and business trips. How cute, yet how annoying! My husband and I joked about this, and I told him, “So our son thinks your job is challenging and mine is easy. That’s not fair. I don’t want to be looked down on—not by our own child!”
For the first time I saw myself through my child’s eyes. I was both surprise and amused to realize that I actually have a fear of being looked down on by my child. Then I thought about my mother, and what she was like in my eyes when I was four years old.
Back then, I was afraid of my mother. She was a so-called “tiger mom” who spanked me often. Most of the time, I didn’t know what I had done wrong. I was constantly scolded for my “bad attitude” when I was too young to even understand what an attitude is. I vividly remember how scary my mother was when she was beating me, but I barely remember what I did to anger her.
There are a few things that I remember, though. Here is one memory. My mother used to make fried rice noodles and throw in a lot of dried shrimp. The smell of the dried shrimp totally covered the flavor of the shiitake mushrooms and the sweetness of the cabbage.
I asked my mom, “Can you not put so much dried shrimp in the fried rice noodles?”
She effectively silenced me with an angry shout: “This amount of dried shrimp is necessary in fried rice noodles! Shut your month and eat up, or I’ll beat you up.”
When we visited my uncle, his wife made fried rice noodles, but without the dried shrimp. It was delicious. I ate two bowls and happily said to my mother, “Look, Auntie made fried rice noodles with no dried shrimp! It’s good! Let’s try this, too!”
When we got home that day, my mother grabbed a tennis racquet standing by the door and started to strike me with it. She was too upset to find the rattan that she usually used. The racquet strokes fell on me like raindrops; the pain was great. I started to cry, “Why are you hitting me?”
She shouted, “Because you have a bad attitude! Stop crying or I’ll beat you even more!”
For a long time, I didn’t know why I was punished. My mother was an irritable and horrible person in my eyes. I guessed she hated me, but I wasn’t sure. I dared not ask.
Later, when I was in middle school, a friend of mine lent me her CD of Blur’s. I brought it home, totally forgetting that we didn’t even have a CD player. I put the CD on my desk.
My mother saw it and asked me, “What’s this?”
I said, “It’s a CD I borrowed from a friend. But we don’t have a CD player at home, so never mind.”
My mother asked me what a CD was. I said, “A CD is a compact disc. You don’t know that?”
She suddenly raged, grabbed a clothes hanger and hit me in the face. I cried, “Why are you doing this?”
She shouted, “Because you have a bad attitude!”
I was fourteen years old. While I was being hit by that hanger, I started to hate my mother. I thought she was being unreasonable. I thought she was just randomly beating me up because she happened to be in a bad mood, or worse, for no reason at all. I vowed that I would never become somebody like her.
Then I grew up. I left my parents a long time ago, but I’m still searching for the answer to the tough question, “Why my mother physically abuse me?” I tried to look at her from a mature woman’s eyes, and not from a child’s eyes. I finally figured out that maybe, just maybe, I knew one of the reasons behind my mother’s abuse. She spent her whole adult life as a housewife, and was kept at home for the whole time. My father’s parents did not have a harmonious marriage. My grandmother once ran away from home, and as a result, my father was insecure about relationships. He limited my mother’s social and career life. My mother hated to be isolated from the outside world, but she was helpless. She was afraid of being despised, especially by her children. And when I showed the attitude that she considered scornful—for example, by criticizing her cooking or questioning her knowledge—she beat me to maintain her dignity.
When I was a child, I first feared and then hated my mother, but I didn’t despise her until I became a teenager. Now, when I think of her sense of inferiority, my heart almost aches. But I don’t want to be sympathetic. My mother had a big ego, and it would be painful for her to know that her daughter had sympathy for her.
When my own son described my job as “very easy,” I realized that I too did not want to be underestimated by my child. So I reminded myself about my own mother. She was eventually despised by her own daughter, not because she made bad fried rice noodles, not because she didn’t know what a CD was, and not because she was an isolated housewife, but because she had abused her child. Ironically, she abused her child exactly because she didn’t want the contempt.
I realized that children are not confused. They only despise parents when the parents despise themselves.
I asked my son, “Surely Dad is great! When you grow up, do you want to be an engineer just like him?”
He said, “No. I want to be a writer just like you. So that I can play with my computer, chat on the phone, and get on airplanes all the time.”
How did you see your parents when you were growing up? How would you like your children to see you?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by To-Wen Tseng. Photo credit: Mu-huan Chiang.
I’ve served as a judge at some local children’s Chinese-language speech and recitation contests on several occasions. I still remember my first time. I saw a little boy in a suit and tie, speaking with a crisp voice, saying, “Summer is my favorite season because the sunny days are cheerful and inspire me to do great things for my people.” When speaking, he raised his two fists high in the air.
