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

Aw Hell Yes: Why Fresh Off The Boat is Fresher Than Youuu

The Huang family on their way to Orlando.

The Huang family on their way to Orlando.

[5/8/15 update: I wrote this blog post before the Eddie Huang Twitter debacle occurred. As of now I am no longer a fan of Eddie Huang. Any expression of admiration and awe displayed below was during a brief, blissfully unaware time.]

The long awaited ABC sitcom starring the first Asian American family in 20 years has finally arrived, and it’s so cool yeah, it’s totally awesome~! I will admit, I had my doubts when I first heard about it via social media. The name itself made me wary: Fresh Off The Boat. F.O.B. This particular racial slur has been somewhat triggering for me. It never meant anything good as I was growing up–just a harsh reminder that in other people’s eyes, I was just a chinky-eyed outsider who talked funny. At some point it became my personal goal to put some distance between me and the F.O.B. label, so much so that the possibility of reclaiming it is personally unfathomable to me. I projected that shame onto those in my family who spoke accented English: my mother, my cousin, my aunt. They were the ones who talked funny, not me, I thought rather defensively. I was an American born citizen, and knew how to speak proper English, goddamnit. This anxiety around being perceived as a F.O.B. is still something I struggle with today. So learning that this show would be named after a word I associate with my childhood trauma didn’t exactly leave me brimming with enthusiasm and hope.

But watching the promo did. It was a bit cheesy, but showed a lot of promise–in large part because of the mom, Jessica, played by the talented and gorgeous Constance Wu. More than once, a joke that had been perfectly delivered made me laugh out loud. At last! I was finally, finally, finally going to see a show starring Asian people on mainstream television. (Yeah yeah, there was All American Girl, but I was 3 years old when it aired and it looked pretty mediocre anyway from what I watched of it on Youtube–I blame white supremacy.) But would the white gaze fuck this shit up too?

According to Eddie Huang, author of the memoir from which the TV show was adapted, it was all sorts of fucked up. My friend Laura wasn’t particularly enthused by the upcoming premiere of the show, either, given Huang’s criticisms. But the complexity of Huang’s article intrigued me further. He refused to say “America is great,” swore a lot, and used phrases like “reverse-yellowface” and “monoculture.” His article conveyed someone who was way more fucking awesome than I had initially imagined. Clearly Huang is too awesome for network TV, but instead of making me cynical it made me optimistic for the show. In my eyes, even a diluted version of his radical racial politics would make for great, conciousness-raising TV.

Seven episodes into the season, and I’m already a huge fan. In the first episode alone, white people/white supremacy are the butt of at least five different jokes. I loved it! While I can’t relate to every single instance of the Huang family’s shenanigans (which is fine), a lot resonated with me: being raised by a mother who is the epitome of frugality, expressing love through actions and not words, being perceived as an outsider, navigating white culture with caution and confusion. Through the specificity of Eddie Huang’s experiences on the show, I connected to something universal that isn’t coded as white. And it’s not just me: I’ve seen people of all races, ages, and genders commenting online that they love the show, think it’s hilarious, and could relate to it in all sorts of ways–proof that whiteness doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be our sociocultural default, our only reference point in American culture.

There are questions raised around authenticity–for example, that Eddie’s parents speak in accents that don’t sound quite right. While I understand those critiques, I would say poorly done Taiwanese accents don’t detract from the overall quality of the show. (I, personally, haven’t noticed anything wrong with the accents, but that’s because I grew up Cambodian American. We don’t all talk the same or know the particular nuances of other Asians’ fobbiness, okay.) I actually think the show is pretty subversive for a family sitcom on network television. What I especially enjoy about the show is how it challenges the Model Minority Myth: the idea that Asians have it just as good as (if not better than) white people. That is not true to my lived experience as an Asian American, and I know it’s not true for many other fellow Asian Americans. If it really needs to be racialized within the black-white binary, I would say that, just like Eddie’s, my childhood can be more readily associated with black culture than white culture. “If you were an outsider, hip hop was your anthem,” the real Eddie Huang narrates in the pilot. I grew up with the sounds of (admittedly mainstream) rap, hip hop, and R&B, never became close friends with anyone white until after college, and developed a no BS attitude and potty mouth that white people are generally uncomfortable with. So I appreciate that Fresh Off The Boat explores one Asian boy’s family and their exploration within this racial binary in America, and how it’s not as simple as, “Oh, Asian people and white people are one and the same.” When you’re not white and you’re not black, how do you fit into America’s cultural landscape? This is a question that I wrestle with all the time, and it’s refreshing to see it being reflected in mainstream media for once.

