Some time ago I met with a friend who, like me, has the job title of CEO.
At one point he kindly asked me about my mother, Hien. I answered that she’s fine and still works here in Hanoi.
When my friend asked what work she does, I could see the surprise in his face when I explained: My mother collects trash on the streets.
This might seem really strange to many people at first. I work as co-CEO of Blue Dragon, an international NGO. How is it that my mother is a garbage collector, like some of the families Blue Dragon helps?
Usually when you see someone working on the street like my mother, your instinct is to think that it is someone in need of charity. Surely nobody would do such a dirty job by choice? After all, it means riding an old bicycle around the streets every day, picking up anything that can be recycled – paper, tins, any kind of metal, old boxes… This is not an attractive or high paying job.
You might also think it’s a job for someone without the benefit of an education. But my mother was once a kindergarten teacher. When I was very young, she taught in the local school. She left this job because the salary was so low, it was not enough for our family to survive. Even though she had a good education and a professional job, my mother could earn more collecting and selling scrap.
My family isn’t in financial hardship any more. My brother, two sisters and I all have jobs. There are no more children at home who my parents must support through school. My father’s health is too poor for him to work, but he doesn’t need expensive medication or treatment. So in reality, my mother could stay home now and enjoy retirement. She has worked hard all her life. I think she deserves it.
However, this is not what she wants. My mother has always enjoyed being active. Staying home all day is not her dream.
Even more than that, my mother has always wanted to be independent. I could easily support her with some money. I would like to do it! But for her, this would mean a loss of independence. She sees no reason to stop working and take money from others when she is fully capable of earning it herself.
So then, why keep collecting scrap? Isn’t there another, better, job that she could do?
In fact, my mother has never been afraid of dirty work. She’s planted and harvested rice in the fields – backbreaking work. She’s been a cleaner. She does odd jobs for small businesses and for households. I’ve never heard her complain that any job is beneath her. It’s really the opposite. Whatever she does, she does it well.
Maybe it seems unusual for my mother Hien to be working on the streets like this when all of her adult children have jobs, including me as a CEO! And yet I am so proud of her for choosing this. For choosing her own way.
I remember during the Covid lockdowns, many poor people living around Hanoi’s river had no food, no money, and were unable to pay rent. While I was working with Blue Dragon to distribute food and money, so was my mother. She called on her personal network to gather and deliver food packages to immigrant workers in the area. Later, she was invited to represent immigrant workers to speak on their behalf at an NGO conference. This was totally her own doing – I didn’t even know about it!
My mother has taught me so much. Because of her, I know the value of hard work. I know that getting my hands dirty is a sign of strength, not weakness. I know that other people might look down on me, but I can still have my dignity and hold my head high.
One day, my mother will put away her bicycle and return to our home in the village where she can enjoy some peace and quiet for good. I will be happy when she does that, because I want to see her relaxed and comfortable.
Until then, I am proud of her strength and her independence. She is my role model and I hope that my children can learn from me the same goodness of character that I have learned from her.
Vi Do is co-CEO of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. His mother is, as we say in Australia, a living legend. You can connect with Vi on LinkedIn.