In this poem, Pham utilises a free-verse structure to reflect on the sacrifices made by her mother to give her young family the best opportunities for success after fleeing war-torn Vietnam. The poem’s ‘narrative’ is driven and framed by the persona’s symbolic act of plucking his mother’s grey hairs. Her grey hairs represent her age, and as he removes them in tandem with her recollecting on experiences from her youth. He sees how this act, ‘transports’ her mind back in time and removes the burdens of her trauma.
The ‘narrative’ begins with the persona asking his mother what her passions and interests were as a child, to which she replies that she wanted to be a teacher. This prompts Pham to remember how, when as a child at school he brought home a certificate ‘of improved literacy,’ his mother was proud.
His mother’s words prompt the persona to then imagine what her childhood in Vietnam must have been like. He describes the sights and sounds she would have been familiar with, before remembering that that world no longer exists. Indeed, the violent memory of Vietnam contrast with the peacefulness of their conversation, ‘on the living room carpet we sit’ in order to remind us of the horrific circumstances the mother escaped, and the world of hope and peace she arrived at: ‘a paradise / one unbound by war and exodus.’
Despite highlighting the benefits of a life in Australia, the poet nonetheless recognises the hardship his mother endured as a migrant: he speaks of how she world long hours so that he could avoid a life that was ‘confined / to the labours of factories.’
The poem concludes with a vivid and emotional reconstruction of the day the mother, pregnant with her son the poet, left her ‘homeland,’ and began her journey to Australia. In doing so, Pham again emphasises the contrast between the despair of Vietnam and the hope promised by Australia, but also stresses how traumatic it nonetheless still is to leave one’s ancestral and cultural home forever.
Turbulence of Assimilation
Pham’s poem affirms the often-traumatic process of assimilation, and that while although it can indeed lead to a better life, it still unavoidably harms those individuals who undertake it. For Pham’s mother, assimilation was made necessary by the war in Vietnam: she was uprooted from her life and had to escape in dramatic fashion. With that physical departure, her connection to her ancestral and cultural heritage was strained, but not entirely severed.
The Power of Nostalgia and Memory
It is by storytelling, and recounting past experiences, that Pham somewhat mends his and his mother’s connection to their shared ancestral and cultural heritage. Most immediately, he forms a more complete understanding of who his mother is as a person by hearing of her life in Vietnam before the war.