Son helps mother recover from depression

By Phan Duong   October 7, 2023 | 09:41 pm PT
After realizing that money means nothing when his mother is depressed and alone by herself, Phan Van Chieu decided to bring her back to their hometown and flip over a new page as a content creator.

On an early morning in late September, Nguyen Thi Trinh, 45, was hard at work making jelly mooncakes with salted egg yolk filling in at small Mekong Delta home in Binh Chanh 1 Village, Binh My Town, An Giang Province. She worked late into the night, satisfied with her batch.

The whole day and night of work was neatly captured in a two-minute video shared by her son Chieu on TikTok just in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Every few minutes, Trinh would open her phone to see the likes and read the comments, a smile brightening her face. Creating content was a joy.

"She’s been smiling more over the last few months than ever before," Phan Van Chieu, 27, shares.

Phan Van Chieu, 27, and his mother Nguyen Thi Trinh, 45, on a trip to Tay Yen Tu Temple, Bac Giang Province, June 2023. Photo courtesy of Chieu

Phan Van Chieu, 27, and his mother Nguyen Thi Trinh, 45, on a trip to Tay Yen Tu Temple, Bac Giang Province, June 2023. Photo courtesy of Chieu

Chieu then convinced his mother to create an online account to introduce their town’s local specialties. The mother was worried that she’d fail, but her son persuaded her to give it a shot.

Chieu graduated with a degree in automotive engineering, received a study abroad scholarship in South Korea, and went on to study further in Japan. But ultimately, he gave it all up to be by his mother’s side. Prior to leaving his job, he worked in real estate and had a decent income.

"One night, I listened to the song ‘Ten Years’ by the rapper Den Vau. I realized that having so much money doesn’t matter when the most important person in my life, my mom, has been living with insecurities and depression 30 years," he says.

Chieu dedicated his first video to talking about his mother. His paternal and maternal grandfathers were best friends, so they promised to have their children marry each other. As such, his parents married when they were 17.

The marriage did not last long. A year later, his father left to marry another woman and Chieu’s mother was left on her own to care for her child.

Chieu grew up with what little money her mother earned from working in the fields and at the market. When he went to Ho Chi Minh City for university, she accompanied him and earned a living doing odd jobs like working in a factory, housekeeping, and garbage collecting to help him through school.

Gradually, she became more reserved and introverted, hardly socializing with anyone. If she found herself in a crowded space, she would close herself off because she was afraid of saying something that would insult other people.

When her son told her to stand in front of the camera, Trinh felt more afraid than ever. Though he had written a script beforehand, she still stumbled over her words constantly. Many times, they couldn’t finish a single scene after countless hours.

"There were many times when both my son and I cried because I couldn’t get through my lines," Trinh said, admitting that at first, she only went along with it because she believed in her son. But she had no faith in herself.

Their first two videos only had a couple of viewers. Although he had prepared himself beforehand for this, Chieu inevitably felt sad and disappointed. He was also bogged down by pressure from his neighbors.

Many callously said that Chieu wasn’t focusing on building a career and was instead fooling around, with some even starting rumors that he was fired from his job and had gotten himself into bad debt.

"When my mom agreed to do this, she gave me a three-month deadline to try it out. I was worried that with the speed we were going, there wouldn’t be any results," Chieu said.

Their third video was posted on a hot early summer afternoon. They were on their way home and stopped to rest, deciding to share the video in the meantime. After only a few minutes, they had received 10,000 views. On the rest of the way home, Chieu said that he felt "his heart bursting out of his chest."

As soon as they arrived home, they opened their phone, and staring back at them was the number 998,000. About 30 seconds later, they reached their first 1 million views.

"We jumped and hugged each other, crying out in happiness," Chieu recalled.

They had talked about palmyra palm sugar—a specialty of An Giang Province—in that first breakthrough video. To harvest the sap from the tree to make sugar, the farmer has to climb up the tall tree and use a specialized tool to find the right spot before striking it with the right amount of strength the right amount of times to tap and harvest the sap.

The sap from the palmyra trees easily becomes sour if exposed to air, so the farmer has to collect it during the early morning or early afternoon, meaning that they have to live near the palm trees where there is often no running electricity or water.

"Mom, we now have a platform," Chieu told his mother after their successful video. "We should help other farmers."

His mother agreed readily. They carefully chose the types of agricultural produce to advertise on their account. The son stayed behind the camera and wrote the script, while the mother did the livestreaming.

Trinh introduces dates in a video. Photo courtesy of Trinh

Trinh introduces dates in a video. Photo courtesy of Trinh

Chieu recounts that their first few streams were fairly well received, with thousands of viewers. However, as they did not have prior sales experience, it was not as effective as they wanted. On some streams selling che thot not (palmyra sugar sweet soup), they were only able to earn VND3-5 million (US$123-205).

After that, they got support from TikTok’s community of online produce sellers. After multiple practice sessions, they were able to solve their problem and got into new ideas and new ways to build their account.

Currently, the mother-and-son duo is selling some 10 products at an average growth rate of 400% every month.

But more importantly, Chieu realized something was different in his mother. Being able to travel around soak up interesting bits of knowledge from town to town has given his mother more confidence and she now actively socializes with her neighbors.

Whenever they shoot a video about cooking, she makes extra food to share with friends and acquaintances nearby

From his mother, the Chieu has also learned patience and resilience in the face of hardship. Once, it took them three tries to perfect his grandmother’s banh bo (honeycomb cake) recipe. In the middle of filming, Chieu wanted to give up, but his mother kept going. Her commitment t inspired him to muster up some determination and try again.

There was another time they shot a video about mangrove crabs and even though Trinh doesn’t like eating mangrove crabs, she was determined to film the video no matter how many reshoots it took, and no matter how many times she had to eat the shellfish meat.

When filming ended, her thirst did not go away no matter how much water she drank.

Even with all of the difficulty, Trinh is happy that she can help others. In their first livestream, she introduced mangrove crabs from a famous store in An Giang province, and they sold a full ton of crabs on the first go.

Along with other streamers, Chieu and Trinh have joined livestream group sessions that sold 50 tons of Bac Giang lychee, 23 tons of Bac Kan courgette, and many other agricultural products at the "OCOP Market—Produce in the Clouds" event in Lam Dong Province, which attracted more than 20 million online interactions. OCOP stands for the government’s "One Commune One Product" program for local farmers.

Phan Chieu and his mother (second and third from the right) joining a livestream selling lychee for farmers in Bac Giang Province, June 26, 2023. Photo by Hoang Anh

Phan Chieu and his mother (second and third from the right) joining a livestream selling lychee for farmers in Bac Giang Province, June 26, 2023. Photo by Hoang Anh

"Over the past few months, my son and I have been selling palmyra palm sugar for a Khmer family to help their financial situation," Trinh says.

TikToker Dang Thi Tho from Lang Son Province reveals that in her first meeting with Trinh at an event selling lychee in Bac Giang province this June, Trinh was quiet and reserved. Once she learned Trinh’s story, Tho—a widow and single mother—sympathized with her.

From then on, Tho has frequently checked in on Trinh and gives her little pep talks: "Everyone has their ups and downs in life. You’re lucky that you have a caring son with you, so you should do your best to improve."

"When we met again in Lam Dong in August, Trinh was like an entirely different person. She was confident and talked a lot more," Tho said.

In a video posted for the Mid-Autumn Festival, Chieu smiled as he looked at the bright face of his mother.

"Some people who knew her would say she’s become a new person, but I think it’s more accurate to say that she has been ‘revived’ as a happy person," Chieu says.

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