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Tinderp Tale #13: I’m Still An Asshole, But You Already Knew That

Okay, let’s talk about attraction.

It’s kind of hard for me to specify what I find attractive without feeling guilty, because I think what shapes my (and many other people’s) perceptions of attractiveness is a bunch of toxic, oppressive bullshit we internalized from being force-fed Western-white-supremacist-cis-heteronormative-ableist-sizeist beauty standards all our lives.

“You like white guys,” a couple of friends have (half-jokingly) accused.

Um, excuse them. I used to passively like or meet up with guys who happened to be primarily white, but now that I’m much more sociopolitically aware I have overcorrected to make up for my internalized racism and unconscious bias by vocally and explicitly preferring guys of color.

When I first started out on OKCupid, the racial breakdown of my (16 total) dates looked like this:

  • 62% White
  • 19% Asian
  • 13% Black
  • 6% Multiracial

tinderp 13.1

Which actually isn’t that bad for someone with internalized racism!

So once I got off OKC and gave Tinder a shot with my new militant racial justice lens, the stats looked like this, 12 dates in (percentages calculated based off 28 total dates–OKC + Tinder combined):

  • 39% White
  • 32% Asian
  • 18% Black
  • 7% Multiracial
  • 4% Non-white Latino

tinderp 13.2

See, Oscars? That’s how you stop being so goddamn white. Be open and intentional about who you wanna fuck with (in your case figuratively, in my case literally) and don’t let your implicit biases turn you into an accidental white supremacist.

Anyway, at this point in my dating exploits, white guys were certainly not my type.

“Hipsters,” said my friend Darcy. “You’re attracted to guys who look like hipsters and then you become immediately repulsed by them when you find out they’re douchey, or whatever.”

“No! Well…” I thought about the most attractive guys I had been on dates with. I mean, sure, they wore trendy, fitted clothing and occasionally put on ironic or condescending airs about low-brow culture and routine work life, but… “Okay. Maybe,” I admitted.

So what, I’m attracted to dudes who dress well, and maybe that includes a plaid button-down and some degree of pretension. Sue me!

It’s difficult to really pinpoint anything else though. This is where the toxic, oppressive bullshit comes in; stuff that I have recognized is likely problematic and will take ongoing time and effort for me to sit with, reflect on, and change as necessary. I have a tendency to be attracted to dudes who are on the thinner side, but not too skinny; they need to be sturdy enough that I could assess their ability to give me a piggyback ride with full confidence. I am unbearably heteronormative and I’m not attracted to guys who showcase stereotypically or traditionally feminine physical attributes or mannerisms; but I am also not attracted to guys who showcase hyper-masculine physical attributes, personality traits, or mannerisms. (This especially applies to the way a guy speaks or sounds, as many of my friends know.) Okay so what the fuck are you attracted to then, you might be wondering. If I had to quantify my personally ideal mix of (binary) gender expression for a prospective male dating partner, it would be approximately…70% masculine, 30% feminine. (Keep in mind, this is purely physical. Personality-wise, 100% feminine please.)

As you can see, I am arbitrarily particular about the physicality of the guys I go on dates with, which okay yes, has been somewhat of a factor in why I have not had much success with dating. A couple of friends have (half-jokingly) accused me of being shallow. But I take into account other shit, too! Jeez. It’s not just about looks. As has been made clear by previous dates, I will immediately stop liking you if you are completely ignorant about rape culture, if you make unfunny jokes about lesbians, if you express a preference for virgins, if you are a white dude and justify racial preferences in dating, or if you play devil’s advocate.

No wonder I’m going to die alone!

tinderp 13.3

In the meantime, however, I just needed temporary rebound dick.

Okay, not literally, actually, because in the winter of 2016, I was too sad and self-hating to be horny. I just needed some male company that would make me forget about the asshole who devirginized me. I was swiping frantically on Tinder, trying to line up dates that would hopefully ease the pain of being fucked over by a trash dude.

I ended up matching with a guy I will call…Francisco. Francisco had an actual bio with substance, which is a rarity in the cesspool of Tinder. (Okay, so maybe I don’t remember specifically what was so substantive about his bio, but…whatever!) Unfortunately, he also had shitty pictures (DUDES WHY DO YOU ALWAYS DO THIS STOP DOING THIS I SWEAR I’M GONNA START UP A BUSINESS WITH MY FRIEND LAURA TO FIX YOUR WACK ASS DATING PROFILES), but it seemed like he had the potential to be hot, so I clung to that.

Francisco was sweet in his messages to me. He complimented me on a poem about capitalism that I wrote and posted on my Instagram, which had never happened before with a random dude from the Internet. So when he asked me out to drinks at Starline, a bar/restaurant/venue in Oakland, of course I said yes.

tinderp 13.4

Someone who appreciated my writing, recognized capitalism as an oppressive system that should be dismantled, and didn’t seem like an asshole? I was all in!

Well, until I wasn’t. I found myself once again crying in my office at the end of the work day, because I was still stuck in the pain inflicted by The Asshole and I didn’t know how to get out of it. This time my coworker Jakki was there to witness my embarrassing meltdown, but she was being very nice and non-judgmental about it while I sniffled and ranted and looked at the time and bemoaned how I was too much of an emotional wreck to go on a date tonight plus the scarf I was wearing smelled kinda funky but I had to keep wearing it because my outfit didn’t work without it so hopefully he wouldn’t notice the smell since I sprayed Febreze on it ugh omg did I have to go on this date I should have cancelled when I had the chance but now it’s too late and in fact I really should be going over there now oh fuck I’m gonna be late ok bye Jakki see ya!

The bar was incredibly packed when I arrived, several minutes late. I took a moment to survey my surroundings. Francisco had texted me to let me know he was already here, but I didn’t see anyone who looked like what I thought Francisco would look like. I got the sense that this was a bad sign. “Learkana?” asked a stranger now blocking my view.

“Oh, hi!” I said, smile plastered on. Francisco looked…well, he looked like this was going to be another disappointing night. It’s not like he Catfished me–I could see the resemblance. But he also was just…burlier and plainer than I expected. Don’t be a shallow asshole, I told myself.

Francisco asked me what I wanted. I got my usual cider, and we both sat down at one of the small tables by the entrance. I remember enjoying the conversation. We talked about our families, our jobs, our passions. He asked thoughtful questions and was a good listener. I could tell he was into me. He spent a good while talking about his niece and how he wanted to make sure she knew about feminism and the strength of women, which I recognized was an attempt to impress me. On occasion, he would ever so briefly and gently put his hand on my leg or the small of my back.

In one of these moments, I looked at his hand touching me, and then I looked at him. I thought to myself, This guy is sweet and sociopolitically aware. He likes me. He’s not ugly. He’s probably good in bed because he probably cares about the sexual pleasure and wellbeing of his partner, unlike some asshole I know. So why not let this happen?

But I just couldn’t see it. “It” being a future with him. A future in which I felt more than vague detachment at his hands on my body. A future in which I made out with him and felt aroused. A future in which we laid naked with each other and I didn’t want to leave the bed. It wasn’t there, and I wasn’t going to force it. Every subtle touch from him spelled out trouble instead of possibility. A part of me was sad. Sad that I couldn’t feel anything for this guy, who didn’t seem like an asshole, because I was hung up on a guy who was. I finished my drink, wondering how to end this.

tinderp 13.5

By the time he walked me to my car, I still didn’t know. He asked me for my number. I smiled, flustered, and told him I would message it to him. He took it in stride, said good night, and walked away. I got into my car and cried again on the drive home.

The next day, I sent him a lengthy message explaining that while it was great meeting him, I didn’t think it would work out because I was still recovering from a really bad dating experience. I told him that meeting up with him made me realize I needed to focus on myself instead of dating. He said he understood, and wished me well.

I unmatched with him and felt terrible. Part of what I said was true, but mostly, it was a lie to cover up the fact that I wasn’t physically attracted to him.

I wonder if men feel this bad about rejecting women based on their appearances. Do they inwardly chastise themselves for being shallow? Do they spend a majority of the evening trying to convince themselves that their date is attractive in a certain light, a certain posture or gesture, a certain circumstance?

Looks aren’t everything. But they are something. Yes, my perceptions of what constitutes attractive is most likely rooted in fucked up desirability politics that I’ve unconsciously internalized over the course of twenty-five years, but that couldn’t be undone in just one night. And as much as I felt guilty about rejecting Francisco based on his looks, I also thought it would be even shittier of me to continue seeing him while secretly still finding him unattractive. I would never want someone to date me in spite of my looks, so why should I feel obligated to do so? One could argue that attraction takes time, but as my dating exploits have demonstrated, time has never been on my side. I understood that much. Time was primarily allocated to chasing our dreams or chasing stability, traveling, and fortifying ride-or-die relationships with loved ones already in our lives, not hit-or-miss dates arranged on millennial dating apps. I was giving and getting scraps, and suffering as a consequence of it. But reframing the situation was beyond my capacity at the time.

I should have quit Tinder at this point, but I had no real intention of doing so. Being a shallow asshole on a dating spree wasn’t the greatest or healthiest coping mechanism, but it was the only one that gave me a sense of control, even if the reality was me spiraling out of it.

tl;dr Learkana is emotionally fucked up from losing her virginity and goes on another meaningless date in an attempt to fill the void in her heart and her vagina!

Now it’s time for…

RATE THAT DATE VENUE!
Venue: Starline Social Club
Rating: ***
Review: Honestly, I didn’t stray too far beyond the entrance of the bar so I can’t really judge. I should go back there with friends sometime. Seemed very popular judging by the loud crowd and difficulty in finding my date even though he was literally three feet away from me. Also I heard Solange performed there, so it has to be somewhat legit right?

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Tinderp Tale #12: Devil’s Advocacy Is A Pussy Dryer

I’ve been told that my standards for men are too high, and that is the root of my problems when it comes to dating. Too picky, is what many friends have described me as. Which is why I decided to lower these standards when I got on Tinder again in the fall of 2016. Standards? Who needed those things? They were just cunt blocks preventing me from fulfilling a goal that was actually viable: losing my V card.

