This is an article written by Nell Bernstein after interviewing me. She writes as if she were using my voice. This is a story about LOVE and HOPE and raising a strong child with truth, dignity and integrity. It is a culturally based story specifically centered on being Vietnamese and the silence that often defines our community. This point has been completely lost in this article and over time by the hijacking of my life story by others for political purposes I do not support. The main message is: No matter what obstacles or challenges you face, you ARE strong enough to push through and follow your dreams.
Note: The issue of abortion in this article is IRRELEVANT and was never discussed. All claims and facts to the contrary are completely fabricated without my consent. (Ironic). My daughter and I are PRO-CHOICE. We support reproductive freedom. Any attempts to argue otherwise have been done so without our consent.
Written by Nell Bernstein
Jora Trang, 33, is a civil-rights attorney in San Francisco.
My daughter’s birth was the most amazing experience of my life. The doctor handed her to me, and she was perfect. No words can describe the joy I felt at that moment. Then I looked over at my mother and aunt, standing in the corner of the delivery room with pained, miserable expressions. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for them to watch a 12-year-old give birth. After my daughter was born, I was told we had to present ourselves as sisters to avoid any shameful criticism. Out of respect for my family, I went along with it.
I had been in the bathroom at school one morning when a stranger raped me. I was 11 years old. The truth is, I don’t remember much of the attack. I know I didn’t like what was happening and didn’t understand it, but I also had no idea how to make whatever was going on stop. I didn’t scream or cry; I just kept my eyes closed tight. I stayed in the bathroom for the rest of the day, feeling dirty, used, and very, very confused. And after that day, I pushed what had happened away. I told no one. My family was not much for talking, and anyway, I didn’t have the words for it. It was years before I would understand that I’d been raped.
Jora and Meggy when Jora was 12 and a half.
At the time, I had no idea that I could become pregnant from what had happened. I didn’t even know what being pregnant was! In the months that followed, my breasts got really big and my hips got wider, but I thought I was just developing the way my friends were. Then, six months later, I felt something move inside my stomach. Frightened, I waited a month and then told my parents, who then took me to see a doctor. But he just asked me a bunch of angry questions about whether I had boyfriends, and I left feeling extremely bewildered.
I thought I must have done something bad for everyone to react this way, but I had no idea what. I asked one question early on something simple like, “What’s going on?” — and was shot down, so I never asked again. I think I figured it out when the next doctor they took me to had pictures of babies on the wall. I didn’t know I was pregnant until I was seven months along.
I grew bigger and bigger, and eventually, I stopped going to school. I did miss it, but I understood that my pregnancy had to be kept a secret. My parents hid me in the house, and told my younger brother and sister that we were adopting a baby, so they just thought I was getting fat. I knew my child would be raised as my mother’s.
Despite all that, my pregnancy was a beautiful experience. As my belly swelled, I had a feeling of self-awe. I felt really beautiful, because something amazing was going on inside my body. My daughter kicked a lot. I read to her in my tummy and played her classical music because I’d heard somewhere that it could make her smart.
Then one day, my mother took me to the hospital for what I thought was a normal doctor’s visit and I had the baby. My water had broken the night before, but I didn’t know I was in labor; I don ‘t remember being in pain at all. My baby was so cute and perfect. I instinctively counted her fingers and her toes and immediately formed an attachment to her, despite knowing I had to give her up to my mother, who settled on the name Meggy and said, “Forget about all this and go live your life.”
But I loved my daughter, so I monopolized her. I didn’t give anyone else an opportunity to build a parental relationship with her. I stayed out of school for the first six months of her life to care for her, and it came naturally. When I went back to school, she stayed with a babysitter during the day and I cared for her in the evenings. To the world, she was my sister, but I always treated Meggy as my daughter.
Jora with Meggy, before heading out on a first date.
I was 19 the day I went to my daughter’s first-grade classroom to take her away for good. My father had fought as a soldier in the war in Vietnam (where we emigrated from in 1975) and suffered from serious post-traumatic stress disorder — which caused him to be increasingly paranoid about plots against his life — and I feared for my daughter’s safety around him. So when I got my driver’s license, I decided this was our chance to leave. First, I drove to the county recorder’s office and picked up Meggy’s birth certificate. I had been told that my name wasn’t on it — my mother’s was, so I was afraid I’d be charged with kidnapping. But there it was, in black and white, that I was her mom. I had stolen almost $1,000 that my parents kept hidden in the house and their car keys.
I arrived at her school in the middle of the day, but the teacher said Meggy couldn’t go with me. I’m her mother, and I’m taking her,” I said. It was the first time I’d uttered those words out loud. I felt proud and relieved to finally speak the truth, even if it was only her teacher who heard me. After I told Meggy’s teacher that I was planning to go to a shelter, she said we could live with her. We stayed there for six months, and despite the stress, we both excelled at our respective schools. Then we moved to San Diego, where I had been accepted at the University of California. I was determined to start a new life, and my parents just let me go. Moving away was traumatic for Meggy — she still thought my parents were her parents and my siblings were her siblings — so we visited them once a month. My parents let me keep the car. As for the missing money, the issue was never raised.
At the time, UC San Diego had a great program for single parents, and they gave us a two-bedroom apartment. We got by on welfare. It was difficult not being able to go out, having to schedule my classes around my daughter’s needs and always being on the edge financially. Sometimes we didn’t have the money to eat, so I had to steal food from the cafeteria. I often felt exhausted but never resentful. The desire to give Meggy opportunities kept me in school and gave me hope.
