During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.
Dagny Zhu remembers little about her parents' move to the U.S. from Shanghai, China, when she was a toddler, but a consistent memory from her childhood is her mom's strength and perseverance.
So Zhu, a Harvard-trained board-certified eye surgeon, recently staged a Mother's Day photo shoot with her mom, Susan Qiu, to honor what they've both achieved in their 32 years living in the United States.
"The contrast between our lives back then and how far we've come now through her hard work and sacrifice is something I've always wanted to share as a way to honor her," Zhu, who has a 10-month-old son, told TODAY Parents. "I hope our story inspires and gives strength to women and immigrants who are currently finding their way."
In the beautiful photos, Zhu and Qiu wear polka dot dresses similar to the ones they wore in photos from 1992, when Zhu was 7 years old. Zhu says the original photos were taken just before her mother was blindsided by the end of her marriage to Zhu's father, becoming a single mother.
Qiu moved to the U.S. in 1989, one year after her husband moved from Shanghai to Melbourne, Florida, to study for his master's degree.
"To be honest, my mom never wanted to leave," Zhu explained. "She was happy with her life in Shanghai, which was modernizing drastically every year. She was surrounded by loving family and very close to my grandparents and her two sisters. But, despite her reservations and as was typical in Chinese culture, my mom felt it was her duty to join her husband and reunite our family in America."
Qiu did not speak English when she moved to the U.S. with her then 3-year-old daughter, and worked long hours cleaning motels, cashiering at grocery stores and waitressing at Chinese restaurants to help support the family. Zhu has memories of staying home alone at age 4 because her parents could not afford childcare while they worked.
The family moved to California in 1991, but in 1993, Zhu's father ended the marriage, leaving Qiu unsure what to do next.
"She didn't have any savings for herself," said Zhu. "She didn’t understand the American legal system or what she was entitled to. All she had was her 7-year old daughter, and all I had was her."
Throughout her childhood, Zhu recalls her mother working hard to support her. After working long shifts in Chinese restaurants, Qiu became determined to find a job with more regular hours, eventually becoming a bookkeeper for a Chinese company earning minimum wage. From there, the single mother completed a certificate in bookkeeping and accounting.
"Because her English was still poor, at 8 years old, I was helping her compose and edit her resumes," Zhu recalled. "With experience, she continued to get promotions and better-paying jobs over the years."
Qiu eventually became a U.S. citizen and a homeowner.
"She is most proud of the house we picked out together when I was a freshman in high school," said Zhu. "It even came with a white picket fence and really represented the culmination of the American dream for her."
Zhu says her mother, who today is 64, found great confidence in achieving full-blown independence.
"The day my father left, my mom felt helpless as the world had come crashing down on her," Zhu explained. "Today, she feels like there's nothing she can't achieve."
Zhu says now that she is both a mother herself and the same age her mother was in those childhood polka-dot-dress photos, she wanted to re-create the images as a way to pay tribute to her mom.
"My mom is the strongest woman I know," said Zhu. "As a kid, I had no idea the magnitude of everything she went through at the time. The fact that she could still make me feel like I was part of a loving home is a testament to her strength."
Zhu says her mom hopes sharing their story will encourage others to remain strong while reaching for their own goals.
"My mom wants people to know you are stronger than you think," said Zhu. "In life, there will be challenges, but there is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to complain about and nothing to feel sorry for. You must keep moving forward, problem-solve and find solutions. There is always a way."