I’m sitting in a cafe/donut shop in downtown Oakland, waiting for my plain bagel with butter to be ready. I can hear the workers speaking in Khmer to each other–gossiping, it sounds like. Their words are too quick for me to catch, plus my hearing in general is terrible. The woman speaks with a clipping accent that makes it harder for me to register her words. She mentions her husband a couple of times, which makes me realize that the man who is listening to her is not, in fact, her husband. I sit at a table and quietly eavesdrop as I always do, feeling like both an insider and outsider. It’s strange to me, the secret I am passively keeping from them: that I, too, am Khmer.
I’ve been sporadically ordering breakfast and eating lunch at this place for the past year, and I have yet to “out” myself as Cambodian. I’m hoping, as always, that a person could just take one look at me and be able to tell. That rarely happens. It’s not like I’ve been intentionally hiding my Cambodian identity. My face, skin tone, and last name do that for me rather effortlessly–camouflage passed on by my father, who was born and raised in Cambodia but was of Chinese and Vietnamese descent. These days, I have no trouble bringing up my race as a conversation topic, but only when it seems relevant. How relevant can it be when I am handing over crumpled bills with a timid smile that is met by eyes that look away and on to the next customer?
I’ve succeeded in other places. A Cambodian grocery store clerk made the realization when she looked at the name on my debit card and saw past the poorly anglicized spelling. A Cambodian waiter realized when he asked for my name after I placed an order for noodles over the phone and I answered, “Leh!keh-nah.” When the opportunity arises, I seize it. But at this donut shop, the opportunity to flash my Cambodian identity has never materialized. They never ask for my name. They only accept cash, eliminating the possibility of having them deduce my race from my card. They barely acknowledge me, a reminder that they will never need to know I am Khmer. It doesn’t matter in this situation. Right?
I suppose if it bothers me that much, I could work in a Khmer phrase. Say thank you, or ask how much something costs. Then they would know for sure. I have thought about this on occasion, but every time I refrain. It feels too contrived, too unnecessary, and too late.
And anyway, what is the point of misleading them into thinking I speak Khmer, when the truth is I can barely carry a conversation in it, when the other truth is that the only person I have ever felt truly comfortable speaking Khmer with is my mother and even then, every verbal exchange I have with her is a reminder of my failures and losses?
And besides, wasn’t I used to this? The Khmer kids at my high school never knew I was Khmer, except maybe a couple of people who forgot as soon as I mentioned it. There was the classmate who spoke to me in Khmer only to talk shit about people she didn’t like, but her deeply entrenched internalized racism and low self-esteem made me keep my distance. I didn’t want to be pulled in by the promise of community, only to be broken apart. That was what happened in my childhood. Alienated by unfriendly, authoritarian elders and emotionally abusive girls on the playground, I retreated into books written by, for, and about white people. That was where I made my home, and that was where I lost some sense of myself I never knew mattered until now.
Whitewashed. It stung when my (non-Cambodian) friend reduced me to this word in casual conversation, although it isn’t as if I hadn’t referred to myself as this a million times before. It just hurts more when I hear it outside my head, because outside my head, it’s divorced from a slew of thoughts and feelings made complicated by my identity, my worldview, my heritage, my family, and the bigger issues–colonialism, racism, diaspora.
“Your bagel ready now,” the woman finally tells me in English. I get up, thank her in English, pay her, and leave. As I walk back to work, I wonder: can someone really just read my body and define me by whatever they take away from it, and nothing more? Can someone so easily take one look at me and assume what or who I am? And does that become all that I am?
Just then, a man comes up to me and says, as politely as a stranger on the street can be, “I have a question…”
I brace myself. He’s going to hit on me.
“…do you speak Cantonese?”
I look at him, startled yet not at all surprised. “No.”
“Oh okay,” he says. “I just need something translated…” He’s smiling very hard, trying his best to non-verbally relay the message that his question was innocuous.
“Sorry, I don’t speak Cantonese,” I tell him again, apologizing for failing to validate his incorrect assumptions about me.
He walks away. I watch him ask another Asian woman, who shakes her head. I wonder if she is Korean or Japanese before I realize there’s no point in speculating.