0

Whitewashed

I’m sitting in a cafe/donut shop in downtown Oakland, waiting for my plain bagel with butter to be ready. I can hear the workers speaking in Khmer to each other–gossiping, it sounds like. Their words are too quick for me to catch, plus my hearing in general is terrible. The woman speaks with a clipping accent that makes it harder for me to register her words. She mentions her husband a couple of times, which makes me realize that the man who is listening to her is not, in fact, her husband. I sit at a table and quietly eavesdrop as I always do, feeling like both an insider and outsider. It’s strange to me, the secret I am passively keeping from them: that I, too, am Khmer.

I’ve been sporadically ordering breakfast and eating lunch at this place for the past year, and I have yet to “out” myself as Cambodian. I’m hoping, as always, that a person could just take one look at me and be able to tell. That rarely happens. It’s not like I’ve been intentionally hiding my Cambodian identity. My face, skin tone, and last name do that for me rather effortlessly–camouflage passed on by my father, who was born and raised in Cambodia but was of Chinese and Vietnamese descent. These days, I have no trouble bringing up my race as a conversation topic, but only when it seems relevant. How relevant can it be when I am handing over crumpled bills with a timid smile that is met by eyes that look away and on to the next customer?

I’ve succeeded in other places. A Cambodian grocery store clerk made the realization when she looked at the name on my debit card and saw past the poorly anglicized spelling. A Cambodian waiter realized when he asked for my name after I placed an order for noodles over the phone and I answered, “Leh!keh-nah.” When the opportunity arises, I seize it. But at this donut shop, the opportunity to flash my Cambodian identity has never materialized. They never ask for my name. They only accept cash, eliminating the possibility of having them deduce my race from my card. They barely acknowledge me, a reminder that they will never need to know I am Khmer. It doesn’t matter in this situation. Right?

I suppose if it bothers me that much, I could work in a Khmer phrase. Say thank you, or ask how much something costs. Then they would know for sure. I have thought about this on occasion, but every time I refrain. It feels too contrived, too unnecessary, and too late.

And anyway, what is the point of misleading them into thinking I speak Khmer, when the truth is I can barely carry a conversation in it, when the other truth is that the only person I have ever felt truly comfortable speaking Khmer with is my mother and even then, every verbal exchange I have with her is a reminder of my failures and losses?

And besides, wasn’t I used to this? The Khmer kids at my high school never knew I was Khmer, except maybe a couple of people who forgot as soon as I mentioned it. There was the classmate who spoke to me in Khmer only to talk shit about people she didn’t like, but her deeply entrenched internalized racism and low self-esteem made me keep my distance. I didn’t want to be pulled in by the promise of community, only to be broken apart. That was what happened in my childhood. Alienated by unfriendly, authoritarian elders and emotionally abusive girls on the playground, I retreated into books written by, for, and about white people. That was where I made my home, and that was where I lost some sense of myself I never knew mattered until now.

Whitewashed. It stung when my (non-Cambodian) friend reduced me to this word in casual conversation, although it isn’t as if I hadn’t referred to myself as this a million times before. It just hurts more when I hear it outside my head, because outside my head, it’s divorced from a slew of thoughts and feelings made complicated by my identity, my worldview, my heritage, my family, and the bigger issues–colonialism, racism, diaspora.

“Your bagel ready now,” the woman finally tells me in English. I get up, thank her in English, pay her, and leave. As I walk back to work, I wonder: can someone really just read my body and define me by whatever they take away from it, and nothing more? Can someone so easily take one look at me and assume what or who I am? And does that become all that I am?

Just then, a man comes up to me and says, as politely as a stranger on the street can be, “I have a question…”

I brace myself. He’s going to hit on me.

“…do you speak Cantonese?”

I look at him, startled yet not at all surprised. “No.”

“Oh okay,” he says. “I just need something translated…” He’s smiling very hard, trying his best to non-verbally relay the message that his question was innocuous.

“Sorry, I don’t speak Cantonese,” I tell him again, apologizing for failing to validate his incorrect assumptions about me.

He walks away. I watch him ask another Asian woman, who shakes her head. I wonder if she is Korean or Japanese before I realize there’s no point in speculating.

0

Trigger Warning

It seems that

in America,

there are two things that Cambodians are known for:

1) genocide,

and 2) donuts.

Let’s talk about genocide.

You don’t want to?

Me neither,

but on occasion it’ll get pushed onto me

the most shameful thing is that I don’t want to

because I don’t know how

yet sometimes I feel

it’s the only thing I can latch onto–

another scar to round out my collection.

