I don’t cook much, or ever, being the lazy twentysomething millenial ass that I am, so after work I call my favorite local restaurant, Phnom Penh, to order some takeout. A man answers. “Hello? This Phnom Penh.”
“Hi. Can I get the chicken fried rice?” I ask.
“Yes. You mean the…the chicken rice or the chicken–uh–basil rice?” I could hear him struggle to connect his words in coherent English syntax.
“Uh…what’s in each one?”
“The chicken fried rice–has uh…it has chicken, green onion…tomato–”
That sounds about right. “Okay, I’ll have that one.”
“Okay. Can I have your name please?”
I pause. “Leer-kaw-nah.” I say my name the anglicized way, the white people way. I regret it as soon as the last syllable drops from my mouth.
He doesn’t notice of course, and tells me my order will be ready in fifteen minutes.
Traffic is pretty slow, but I also stop by Autozone to get a couple of things, taking extra time to make sure I don’t end up sitting alone in the corner in awkward silence while waiting for my to-go dinner to be ready, as has happened many times before. When I arrive at the restaurant, I spy a lone carton sheathed in a plastic bag at one of the empty tables. It must be my order.
The owner of the restaurant, also the man I spoke with over the phone, spies me through the little window that separates kitchen from dining area. “You order the fried rice?”
“Yes.” I wonder, not for the first time, if he recognizes me. I’ve eaten at this restaurant since college, but only a handful of times at most. I came here for a celebratory luncheon with family after my graduation, which could have been more memorable to him. We were loud and many and Asian, and had shown up without a reservation. There was the fobbish cousin, the whitewashed cousin, the mother gabbing away in Khmer at the speed of light, and everyone else, all shades of brown and tan, including me.
My Cambodianness had shone through then. My hair had been longer then. Now, I was alone, with nothing to show but my short hair and my short American words, my Asianness read as Chinese and nothing more–even by the random black guy on the street who had greeted me with “ni hao” the other day, and moved on without another thought.
“That’s it right there.” He gestures to the bag I had suspected was mine, and taps the bill for emphasis.
I pull out my credit card, telling myself, I can just say it: Aw-gohn. Say thank you in Khmer, then he’ll know for sure.
Why does it matter so much, chides an ambivalent part of me.
Because…I am Cambodian, the other part of me retorts. He’s Cambodian. This is a Cambodian restaurant. Why shouldn’t I identify myself as Cambodian?
The owner comes over to the table, takes my card, and says, “Thank you” in English. I could have responded in kind, in Khmer,engaged in that strange exchange of thank you’s where no one wants to break the chain by saying “you’re welcome” in fear of sounding rude or arrogant, where gratitude becomes yet another meaningless transaction in our capitalist quid pro quo culture. I could have, but I don’t. It doesn’t feel like the right moment.
He’s swiping my card. Has he ever bothered to look at the name printed on it? Looked past the erratic spelling and found Cambodian quality? (Leh!-keh-nah means “quality” in Khmer. I confirmed this in a secondhand Cambodian-to-English/English-to-Cambodian dictionary I’ve kept with me since I began living on my own.)
Guess not. He returns it to me without so much as a glance, along with a receipt for me to sign. “Thank you,” he says again, and leaves before I have a chance to decide whether to squeeze in my aw-gohn. I’ll definitely say it when it’s time to say goodbye, I reassure myself. That’s the most appropriate time anyway-when I’ve signed the receipt. Then I could just hand it over to him and thank him for his service–in Khmer.
I sign the receipt and look up. He’s busy bustling around the kitchen, preparing more food, taking more orders, although the restaurant is mostly empty. I realize I’m just another customer. I leave the receipt on the table and walk out with my dinner, the question of why I didn’t just say my name the right way to begin with chasing at my heels. Is it because I’m secretly ashamed of being Cambodian? I wonder.
No, that disconcerting voice replies, it’s because you are ashamed of not being Cambodian enough.