And we had fun too. I started a theater troupe called Funky Fresh Pan-Ethnic Asian Girls. We toured the country, performing skits that addressed issues from domestic violence to intergenerational language barriers. Meggy was one of the performers. It had been difficult finding friends who would accept my motherhood, but here were people who were totally supportive.
Meggy and I continued to live as sisters for her sake. But when Meggy turned 12 — the age I had been when I’d given birth to her — I felt she was old enough to understand the truth. My daughter is goofy and playful and brilliant and strong. There was no reason to hide our real relationship.
Meggy with Jora at Jora’s Homecoming
The Saturday I told her, I was sweating and wringing my hands as I said, ”I’m really your mother.” She started crying and shouting, “You lied to me all my life! What else have you lied about?” Then came a period of denial, where she wouldn’t talk about it. Finally, over time, she came to accept it. It was a year after I told her that I was at work one day and the secretary said, “Your daughter called.” I said, “My what? She said that?” I was so excited that she had called herself my daughter.
While I was in college, I trained to become a peer counselor; I felt I had the maturity to help women in need. But when the training focused on date rape, I felt numb. I knew that something had happened for me to get pregnant at 11, but I had never admitted to myself that I’d been raped. I never wanted to relive that day. It wasn’t until much later, when Meggy herself left for college, that I had the space to deal. My daughter’s conception is not something I talk about a lot, because my philosophy has always been that she stands apart. I don’t want what happened to define my life: the way I look at men, the way I look at my daughter, the way I look at anything.
When Meggy was entering her sophomore year of high school, we moved to Berkeley, where I had been accepted to law school. I had to work two jobs to cover our expenses, so I made a deal with my daughter. I said, “This is for our future. I will go to school and work 40-plus hours to keep us here. You’re going to cook dinner.” She rolled her eyes, but she did it — she cooked every night. She started out making Hamburger Helper and burning spaghetti, but her heart was in it. Within a year, she had become a great cook.
We had our tough times. Meggy had not wanted to move to Berkeley — she was angry about being pulled away from her friends. I grounded her a lot for ditching class or not doing her chores. But there were really fun times too. My adolescent years had been very different from hers. So when she started using makeup, I said, “Let me try that.” She taught me how to curl my eyelashes, pluck my eyebrows, would even do my hair. Everything she experienced, I experienced. We were growing up alongside each other in a way.
Now that Meggy is in college on the East Coast and I am employed as a lawyer on the West Coast, I do everything I wanted to do as a teen. I take eight dance classes a week and go out dancing all weekend. And I sit and think a lot, which is something I didn’t get to do.
I’ve also learned how much I miss my daughter by living apart from her and how much I’ve enjoyed every year of her life. Meggy is a miracle that came out of a really rough situation. This is what I tell my daughter. I don’t see regret or trauma or a hard life when I look at Meggy. I only see love.
Jora holding Meggy at Meggy’s 20th birthday party.
Meggy, 21, is a junior in college, where she is majoring in performing arts.
When I was 6 years old, my “sister” Jora came to my school and told me we were running away from home. She had always been the person who was closest to me in my family — the one who took care or me, played with me, basically raised me — so I didn’t question her. I just went. I did miss my family, but I also trusted that Jora knew what was best for me.
Until I was 12, she was my sister. When I found out the truth, I was very confused. All of a sudden, my brother and sister were my aunt and uncle. My mother was my grandmother.
At first, my mother didn’t exactly tell me she’d been raped. She told me that when she was 11, she had an experience that she couldn’t understand because she was very young and she became pregnant with me. But I wasn’t the kind of kid who needed everything explained. I understood that 11-year-olds don’t just decide to get pregnant and that what had happened had not been her choice. I’ve never wanted to know about my father because of how I was conceived. He’s not worth knowing.
In a way, I was grateful she had waited to tell me, because I don’t think I was ready any earlier to understand it. Still, Mother and I fought a lot when I was a teenager, because I was still having to grasp her as my authority figure. I couldn’t say, “You’re just my sister!” anymore when she told me what to do. When you’re a teenager, you think you know better, and in my early teens, I resented her at times. We were just a normal family: Mother and daughter at each other’s throats! And at the same time, we were growing up together. I guess I knew Jora would ultimately make the best decisions for me.
I graduated from high school and she graduated from law school at the same time, and we had a big party with all of our friends. There was dancing and barbecued ribs, and she gave me an antique necklace I’d been admiring in a store window. It was a great day, because we were celebrating our accomplishments together. We’d reached a point where I could have her as a mother, sister, and friend.
Jora at Meggy’s high school graduation.
Guys now come up and hit on her when we’re together. The first thing they always say is “Oh, are you sisters?” For the longest time,we tried explaining, but lately, we’ve been experimenting with other approaches. They’ll say, “Are you twins?” and we’ll say, “Yeah, we are. How did you know? You’re so smart!” But I hate that too, because I’m proud of my mother. I want people to know that. Everyone wants to think they were conceived in a planned way, by two people who loved each other deeply, and the fact that I wasn’t disturbs me. During my darkest days, I do occasionally think of myself as a mistake, because what happened to my mother was so horrible. But she always tells me that the experience was positive, because she had me.
Through love and hard work, together we’ve been able to turn something ugly into something wonderful. We have a true partnership, as opposed to a one-sided relationship in which one person takes care of the other. And that has helped both of us. My mother is the strongest person I know. I don’t know where she draws her strength from. But I draw mine from her.
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