Welcome to the 14th article in the “Celebrating Women” Series for Women’s History Month! It’s the first time I’ve coordinated an author guest article series to celebrate women in history or women making history! Thank you to Rosemary Tran Lauer and her co-author Scott Beller. If you’d like to continue on with the tour, which runs March 19-31, 2014, follow along each day on the main blog or head to this blog page, Women in History, which will be updated daily with the scheduled link.
Ahead of Her Time and Against Social Norms,Tüöng Phố Set a Bold Example as a Strong Single Mother
by author Rosemary Tran Lauer
My grandmother Tüöng Phố was an educated woman who embodied everything that Women’s History Month was created to celebrate: character, courage and commitment. What’s even more remarkable about her to me is that she did so at a time and place (early 20th century Vietnam) where such qualities were, in many ways and for many decades afterwards, discouraged in women. My grandmother was a celebrated poet and an artist with great integrity. But as a single mother, even her fame could not shield her from the strict expectations of a culture that insisted a woman’s most important role (and goal) was to be a proper wife serving a rich husband.
My grandfather died before my father was old enough to know him. Stigmatized for a tragic circumstance completely out of her control, my grandmother spent the rest of her life seeking to overcome it. To do so she focused inward, channeling her sorrows through creative expression and a dedication to honoring my grandfather’s memory by loving her only son while instilling in him and her grandchildren a respect for the power of education.
I was lucky as a young girl to have been one of her “chosen” pupils. My grandmother inspired me then and continues to inspire me today. Although I tried but never was able to attain a college education, she showed me that no matter where or how you learn, the dedication to learning and the knowledge you obtain are what’s most important in overcoming life’s challenges. She also gave me a shining example of someone who didn’t let her circumstances keep her down. She found ways to use adversity as the most important learning experience. Adversity only served to propel her forward. It was just as much nourishment to her as her success.
My relationship with my grandmother continues to inform the way I approach any situation, good or bad, personal or professional. As a small tribute to and show of love for her, I began my recently published memoir Beggars or Angels: How a Single Mother Triumphed Over War, Welfare and Cancer to Become a Successful Philanthropist (August 2013, Oaklight Publishing), by sharing part of her story. I did this to illustrate the great influence she’s had on me as well as those who I’ve tried to help through Devotion to Children (www.DevotionToChildren.org), the child care advocacy nonprofit I began in 1994.
Although, her amazing life could fill two books by itself, the following excerpt from the opening chapter of my book will have to suffice for now. I hope you enjoy it:
Following excerpt taken from the memoir Beggars or Angels: How a Single Mother Triumphed Over War, Welfare and Cancer to Become a Successful Philanthropist (Oaklight Publishing © 2013 by Rosemary Tran Lauer and Scott Beller). It is being reprinted by the “Hook of a Book” blog with permission. No other reproduction or distribution, either in print or electronically, is permitted without obtaining the prior written consent of the copyright holders.
Beggars or Angels
By Rosemary Tran Lauer
with Scott Beller
PART 1 VIETNAM
Chapter 1 Everything Happens for a Reason
Growing up in Vietnam, I knew exactly what was expected of me. In the Asian culture, it’s believed the ideal life for a woman is to grow up proper, get married, raise children, and then live happily ever after. And that’s just what I planned to do. I didn’t know that such fairytales are routinely interrupted by the conflicts, heartbreaks and unexpected detours of real life. I know this now.
Because I was raised in a Buddhist culture, I was taught to believe that people who lead challenged lives or fall upon hard times must have negative karma. In other words, bad things happen for a reason, and the reason is that you must have done something wrong in a past life. I’ve never been able to accept this philosophy. Two lifetimes of experience have taught me differently.
To be clear, I’m not talking about reincarnation. The first lifetime that changed how I see the world was not my own; it was my grandmother’s.
My grandmother Tüöng Phố was beloved throughout Vietnam for her poetry. Her poems invoked breathtaking imagery to express the most profound, heartrending and romantic sentiments. In her art and in her life, she embodied the avant-garde. And in the oppressive Vietnamese society of the early 20th century, she courageously followed her own path.
