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.