But you see, you read me wrong

I’m not the book you’re looking for

these pages, missing from mine

and stolen from my mother’s

whose silence speaks volumes

because sometimes a condition of knowing

is not being able to tell

and it’s telling how I have nothing to show.

Truth doesn’t always translate over generations

and it seems a perverse act of overcompensation

to memorize the logistics of a genocide by heart,

just so I can try to impress with my best rhetorical dress

and a historically accurate palette of depressing facts

to paint our small talk in shades of pretense.

At the end of the day, I’m not the one

My mother is

one of many

and to this day, I still can’t say how it was

or who she was

when and after it happened.

It’s not a conversation to be had.

We don’t have that many conversations to start with,

but that’s another story of loss I’ve told in other places.

I did ask her once,

the end result a hastily written essay (B+)

about an experience that had been diluted,

all the grit washed out.

Later, I wrote a slightly more meditative poem (A+)

about the experience of writing a diluted essay

about my mother and her experience, all washed out–you see how far removed I am?

It’s hard to transcribe trauma when you haven’t survived it,

when you don’t know the right words–no, literally you don’t know the right words

because understanding each other is always a game of tug o’ war.

But how many ways can you unpack a genocide?

How many times can my heart break in the same place,

or does this open a fresh wound every time?

3 years ago I watched Enemies Of The People.

I hated how one of the perpetrators could sit there at the very end,

old and fragile and weak,

and say he had no idea

no idea

that the murder of his people was happening right under his nose.

But he is very sorry, he says–

an afterthought in the guise of an apology,

a sentiment that rings hollow like the human skulls he scattered,

an excuse he made himself believe.

Just last month, I watched The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor:

his journey from doctor to victim to survivor to celebrity

And I wondered how hers compared to his.

Given his class and profession,

perhaps for him, the trauma cut deeper

perhaps for her, already in the throes of poverty,

the Killing Fields were more or less the same:

grueling labor and hunger pains.

I don’t know.

I will never know.

Ngor brings up the rape of children and women in his clunky English;

rape’s always a part of it.

My mind goes there

the sinister recesses of my imagination

forced onto my mother in broken possibility–

that’s when I start crying.

Because the truth is,

I don’t know,

I will never know,

I would never ask

and she would never tell.

Following that, I watched Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten:

the story of Cambodia’s rock ‘n’ roll scene and how genocide ruined it.

Genocide,

but through a softer lens,

highlighting the death of not only a people, but a culture.

My ears heard familiar songs

recalled from a time when I was young

and my mother still believed in me

These songs came from colorful compact discs

with vintage faces belonging to those

whose lives were extinguished in ways my kid self could not fathom.

I never felt what death meant, let alone murder

let alone murder one million, two million times over,

or maybe falling in between

or even stretching beyond–

an elusive number that changes

but not the tragic outcome.

It seems that,

when it comes to the Cambodian Holocaust,

there are two questions people keep asking:

1) How could this happen?

and 2) Why did this happen?

People and narratives chasing each other in circles

round and round

but isn’t the answer obvious?

I think to myself.

It’s blind obedience to authority

It’s lack of accountability, blame forever being displaced.

It’s the same configurations of power

masculinized ideas of glory

enacted through violence

silence

ignorance

dominance

Why is history always the same?

It’s colonialism, imperialism, nothing new:

White people saving brown people from themselves.

The shadow of France and the bombs of the U.S.

tucked away in the backdrop of these retellings,

barely implicated.

But the Khmer people did it to themselves, someone would say.

And I would ask, what usually happens when you have no power,

when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain,

when living already feels like death

and your entire world

is slowly erased

and being made in another’s likeness?

This is not validation or vindication

in any way shape or form,

I repeat,

this is not

validation

or vindication

in any way shape or form,

but maybe this is another case of brown people

wanting to be the center of their own story

even if it meant being the villains.

But what would I know?

I speak

from the subaltern mother

who has a daughter

who has a degree

in the colonizer’s tongue.

But I will end with this:

It seems that,

in my mind,

there are two truths about genocide:

1) it’s the fault of no one,

and 2) it’s the fault of everyone.