She married my grandfather when she was quite young and was soon with child. While she was pregnant, my grandfather was called away to practice medicine in France. But after several months abroad, he fell ill with tuberculosis and returned home to his family. A few months later, my grandfather passed away—leaving my grandmother alone with her son.
As a way to express and perhaps release some of the paralyzing anguish of losing her husband of only two years, my grandmother wrote “Autumn Tears” in 1923. She was a teacher at the time and not yet a full-time poet. This work brought her almost instant recognition throughout Vietnam. She was young, beautiful and suddenly famous.
In that time and culture, however, peering public eyes coldly chose to focus on something else: she was now a single mother. The situation didn’t sit well with people. Even though my grandmother was a widow, many of those in her community believed a “good” woman with children must have a husband in order to maintain her honor and dignity. So her parents quickly arranged for her to wed a man who was wealthy, powerful, and extremely influential in the local community.
Money and status didn’t matter to my grandmother, but her will to resist was weakened by her grief and love for my grandfather. She gave into societal pressure and her parents’ wishes. She remarried to appease them all, but she never again allowed herself to love another man.
If not for her son, my grandmother might have given up on the life she now considered broken and out of her control. My father became her will to live, and her poetry became her escape. Together her child and creative writing nourished her. In him she found renewed reason to strive for a fulfilling life, while her painful circumstances provided unlimited fuel for her poems. Each and every line she wrote radiated with sorrow.
Just after I was born, my grandmother read my star chart, which revealed to her that my life would also be complicated. To Buddhists, “complicated” is often synonymous with “difficult”—which means bad karma, something for which many believe there can be no forgiveness. My grandmother worried I might someday endure a life as difficult as hers—maybe worse. To change my destiny, she suggested to my parents that I pursue ordination as a Buddhist nun, even though doing so would divert me from the ideal married-with-children, happily-ever-after Vietnamese experience.
I didn’t become a nun. And despite my life’s many twists and turns and highs and lows, I still believe my decision was the right one for me.
Although I never made it to the safety of a monastery, my grandmother was always there to serve as my guardian. I was the seventh of 14 children and even lower in the pecking order because I was small. I became tough out of necessity. My older and younger brothers routinely beat me up and called it “playing.” They also told me, “You’re ugly, and nobody will ever want to marry you. You’ll be an old maid!” Rough as they were, I considered their abuse the price of being included.
My grandmother gave me refuge from my brothers. I don’t know why she seemed to favor me over my siblings. Maybe because of my unsettling star chart, she felt we shared a deeper connection than she had with any of her other grandchildren. Whatever her reasons, and no matter how strict she could be, I always took solace in knowing my grandmother deemed herself my protector from the very beginning.
She was also my first teacher. I was just 3 years old when she began drilling me daily on my multiplication tables. This was not shocking because I was a toddler, but because I was a girl. Within that repressed society, it mattered more that Vietnamese girls be able to cook, embroider, display good manners, and please people than it did for them to get an education. And above all, it mattered whether they were pretty enough to marry rich. But my grandmother was different, so she insisted I be different too. She wanted more for me—and expected more from me—than to be just another pretty object, ready and willing to serve a wealthy husband. She wanted me to shine from the inside out.
So I joined my grandmother each day in her tiny, tin-roofed kitchen. The little hut, screened in with bamboo and situated across from the main house, was her private “workshop.” While she sat hunched over on her stool, tending clay pots bubbling on two coal-burning stoves, I would sit in the corner, practicing my math skills. And I would sweat. My seemingly-endless recitations of “two by two equals four … two by three equals six …” and so on, cut through 100-degree air thick with humidity and the sugary, sharp aroma of omai, her famed candied plum and pickle treats. If I said them all correctly, I got to eat. Those treats were a great incentive for me to become a quick study and a constant threat to spoil my concentration …and my dinner!
On the hottest days, when it seemed my brain was searing faster than the food on my grandmother’s stove, her rigorous teaching methods and attention didn’t feel very loving. They felt more like punishment. I didn’t yet understand that as she prepared her heavenly confections, she was also preparing me to appreciate the value of an education and instilling in me a lifelong hunger for knowledge.
