Young Ha told her daughters this story so often that it would be impossible for them to forget.
One wintry day back in South Korea, Young decided to cook them pork chops for dinner as a rare treat. She hauled her girls — one an infant, the other a toddler — to the grocery store. But she didn't have a car.
So she bundled them up and hoisted them onto a sled. On the way home, the girls were whimpering because of the cold. Young ran them back to their apartment, but when she returned to the sled, she found the sack carrying her groceries had tipped over, and the meat had disappeared into the snow.
"I searched with my bare hands," Young recalls. "But the snow was white. The packaging was white. I felt sorry I couldn't give them pork chops. It's a sad story."
Made even sadder because at the time, Young's husband was pursuing a college degree in the United States, so she was raising their two kids on her own with the $30 he sent her every month.
"We didn't have much, but we were happy," Young says. "We were together. We loved each other. We had hope."
Young recounts this story matter-of-factly from her home in suburban Chicago, through a square on Zoom. In another square is her 57-year-old daughter, Martha in Minnesota, and she is crying.
"There's a lot packaged into that story," says Martha, who was the infant on that sled. "It's a story of hard work. Sacrifice. Resolve. About hope. And about success, and how all those things come together to make a better life."
The truth about dreams, Martha says, is that they "don't materialize and land on your doorstep. There's a lot of sacrifice and a lot of luck. That story reminds me where we came from and how we got to where we are."
Where she is now is an executive office at a giant medical-tech company, an embodiment of the axiom that we are indeed our ancestors' wildest dreams.
What are the stories that your parents have passed on, the scraps of truth and family folklore that have nourished and shaped you, that remind you of the resilience of your roots and dare you to go big? For Martha, a vice president and chief counsel at Medtronic, the story of the lost pork chops is always near the surface of her success.
Months after the meat slipped into the snow, in the summer of 1966, Martha's mother and two girls were reunited with her father, Jae, who was studying sociology in Denver and working construction in the summers. Young earned cash by ironing neighbors' clothing and bedsheets for $3 a day, with baby Martha strapped to her back. They lived in Colorado, Nebraska and finally Illinois, where Martha and her older sister Mary, now a dentist, grew up.
The Ha family story is the kind that a lot of Americans love, to show the promise of our country and — sometimes — to use as a wedge between Asians and other marginalized groups. But Martha resists too-simple narratives ascribed to entire groups, saying they can cloak the struggles and needs inside those communities.
"The model minority myth initially was meant to be a compliment to Asians: You work hard, you have close families, you're highly educated, you get good jobs, you make a decent salary — and therefore, let's just lump you altogether — you don't have a problem,' " Ha said. "So we become invisible."
While Asians are less likely than other racial groups to live in poverty, the picture becomes more complicated when you slice the data by ethnic groups. More than a third of Minnesota's Burmese population, for example, lives in poverty. Asians are more likely to work in low-paying occupations such as nail techs and cooks, but also in higher-wage fields such as software development, leading to Asians having the highest income disparity among races in the United States, as McKinsey and Co. noted last year.
And in the corporate world, Asian Americans drop in representation and promotion at the senior levels, with Asian women experiencing the greatest declines.
"Asian Americans are often seen as doers and not leaders," McKinsey reported. "Advancement sputters as Asian Americans move up the corporate ladder."
Ha says bias in the workplace has denied her opportunities as an Asian woman. But she says sometimes Asians might contribute to their own invisibility. Values their parents may have taught them — don't rock the boat, keep your head down and give 100% to your jobs — won't alone help Asian Americans advance, she says.
"It's about finding mentors, sponsors and allies, doing things that Asian people don't feel comfortable doing," said Martha, who now mentors staff and co-chairs her company's Asian employee network.
Ha, an introvert, said she only recently started to find her voice.
That involves leading with vulnerability and sharing her story, even if it means welcoming a stranger into a tearful conversation on Zoom to hear her mom tell the tale of digging through the snow to feed her family.
"She has told it to us multiple times," Martha says. "I love that story."
Her mom quips: "Even though you didn't have a pork chop that time?"
Martha reaches for a tissue. "I have no memory of not having a pork chop, Umma," she says. "I had you."