Then I saw a little girl in a dress and high heels, who with a clear but shy voice said, “Winter is my favorite season because it reminds me the Chinese fairy tale ‘Snow Child,’ a story that describes the noble sentiments of Chinese people.” Then she wiped her eyes in an exaggerated way.
These children were all born in the United States, of Chinese descent. They spoke Chinese in crisp, clear voices, but the speech content was confusing. I really wanted to ask the girl what she meant by “the noble sentiments of Chinese people,” or the boy what “great things” he was going to do for his people. I got the impression that most of the scripts were written by parents.
After the young children spoke, the older kids stepped onstage. A couple of teenagers in T-shirts and shorts hesitantly walked up, muttering things like, “We should respect our teachers, because…because Chinese people believe in their teachers, well I’m American, not Chinese, but… oh well, let’s just respect our teachers” or, “We should respect our parents because…because they are too old to understand anything we say…let’s just listen to them when we are home.”
It was funny to see young people of Chinese appearance speaking with such strong American accents – so strong that I could barely understand them. Nine out of ten parents sitting in the auditorium frowned, clearly not enjoying the speech. Were they sad because their teenagers were not speaking Chinese as well as they had in elementary school? Were they worried because their children’s speech was not good enough to get them into college?
While considering how to score, I thought of my own child. He was then nine months old. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he would be able to tell the fairy tale Snow Child in fluent Mandarin Chinese. Would he become an American kid with an American accent and complain that “Mom is too old to understand anything I say”?
I frowned, like all the parents in the auditorium.
In my family, we speak Chinese at home and English at work or school. My son was a late talker, but our pediatrician comforted us, saying that although bilingual kids can be slow to speak at the beginning, they usually catch up quickly. He encouraged us to insist on speaking Chinese at home.
We tried to create a Chinese-only environment at home with hopes that my son’s first word my son would a Chinese word. But the hope came to naught: his first word was an English word he learned at the daycare: “Daddy”. This was my first failure in raising a bilingual child. In spite of this, we continue to speak Chinese at home. Every night we read bed time stories together in Chinese. By the time he was three, my son could speak fluent Chinese, and tell “Snow Child” and many other fairy tales without help. I was very proud.
But my pride didn’t last for long. Just a couple of months ago, his preschool teacher told me that he had a hitting problem. The theory was that because my son didn’t speak English as well as other kids, his ability to stand up for himself in arguments was limited, and he turned to physical means of expressing himself.
The teacher suggested that we set an “English time” at home to help my son improve his English. I didn’t like the idea: the more I exposed him to English, the less chance he got to speak Chinese. Didn’t he speak a whole lot of English at school already?
But the hitting problem got worse. After consulting our pediatrician and therapist, I finally gave in and started a daily English storytime at home. Kids are really like sponges, and his English improved in no time. He stopped hitting his preschool classmates, but his Chinese language skills went backwards.
I started to understand why I kept seeing the same thing at Chinese speech and recitation contests: the younger the children are, the better their Chinese language skills are. I started to understand that my hope of raising a bilingual child fluent in Chinese might once again come to naught.
I worked as a staff writer at a local Chinese-language newspaper when I was young. Many times, I interviewed outstanding second or third generation Chinese-Americans. When I asked them for a Chinese name for publishing purpose, they often said, “I don’t remember my Chinese name.”
A Chinese-American anti-death penalty activist once “drew” down her Chinese name for me after an interview. I couldn’t read the symbols she had drawn. I tried to guess and wrote down two characters next to her drawing. She read my writing and happily announced, “Yes, that’s my name!”
When the article was published the next day, I got a phone call in the newsroom from an old lady speaking Chinese with a sweet Beijing accent. She identified herself as the mother of the anti-death penalty activist, and said that I had gotten her daughter’s name wrong. I apologized, and she said, “That’s okay, I understand. My daughter must have made the mistake herself. She never remembered her Chinese name. But I just want to let you know.” Then she was silent. “Hello! Hello?” I said, not sure if I should hang up. Then she started to talk again, asking me where I was from, if I was married, and if I had children.
At that time I was married but there were no children yet. The old lady aid earnestly, “Take my advice. When you have your own kids, always speak Chinese to them.”
“Sure, sure,” I said, just saying that to make her happy.
Through the years I’ve seen many second generation Chinese-Americans struggling to learn Chinese.
Since having my own child, I often think of the old lady and her daughter who couldn’t remember her own Chinese name. The thought is almost painful.