Despite my efforts to attain one, I never actually received a college degree. Instead I earned a diploma from cosmetology school. When I remember the way my grandmother disapproved of me wearing too much makeup as a teenager, I can’t help but smile. Pointing at my painted eyes, she would say, “Little one, you don’t need all that.” The funny thing is that without “all that,” I might not have made it very far in America.
For that journey, one I would not make until many years later, I did not need my grandmother’s math lessons. But I did need her courage, strength and independent spirit … and a whole lot of faith.
- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Oaklight Publishing (August 14, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1613920024
- ISBN-13: 978-1613920022
Imagine waking up tomorrow in a foreign land with no home, no money, no grasp of the language, no formal education, no friends or family for support, and with two kids under age three depending on you. What would you do?
Beggars or Angels: How a Single Mother Triumphed Over War, Welfare and Cancer to Become a Successful Philanthropist tells the inspirational story of Rosemary Tran Lauer, a mother who found the will and a way to survive when faced with this overwhelming scenario. Drawing on her strength, bold resourcefulness, and sense of humor, Rosemary was eventually able to give her family a wealth of opportunities they wouldn’t have dared dream about in the war-torn homeland they left behind.
A courageous welfare-mother-turned-philanthropist, she was willing to sacrifice everything but her self-respect for the sake of her children’s futures . . . and for the futures of thousands of families around the world. Beggars or Angels is about one woman’s dare to care and her persistent search for a reason “why.” Once she discovered it, Rosemary transformed her years of struggle into an altruistic ambition and purpose-the child care advocacy nonprofit Devotion to Children.
Rosemary Tran Lauer, Biography~
Rosemary Tran Lauer is an American success story. When she escaped from war-torn Vietnam in 1975, she had no college education and spoke little English. Striving for financial independence, she relied on the kindness of friends to help care for her kids while she worked multiple jobs. She relied on welfare benefits to make ends meet when she went back to school.
After cosmetology school, she spent more than 20 years in the beauty industry. In 1994, she founded the child care nonprofit Devotion to Children to make her vision, and the dreams of thousands of needy families, a reality.
In 2001, she earned her commercial-real-estate license and joined Long and Foster Realty, where she has been a top producer ever since. Rosemary serves on the Board of Directors for Northern Virginia Family Services (NVFS) and the Board of Advisors for Virginia Commerce Bank, and is active with the Vietnamese Realtor Forum.
She’s been honored by NVFS’s We Are America Now initiative and has received SmartCEO’s 2010 Spirited Service Award, the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ 2010 Outstanding Fundraising Volunteer Award, and The Asian American Chamber of Commerce’s 2011 Public Service Award.
Now a philanthropist, business leader, life coach, and happily-remarried mother of five, Rosemary lives in Oakton, Virginia, and works tirelessly with her husband Bill to give disadvantaged children and their working parents a brighter future.
Scott Beller, Biography~
Scott is a public relations industry veteran with more than 20 years experience as a writer and strategic communications consultant. As a work-at-home dad raising two children under age 6, Scott knows the challenges of balancing career and family, as well as finding affordable, quality child care.
During his PR career Scott has held leadership positions with some of the world’s top agencies, including Fleishman-Hillard and Weber-Shandwick, where he honed his writing skills and developed numerous public-information campaigns supporting the improved quality of life for children and their families.
As an independent consultant, Scott continues to handle range of writing, PR and strategic media projects for a variety of technology, entertainment and nonprofit clients. He also has helped launch two parenting organizations, DADS Unlimited and REEL FATHERS (www.reelfathers.org), with their founder Allan Shedlin. In 2003, Shedlin appointed Scott as his volunteer director of communications. That same year, Scott was named Volunteer of the Year as a youth mentor for New Hope Housing, Northern Virginia’s largest provider of shelter, transitional and permanent housing to homeless families.
Scott lives in Arlington, Virginia, with his wife Elisabeth and two kind, brilliant, adorable and exhausting daughters.
ADDITIONAL WEB LINKS
Beggars or Angels on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1oF6Ypw
Excerpt (Chapter 1) posted on Asian Fortune News: http://bit.ly/1la7htq
Beggars or Angels on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/beggarsorangels
Devotion to Children: http://www.DevotionToChildren.org
Scott Beller on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ScottBellerWordsmith