Eddie’s father, Louis, believes in the American Dream (TM), yet his race and class become obstacles in his path to fulfill it. In the very first episode, he comes to the tragically funny conclusion that his business isn’t doing well because there isn’t a white host to greet customers, leading him to propose to a skeptical Jessica that they hire one: “Instead of people coming in and seeing a Chinese face and saying, ‘Huh? I thought this was an Old West steakhouse,’ they see a white face and say, ‘Oh! Hello white friend, I am comfortable.'” Louis ends up hiring a predominantly white staff. The business starts generating a lot of buzz and income. Then in the most recent episode (Episode 7, “Showdown at the Golden Saddle”), we see a flashback to how Eddie’s father comes up with the idea of the restaurant in the first place: he stole the manual for the Golden Saddle franchise to create a similarly-themed steakhouse of his own. The most pivotal moment as I see it is when Louis is told by the owner that he must pay $50,000 up front in order to buy a Golden Saddle.

Louis finds out the franchise fee is $50k. Oh fuck.

Louis finds out the franchise fee is $50k. Oh fuck.

The look on his face is heartbreaking, especially as the others (notably, two white men) come up and fork up the cash they have, and he doesn’t. Louis’s struggles with running a successful business is a great example of how there are many minorities in America whose dreams are hindered by racial and class barriers (both of which are not mutually exclusive, of course).

Eddie, our protagonist, has his own battle with white America. He is one of only two kids of color at his new school. In the pilot episode and on his first day at school, the white kids make fun of him for his “nasty-smelling” noodles, which propels him to beg his mom for “white people lunch.” Here, we see that the desire to fit in is rooted in a desire to not be ostracized, which complicates the idea that Asians want to be like white people: Eddie isn’t so much embracing whiteness as he is trying to use it as a cover to hide his otherness. The flawless Jessica tells her son, “Well those kids, they just don’t know, that’s all. It just takes time to get used to something different,” but he refuses to listen. He ends up getting his socially acceptable Lunchable, but butts heads with the only other kid of color, Edgar, who is black. Edgar shoves him aside in line for the microwave, telling Eddie, “Get used to it! You’re the one at the bottom now!”

“No, I’m not!” cries Eddie.

“Yeah, you are! My turn, chink!”

This is a moment that makes me cringe, but also one I can appreciate: a heated exchange between two kids that is complicated by their races. We often center our discussions of racism on white people vs. one minority, which is incredibly important, but racial prejudices exist between minorities as well, and this scene is a perfect example of that. A black kid and an Asian kid, duking it out in front of staring white kids: the perfect allegorical Hallmark card for American racism.

The allegorical Hallmark card of American racism

The allegorical Hallmark card of American racism

The minorities can senselessly hate each other all they want, but in the end, it’s white people and white supremacy who benefit from the clash between them. This all just goes to show that racial prejudice transcends race. Black people can be prejudiced against Asians, and vice versa. Black people can be prejudiced against themselves, and so can Asian people–otherwise known as internalized racism. As depicted in this moment–Edgar’s argument that Eddie is “at the bottom now” presupposes he was already at the bottom, a deeply sad and implicit admission of being inferior on the basis of race.

