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

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

     

    Here’s Some Context

    I hate traveling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


     

    Guangzhou Pt. 1

    I was running late and didn’t know it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    guangzhou hotel

    Lobby of our hotel. So bougie.

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

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

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

    I averted my eyes.

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

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

    I stayed quiet. But inside I was screaming.

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


     

    Like A White Person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


     

    Reunion

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

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

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

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

    boarding the van

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

    siem reap 1

    siem reap 2

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


     

    Have a Good Shower Cry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    siem reap 4


     

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

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

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

    phnom bakheng

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

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

    angkor wat 1

    angkor wat 2

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

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

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

    angkor wat 4

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

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

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

    “Uh…” I said.

    monkey

    Be careful, Mother…

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

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

    I laughed my fucking ass off.

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

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


     

    Coming Home

    battambang road

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

    “No,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


     

    Motherland

    angkor wat 5

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

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


     

    Praying

    praying

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


     

    Safe

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

    safe


     

    Colorism

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


     

    Asian American

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


     

    Disappearing

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

    mother on bike


     

    Resemblance

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

    seesaw


     

    Husband

    husband

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


     

    My Uncle’s Wife

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

    my uncle's wife


     

    Loner

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

    loner


     

    Found And Lost

    battambang market

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


     

    Children

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

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

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

    children

    Nine-year-old not pictured.


     

    Bitter

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

    bitter


     

    Erased

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


     

    Time

    time

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


     

    Hotel

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

    She asked that we stay at a hotel instead.

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

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

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

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

    hotel


     

    Somewhere Else

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


     

    The Cows

    The cows were real.

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

    cow

    An emotionally charged meeting…well, not really.

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

    If I were him, I would definitely jack off.

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

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


     

    The Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    genocide


     

    The Song

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

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

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

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

    and then she began to sing.

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

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

    ceremony


     

    Rootless

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

    boats


     

    Dancing

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

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


     

    Something About The Wind

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

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

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

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

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

    “The wind is a pleasant breeze.”

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

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

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

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

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


     

    No Translation

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

    family


     

    Pain

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

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

    waterfalls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


     

    Guangzhou Pt. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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


     

    Return Flight

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

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

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

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

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

2

Tinderp Tale #8: I Hate Kissing (Or Maybe Just Men)

Sex was at the forefront of my mind lately. Before, my thoughts around it was just background noise: Oh yeah, getting laid, that’s something I definitely need to do at some point. Now my train of thought was more along the lines of, OH MY FUCKING GOD LEARKANA JUST FUCK SOMEONE ALREADY! DO IT NOW DO IT NOW DO IT NOW–

While I was hornier than I used to be, it was more so a combination of curiosity and panic that was fueling my desire to have sex. I constantly wondered what it was like, being naked with someone. Having them look at me in such a vulnerable state, touch me, and engage with body parts I rarely indulged in myself. Trying to imagine the logistics of sex deeply confused and intrigued me. It was strange, knowing I had a published sex scene in my name, yet had never gone past first base with anyone. Part of me wanted to have sex just to be able to write about it from a more authentic place. But I was also freaking out because I wasn’t getting any younger and losing my V card, in my mind, was tied to my independence and freedom as an adult woman.

I had already meticulously read up on birth control methods and forced my OB/GYN to shove a hormonal IUD up my vagina and into my uterus in November.

tinderp 8.1b

My OB/GYN does not actually talk like this.

The next thing to do was find a penis attached to a hot dude whose company I tolerated enough to have him stick it in me and get it over with.

This was easier said than done.

Other people thought the opposite. They argued that because I was cute and a girl, that I could literally walk up to any guy at random, ask him if he wanted to fuck, and ta da! I would instantly have access to dick. I didn’t think so because I strongly felt that the process of having sex was wayyy more complicated than that. Case in point, this text convo with a Tinder dude I ended up never meeting up with:


Tinder Dude: I’m sure you can get laid.
It’s a matter of you picking someone

Me: Everyone keeps saying it’s easy but I disagree.

Tinder Dude: Guys are not picky when it comes to sex

Me: But I’m picky. I don’t want it to be terrible

and I don’t want to feel used

Tinder Dude: Aren’t you using them?
I mean if you’re out there just lookin for sex,
then you’ll meet a lot of the like minded guys on tinder.
It seems to me it’s more of a mutual agreement.
Both sides benefit.

But those are my thoughts and I don’t want to sway
you into thinking like me.

