The forefathers of our democracy believed that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” While today these words incorporated into the Declaration of Independence might sound outdated, they are just as important as ever.
The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights remains a remarkable document that makes the United States of America a beacon of hope for people all over the world. The First Amendment states that people are entitled to the freedoms of expression, religion and assembly, and to freedom of the press and the freedom to petition the government.
In the United States, the First Amendment gives citizens these freedoms; however, in Vietnam, where my family is from, life is very different. My mother grew up in the city of Saigon, which is located in the southern part of the country. Here, she spent most of her days working on her family farm. As a child, she lived in poverty with her eight siblings. She had little access to education, which limited not only the material things she could afford but also her individual freedoms.
In Vietnam, most women and girls are viewed as future housewives. Thus, their ideas and opinions, when expressed, are typically ignored. This patriarchal social attitude coupled with her family’s poverty meant that my mother’s voice was nearly nonexistent.
However, being the expressive, strong woman that she is, it has always been natural for my mom to voice her opinions, even when it was obvious that no one was listening. She routinely spoke out and suffered harsh consequences. At school, teachers would hit her with thick, ruler-sized boards or humiliate her in front of her class for speaking her mind, especially when her opinions contradicted what they believed. Faced with these dehumanizing repercussions, my mother’s self-confidence slowly faded away. She felt as if she were never going to be anything more than “just a girl.”
“I felt incapable. The teachers picked on me and it made it hard for me to do as well as others. I guess it made me want to give up because it seemed as if no one cared for my thoughts,” my mother told me.
While in Vietnam, my mom dreamed of America. She always imagined America as a place of opportunity—a place where people can speak and be heard, a place where people can support themselves and their families. Because of these hopes, at age 22, she immigrated to the United States with her family.
Throughout my childhood, my mother raised me to understand the life she had left behind. She told me stories of the political corruption, child labor, and poverty in Vietnam. Whereas movements have spurred shifting and fluid gender roles in the United States, Vietnam remains a place where only men are dominant. Women there do not yet have the freedom to advance against powerful political machines and corrupt businesses. Unlike American citizens, the Vietnamese do not have the right to petition the government or the freedom to assemble. They do not have the same opportunity that many Americans take for granted every day—the ability to have a voice that can potentially impact our government.
My family’s background makes me more determined to listen to and speak about issues in my community. In sixth grade, I began to use writing as a vehicle for expressing my thoughts about local issues. Because of this passion, I applied to work at Simpson Street Free Press, an afterschool academics program in which young people learn transferable academic and job skills by writing and publishing newspaper articles. Working here has allowed me to exercise my freedoms and speak out in the community without feeling intimidated. As a journalist, I take advantage of the freedom of the press to express my own perspective.
Learning to be a writer makes me feel valued as an individual. It gives me the opportunity to explore and the skills to expand my own voice. I have come to appreciate the people around me who have given me the confidence to be an active participant in my community. I am a citizen exercising my democratic rights and, as such, I have made my mother proud. I am fulfilling her dream as well as my own.