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.
Author, television host and activist Padma Lakshmi has had a long and storied career, but her mom Vijaya Lakshmi can easily pick out her biggest accomplishment.
Lakshmi told Sheinelle Jones on a new episode of "Through Mom's Eyes" that she felt most proud of her daughter when she visited her in Rome, where Padma was filming a television series.
"The seamstress came, and she, in her broken English, Italian, explained 'Padma is the only person who comes to speak to seamstress with respect,'" Lakshmi recalled. "No matter how much she earns, the idea she could care and respect those people (is) the biggest thing."
Lakshmi told Sheinelle that she spent much of her life trying to give her daughter a solid foundation. When Padma was a toddler, her mother moved to the United States to get established, so the pair were separated for more than a year while Padma lived with her grandparents.
"It was very hard, because till then, I was never separated," said Lakshmi. "Padma was brought up from 2 to 4 with my parents. After 14 months, I came back to India once and saw her. She asked me 'Mom, when are you going to come and take me to America?' My eyes started tearing. I said 'Pretty soon, my darling. I am working on it.'"
Finally, the two were reunited, in what Lakshmi called "the joyous day" of her life.
"Even if I don't achieve anything else, that day, I thanked God for being graceful to me," Lakshmi said.
Padma quickly adjusted to life in the United States, and soon, the pair began cooking together. While Padma is now a household name and successful chef and cookbook author, she once tried to cook soup by putting a can directly on the stove.
"We cooked when she was very young," Lakshmi recalled. "... One day she said, 'Mom, I can cook,' so I was surprised. I said 'What can you cook?' She said 'I can cook soup.' And she put the can on the stove. So I taught her, you don't do that. ... So I had to teach her."
While Lakshmi juggled life as a single parent and working nurse, Padma's dreams continued to grow; her mother said that she once said she would become a movie star and support her mom. As a child, Padma struggled with self-confidence, but Lakshmi said that the two spoke candidly about whatever was bothering her.
"I had to make her sit and talk (about how), although God is great, he had to make different colors," Lakshmi said. "I said 'Don't let that bother.' But of course it bothered her. And telling the truth, we are different, but we are the same, because we are all human beings. We feel anger. We feel love in the same way."
At 14, Padma was injured in a serious car accident that left her with a noticeable scar on her arm. While she was self-conscious about it at first, she eventually embraced it.
"Initially, she had to go to school, so she would wear long sleeves," Lakshmi recalled. "Slowly, she got used to it. And a photographer said to her 'No, that's a beautiful scar.'"
The pair still cook together, but they have very different cooking styles: Lakshmi told Sheinelle that she likes to mix it up while cooking, while Padma is "very methodical."
"When she cooks, I just observe and say 'What do you want me to do?'" Lakshmi explained.
For Lakshmi, Padma's cooking and modeling and other work isn't the most important thing: The biggest thing for her is her activist work, where Padma advocates for immigration and women's rights.
"All those things matter to me, because they are the ones that need help," Lakshmi said. "So I am glad she is like a woman I wanted to be but I didn't have (the) guts to be. I lived in the era, even though I was here, (of) 'What will people say?' I respect that she has the guts to fight for women, fight for weaker people."