When most college graduates take their photos, they’re usually posed regally in their cap and gown in front of their favorite buildings on campus. And while UCR certainly held a lot of significance for me, I felt it was a much more appropriate to dig a little further into my past for my graduation photos. I’ve always been told that our past holds the foundation our present and futures are built upon and that sentiment rings very true to me.
So what significance does an old bicycle and a straw hat hold for someone like me?
To me, it represents determination, strength, sacrifice, and unconditional love.
It represents my mother.
My mom came as a refugee from Vietnam, brought over in the 80’s with the help of my uncles who came by boat during the war. After surviving years and years of hardship brought upon her by the communist government in Vietnam, she had a chance to start a brand new life here in America. Through grit and determination, my mom and her 7 other siblings saved up enough money to move out of a bad neighborhood in LA and into the suburbs of San Gabriel in an attempt to give my cousins and I a better opportunity to succeed in life.
My mom came to the US in her 30s and had me when she was in her 40s. Moving to a brand new country with little education, and unable to speak English at her age limited her abilities to live the life she had dreamed of when she was my age. Although she never talked about what those dreams were, I know she had imagined a life much different than the one she lives now. But she never complained, always overcame every obstacle like a drop of water running down a stream, flowing over whatever rocks it encounters. We made do with what life gave to us.
Growing up, we didn’t have the luxury of owning a car so as soon as I was old enough to balance myself, she installed the seat on the back of her bike, tied a cushion to the top, and plopped me on top to give me rides wherever I needed to go. Eventually the two of us were a sight around town. Everyone recognized us as the mom and her kid on a bike with straw hats on. Many people told us we looked like a picture taken in the old country. It was quaint and rural. To me, it was normal; its what bonded the two of us.
Eventually as I got older, kids would start making fun of me for being so poor that I had to get rides on the back of my mom’s bike. I was the kid wearing old, off brand clothes, getting food from the free lunch line, and socially awkward with few friends to call my own. Although looking back, I feel truly blessed because she was ALWAYS able to come up with just enough money to get me what I needed for school; a violin for music classes, SAT prep courses, art supplies, and even braces.
A memory that has always stuck with me was a comment made by a wealthy classmate in front of a bunch of kids in an after school program. He said that the reason why I liked the snacks given to us so much was because it was the only meal I was going to be eating that day. I was in 6th grade at the time.
When I came home from school, my mother told me that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my upbringing, but to use it as motivation to succeed in life. To someday eat whatever it is I wanted, to wear whatever clothes I wanted, to do whatever it is I want with my life. She told me that success tastes sweeter to those who know the bitterness of doing without.
Years later, those same words echoed in my head whenever I struggled with classes, wanted to quit studying for finals, or lost motivation to study after working long shifts. It wasn’t just for me to succeed, I knew that I needed to do it so WE would succeed. Walking across the stage wasn’t just a victory for me, but a confirmation that all of the sacrifices my mom made to get me where I am wasn’t wasted.
Whenever I look back at that bicycle and hat, I’m constantly motivated to do better and to thrive. I think that feeling resonates with every child who has immigrant parents; that drive to do better in life so our parent’s sacrifices don’t go to waste. Its an incredible motivator and one that propels me to aim as high as I possibly can.
Here I am: Nelson Vincent Luu, B.A in Art History Administrative Studies with a Marketing Concentration and B.A in Art Studio from the University of California at Riverside.
Class of 2016.
Dress Pants: Express
Photography: Justin Chan (Instagram)
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