And it happened, not long after my return to Tinder. I had sex for the first time, and it was…pretty awful. An item finally checked off my bucket list, but at the cost of my pride, dignity, and emotional wellbeing. I came away from the experience feeling undesirable and out of control, with no closure or comfort from the asshole who had devirginized me.

Instead of focusing on building up my self-love again, I went on a dating spree in a misguided attempt to lessen the pain of being treated like shit by a guy I had mistakenly assumed would be a kind and decent human being to me (a guy, I will add, who specifically made sure I felt stupid for expecting human decency and kindness from him–I just wanna make sure we’re all on the same page and understand that he was and is total basura, k). I even hit up a guy I had ghosted because dating multiple dudes at once is generally very stressful and annoying for me. Let’s call the guy I ghosted…Brian #3 (since his actual first name is shared with 2 other dudes I’ve written about–Brian #2, the bad kisser, and Brian #1, the white guy with an eye twitch).


You matched with Brian #3 on 10/5/16

Brian #3

Hey, how’s it going 🙂


Nov 30, 2016 (nearly two months later…😅)

Me

Hey! Sorry for the late response, things have been hectic. How are the holidays going for you? 😊


Brian #3

They’re going alright. Not too hectic for me :)~~


Me

Okay, cool. That’s good


I looked at his profile again and remembered the other reason I hadn’t bothered responding to him the first time. His bio was completely blank, and the few pictures he had uploaded of himself were shitty in quality and revealed nothing about him. The fact that I was talking to him at all spoke volumes about my lack of standards, but I think that’s pretty obvious by now.


Me

So I literally don’t know anything about you, tell me about yourself


Brian #3

Hmm

I’m an east bay native living in the area but currently working in SF

I’m an INTJ

And I like pizza

How about you?


Here we go again. Was there a way of automating all this basic ass info about myself so I didn’t have to expend energy typing out the same shit to a different guy over and over again? Ugh.


Me

I moved to the Bay for college and decided to stick around cus my hometown sucks

I’m a IDGAF

And I love boba


Brian #3

I liked how you framed your answers just like mine

I wish you had more respect for the Myers Briggs though 😫


Me

Sorry not sorry lol


A few more messages in, Brian #3 popped the millennial dating question.


Brian #3

Want to go on a date with me?


Me

Sure, you’re probably not a murderer


 

tinderp 12.1

It took several more days for us to actually make plans, mainly because I was being really passive. I had no energy to take the initiative, still stuck in the emotional throes of my post-devirginization turmoil. Luckily (or unluckily), Brian #3 was very persistent in messaging me and asking pointed questions about when we were meeting up and what we should do. We eventually decided on grabbing dinner at La Penca Azul, a Mexican restaurant in Alameda.

On the night of our date, Brian #3 was waiting outside for me (as they usually do). My heart plummeted at the sight of him (as it usually does). His proportions were all wrong. I had tricked myself into thinking he was taller and leaner, with an imagined swagger (which yes, is very sizeist of me, but it was unfortunately the reality of what I felt). To my disappointment, I was met by a smaller, gawky dude who seemed to have trouble making eye contact with me.

Things didn’t get better from there. Apparently La Penca Azul was a very popular restaurant, the kind you should make a reservation for on a Saturday night. We did not have a reservation, so we awkwardly waited just inside the door, watching harried servers rush back and forth between already occupied tables. In the first 5 minutes or so of waiting, Brian #3 and I attempted small talk that quickly petered out. 10 minutes, 15 minutes ticked by. We silently stood watch. My discomfort and apprehension grew. So did my resentment. This restaurant was his idea, after all. What a terrible choice. He really should have thought this through. Shouldn’t we just leave? Maybe I should leave.

After we had been waiting for at least a half hour (if not more), Brian #3 called it quits. “Let’s go somewhere else,” he muttered, turning around and walking out the door. I followed suit. “Somewhere else” ended up being a Thai restaurant just across the street.

Neither of us had been there before. The food was decent. The conversation was not. The semblance of wit, charm, and warmth I had discerned from him throughout our Tinder messages had all but disappeared now that we were face to face. He was withdrawn, expressionless. I tried to make the best of it, chattering about nothing, everything, smiling, smiling, smiling, and pretending everything was great.

We inevitably landed on the topic of the presidential election. “Who did you vote for?” he asked.

“Hillary,” I said grudgingly. “You?”

“Gary Johnson,” he replied.

I couldn’t hide my dismay. “Are you serious?”

“Yep,” he said.

“But…he doesn’t even know geography!” I spluttered.

“Did you know about Aleppo?” he asked.

“Well no, but I’m not the one who was running for President!” I retorted.

“What about Hillary’s e-mails?” he shot back.

I bristled. “That controversy is nothing compared to Trump being an outright racist and a sexual predator. I hate how the media has been setting up false equivalencies between Hillary and Trump. Yes, Hillary is shitty but she’s the lesser evil. Trump is going to be so much worse. At least Hillary has actual political experience.”

Brian #3 shrugged. “I was just playing devil’s advocate,” he said.

I resisted the urge to flip the table and throttle him right then and there. Devil’s advocate??? Fuck this dumbass who voted for Gary “What Is Aleppo” Johnson and enjoyed playing stupid rhetorical games involving the future nightmare of our country. I was done. I should have known better than to indulge someone who had a blank bio and low-res pics.

tinderp 12.2

Actual restaurant not depicted (actual restaurant was nicer).

After dinner, Brian #3 walked me out. We didn’t say much. I knew and he knew that this had not been a good date. It didn’t need to be said aloud, or texted about in hindsight. We would never see or speak to each other again after tonight. Sometimes the red flags are unambiguously clear.

Once we said goodbye and went our separate ways, I got into my car and drove back to Oakland. On the way home, I started crying. I was thinking about Nick, the asshole who devirginized me, and how even though he had been an asshole to me, I still missed him especially in light of tonight’s debacle of a date, and this was just sad because it meant my standards had really fucking hit rock bottom, and knowing that made me cry even harder.

I wish I could say this was the last time I cried about Nick in my car, or the last time I cried about any man or men in general in my car. But I’d be lying, and I don’t like to lie. Even when the truth is painful, cruel, humiliating, and undermining my feminist principles. My truth is really all I have. So here it is.

tl;dr Learkana is emotionally fucked up from losing her virginity and goes on another meaningless date in an attempt to fill the void in her heart and her vagina!

Now it’s time for…

RATE THAT DATE VENUE!
Venue: Toomie’s Thai
Rating: ***
Review: It was okay. I’m incredibly biased though because this date sucked ass and the restaurant was basically empty which made the date more awkward and also I like Cambodian food better but kudos for the hella Asian decor?
  

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Tinderp Tale #11: Cynicism Is A Boner Shrinker

Why am I so cynical?

Well, a thorough investigation of this question would exceed the limits of this blog post and require the long term intensive support of a licensed therapist, but I would say that my pessimism around humankind began in childhood, a somewhat unpleasant time in which I painfully learned that people who allegedly cared about me would inevitably disappoint me. Why set my expectations high, when people would fail to meet them? Why believe the best in people, when more often than not they would show me their worst? Optimism was exhausting and burdensome. It was better to be wary and mistrustful.

This attitude has easily translated over to my views on dating cishet men, a demographic I haven’t had much experience with until recently. At this point, I had already gone on about 30 first dates with different guys, with little to no results. It didn’t matter how optimistic I was going into a date; I would usually come out of it feeling disappointed and frustrated. Either I didn’t like him, or he didn’t like me, or we didn’t like each other. Or, even worse: We liked each other until something inevitably got in the way.

I knew I wasn’t supposed to be negative about my dating prospects (self-fulfilling prophecy and blah blah blah), but I couldn’t pretend that having to start over with another guy for the umpteenth time was all that exciting anymore. Instead, I settled for a middle ground of resignation that a first date with a guy probably wouldn’t end well, but at the very least, its failure wouldn’t be for a lack of trying on my end.

This pragmatic albeit slightly pessimistic mindset was what forced me to message a guy whom I will henceforth refer to as Michael. Michael had “Super Liked” me in October of 2016, and after some brief consideration (which basically consisted of “eh, he doesn’t look very hot but my options are pretty limited so what do I have to lose”), I decided to “like” him back. We matched, and then absolutely nothing happened for several days, at which point I decided to take the initiative because of my aforementioned mindset.


Michael Super Liked You on 10/4/16

Me

It’s been a week so I thought I’d say hi to counter the prolonged awkward silence


To my surprise, Michael quickly responded with a wall of text.


Michael

Agh! Sorry, it’s been a crazy month for me. I’ve been juggling personal projects and forgot about this. I totally love your profile pics

And I like Cyndi Lauper [referring to my chosen Tinder “anthem” at the time, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”], but I’ll have to admit my favorite from her is “Goonies R Good Enough”

Mostly because I’ve finally read the lyrics to it, and I still don’t understand what that song’s about

What’s the nerdiest thing you’re into, and how do you feel about small talk?


This was a rather overwhelming message to get, because it warranted a detailed reply that was thoughtful and interesting, which I actually hadn’t expected. Of course, I decided honesty was my best bet, and replied accordingly:


Me

Lol no worries. And thanks!

Never heard of that song <.<

The nerdiest thing I’m into…um I guess as a lifelong thing it would be Harry Potter. But recently I did a planning session for Dungeons and Dragons and I’m excited to play as my newly made character!

Small talk…it’s an obligatory and awkward social mechanism to get to know people but it’s not as bad if I feel comfortable with the person lol


We went on to discuss nonsexual roleplaying, gaming in general, and our Halloween plans until he finally asked me out on a date, to which I said yes, then inquired if he had anything in mind for what we could do.


Michael

Nothing in mind yet, whereabouts are you? I live in Berkeley but work in SF so I could do dinner around either


Me

Ok. I live and work in Oakland and would rather not go to SF lol [do I need to explain this? SF is touristy and gentrified]


Michael

Haha sounds great! Let’s get something to eat early next week!