0

Model Minority

She grew up in a ghetto. By ghetto she means a neighborhood where a bunch of poor, mostly Hispanic/Latino and Southeast Asian immigrant families lived, where the sounds of gunshots and wailing sirens were woven into the fabric of their frayed and tangled community. Minorities were the majority here. Black, Asian, and Latino kids alike were racist to one another, but it’s not really racist when everyone’s identity had nothing to gain from hating on each other. Poverty begets violence. She didn’t realize she was poor at the time, though. Poor meant starving in a developing nation. She was never starving–there was always a cup of noodles or corndogs to microwave, at least, when her mother didn’t feel like cooking.  And sure, the blonde ESL lady who kept treating her like she didn’t know English would keep giving her clothes for her mother to wear, but so what. And she secretly hated it when they didn’t have to wear uniforms to school anymore because she didn’t have enough regular clothes to wear, but so what. And she always hated it when teachers gave her that dumb assignment of writing what you got for Christmas since she never got anything worth writing about for Christmas, so what, and Santa Claus could never be real because she never got what she wanted and their rat-and-roach infested apartment didn’t have a chimney, so what, and what would a white dude be doing at their home anyway unless he wanted to shove Christian dogma down their throats, fuck that, and she rarely invited friends over, out of embarrassment of how she lived, so what, and her dad died when she was seven so she and her three siblings depended solely on their mother who depended solely on social security so the family could scrape by, so what. She had a Nintendo 64, and people who had Nintendo 64s were not poor, so there.

She was submissive like you expected her to be. She was quiet. She was scared. Talking to people made her want to cry. Authority frightened her. They told her, she was smart. She wanted to do what she was told. Her mother told her to do what she was told. So, she became smart. She learned this meant talking like white people and trying not to sound like a FOB. Trying not to sound like her mother. Trying not to be her mother. Her mother had no power. She learned this when she was five years old, when the white teenage girl with the freckles across the street stole her toy harmonica and refused to give it back. She burst into tears. Her mother came out and yelled in her broken English. The white girl just laughed and mimicked the mother’s garbled language. It was a nice day. The sun was shining. The white girl was riding her bike in circles in the street, laughing. Laughing because she had the stupid toy harmonica, and the stupid little chink girl and her dumbass FOB mom couldn’t do anything about it.

Her mother couldn’t do anything normal moms did, she learned. Her mother couldn’t speak English. She couldn’t write it. She couldn’t read it. She couldn’t help her daughter with her homework. She couldn’t drive her kids to places, so they walked and took the bus, or caught rides with pitying acquaintances. She couldn’t give her daughter a heart-to-heart, the way mothers did on sitcoms. She couldn’t give her daughter the right apology, the way families did on sitcoms. They fought and she yelled at her mother, you didn’t say sorry. Her mother would say, I don’t know what you want from me, because she didn’t understand the weight of sorry to a child with weirdly built expectations of familial dynamics that stemmed from internalizing how the lives of white and black middle class families played out on TV.

Being raised by a poor immigrant mother meant accumulating cultural capital that was measly in quality and quantity. Going to the movie theater was a special occasion. Getting her own stereo from Walgreens when she was 11 was a big deal. She grew up on what her friends and older sister were listening to or watching: mainstream hip hop, r&b, rap, and pop, and whatever was available when you didn’t have cable or Internet (sometimes they had cable, when her mother felt like it, and later, there was Internet). Her mother had her Khmer CDs and tapes with the lyrics that were difficult to pick apart and understand, and there were those heteronormative Khmer karaoke videos and poorly dubbed Thai lakorns that normalized rape culture, which her mother loved to binge watch but she grew to dislike the older and more aware she got.

Her mother was, is crazy. She said so herself. She fled Cambodia when the Khmer Krah-hom took over and murdered two million of their own people. Silent genocide, no justice even now. You know how it is. They were killing intellectuals and she wasn’t one of them. She never finished elementary school, but it didn’t matter. She was a farmer at heart. She escaped to America, the land of the free, home of the brave. You know how they fall for it. She told them her name, Mey, and they changed it to May. They asked her for her birthdate, she got the calendars mixed up so that her official birthday on all her papers is 6 months off. She never got the hang of English; it broke into pieces in her mouth, blurred into strange spots before her eyes, flew over her head and never into her ears. She was living in a land where everyone and everything was barely intelligible to her. She got scared. She closed up. She lived a narrow box of a life. She depended on everyone else for everything, and she hated herself for it. But she survived. She adapted without adapting and she survived. She cleaned hotel bathrooms for a while, then stopped. She couldn’t work anymore. She decided she was crazy instead. Or she became crazy. Or she accepted her craziness. Who knows. Her children would never really know, their minds and their tongues would be colonized like the country to which she has yet to return. Perhaps, like her country, her children would break free, only to be destroyed by themselves. All four of them had inherited her trauma. They were always at each other’s throats. So angry, all the time. No reason, every reason, any reason. Volatile. Trying to kill each other, thinking about killing themselves. Verbal abuse became a form of affection. Crying became a favorite pastime. She taught them this, although she rarely wears the blame. You hold it inside of you, letting it rot and spoil, until it leaks out in an outpour of vitriol. This poison is immune to time and space, generations and diaspora. It festers in your soul, drips into your children’s souls. A cycle of disillusionment and despair, fueled by the silence, the silence stretching from your lips to theirs, because it is in the silence you are safe from others but never yourselves.