Here’s the one thing about the show I’ve been disappointed by: way before the fight occurs between Eddie and Edgar, Eddie asks if he can sit with him at lunch, only to turn around and jump at the chance to sit with the white kids (another fine allegory for American racism). This is precisely where I am concerned: Eddie idolizes all of these black male rappers, yet he’s going to diss the one black boy in favor of the honkies who made fun of his mom’s food? Oh hell no. It seems the irony is not lost on the show, however. “A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude?” Edgar says aloud to himself before scoffing. “This cafeteria is ridiculous!” While I appreciate some level of awareness on part of the show of the racial politics at play, I’m hoping that Eddie and Edgar will ultimately become best friends and fellow underdogs at a school that’s blindingly white. But several episodes have gone by and it seems Eddie’s social circle has only gotten whiter and more male, so I’m feeling cynical about the prospects. Damn. I can’t deny this dynamic parallels the reality of racism however. It’s true that many non-black people parodoxically have a love for black culture, yet a total disregard for black people. It’s true that anti-blackness/colorism is a thing in many Asian cultures. And it’s true that white people see Asians as more ethnically palatable than black people (which is NOT the same thing as saying whites see us as equals–to use a racial hierarchy/gross metaphor, whites see us as the lapdogs and blacks as the yard dogs). Although I can appreciate the realistic portrayal, I still would prefer the happy ending.

Focusing on the brighter side: what definitely makes the show is the one and only Jessica, the mother of the family, who is an all-around badass and breakout star. She praises her son for physiologically rejecting white culture, takes all the free samples at the overly excited grocery store, blames douchey white teenage boys for hitting her car with their bodies, and knows when a song she’s beautifully singing is NOT a duet. Better yet, the actress who plays her is also pretty kickass. Jessica is fearless, fierce, funny, and shamelessly herself. She was made even more perfect in Episode 5, “Persistent Romeo,” in which she teaches Eddie about consent and date rape by attacking him with a plush bunny.

Jessica:

Jessica: “LIKE THAT? YOU LIKE THAT?! NO? WELL GIRLS DON’T EITHER! NO MEANS NO! RESPECT GIRLS!”

YAAAAASSS. Not only is her character inherently feminist, but so is the dynamic she has with her family: they may fear and resent her at times, but through that is a deep respect for her as the matriarch. In Episode 6, “Shaq Fu,” Louis tells his family, “My father, your Ye-Ye [sp?], made me work hard for every penny. And that work ethic is how I’m able to keep the lights on.”

“But not the AC!” retorts Evan.

“That’s your mother’s thing, she runs the house, don’t pull me into that,” Louis quickly responds before returning to his lecture on work ethic–a one-liner that says a lot about the power and influence of Jessica as a stay-at-home mother and wife, power that everyone else in the household recognizes and acknowledges (okay, not too sure about the grandmother, but it’s significant that in a house primarily full of males, Jessica is the goddamn boss). Too often, the sitcom mother is portrayed as an uptight, controlling fun-sucker whose domestic labor and role in the house is often exploited, scorned, or taken for granted. Jessica subverts that trope through everyone’s deference to her, and of course, through unapologetically being herself. “That woman was tough. She could handle anything,” narrates Huang over the scene in Episode 6 where little Eddie ceases and desists with “phantom-flickering” Evan when Jessica threatens him by saying, “I could get by with only two sons. Think about that.” Through Jessica’s toughness, her dismissal of white culture, and her deep love for her family (and karaoke!), we are gifted with the opportunity to embrace an Asian American female character in all of her glorious complexity.

Fresh Off The Boat isn’t perfect. Huang’s concerns of course are completely valid. As the show progresses, there is the danger of reinforcing the status quo, of promoting white supremacy through assimilation, of giving up authenticity in favor of universality (white people love their binaries). I sincerely hope the show doesn’t go in that direction, even as the Huang family become upwardly mobile. The show will probably never reach the level of radicalness Huang envisioned, but I would be incredibly happy if it continues the way it has: questioning white culture, making jokes at the expense of white people, exploring race relations and API identity in America, challenging notions of gender within an API context, deepening and complicating its cast of well-rounded Asian American characters. The show is the first of its kind in two decades, which explains the pressure of it to be well received and successful, by both white and Asian audiences alike. That pressure is the age-old burden of representation that befalls all marginalized groups who can’t afford to be mediocre the way privileged groups can be. While this is unfair, the cast of Fresh Off The Boat is game. As Randall Park, who plays Louis, puts it perfectly in an interview with DisneyExaminer: “The hope is that, you know, the success of our show can lead to more doors being opened for Asian Americans to tell their stories.”

Picture perfect: The Huang Family

Picture perfect: The Huang Family

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.