Btw I’m heading back to OC now.
If you ever decide to visit let me know.
If you want to have sex, awesome.
If not and you just want to be shown around,
I’m cool with that too. Sex doesn’t drive me believe it or not

Me: Okay you are starting to sound a little judgmental. Smh. I don’t want to have sex with just anybody. If I picked the first willing guy from Tinder and told him up front I just wanted to have sex it’s probably going to be shitty. I can’t tell based on a few crappy pictures and a mediocre bio whether or not I’m going to have chemistry with someone. And I’ve never been able to get to the emotional space to ask someone to have sex with me. To me sex is about being really vulnerable and intimate in a way I haven’t experienced, it’s kind of frightening because I need to find someone who would make me feel safe

Also guys don’t seem to want to deal with virgins. The ones who do are sexist assholes with archaic ideas about women and purity


Basically, I was my own cuntblock. I couldn’t see sex as purely physical because my brain likes to add layers on top of everything. There’s the physical aspect yes, but there are also the emotional, psychological, social, and political dimensions of sex that I couldn’t ignore. This multifaceted lens didn’t just apply to sex. It applied to everything going on in the world that I interacted with. I internalize everything, dissect it in a million ways, and the reductive conclusion of this over-analysis more often than not boils down to: I’m fucked up. The world is fucked up. I can’t do this. It can be exhausting and self-sabotaging, but it’s an automatic thought process that I haven’t really been able to control. Honestly, if you could somehow try living in my head for a day, you’d probably kill yourself.

On a lighter note, I was still determined to get laid. I just knew I had way more internal hoops to jump through before that could happen.

Tinder was a total joke to me at this point, but perusing the inadequate profiles of strange men had become a habit. An ego boost for every match made, even when words were never exchanged. A double ego boost when a guy “Super Liked” me (a kinda creepy new feature that enabled a user to immediately let another user know that they were interested, regardless if the Super Liked user had reciprocated that interest by swiping right or Super Liking back). I’ve never Super Liked someone and rejected most Super Likes I received. But along came a guy I will call Brian #2 (due to him having the same IRL name as “Brian” from OKC). There was nothing special about Brian #2. He had a bunch of shitty pictures taken of him at a distance that gave me the impression that he was either really, really hot, or very average looking. He had written a little paragraph in his bio that told me things about himself, nothing memorable or of importance. And he had Super Liked me.

I decided to swipe right. Why the hell not, I thought. He made an effort, which is a lot more than most of the garbage I’ve seen on here. I’ll take a chance. It’s not like I have a lot of options anyway.


 Brian #2 Super Liked You on 2/4/16

Brian #2 

Hi 😀

Favorite boba place in the bay?


Yes! Starting the convo with boba. He was scoring points with me.


Me

Hey

*gif of Danny Tanner from 90s family sitcom Full House putting up a finger gun*

Lol the gifs are a nice new awkward touch

Favorite boba place would have to be green bubble since it’s pretty close to where I am. I also like sharetea, honeyboba and tea papa


After bonding over boba, Brian #2 got a bit more flirtatious:


Brian #2

So I know you have a resume, but what would I need to be considered a good candidate for you? 😀

Haha that’s true! [referring to a comment I made that we may have run into each other at Green Bubble without even knowing it] But I’d like to think I’d remember you. I did swipe up after all 😉


Me

I think I list a few qualifications in my resume lol

But honestly idk. You wrote actual stuff about yourself in your profile so you’ve pretty much met the bare minimum of what I’m looking for

😀


After a few more messages, Brian #2 finally asked if I was free next week, which I assumed would segue into asking me out. I gave him my availability. A few days passed. No response from him. I was confused and annoyed. Why had he pretended to be so interested in me if he was gonna go ghost on me so quickly?

tinderp 8.2b

I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and checked in on him.


Me

Uh does your silence mean you’re not free or no longer interested? Maybe both? *contemplative face emoji*


Brian #2 responded the next day, letting me know he had been sick with some sort of flu. He asked if we could reschedule. I said okay and wished him well. A few more days passed. He let me know he was feeling better and would still like to get boba with me. I told him I was still down to do that. His overall response time, however, was so slow that by the time we finally made concrete plans and exchanged numbers, nearly a month had passed since we initially matched. At this point I was pretty wary of this dude and was skeptical of whether his flakey ass would show up to our date. I mean, I get that he was sick, but come on! A whole month? That’s like YEARS in millennial dating time.