Her second daughter, she was the one with the most potential. Book smart, like her sister who had died of who-knows-what, long ago. But her daughter lacked sense. Book smart got you nowhere if you lacked sense. On second thought, they were all failures. Every single one of them. They did not know how to respect their mother, save money or, most important, respect their mother by saving money. Maybe she was crazy, maybe her teeth were rotting, maybe she relied too heavily on medication, maybe she sold drugs, maybe she dived into too many dumpsters, maybe she spent too much time looking in the mirror hoping her skin would get lighter, maybe she had post-traumatic stress disorder from the sociocultural upheaval of genocide or postpartum depression from all those goddamn kids or depression in general because her compulsive liar of a husband and her remaining sister were both murdered at the hands of cancer, and maybe she spent too many years hoarding love and illicit money and being stingy with both, maybe she was trapped in a place where she had no power outside of her rundown apartment, but in the end, she was right, and they were wrong. She clung to that truth and survived, staring longingly at pictures of the land and cows she had bought in Cambodia and which she dreamed of seeing someday in the flesh, before her death, the death she would casually foretell to her children to trigger the guilt complexes she had instilled in them.

In spite of and because of her tactics, the children were all leaving, one by one. She feared this. She still needed their shitty translation jobs, needed their proof of income, their abilities to drive cars and go to school and work and exist in white hegemony. And if their love was a byproduct or a cause of this, she would have it too. She never married again after their father died. She could not sleep alone, could not live alone. Yet she could never, would never, leave this niche of a life she had carved out for herself. It was expected that at least one of them would prove their worth to her by caring for her as she had for them. It was their turn now. Which one of these useless brats had what it took to dutifully help her as she lay crippled on the mat, unable to wipe the shit from her own ass?

Who knows what’s in the other children’s heads, but the second oldest is already bracing herself for the sacrifice, more self-absorbed than selfless. Her mother’s biggest aspiration for her was to be a secretary in an office, and lo and behold, she had fulfilled it. (Well, basically. “Administrative Assistant” has less demeaning connotations.) Too bad she had to waste all that time and money puttering around in some ridiculously expensive liberal arts college, doing Buddha-knows-what. Things like first generation and cum laude don’t mean shit. It only means she owes the government a lot of money, which means it’s going to take that much longer to buy a house for her mother like she had promised in her nightly prayers to her ancestors when she was little (prayers that were mostly dictated by her mother). But her mother was, is good at the waiting game. It’s how she survived all these years. Waiting her life out for who-knows-what.

She could try telling her mother, money isn’t everything. She could try telling her, if you’re such a money expert why are you still living in poverty and fuck capitalism and quit being such an emotionally and verbally abusive bitch and quit buying into eurocentric ideals of beauty and please go to therapy so we can stop being entangled in your trauma and you can start loving us better and maybe I can love you better and I hate how you’re always saying good things about us instead of saying good things to us and why the fuck are you saying shit about my college loans when you’re over here buying some stupid cows you have never actually seen, do you really fucking think that cows are more valuable than a college degree well maybe they are but we don’t live in that kind of world anymore so just fucking deal with it okay. She could try saying these things, but she would only fail, in every sense. And this is not that kind of story.

The point of leaving, it seems, is to return. She would move back in with her mother, because she had both the minimum amount of patience required to live with her mother, and the minimum number of Khmer words and syntax to understand her mother and have her mother understand her. She would not gripe about it. (At least, she would try to keep griping to a minimum.) She would come home and allow the tensions to fade, the grudges to die, the personal aspirations to dwindle away. At least for now. She would resign herself to this small box her mother is so resolute on living in. She tries looking on the bright side. They had been somewhat upwardly mobile. Her mother had been literally dirt poor, and her father too, it seemed–her mother said he never finished school either; they arrived in the U.S., found each other, started a family, and became a part of the rising welfare class; she, the second child, went on to a four-year college, stuck it out, and elevated herself to the working class upon graduation. That was a pretty big accomplishment, wasn’t it? A step backwards for her friends who had the luxury of growing up middle class, but a step forward for her. She didn’t get knocked up in high school. She made it past high school, even past college. She has a job now. She can buy proper Christmas gifts now. She has a car that isn’t a piece of shit. She understands the ways of white people bedding now, with sheets and a comforter and everything, and even knows what a sham is.