My phone number’s xxx-xxx-xxxx I text faster if you want to chat! ;p


 

tinderp 11.1

We talked more about our hobbies and interests through text messaging. We both loved the TV show Community, had backgrounds in writing, and had written screenplays. Michael also mentioned having performed standup comedy for a few years. I thought it was cool, connecting with a fellow creative who had so many different passions.

Michael suggested a few Berkeley restaurants for dinner next Tuesday. Out of the options he provided, I decided on Eureka, a semi-fancy white people food place. The night before we were set to meet, he reached out to confirm that the date was still happening. In typical millennial fashion, this led to us sending each other Pokemon emojis, which then led Michael to send me selfies of him melodramatically posing with Pokemon plushies on his shoulders.

I was slightly taken aback by these selfies. They were bad selfies, and by “bad,” I just mean he looked very unattractive in all 3 of them. Did he actually think he looked okay in these photos, or did he just not give a fuck? I marveled at his ability to instantly take a picture and send it to his date without worrying about how cute he looked in it. It definitely wasn’t something I would ever think of doing. Taking a selfie, in my experience, typically involved a long, tedious, and frustrating process requiring a series of cringe-inducing takes in which my self-esteem took multiple critical hits before bouncing back with a thin facade of self-love upon finally taking the one shot I deemed acceptable enough for me to filter and upload to social media. I was also kind of turned off by Michael’s lack of fucks, and fervently hoped that he would look better in person.

He did not look better in person. It hit me when I laid eyes on him, a messy-haired, stocky and lone figure waiting for me outside the restaurant. I swallowed this observation and braced myself for the possibility of a tiring night spent convincing myself that leaving my room had been worth it. We greeted each other with a brief hug, went inside, and were seated at a small table by a waiter.

I remember being somewhat put off by Michael’s demeanor. He seemed distracted, not quite present. He looked off into the distance with a perplexed expression often, and gave long pauses between sentences. This was all exacerbated by his long and spiky hair, which resembled a disheveled hedgehog with the way it stuck up.

Once our food was ordered, he immediately went in for the hard questions. “So what are you looking for?” he asked.

I gave what was probably a long and rambling answer that could have easily been condensed to “I’m desperate and open to anything, really.”

He then went on to ask me what my dealbreakers were. I squirmed a little. Damn. This conversation was getting a little too real. At one point in time I would have found this refreshing, but for better or for worse, I had gotten used to playing the game, even though I was bad at it. I skirted around the harsher truths: I don’t want to date or fuck a guy I don’t find physically attractive. I don’t want to date or fuck a guy who doesn’t have his shit together even though I definitely and hypocritically don’t have my shit together either. I don’t want to date or fuck guys at all, actually, but unfortunately I just happen to be a heteronormative feminist who is paradoxically disgusted by and attracted to men and masculinity. I think I mentioned flakiness as a turn-off. A safe bet.

I asked Michael the question in return. He provided answers that demonstrated much more thoughtfulness and deliberation on his part. One of his dealbreakers was cynicism. “I can’t stand cynical people,” he said. “Why would you spend so much energy on having such a negative outlook of the world? It’s a disservice to yourself and everyone else. Being cynical doesn’t do anything or anyone good. It’s not going to change things for the better.”

As he ranted on, my smile became very fixed, as if to guard against its collapse into an outright grimace. He was speaking generally, but it felt like an personal attack on my cynical ass. Well, I’m not cynical in the way that he’s describing, I reassured myself. Obviously I hold on to some kind of hope for humanity or else I wouldn’t care about social justice. Right?

I told him I “used to be” very cynical, but that my outlook has gotten more optimistic over time. It felt like a half-assed lie, but I didn’t want to be transparent about my dark and complicated worldview. Although I still wasn’t attracted to Michael and in all honesty, wasn’t particularly thrilled about being on this date with him, I was still a somewhat hopeful motherfucker, goddamnit, and that meant I was going to try my hardest to see this through.

After Michael paid for dinner, he asked me if I still wanted to hang out. I said yes, and suggested we get a drink somewhere. He asked me what I liked to drink. I replied that I was in the mood for wine. He led me inside a small wine bar nearby that was mostly empty. “You can pick whatever you want, I’m not going to get anything,” he said.

I stood there for a moment, feeling awkward and indecisive. I was hoping we could both sit down together and drink enough wine to fully buy into the fantasy of each other’s romantic and sexual potential. Instead, I felt like a sulky teenager being told by her dad to hurry up and pick the thing she wanted so he could get out of here and do things that were actually worth his time and money.

“Never mind, let’s go somewhere else,” I said hastily, fleeing the bar with Michael in tow.

We ended up at a boba tea shop just a block away from Eureka. As I was sitting across from him and drinking my boba milk tea, I realized there was no salvaging this date, no matter how much I loved boba or how many interests we initially seemed to have in common or how hard I stared at his face and attempted to will a spark into existence. I didn’t want to kiss him. His jokes were unfunny and made me wonder how many times he had been booed off the stage while attempting standup. He kept asking questions that revealed our differences: he was an optimist, and I was a cynic; he was the kind of nerd who went to anime and comic conventions to cosplay, and I was the kind of nerd who stayed holed up in her room to read and dissect sociopolitical thinkpieces for fun.

tinderp 11.2

I wondered what was his impression of me. Did he find me attractive? Was he turned off because I wasn’t stereotypically nerdy? Why would he continue keeping me company if he wasn’t interested in me?

Then again…why was I continuing to keep him company given I wasn’t all that interested in him?

He noticed my growing reticence and made lighthearted comments about me not liking him. I smiled politely, uncomfortably, and told him we should head out.

We walked back to Eureka to say our goodbyes there. Along the way, he kept a running commentary on tonight’s possible outcomes: “So, are we going to see each other again? You going to try to hold my hand to show your affection? Maybe a goodnight kiss? Or maybe you’re too shy in the face of my devilish handsomeness. Or maybe you despise me and plan on ghosting me once we go our separate ways.”

“I enjoyed meeting you,” was all I could say.

He didn’t look convinced, but grinned and let me go.

I went home, feeling guilty about not telling the complete truth. I had to some extent enjoyed his company, but I should have been forthright and told him I didn’t think we were a good match. Rejection was a hard conversation I didn’t know how to have. Feelings potentially got hurt and I didn’t want any part of it. At the same time, I knew that if I really wanted to grow as a person and not be a hypocrite, then I needed to be transparent with my dates, and that meant having open, honest, and vulnerable communication.

The next day, I resolved to make things crystal clear through text.

10/26/16 1:30 PM
Me: Hey, I know you’re probably thinking, “Man that bitch lied” but I did actually enjoy meeting you. But based on the things you said, I don’t think we’re compatible. Just want to be honest. (Or is ghosting a better strategy? lol)

Michael: Haha thanks for taking the time to do this! For future reference, what did I say that was the breaker for you?

Me: When you said you couldn’t be in the company of cynics lol. I’m not the most cynical person out there but I can’t pretend that I’m a total optimist either. I also get the sense you’d be happier with someone with nerdier inclinations

Michael: Haha good call on both of those, thank you for your candor and best of luck out there!

Me: No problem. Same to you! 🙂

I felt relieved and pleasantly surprised after this exchange. I hadn’t expected it to go so well. If only all my encounters with dudes ended this smoothly and painlessly, I thought.

It was a trivial moment in the grand scheme of things, but I was proud of myself for initiating the conversation, and for balancing honesty with consideration. Hopefully I could continue mustering the courage to have these kinds of dialogues with other dates down the road. Maybe I would even work my way up to having them in person. The future would have many, many more disappointing and mediocre guys in store for me, but I had faith in my ability to tackle the onslaught of failures to come.

See? I’m an optimistic cynic.

tl;dr Learkana hates people but remains horny and hopeful! Learkana meets a guy who is well-adjusted and doesn’t hate people! Learkana acts like an adult and politely rejects the guy!

Now it’s time for…

RATE THAT DATE VENUE!
Venue: Eureka
Rating: ****
Review: The inside is cute and has a nice atmosphere. Lots of small tables that are awkward to maneuver around though especially when it’s crowded and you’re just trying to get to the bathroom.

Venue: Purple Kow
Rating: *****
Review: Okay, I’m like 90% positive that this was the boba place we went to. I definitely remember going to a two-story shop and this is the only one in the downtown Berkeley area that I found in my Google/Yelp searches. I should definitely reclaim my time and go there again, but with friends whose company I unequivocally enjoy!

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Srey Srok Na: A Diasporic Khmer Girl’s Navigation Of The Mother/Land

        1. Here’s Some Context
        2. Guangzhou Pt. 1
        3. Like A White Person
        4. Reunion
        5. Have A Good Shower Cry
        6. Asian Girl Wanders Off! Asian Lady Attacked By Temple Monkeys!
        7. Coming Home
        8. Motherland
        9. Praying
        10. Safe
        11. Colorism
        12. Asian American
        13. Disappearing
        14. Resemblance
        15. Husband
        16. My Uncle’s Wife
        17. Loner
        18. Found And Lost
        19. Children
        20. Bitter
        21. Erased
        22. Time
        23. Hotel
        24. Somewhere Else
        25. The Cows
        26. The Trees
        27. The Song
        28. Rootless
        29. Dancing
        30. Something About The Wind
        31. No Translation
        32. Pain
        33. Guangzhou Pt. 2
        34. Return Flight

     

    Here’s Some Context

    I hate traveling.

    I hate figuring out and packing what I need most, I hate unpacking and figuring out what I forgot or neglected to pack, I hate having to buy travel size items, I hate expensive ass airport food and taking off my shoes only to put them back on three minutes later and getting felt up for weapons and drugs I don’t have, I hate flights and their uncomfortable ass economy seats, I hate never-ending subway and car rides, I hate showering and shitting in other people’s bathrooms and sleeping in other people’s beds or on other people’s floors, I hate having to rearrange my whole personal grooming process to accommodate my travel circumstances, I hate going out every single day and fearing staying in because of FOMO, I hate feeling rushed, I hate crowds, I hate unfamiliar environments, I hate having dirty laundry accumulate in a plastic bag in my suitcase, I hate goodbyes because they’re either too underwhelming or overwhelming.

