- Here’s Some Context
- Guangzhou Pt. 1
- Like A White Person
- Have A Good Shower Cry
- Asian Girl Wanders Off! Asian Lady Attacked By Temple Monkeys!
- Coming Home
- Asian American
- My Uncle’s Wife
- Found And Lost
- Somewhere Else
- The Cows
- The Trees
- The Song
- Something About The Wind
- No Translation
- Guangzhou Pt. 2
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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
she was singing to me, too.
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,
– that painful moment
when a mother cannot recognize
a child who was taken from her womb by diaspora
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.
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
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
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
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
of my thoughts
the sinking realization
that the gap in my identity
is sometimes a deep chasm
I can only fall into
is beloved here.
She glows. She beams. She shines.
She is in full bloom.
This is her land,
is lost here.
I hide. I whisper. I shrink.
I am disappearing.
I am her daughter,
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 she carried
the weight of pain
in her back
and in her soul
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.
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
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
of the earth
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.
Found And Lost
It is crushing to know
I can spend years trying to find my voice
only to lose it where I wanted it most
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.
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
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 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.
“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.
I am at the market watching
a woman try on shoes.
She talks with the saleslady,
then asks me which pair
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 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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
The ache. The longing.
For a place I cannot go to.
Or come from.
My mother has returned
I will never arrive
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.
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
and accepted me
How they spoke to me
I could not understand
How in their eyes
there was a gentleness
that told me they still saw me
as a long-lost daughter
love is a language
that needs no
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.