She thinks back to her childhood, to her mother surviving. Her mother, the survivor, and here she is, just wanting to live her life away from anything her mother would know or care about. She remembers seeing her mother down on the kitchen floor, scrubbing away with those smelly rags she insisted were clean. “You like to cook and clean?” her naive little girl self said. Her mother’s somber face looking back at her: “No. I just do it. Someone has to do it.”

What are your dreams? she wanted to know, but never asked. Didn’t have the words to ask. She thought she knew, anyway. Everything she knew about her mother was secondhand guessing, assumptions filtered through a whitewashed colander. It doesn’t matter how much money you earn, it matters how much money you save. That sounds like something her mother could have said. And it’s a strange thing to realize that if she switches out the money with love, the same would still hold some form of true: It doesn’t matter how much love you earn, it matters how much love you save.

3

Khmai Takeout

I don’t cook much, or ever, being the lazy twentysomething millenial ass that I am, so after work I call my favorite local restaurant, Phnom Penh, to order some takeout. A man answers. “Hello? This Phnom Penh.”

“Hi. Can I get the chicken fried rice?” I ask.

“Yes. You mean the…the chicken rice or the chicken–uh–basil rice?” I could hear him struggle to connect his words in coherent English syntax.

“Uh…what’s in each one?”

“The chicken fried rice–has uh…it has chicken, green onion…tomato–”

That sounds about right. “Okay, I’ll have that one.”

“Okay. Can I have your name please?”

I pause. “Leer-kaw-nah.” I say my name the anglicized way, the white people way. I regret it as soon as the last syllable drops from my mouth.

He doesn’t notice of course, and tells me my order will be ready in fifteen minutes.

Traffic is pretty slow, but I also stop by Autozone to get a couple of things, taking extra time to make sure I don’t end up sitting alone in the corner in awkward silence while waiting for my to-go dinner to be ready, as has happened many times before. When I arrive at the restaurant, I spy a lone carton sheathed in a plastic bag at one of the empty tables. It must be my order.

The owner of the restaurant, also the man I spoke with over the phone, spies me through the little window that separates kitchen from dining area. “You order the fried rice?”

“Yes.” I wonder, not for the first time, if he recognizes me. I’ve eaten at this restaurant since college, but only a handful of times at most. I came here for a celebratory luncheon with family after my graduation, which could have been more memorable to him. We were loud and many and Asian, and had shown up without a reservation. There was the fobbish cousin, the whitewashed cousin, the mother gabbing away in Khmer at the speed of light, and everyone else, all shades of brown and tan, including me.

My Cambodianness had shone through then. My hair had been longer then. Now, I was alone, with nothing to show but my short hair and my short American words, my Asianness read as Chinese and nothing more–even by the random black guy on the street who had greeted me with “ni hao” the other day, and moved on without another thought.

“That’s it right there.” He gestures to the bag I had suspected was mine, and taps the bill for emphasis.

I pull out my credit card, telling myself, I can just say it: Aw-gohn. Say thank you in Khmer, then he’ll know for sure.

Why does it matter so much, chides an ambivalent part of me.

Because…I am Cambodian, the other part of me retorts. He’s Cambodian. This is a Cambodian restaurant. Why shouldn’t I identify myself as Cambodian?

The owner comes over to the table, takes my card, and says, “Thank you” in English. I could have responded in kind, in Khmer,engaged in that strange exchange of thank you’s where no one wants to break the chain by saying “you’re welcome” in fear of sounding rude or arrogant, where gratitude becomes yet another meaningless transaction in our capitalist quid pro quo culture. I could have, but I don’t. It doesn’t feel like the right moment.

He’s swiping my card. Has he ever bothered to look at the name printed on it? Looked past the erratic spelling and found Cambodian quality? (Leh!-keh-nah means “quality” in Khmer. I confirmed this in a secondhand Cambodian-to-English/English-to-Cambodian dictionary I’ve kept with me since I began living on my own.)

Guess not. He returns it to me without so much as a glance, along with a receipt for me to sign. “Thank you,” he says again, and leaves before I have a chance to decide whether to squeeze in my aw-gohn. I’ll definitely say it when it’s time to say goodbye, I reassure myself. That’s the most appropriate time anyway-when I’ve signed the receipt. Then I could just hand it over to him and thank him for his service–in Khmer.

I sign the receipt and look up. He’s busy bustling around the kitchen, preparing more food, taking more orders, although the restaurant is mostly empty. I realize I’m just another customer. I leave the receipt on the table and walk out with my dinner, the question of why I didn’t just say my name the right way to begin with chasing at my heels. Is it because I’m secretly ashamed of being Cambodian? I wonder.

No, that disconcerting voice replies, it’s because you are ashamed of not being Cambodian enough.