    Sorry, had to get the self-absorbed negativity and petty whining out of the way.

    While I’m not the biggest fan of traveling, I do know that I am incredibly lucky and privileged to have visited out of state and now, out of the country. My only obligation is work, which offers me paid vacation. I have good credit and a U.S. passport. I am able-bodied, unmarried, and don’t have any kids to worry about (thank God). And I do agree that visiting and exploring new places can be exciting and spontaneous and fun.

    I also haven’t been able to afford to travel until recently. My family never went on vacations anywhere. The one time I hopped on a plane as a kid was on the way back from a weeklong visit with my aunt and uncle in Washington State, and that was because my aunt paid for it. Traveling has always felt like a luxury to me. I figured it was just something twenty-something, relatively wealthy white people with no responsibilities do because they for whatever reason need to “find themselves” via neocolonial tourism and cultural appropriation.

    Traveling, to me, isn’t an adventure. It’s a hassle to overcome and endure in order to spend time with people I care about, or to fulfill an obligation. I’ve gone down to SoCal for weddings and a talk I was asked to give. I’ve visited Kentucky and New York because one of my best friends, Shana, is apparently one of those people who loves traveling and can never stay still and is always in a different place with their mind set on the next destination.

    I’m the opposite. I want to stay still, sink my roots deep into a place I want to live for decades to come, and finally get a geographically and emotionally aligned sense of what home could be.

    That’s partly why I’ve always wanted to visit Cambodia, the motherland. Growing up, it was just some faraway, imaginary place in my mind, however Orientalist and fucked up that sounds. I wanted to see where my mother came from. Where I came from. Maybe going there would help me understand my mother. Myself. Everything between us.

    I figured there was no time like the present, my mother and I weren’t getting any younger, and [insert other cliches here]. I booked the flight in January 2016. Just me, my mother, and…some lady my mother knew growing up who did not exist in my mind until my mother mentioned her over the phone to me and how she wanted to come, too. “You should call her ‘Ee Luck,'” my mother said. (‘Ee,’ from what I understand, is a term of address for a woman who is older than you but younger than your mom, and is somehow vaguely Chinese. I think.)

    I was momentarily annoyed at the news of this unexpected travel companion. I wanted this trip to be a mother-daughter bonding experience, and felt that a third wheel would throw off the whole dynamic. But as I talked with Ee Luck over the phone in English to get her personal info, I realized it would probably be helpful to have a fully bilingual person with us to deal with the language barrier between my mother and me–my mother barely spoke/understood English, and my Khmer was conversational at best.

    My mother hadn’t gone back to her native country since she fled from it as a refugee thirty years ago, and I had never been there. This detail titillated my white coworkers. Powerful and profound were the words they used. Everyone was excited for me. And I was excited too, but as the date of my departure drew nearer, that initial excitement collapsed into a deep-seated anxiety. I felt like I was about to jump off a cliff with nothing to keep me afloat. I had no idea what to expect. I knew that our roles would be reversed in Cambodia–my mother the expert, and me the fumbling outsider–but to what extent? Would I have a good time with my mother? The last time I spent that much time with her was when I was a kid. I was scared of what was going to happen, but also knew that regardless of how things played out, this was an experience I had been waiting almost all my life for.


     

    Guangzhou Pt. 1

    I was running late and didn’t know it.

    By the time I got to SFO with my backpack and two suitcases, I had an hour left before our flight departed. I thought that was plenty of time (in my defense, I don’t travel much), but my mother and Ee Luck were freaking out because they had gotten there much earlier and had been waiting for me to bring our itinerary, plus the woman who had to check us in was mad as hell and let me know that I was terribly late and therefore a shitty human being. “I don’t know if your luggage will make it to your destination,” she grumbled, and gave me a card with information on what to do if our luggage was delayed.

    Then my mother demanded a wheelchair, so we had to wait for a staff person to come and push her in one while I, in full-on shitty person mode, silently grumbled about how she seemed able to walk just fine as far as I could see.

    Once we boarded our plane and buckled ourselves in, things were a little more calm. I sat in the middle seat between Ee Luck and my mother. Ee Luck was a tiny East Asian-looking woman who wore glasses and enjoyed putting her hair into a half ponytail. “Oh, you’re tiny too!” she said when she first laid eyes on me, which did not particularly endear me to her, but I was too interested in hearing what she had to say about growing up with my mother. At last, an access point into my mother’s murky past (murky because of The Barrier). “What was my mother like when she was younger?” I eagerly asked, although I did feel a little weird about referring to my mother in the English third person when she was sitting right next to me.

    “She was happier,” Ee Luck told me. “She didn’t worry as much as she does now. She and her friends were so fashionable.”

    Well, that basically summed up and confirmed all my suspicions about my mother.

    “That’s why I don’t want kids,” Ee Luck continued. “Your mom, she’s always worried about you guys. Makes her crazy. My parents are the same. You just worry too much with kids.”

    The flight from the U.S. to China (our layover) was over ten hours. I spent most of that time reading Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang and listening to pop music while ignoring my mother’s constant reproaches that I should sleep and the sound of Ee Luck vomiting into a bag.

    In China, we were disoriented by the fact that we couldn’t really communicate with any of the airport personnel we encountered. Everyone spoke Mandarin, and assumed we did too. No one was interested in meeting my Eurocentric expectations of speaking English. We were shuffled this way and that without any idea of what was happening, and eventually ended up boarding a bus that took us to a hotel where we would stay overnight, courtesy of Chinese Southern Airlines.

    guangzhou hotel

    Lobby of our hotel. So bougie.

    After checking into our rooms, Ee Luck and I ventured outside in search of food. It was past midnight. I was still reeling from the fact that my international travelling virgin feet were now planted in a different country. Men on motorbikes honked as we passed, which made Ee Luck grip my arm, although my feeling was that they functioned similarly to taxi drivers and simply wanted to see if we needed to get somewhere. We stumbled across a restaurant that had a staff member who could speak Cantonese, much to Ee Luck’s delight. She began amicably chatting with him, which threw me off a little since I didn’t know until right then the full extent of her multilingual capabilities. Thank god Ee Luck had come on this trip, I thought as the man handed us our order, or else we would have never made it to Cambodia.

    I slept three hours at the most. Then we were up. The man in the lobby had told us the bus would leave at 5am. We got on board and made it to the airport as the sun was rising. More disorientation and confusion. After getting through all the security checkpoints, we ate at a restaurant where my mother and Ee Luck griped in Khmer about the blandness of the noodle soup. The longer we remained in Guangzhou, the more I observed Ee Luck’s tirades about Chinese people increasing in frequency and disgust. The service here is terrible. They don’t have clean bathrooms. They are so rude. I wondered in my growing discomfort if it would be too simplified to think of her as racist. While she may not have identified as Chinese, it seemed obvious that at the very least it was part of her heritage, just as much as it was part of mine.

    After our ill-received meal, we sat down in those uncomfortable seats in the waiting area. Our flight had been delayed by a couple of hours. That was when my mother had one of her emotional breakdowns. I wasn’t sure what had triggered it. The delayed flight, or maybe the return of feeling lost in a country she could not comprehend. She started crying. Ranting to Ee Luck about how she despised her life and how her children were nothing but disappointments to her.

    I averted my eyes.

    “See, my daughter can’t even be bothered to comfort her own mother,” she said through her tears.

    How can you expect something you never gave me? I thought.

    I stayed quiet. But inside I was screaming.

    Things will be better when we get to Cambodia, I reassured myself.


     

    Like A White Person

    The flight from Guangzhou, China to Siem Reap, Cambodia was less torturous. But my stomach ached from not eating enough. My head hurt from not sleeping enough. I felt nauseous and irritable and gloomy. But all of that was eclipsed by my wonder and awe at seeing the motherland with my very own eyes.

    Brown dirt and lush greenery. And the heat. As soon as we disembarked from the plane, our bodies sunk into air that was at least thirty degrees hotter. I immediately took off my cardigan and tied it around my waist. My mom didn’t seem to care. She started whooping and hollering and clapping her hands and dancing like a fool. I laughed, happy for my mother’s happiness and okay, maybe just a little embarrassed.

    The airport terminal was small, cool, and very empty. We went up to the counter behind which a group of stern-looking men in khaki uniforms stood watch.

    One of the men took our passports and told us to pay ten dollars each for a visa. I said I had already bought mine online, and handed over a copy of the email confirmation I had printed out. Another man grabbed it and squinted his eyes at it. He and the other man said I had been ripped off. Or that I had paid for the wrong thing. I wasn’t sure.

    My mother immediately started telling me off for being so gullible and ignorant, and to learn from my mistake.

    “I bought it already!” I repeated over and over, more loudly and insistently each time.

    The men did not like my tone, and neither did my mother. Or was it all in my head, the way they looked at me as if I was something distasteful?

    But I ordered it from a legit website, I wanted to explain. Can I please use your computer to log into my account and print it out to show you? It was linked on an official U.S. government website! I swear I fucking passed an ad with that very same web address listed in your airport somewhere! Can you even read English?! 

    I couldn’t say any of that. I didn’t know how, in Khmer. I was choking on all the words piling up at the back of my throat. My eyes burned from unshed tears.

    I was literally experiencing what it was like to be at a loss for words. The last time I had ever felt this powerless was as a child, a child so quiet my mother told me the doctor was concerned that I was clinically non-verbal.

    I had purchased a tourist e-visa for forty bucks via credit card online through travel.state.gov, with the expectation that I was expediting the arrival process.

    What I had actually done was prepare for this trip like a white person. That was my mistake.

    Eventually the man who checked our passports took pity on me and waived my ten bucks. “See? He took pity on you and now you don’t have to pay,” my mother said out of a sadistic obligation to maintain a completely unnecessary running commentary on everything I do and say for the entertainment of others.