It is not just the America-born children who are struggling. The away-from-home adults are also struggling. I am a professional writer who was born to Chinese parents and raised in Taiwan, but who has spent her entire adulthood in the States. I struggled to improve my English during my first years in the United States. Now I write English more then Chinese. I can clearly see that I no longer speak Chinese as well as I used to. When I was in my twenties, I was eager to get rid of my Chinese accent. Now I’m desperate to maintain my Chinese language skill.
My son will soon be four, old enough to go to the Chinese language school. I decided to let him start this fall. He doesn’t like the idea of going to school on weekends, and asks, “Why do I have to learn Chinese?”
I didn’t know how to explain the concept of culture to a toddler. I just told him, “So you can read ‘Journey to the West’.” The other night I read him the chapter “Monkey Subdues White-Skeleton Demon” from the classic novel. He wanted to know if the Monkey eventually returned to his teacher Xuanzang. I wouldn’t tell him. I told him that he will read it one day by himself.
I still hope to raise a bilingual child who speaks fluent English and at least understandable Chinese. I don’t expect him to love the Chinese language right away. Language is always first a tool and then an art. I hope my son will first learn how to use the tool, and then, maybe one day, he’ll truly fall in love with the art.
Are you raising a bilingual child? How do you manage the cultural balance between more than one language?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by T0-Wen Tseng. Photo credit: David Sprouse.
I was in Taipei with family for Chinese New Year when President Donald Trump first announced the travel ban on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
For days, concerned relatives and friends asked if the ban would affect us.
In one way, it doesn’t affect us—we are naturalized U.S. citizens.
But in many ways, it does affect us.
My 3-year-old son’s preschool teacher is a Muslim from Iran. We love her and truly worried that we would lose a great teacher over that ban. For days my husband and I tried to come up with a good explanation for our child, but we couldn’t.
At dinner table when the child was not listening, my mother-in-law said, “You don’t have to tell him anything. He’s gone through several teachers before, he’ll be fine. He probably won’t even notice that she is gone.”
My father-in-law said, “If he does notice and ask questions, simply tell him that the teacher left. He will forget about it soon anyway.”
My in-laws were wrong. Kids are not as ignorant and forgetting as we thought.
We came back to the States on the same day protesters against President Trump’s travel ban gathered at Los Angeles International Airport. When we were in the customs line, an immigrant officer asked the woman in front of us, “Does what happening in America these days worry you?”
“Yes, it really worries me,” the woman answered. She wore a Hijab.
My son overheard them and asked me, “Mama, what’s she worrying about?”
We stepped out of Tom Bradley International Terminal, and he saw the protestors.
“Mama, what are these people doing?”
We had to start the difficult conversation early. “Look, baby. Our new President just made a new rule that stops people from some Muslim countries from coming to our country. But there are people who think the rule is wrong, so they are here to tell everybody that what they think. And the woman with Hijab at the custom is probably a Muslim, so the rule worries her.”
I tried to use small words. I wasn’t sure if he understood. He thought about it, and then asked, “Do we know any Muslim?”
“Well, Ms. Parvaneh is from a Muslim country.”
He stared at me. And then all in a sudden, he started to cry. Not crying, but wailing.
While we were driving home, my son fell asleep in the car. He woke up two hours later, and never asked any questions about the ban again.
Luckily, the government suspended enforcement of the ban after a couple of days.
When I picked my son up from preschool on the day of his return there, I asked him how school had been.
“Great,” he said. “I’m very happy because Ms. Parvaneh was still there.”
I was surprised. I thought (or I hoped) that he had already forgotten about that ban thing.
But apparently he hadn’t. He asked me if the President was still trying to “kick Ms. Parvaneh out.”
“Well, he may try again. But don’t worry. The ban is not fair. People will speak up and help out.”
“Who will? Will you, Mama?”
“Mama, will you speak up and help Ms. Parvaneh?”
“I will, baby.”
This week, Trump is preparing to release a second executive order halting travel from citizens of the seven nations. And I’m taking time to write this post, because I promised my son that I would speak up. It is wrong to attack immigrant families with Executive Orders. Immigrants or the children of immigrants started 40% of all Fortune 500 companies. They own and run many small and medium businesses, and they are a critical part of our national labor force and community – including my son’s preschool teacher.
Trump has said that citizens of the seven countries pose a high risk of terrorism. But the 9th Circuit made it clear that the Trump administration “pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.” This ban is simply not reasonable. As an American, I refuse to lose a critical part of my country – or lose a great teacher – over an unreasonable ban.
What are your thoughts on the travel ban? Would you, or anyone you know, be directly affected?
This is an original post to World Moms Network by To-Wen Tseng of the United States. Photo credit: Florencia Rojas.