    “Great, thanks,” I mumbled, probably in English, and walked away to get our luggage.


     

    Reunion

    I didn’t know so many of them would be waiting for us.

    There was a older man with beady eyes, pointed nose, and wizened face–my mother’s cousin, whom I would call Meer Ho (which surprised me, because “meer” roughly translates to “younger uncle” and he looked a lot older than my mother). There was a very short, even older man–Thah Joy, my mother’s uncle–whom I thought was just the most adorable thing ever. There was a tall man with a long, flat nose and hair that puffed out like a storm cloud, a woman with a square-set face and long hair that hung in a low ponytail, and a little girl with a messy high ponytail who kept squealing a lot–I could tell they were a little nuclear family with the way they held themselves close together. There was a man with round eyes and a somber air about him; a beautiful woman with curly hair and sun-kissed brown skin, who turned out to be Meer Ho’s wife (which also surprised me–uh, no offense to my uncle); a younger woman with pale skin and deep circles under eyes that drooped, so she looked perpetually sad and tired–a second cousin of mine, Bong Cohm; and there was an older woman, tan with a short blondish bob, who immediately hurled herself at my mother while everyone else beamed–my mother’s cousin and obvious bestie, Ming Huin.

    Seeing them embrace so tightly was making me tear up. So I did what any millennial would do, and recorded it on my smartphone. (No, I’m not gonna upload it on here. If you’re my Facebook friend you may have seen it.)

    My mother made hurried introductions. I would remember all their faces, but very few of their names or specific kinship ties with my mother. Then we were all herded into a van with bright curtains hanging from the windows, which took off to a destination unknown to me.

    boarding the van

    I pressed my face against the window, trying to process the scenery passing me by. It was a strange, paradoxical mishmash of gaudy decor and impoverished splendor. There were ramshackle buildings and flimsy, tarp-covered structures that were interspersed with large, ornate hotels built like small palaces. Brightly colored flora accentuated the heaps of trash and litter in the streets. Ee Luck later told me everyone burned their garbage here–hence the constant smoke, the pervasive burnt plastic smell, the surgical masks that some people wore. The wide roads were heavily congested with people in cars and vans and on bicycles but mostly, to my surprise, on motorbikes–the preferred method of traveling–all going every which way. It seemed there were no stop signs, no traffic lights, no speed limits, no age or passenger limits–I saw teenagers riding motorcycles, and mothers with their children piled behind them.

    siem reap 1

    siem reap 2

    It occurred to me at that moment that I was experiencing something akin to culture shock. I’m here, I thought. I’m finally here.


     

    Have a Good Shower Cry

    We were taken to a hostel, where we dropped off our luggage. I was unsure of who I would be forced to spend the night with. I disliked sharing beds with people, let alone with strangers. But I knew I couldn’t complain. I dragged my suitcase into an unoccupied room. Others came in and watched my every move, making me even more uncomfortable than I already was. When my mom got in, I asked her where I could shower.

    “There’s a bathroom right there,” she said, pointing to another door in the room.

    I didn’t move. I felt very self-conscious, because there were at least five strangers still standing and sitting around, staring at me. Many of them were smiling, but that didn’t make it any less awkward for me.

    Small talk resumed. A couple of people used the bathroom while I stood still, unsure of my next move. I felt overwhelmed. I quietly tried to ask my mother if there was another room where I could shower. “Just shower here!” she snapped. “You don’t understand or something?!”

    I winced. Someone else took pity on me and eventually I was led to another room down the hall, where I locked myself in the bathroom and cried with the shower running. It was my first day here and I was already having a shitty time. I felt incredibly alone. Not even my mother was my ally.

    Pull yourself together, a voice in my head said sternly. Quit being such a crybaby. Seriously. No one back home is going to feel sorry for you. You’re across the world on fucking vacation. You’re just being a spoiled, whiny brat. So what if your mother is going to yell at you like you’re a badly behaved toddler who knows nothing in front of people who don’t know you? Just deal with it. Aren’t you a grown ass woman? Haven’t you dealt with your mother’s shit before? And did I mention,  you’re on vacation? Also, what’s up with this bathroom? (The shower wasn’t in a separate stall from the rest of the bathroom, so the entire floor was wet. This would be a common feature in all the bathrooms I encountered in Cambodia.)

    I stopped crying, finished showering, and got dressed. Came out smiling. Sat down on the big woven mat someone had laid out on the floor by the staircase and ate lunch with everyone else–soups, stews, boiled veggies, and roasted meat with white rice in little Styrofoam bowls and plates.  I didn’t have to say much of anything. I could be still and present, and let the murmur of Khmer float into my ears and sink into my being.

    siem reap 4


     

    Asian Girl Wanders Off! Asian Lady Attacked By Temple Monkeys!

    We spent the next few days exploring Siem Reap and the tourist sites it had to offer us: Phnom Bakheng, Angkor Wat, and Angkor Thom. Hordes of white people with their cargo shorts and close-toed shoes ruined my shots of the majestic temple ruins, annoying the fuck out of me. Sure, I was about as knowledgeable as they were about the history of each temple, but they didn’t inhabit bodies that were rooted in that history–bodies like mine and my mother’s. They weren’t connected to this land the way we were.

    Phnom Bakheng required quite a bit of uphill hiking. I was wearing denim and a pair of flats and was completely unprepared. It hadn’t occurred to me that this trip would involve any kind of exercise (which I realized was incredibly naive of me). My mother was in high spirits. We ended up racing each other to the top until she fell further and further behind, yelling and laughing and trying to catch her breath. A total 180 from the woman who needed a wheelchair at the airport.

    phnom bakheng

    Angkor Wat was a glorious, sprawling complex. I had no idea how extensive it was until now. A photographer came strolling over to us, wanting to know if we wanted our pictures taken. My mother immediately said yes. We posed for numerous takes. I put on my best smile and tried to ignore the awful state of my hair.

    I took as many pictures as I could. (Mainly of the temple grounds and not of my mother’s relatives. I felt weird about taking pictures of brown people I didn’t know or barely knew. It seemed kinda neocolonial to me even though I’m not white.) I knew it would be a long time before I would get the chance to see any of this again. I had to capture what I was seeing for posterity and for everyone back home, too.

    angkor wat 1

    angkor wat 2

    I was so fixated on snapping pictures that I found myself alone. Well, not technically alone, there were endless streams of white people ebbing and flowing  through the area I was in. But where was my mother? And her people? Crap.

    Bong Cohm eventually found me. She called me “Mee-Oun,” which I think is a term of endearment for a girl who is younger than you. She used her phone, an old school flip thing, and spent a while talking to someone on the other end of the line. She was trying to find the rest of the group. I kept taking pictures. We barely spoke to each other. Probably because she knew I mainly spoke broken Khmer and wanted to spare me the humiliation and awkwardness.

    She asked if I wanted to climb up to the top of the highest structure. I said yes. We got in the long line and waited, were handed badges to hang around our necks that enabled us to scale up the incredibly steep stairs. She nudged me to take pictures of this view and that. At the very least she understood the need for posterity.

    angkor wat 4

    We eventually made it out of the temple and waited on the outskirts of it. The photographer somehow found us and had some nice prints for us. I wondered where he had them developed. He gave a price. Bong Cohm didn’t like it. “That’s too much,” she said in protest. They argued back and forth.

    I gave her a US twenty-dollar bill to settle the matter. She put it in her wallet and continued to haggle. This would be an exchange I would continually witness throughout my entire stay in Cambodia. Everyone here knew how to hustle. No wonder I was a disappointment to my mother. I would rather pay full price than risk being complicit in exploitative consumer practices.

    We reunited with the rest of the group, climbed back into the van with the driver we had apparently rented 24/7,  and stopped at Angkor Thom. The best part of Angkor Thom were the monkeys. There was a whole group of monkeys just chilling amongst the rocks behind the ruins. My mom and Ming Huin fed them papaya. While everyone else moved on, my mother and I stayed behind. My mother kept cooing at one of the monkeys, beckoning it to climb onto her arm.

    “Uh…” I said.

    monkey

    Be careful, Mother…

    The monkey hopped on. Then another one did. And another one climbed on top of her head and started yanking on her hair.

    My mom bent over and howled like a defeated animal. She flung her arms, trying to throw them off.

    I laughed my fucking ass off.

    A monk observing in amusement suggested that the monkey on top of her head was simply trying to look for lice.

    My phone had died by that point, so I regretfully have no video evidence to make this moment go viral as it rightfully should have.


     

    Coming Home

    battambang road

    “Are we there yet?” I kept asking Ee Luck.

    “No,” she said.

    Finally, the van stopped outside of a small house in the countryside.

    So many strangers came out, all at once, and began taking away our luggage. Lots of exclamations and greetings were exchanged. I wordlessly followed everyone else into the garage, which was set up as a communal space. I saw a man in the corner napping in a hammock hung between the poles of a canopy swing. I wished I were that guy. Instead, I was whisked away by my mother to this person and that so she could make the necessary introductions: “This is x, they are your y, so you have to call them w–sorry, I mean z!”

    I nodded and smiled, knowing I wouldn’t remember most of their names or relations to me.

    I met Bong Cohm’s daughters (my second cousins once removed according to white people lingo). The oldest (Penh?) I recognized from when she had tried to add me on Facebook a while back. I had deleted her request because I didn’t know her like that (which made me feel kinda guilty as we exchanged polite smiles). The second (Ling?) was introduced with the nickname “Miss Piggy,” a name her dad had so kindly bequeathed her because she was so fat. (She wasn’t, by the way. She was of an average build, which I guess according to stereotypes is fat by Asian standards. But I mean, even if she was fat, who the fuck cares? She looked happy and well-adjusted. I couldn’t say any of this in Khmer, so I just felt torn and conflicted as people, including my fucking mom, kept exclaiming how fat she was and how she must nap and eat too much while the poor girl in question kept having to take it all with a smile on her face.) The youngest, whose name I think is Soklin (I know I’m terrible okay), ended up being my best friend for the duration of the trip. She was ten years old. (Which probably says a lot about my maturity–or lack thereof.)

    My mother, Ee Luck, and I were called to dinner by Bong Cohm’s younger sister, Thea. I quietly ate, still feeling strange. It unsettled me to not fully know where I was, who I was with, or why–a feeling that would remain consistent throughout the entire trip.

    My mother praised Thea for having such a nice and modern home. Inside it was like a box, with a linoleum floor, high ceiling, and wood furniture that was hard and sturdy. There was a bench, a couple of chairs, and a low table when you first walked in. A little beyond that was a higher table, flanked by stackable plastic red chairs that seemed to be a key staple for every house, hotel, and restaurant I encountered in Cambodia. There was a small TV sitting on top of a cabinet that would play the same cringe-inducing Khmer-dubbed soap operas and cheesy commercials over and over again. (Case in point: A scene of a stoic bearded Indian dude gripping the wrists of a beautiful wide-eyed Indian woman. Apparently the “sell” of this drama is the bearded dude staring very intensely at the anguished woman while a heartwrenching ballad plays in the backdrop. Romanticized abuse and toxic masculinity, oh my!)

    Around the corner was a double size bed and hammock. Pictures of elders and family were hung on the otherwise bare white walls. I recognized my aunt who had died from breast cancer in one of the somber portraits. I also spotted a small dented photo of my uncle, aunt, and cousins whom I grew up with in the United States, hung in a heart-shaped frame. It lifted my heart to see proof of a connection. My blood was here. I was from here. These thoughts did not last for long, however.

    After dinner, I showered, which ended up being an ordeal in and of itself. The bathroom was literally a box in the kitchen. The water that came out from the faucet was cold and yellow and I hoped that was normal (it was). By the time I was done and dressed, the women had gathered around my mother. I hung back and watched as they spoke soothing, sweet words to her and rubbed coins into her back, then laid her down in the hammock while one very pretty woman with her long, straight hair tied back massaged my mother’s pale, doughy stomach.

    Her pale body was always at odds
    with the melanin in her face and arms,
    like how her children were always at odds
    with their heritage.
    I hung back and watched
    this unfamiliar tenderness
    this familial loving kindness
    I could not fathom
    giving to my mother.
    Is this what she dreamed of
    back in our country?
    (I mean, my country.)
    (I mean, stolen country.)
    I realized
    I did not know
    my mother’s body
    that I had forgotten
    the only place
    I could truly call home

    It was a tender, intimate moment I was not a part of. I felt both relieved and ashamed. This was what my mother needed. I was supposed to do that for her, but I never could. I wouldn’t have ever thought to. Her stomach, glowing and soft with love from the hands of other women, had been a site of trauma for me when I had seen it last: in the hospital. My anemic mother struggling to unclasp her bra for the x-rays, her face gaunt and yellow. Me bawling my eyes out. Fade to black.

    I slept in one of the two bedrooms in the house, sharing a bed with Ee Luck. My mother slept in the living room with Ming Huin. I fell asleep to the sounds of the whirring fan perched next to us and Thea humming to soften the whimpers of her son. A perfect summer lullaby.

    Some nights,
    I would hear my second cousin
    singing her restless son to sleep.
    A beautiful and wordless song
    that floated into my room
    and kissed my ears.
    I remember lying there in the dark
    pretending
    she was singing to me, too.


     

    Motherland

    angkor wat 5

    You thought she would welcome you with open arms.
    Push your face into her brown bosom.
    Sing nourishment into your heart and soul,
    awaken the blood in your veins,
    breathe home inside your lungs.
    Instead, she gives you a blank stare.
    Permits you to gaze upon her beauty–
    nothing less, nothing more.
    She speaks a language you had forgotten,
    smiling bemusedly as you start to cry,
    and with a laugh that breaks you,
    turns away.

    – that painful moment
    when a mother cannot recognize
    a child who was taken from her womb by diaspora


     

    Praying

    praying

    We climb up hills and mountains
    with the sun riding on our backs,
    searching for blessings
    in gilded temples and painted statues.
    I sit down with lit incense pressed between my palms,
    wincing as gray ash falls
    from glowing orange tips to burn me.
    I close my eyes.
    Sampeah three times.
    I try to speak with my ancestors,
    but my mind is sluggish
    under the weight of my mother’s tongue.
    Sweat drips
    down the back of my neck,
    between my breasts,
    forms pools in the niches behind my knees.
    I think about how ungodly I am,
    how I want to pray like my cousin.
    She bows her head
    and presses her whole body to the ground,
    gets back up
    and cups the incense close to her face.
    Like she believes with every fiber of her being.
    Like she’s been burned before and will never burn again.
    Like the entire world is bearing down on her
    and she has learned
    the sacred art
    of letting go


     

    Safe

    We are headed somewhere I do not know.
    I have spent most of my trip
    caught in this strange state of the unknown.
    The rented van ambles along dirt roads,
    crammed with people from my mother’s village
    whom I am only vaguely familiar with.
    I am exhausted.
    I wake up a little past 6am everyday
    and am scolded by my mother
    for sleeping in and reading books.
    I nod off, my head falling back
    until I jerk awake and catch myself
    before starting all over again.
    Ming Huin notices.
    She grabs my head
    and rests it firmly against her.
    Sleep, she commands me.
    She rubs my back
    like I am a lost child
    and her shoulder is a refuge
    ushering me home to my body
    my body,
    my body,
    is home

    safe


     

    Colorism

    Oh, she’s pretty, the village women tell my mother.
    Her skin is so fair. She looks like a Korean girl.
    I stretch my lips upwards
    even as my heart plummets down.
    They might as well have spit on my mother
    and tell me to be grateful it was not me,
    break mirrors and demand
    I stab them with the shards.
    I want to correct them with grace
    but the words are lost
    somewhere in my throat
    somewhere between my mother’s legs
    and my English degree
    somewhere between respect your elders
    and you’re so whitewashed
    somewhere between privilege and shame
    I never learned to translate resistance
    I only learned to swallow it
    So instead I sit in silence
    as they gossip on unbothered,
    hating the cruel way
    in which colorism
    can cut across barriers
    with its jagged edges
    even as my tongue
    cannot


     

    Asian American

    This struggle is old and boring.
    My ethnic studies college professor
    would roll her eyes.
    This doesn’t erase
    the palpable ache
    in my chest
    the hollowness
    of my thoughts
    the sinking realization
    that the gap in my identity
    is sometimes a deep chasm
    I can only fall into


     

    Disappearing

    My mother
    is beloved here.
    She glows. She beams. She shines.
    She is in full bloom.
    This is her land,
    her people,
    her language.
    My voice
    is lost here.
    I hide. I whisper. I shrink.
    I am disappearing.
    I am her daughter,
    her trophy,
    her burden.
    She rises like the sun
    as I become a ghost,
    her laughter loud enough
    to bury my silence.
    I sink into the floor
    until I am only a pair of eyes
    watching my mother
    become the person
    she was meant to be
    Before the war.
    Before children.
    Before she carried
    the weight of pain
    in her back
    and in her soul

    mother on bike


     

    Resemblance

    We visited the elementary school my mother attended in her youth. The school consisted of a long, drab building that wrapped around, with a courtyard for children to play in. My mother was ecstatic to see a relic from her childhood. She kept making silly jokes and demanding I take pictures of her. When we reached the playground, she immediately beelined for the seesaw and ordered me to join her. I happily obliged. Together we see-sawed, much to the amusement of her friends. I couldn’t stop laughing. It hit me then that I was just like my mother. I had inherited her resilient, joyous spirit; her ability to retain a childlike sense of wonder in spite of hardship. I couldn’t have been more happy and proud of our resemblance in that moment.

    seesaw


     

    Husband

    husband

    When are you getting a husband? Ming Huin asks me
    I don’t want a husband, I reply.
    Her tan face folds into more lines.
    She tells me getting a husband
    means having someone
    who will take care of me
    when I am sick or injured,
    someone with whom
    I can grow old with.
    I half-listen to her
    and nod my head
    because that is easier
    than asking,
    What are friends for?
    What is family for?
    Nodding is easier than
    trying to explain
    how much of myself
    I would have to sacrifice,
    how much I would have to compromise
    how I would have to eat myself alive
    just to say “I do”
    to a man I cannot picture


     

    My Uncle’s Wife

    My uncle’s wife is beautiful.
    Her hair is a crown of black curls
    Her skin is rich, dark soil
    Her eyes are gems
    cut from starry night skies
    She carries herself
    with the strength and poise
    of someone who has birthed children,
    toiled in fields,
    and lived to survive another day
    Who can dare say
    a fair complexion is worth more
    when I am bearing witness
    to such a stunningly
    powerful
    microcosm
    of the earth

    my uncle's wife


     

    Loner

    In Cambodia,
    we eat together, sit together, pray together, talk together.
    My eyes glaze over as I sit for hours on end
    at another house my mother insists we visit
    while she tells the same stories over and over again
    to a rapt audience sans one.
    Eyes are always on me.
    Ears listen in whenever I muster up the nerve
    to say something to my mother.
    Commentary on my looks, my words, my actions
    is ongoing and do not require my input.
    I am a child again,
    to be seen and not heard.
    I miss being alone.
    Everything here is done in community
    and I hate it.
    I feel this makes me less Cambodian.
    I think about other loners in this village,
    in all the villages
    There must be some.
    I wonder if they hate it too.
    I wonder how they cope.
    I get to leave,
    but they don’t.

    loner


     

    Found And Lost

    battambang market

    It is crushing to know
    I can spend years trying to find my voice
    only to lose it where I wanted it most


     

    Children

    My only friends here are children and the books I packed, which is unsurprising and telling of who I am. I play hand-clapping games with the girls. They tickle me and I tell them to stop. One is six. She is somewhat bratty and once opened the bathroom door on me while I was inside, naked. I suppose you could argue she knows me the most. The other girl is nine. She’s my favorite, because she’s smart and knows how to have fun. The youngest is a little boy, who is two or three. He has a big head on top of a skinny little body. He’s always butt-naked and takes a shit wherever he likes. I am ashamed to share the same level of Khmer language ability with him.

    I try to teach them how to dance like Beyonce from 7/11, but I no longer know all the moves by heart and there is no Internet connection to show them the original, the Queen and her beautifully uninhibited moves. I play with the kids for a little bit, then I quickly retreat.

    Children are exhausting, no matter what culture I’m immersed in.

    children

    Nine-year-old not pictured.


     

    Bitter

    I am sitting in the hammock,
    staring off into space,
    swaying to and fro.
    Ming Huin sits next to me and offers me oranges.
    Can you cut the peel? she asks, holding up a knife.
    No, I say. I’m left-handed.
    This has been my mother’s excuse for me
    since my childhood.
    Ming Huin shakes her head.
    I am left-handed too, she says.
    But she peels an orange for me anyway.
    Do you know your mother loves you? she asks.
    Yes, but I don’t agree with how she loves me, I think.
    I tell her I don’t know.
    You don’t know that your mother loves you?
    Her face is sad.
    She talks at length
    about my mother’s love for me,
    erasing the years of screaming and cursing,
    the devastating quiet after each storm.
    I listen to her and wish,
    for the first time in my adult life,
    that I was white.
    That I could come to this third world country
    without being weighed down with more baggage
    than I checked in at the airport.
    The orange slices taste bitter in my mouth.
    I want to cry.
    Instead I sit there and avoid my aunt’s stare,
    already removing myself from the moment
    and writing it into lines of disjoined English in my head
    as if that were enough to keep distance
    between blood and heart

    bitter


     

    Erased

    We visit the mall
    where all the ads are filled
    with white and light-skinned models
    even though the people
    in this country are brown.
    This is violence.
    My anger is trapped in
    my fetishized skin
    a colonial tongue
    Its screams are muffled
    by the weight of diaspora
    I am a ghost
    watching a people erased
    to look like me


     

    Time

    time

    Time moves slowly here. Days are weeks, begin to feel like months. Maybe it’s just the heat. Stretching days into weeks into months. Forcing time to its knees. Sweat soaking into its sarong. Time to shower, wash your clothes, and hang them on the clothesline, where they will dry within the hour. Your mother scolds you for letting your cousin do the washing. You try to do the washing once and your cousin scolds you. You cannot win. You sit for long periods, staring blankly at some point in the distance. This is what many people do here. You see them when you go out to take a walk with your mother and her friend, or when you ride on the back of someone’s motorcycle. A brown face, many brown faces, in the shade. Sitting. Watching. Always watching. Nothing goes unseen in this village. These dirt roads have eyes on them. These skinny stray animals have eyes on them. The greenery has eyes. Even when you’re squatting over the toilet to take a shit, you’re never alone. Time slithers here. You wait for it to strike. It doesn’t. You pray for sweet relief. It doesn’t come. You’re just watching it snake by. Coiling at your feet. There’s nothing you can do but wait.


     

    Hotel

    “It’s so hot,” said Ee Luck. “I can’t sleep here.”

    She asked that we stay at a hotel instead.

    My mother became aggravated. “The heat isn’t that bad,” she insisted. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m fine sleeping here.”

    I decided to go with Ee Luck. I felt guilty for acting like the spoiled, entitled American my relatives probably thought me to be, but the promise of a Wi-Fi connection was too tempting for me. As shameful as it is to admit, I had been off the grid for only a week and was already going crazy without Internet access (resisting millennial stereotypes be damned). Not being connected to people who understood me was a lonely, alienating experience.

    For a few nights, Ee Luck and I were escorted by relatives on motorcycles to an air conditioned hotel in the city. For a few nights, the heat and I were not intimate lovers. For a few nights, I had my own bed to sleep in again. For a few nights, I produced words outside of my head that other people could make sense of.

    For a few nights, I was alone and no longer alone.

    hotel


     

    Somewhere Else

    I am at the market watching
    a woman try on shoes.
    She talks with the saleslady,
    then asks me which pair
    looks better.
    I try to tell her.
    She doesn’t understand me.
    They both look at me curiously.
    “Are you Khmer?” the woman asks.
    I tell them I am.
    “Oh, she can’t even speak Khmer,”
    says the woman.
    “She must be from somewhere else.”
    I turn away, ashamed to hear words
    that hold fragments of truth
    I cannot even be sure
    my mind has translated well enough
    for my heart to be stabbed with


     

    The Cows

    The cows were real.

    Here they were. In the flesh. Haggard and thin, but real. I stayed back, wary and slightly afraid of being trampled or chased. My mother went up to one and spoke to it gleefully. “Look at you! Do you recognize your owner?” she asked.

    cow

    An emotionally charged meeting…well, not really.

    Back in America, my mother would rave about all the cows she had purchased in Cambodia through some distant, faceless relative who I now know is Meer Ho. I had never believed her until now. I thought she had been scammed. But here they were. Peacefully grazing in the middle of acres upon acres of grassland. Herded by a lone man who had been paid to look after a horde of cows that didn’t belong to him, out in the middle of nowhere. I wondered how he passed the time. Did he have interesting, complex webs of thought that took years for him to pick apart and unravel? Did he jack off with the cows mooing in the backdrop?

    If I were him, I would definitely jack off.

    I wondered what was the point of buying cows in another country. Was my mother planning on making Cambodia her home again, in her final years of life? The thought didn’t faze me as much as I thought it would. It made sense. My mother never got the hang of America: its language, its customs, its culture, its modernity. This is what she knew. This is what she would inevitably return to. Right?

    “Oh no, I can’t live here,” she said when Ming Huin asked her about it later. “I’d miss my children too much.”


     

    The Trees

    “See those trees over there?” asked a woman whose relation to my mother was still unclear to me, which was pretty shitty considering I had been riding on the back of her motorcycle all day as she gave me a tour of her neighborhood, the school she taught at, and the surrounding farmland.

    I nodded. We had stopped at what I thought was just a random spot by the road. The woman was pointing at the dense green thicket past the road and across the field. It didn’t look out of the ordinary to me. Just an innocent clump of trees.

    “That’s where the labor camp your mother was forced to work at used to be,” she said very solemnly. “You know about Pol Pot’s regime, don’t you? It was a terrible time.”

    I didn’t know what to say. I stared at the greenery a little harder, feeling a combination of sadness, horror, and awe. Never in a million years did I expect that I would come crashing into history like this. It was strange to be so close, yet so far away from the tragedy that would come to be known as The Killing Fields.

    I got my mother to talk about it once in great detail, for a history report I had to do during my junior year of high school. But that was years ago. A foggy memory, a language barrier, and an insufficient attention span ensured that I had little recollection of what she had relayed to me almost 10 years ago.

    Regardless of how much I do or don’t know, of how much I try or fail to understand, the fact remains that my mother is a survivor of genocide. Her trauma and resilience runs in my blood. I will never truly know what she experienced or witnessed. All I know is the aftermath; the fear, anxiety, grief, and rage that overcame her throughout my life, set off by the most mundane events and exchange of words. That is all I have been a witness to, up until now.

    All of this weighs me down. I don’t know how to process this moment. I snap a picture, and we leave.

    genocide


     

    The Song

    This is what it must feel like to roast in an oven, I remembered thinking.

    It was the first day of the ceremony my mother had organized in honor of my father and other deceased family members. Wearing white was required. I wore a pretty lace blouse that Ee Luck had picked out for me. I also wore several coats of sweat underneath my clothes. A tent had been set up to shield everyone from the shade, but it provided no relief from the oppressive heat.

    I sat in the proper ladylike fashion, with my legs tucked away to one side. Hands pressed together in prayer while monks chanted things I couldn’t understand. I was slowly melting into a puddle of existential gloom and boredom. How could anyone bear this? My mind went in and out of a stupor. I almost thought I had reached enlightenment in my suffering. Was this how Buddhism worked?

    A woman with short, curly hair and broken teeth wound up with the microphone. I had no idea what she was saying. I hoped whatever it was wouldn’t take too long. I was drowning in my sweat, drowning in my discomfort, drowning in my cultural baggage–

    and then she began to sing.

    For a few moments, I forgot I was dying in the heat. I was spellbound by her song. I wasn’t able to make sense of the words, but she had a hauntingly beautiful voice that carried into my soul. A voice that hearkened back to a time and place I couldn’t remember, but yearned for. Tears filled my eyes and slipped down my cheeks. I wiped them off, confused and embarrassed.

    Her voice had awakened something inside of me that had been buried. This feeling, strange and inexplicable in its nature, was lost by the end of the song.

    ceremony


     

    Rootless

    It breaks my heart to know
    that I’ve traveled thousands of miles
    to learn that I am an outsider too
    There is no home for me
    I speak of roots as if they were mine
    instead of my mother’s
    As if I was the protagonist
    instead of the unreliable narrator
    My own flesh and blood
    is foreign to me
    I can feel it in my bones.
    The tip of my tongue.
    Inked into my skin.
    Rootless.
    The ache. The longing.
    For a place I cannot go to.
    Or come from.
    My mother has returned
    but I,
    I will never arrive

    boats


     

    Dancing

    The ceremony was over for the day. Ee Luck was excited, because dancing was supposed to follow. I had no idea that was the trajectory of things, or that Ee Luck would be so into dancing, but anything had to be better than slow death by sun and monk chants. I had brought nothing nice to wear, so Ee Luck let me borrow a pair of lacy wine-colored shorts to pair with my plain gray shirt. Because we were both tiny (in her words), they fit perfectly.

    Day became night, and the festivities commenced. People ate and drank at round tables that had been set up outside my cousin’s humble abode, and others moved to the rhythm of the music in the open space in the yard that had been cleared for dancing. I felt a little self-conscious at first when I joined the circle of dancers, hyperaware that people would be watching, but soon I gave in to the music and just didn’t care. I didn’t quite know the intricacies of traditional Khmer dance, but I had some rhythm in me. I moved with the flow of the circle and tried to arrange my hands as gracefully as possible, like the women in the Khmer karaoke videos I had watched growing up. I danced with the kids, danced with my mom and Ee Luck, shook off the old men who tried to get in on the action, shook off the annoying man who tried to get the camera in my face. A couple of people complimented me on my moves. I smiled and laughed with the night sky floating above me. It was the first time I felt carefree, or comfortable in my own skin, in Cambodia. I didn’t have to talk. I could just blend in with everyone else and move my body to the music.


     

    Something About The Wind

    I was nearing the end of my stay in Cambodia. Night had fallen. I had spent the evening visiting a distant relative’s house with my mother. Meer Ho and my cousins came to pick us up on their motorcycles. I ended up riding with Meer Ho.

    The road stretched long and thin. The ride was serene and quiet. I expected it to remain this way, until my uncle abruptly asked, “Is the wind cold for you?”

    I was surprised. He had barely conversed with me for the past few weeks. I tried to answer. “Oh no. It’s just right,” was what I intended to say, but he laughed amicably and corrected me.

    “You should say, ‘the wind is a pleasant breeze,'” he said (or so I thought). The word he used was unfamiliar to me. “Say it with me: ‘the wind is a pleasant breeze.'”

    “The wind is a pleasant breeze,” I repeated.

    “The wind is a pleasant breeze.”

    “The wind is a pleasant breeze,” I echoed again.

    He chuckled. “Well. If learning that word is all you got out of this trip, that’s still pretty good.”

    I shamefully and regrettably forgot the word, but not this moment. All was quiet again. I remember looking up at the night sky, wanting to hold this moment in my hands and store it in my pocket for later. The moon hung round and yellow. The wind was a pleasant breeze. I would be leaving soon, and this would all be over. Tears filled my eyes. I blinked fast, but they slithered down anyway.

    I would miss my tiny, joyous uncle. The warmth with which Ming Huin spoke to me. The bubbly kids who had indirectly experienced a bastardized version of Beyoncé through my haphazard, mostly forgotten interpretation of her “7/11” dance. Bong Cohm calling me “Mee-Oun.” Thea’s relentless hospitality.

    Because of diaspora, I wasn’t able to connect with them the way I wanted. But the fact that they had tried, in so many different ways, meant the world to me.


     

    No Translation

    I am ashamed to say
    I do not remember most of their names
    or their relationships to my mother
    But I remember their faces.
    Their smiles and laughter.
    The simple ways
    they welcomed
    and accepted me
    How they spoke to me
    even when
    I could not understand
    How in their eyes
    there was a gentleness
    that told me they still saw me
    as a long-lost daughter
    of Kampuchea,
    reminding me
    love is a language
    that needs no
    translation

    family


     

    Pain

    Don’t go chasing waterfalls. Literally, don’t.

    We had been out and about all day on yet another family outing to a temple in the mountains. This one had been much more exciting than the others, though, because of the waterfall. It was my first time ever seeing one, let alone splashing around and underneath one.

    waterfalls

    My mother is the only sexy one in this picture hahaha.

    A downside of playing in the waterfall (or so I suspected) was now my throat felt scratchy and raw, like maybe I had accidentally swallowed a porcupine.

    The discomfort in my throat persisted, long after we changed into dry clothes and drove off in our rented van to our next destination. I whispered to my mother, asking her if she had any pain relief medicine on her.  She said she did, but as I recall it, she promptly forgot to give it to me.

    The sun soon turned over in the sky, making room for evening. By this time, we had finished up our temple sightseeing and were lounging in front of a house in the city that belonged to a young woman and her family who, oddly enough, no one in our company except for my mother was familiar with. We had been there for at least an hour now. Everyone was quiet, except for my mother, who kept gabbing on and on while the young woman, possibly another distant relative or the daughter of an old friend, smiled and interjected on occasion.

    I was tired, hungry, and my throat hurt. I wanted to get food, or go to bed. But I couldn’t voice these wants without appearing rude. I had to play the part of the seen, but not heard child. I was also self-conscious of bringing attention to myself and my broken Khmer. So I sat there, quietly stewing in pain and frustration, praying my mother would tire of talking and call it a night.

    A little while later, my mother finally said goodbye to her relative/friend. We all piled back into the van. I was relieved. It was getting late now. Of course our next destination had to be a hotel.

    It was not a hotel. It was yet another house that belonged to more strangers that only my mother knew intimately. We were given chairs to sit outside while my mother yapped away.

    I sat there, wallowing in resentment and anguish and feeling terrible in general. All I wanted was to eat and go to sleep. My vision started to blur. I blinked fast. No, no, no. Don’t do it, Learkana. Not here, not now. 

    I tried to discreetly wipe off the tears and snot coming down my face. One of my relatives noticed. I didn’t know her name, I only knew her as the cousin with the lovely bone structure and long dark braid, who had massaged my mother’s stomach on our first night here. She knelt down in front of me. “What’s wrong?” she asked, a look of deep concern on her face.

    That only made me cry harder.  I buried my face in my hands, embarrassed. Other people were now paying attention, and now I was a spectacle. Fucking great.

    My cousin Thea pried my hands loose from my face so she could wipe away the mess on my face. Everyone was talking about me now, wondering what was wrong.

    “What’s wrong?” Ee Luck asked in English.

    “I feel sick,” I mumbled. She relayed this to the others.

    The cousin with the long dark braid led me inside the house. She had me lay down on the mat, my face pushed into a pillow. She pulled up the back of my shirt. I flinched. What was she doing?

    That’s when I felt it. The searing pain of a coin rub. I laid there, cringing with every scrape of the coin. I had never had it done to me before. Never again, I thought in agony. I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do but yield to my suffering. My bare back was exposed, and I was sure everyone else, including the kids who had come along for the trip, had also caught a glimpse of my belly and possibly my underwear, given that my pants were somewhat loose. There was no pretense of dignity or grace now. Here I was, a 24-year-old blubbering mess getting handled for everyone to see. My transformation from adult to child was complete.

    A little while after I had resigned myself to this seemingly never-ending hellish torture, my cousin stopped, pulled my shirt back down, and sat me back up. I wiped off more tears and snot and was given a bowl of rice and soup. I was no longer hungry. Crying and shame had killed my appetite. I took small swallows with my spoon and avoided everyone’s stare.

    “Don’t cry,” urged my cousin with the long braid. “Your mother is outside crying right now. You don’t want her to cry, do you? She says she won’t eat if you won’t eat. Keep eating so you can be strong for your mother, so you can take care of her, okay?”

    I stared at her wordlessly, still crying. Inside, I was a swirling storm of rage. Even my own pain didn’t belong to me. Like everything else on this trip, my pain belonged to my mother. And in this culture, I was never allowed to forget that.


     

    Guangzhou Pt. 2

    Our layover in Guangzhou this time was even more disorienting. No one understood what we were trying to convey. We had a difficult time finding the location where we would be shuttled to our hotel for the night. At one point, I got separated from my mother and Ee Luck, and was too numb with exhaustion to really panic at the thought of being lost in a country that was completely alien to me in spite of my heritage. Somehow,  we reunited and managed to board the bus that took us to our hotel accommodations.

    This time, we shared a single room that had two beds. I crawled into one of the beds, ready to pass out. My mother crawled in with me, her body lightly pressing against mine.

    I bristled. “Don’t sleep next to me,” I said, a little more harshly than I intended. I hated close body contact in bed, plus I was still resentful of the utter lack of attention she had given me when we were in Cambodia. She couldn’t make up for it by trying to snuggle up to me now.

    “Fine!” my mother snapped, and wrenched herself away. She started crying. “All I wanted was to sleep next to my child, and I can’t even do that. What’s the point of life with children like this? I should just kill myself.”

    WELL MAYBE YOU SHOULD, an irrepressibly evil inner voice retorted in my mind. I got up and settled in the other bed with Ee Luck, squirming with feelings of guilt, anger, and aggravation. Why were we so dysfunctional? Why was my mother an emotionally incapacitated bitch who threatened suicide every time her kids upset her? Why was I an emotionally incapacitated bitch who could blow up then shut down in a matter of minutes when it came to confrontation?

    I almost thought Ee Luck would intervene, but she wisely got ready for bed without another word.


     

    Return Flight

    My mother and I sat next to each other on our flight home. Ee Luck somehow ended up getting a seat across the aisle from us, which left my mother no one else to converse with. Luckily, things were back to normal between us. There was never a heart-to-heart conversation where we discussed what we did wrong and apologized. We simply fell back into place, as if nothing toxic had ever transpired.

    I used to desperately want that heart-to-heart. The kind I would see in an episode of Full House when I was a kid, a wonderful universe in which Danny Tanner, the loving and supportive head of household, goes into his daughter’s room after a disagreement, says a few genuine and compassionate words, and hugs it out with her.  But I’ve come to accept that my relationship with my mother doesn’t work that way.

    To my surprise, my mother was in a lighthearted mood on the flight. She confessed to me that she didn’t know how to lock the airplane bathroom door, which had resulted in someone attempting to open the door on her while she was peeing. We both giggled, and laughed even harder as we started segueing into toilet humor jokes.

    I was equal parts relieved and anxious about returning to the States. The truth was that I had been feeling existentially out of sorts in America for a while now. This feeling had worsened during my stay in Cambodia. I was overwhelmed with not knowing my place, of not belonging. I had wondered if anywhere could really feel like home for me.

    For now, it seemed, home was in the clouds, above the earth, flying with my mother’s arm leaning into mine on the armrest as she nodded off. For now, home was this fluctuating in between space, with thousands of miles between my mother and the country from which she once fled, between me and the country I would always be a stranger to, between my mother and the country where she sought refuge and found only alienation, between me and the country that continues to shun me in spite of my birthright. For now, home was her heart beating next to mine, in a body that had carried and sustained me into life, the freshly pressed memory of our shared laughter still lingering in the air between us.