He did in fact show up to our date. I was running late, as per usual. He was waiting for me in the middle of the shopping center in Oakland Chinatown. I spotted him sitting on a bench by the fountain with headphones on, looking serene. I almost felt like I was intruding in some way. “Oh, hey,” I said. He looked over at me, took off his headphones, and smiled. He was a bit too skinny for my taste, but he was stylish and had nice teeth. We walked over to i-Tea, a boba shop next door. After getting our drinks to go (which was the only option, the place was so tiny), we decided to take a stroll around Chinatown.

It was a surprisingly pleasant first date. We ended up at the playground briefly, and hung out on the swings until I felt nauseous from the physical activity combined with the milk tea I had quickly gulped down. We walked more blocks after that. The streets were dark and empty. We were going past the same dinky shops and late night restaurants, but I stopped noticing after a while. One hour turned into three then four, which was way more time than I had anticipated spending with him.

We talked about our jobs (I think he worked as a graphic designer), family, past dating experiences. Brian #2’s family situation sounded pretty bleak, from what I could remember. His parents split up when he was young. He had a ton of siblings, but wasn’t close to many of them. He was a serial monogamist and confessed that he broke up with past girlfriends because they wanted to be more serious and get married, but he didn’t. I actually wasn’t sure why he was being so open about all of this, but I found it fascinating to listen to him. The more I learned, the more I started rationalizing how compatible we were. He had a dysfunctional family who probably fucked him up in ways he still doesn’t understand to this day, which was great, because I also have a dysfunctional family who fucked me up in ways I’m still trying to understand! He wasn’t interested in anything serious due to a deep-seated fear of commitment, which was perfect, because I wasn’t interested in anything serious due to deep-seated feelings of misandry! He’s had a bunch of girlfriends who wanted to marry him, which was awesome, because he must be good in bed with all that experience and I’ve been wanting to lose my virginity to a guy who knew what the fuck he was doing! (Completely flawed analysis, I know, but let me live in this moment, okay.)

By the end of the night, I saw him in a different light. He had become much more attractive since the first time I laid eyes on him. The waiting game was finally working for once! At one point during our conversation, I looked at him and thought, I would let this guy fuck me.

tinderp 8.3b

Was not actually rainy on our date. “Oakland chinatown night” didn’t really yield many Google results for me to choose from ok

He mentioned having his own place nearby. I wondered how to get him to invite me over. It seemed like a bad idea to directly ask him myself. It would come off as desperate, which I kind of was, but that was unattractive and so I had to pretend like I wasn’t because that was one of many arbitrary rules in the game of heteronormative millennial dating. I got the sense that he was also interested in me. Why else would he spend hours walking endless circles with a strange girl in a neighborhood he had grown up in, conversationally pouring his heart out? Just make a fucking move already, dude.

He didn’t, sadly. It was getting late, so I told him I had to go. He walked me to my car. I smiled at him. “I had a good time.”

“Oh…me too,” he said.

I waited. He just stood there, a look of uncertainty on his face.

I realized right then that this bitch was more awkward than me.

God fucking damn it. What a turnoff.

“I’ll just hug you, if that’s okay,” I said.

“Oh…” was all he could utter.

I hugged him. “Okay–good night!”

I got into my car and drove off.

I was actually pretty optimistic about my prospects with this guy, in spite of the anticlimactic goodbye. I was leaving the country soon for a three-week vacation trip to Cambodia with my mother, so it was now or never. I asked Brian #2 if we could get together again before I left. He said yes. We made plans to meet at Cafe Van Kleef, one of my go-to bars for dates. Once again, I was running late. He texted me that he was already there drinking.

Brian #2: I shouldn’t drink too much. I start touching people when I’m tipsy 😛

I decided this was the opportune moment to showcase my slowly budding flirting skills.

Me: Well, depending on how the night goes we can negotiate the no hands policy 😉

He sent a blushing face emoji.

I finally made it into the bar. Brian #2 was sitting at a table in the back. I got a beer and joined him. I was disappointed to find that whatever attraction I felt toward him from last time had disappeared. Even worse, our conversation had regressed into jagged stops and starts. Fuck. How was this possible?! I was sober last time. It didn’t make any sense. “Wanna play a drinking game?” I asked in an attempt to salvage our connection.

“Sure,” he said. I explained the rules: We take turns asking a question that could be about anything. The other person must answer honestly, or drink in response.

The game was fun at first, but quickly spiraled into dangerous territory. My stubborn, shameless ass answered everything he threw at me, with the exception of “What’s the most embarrassing thing that happened to you in high school?” (I drank instead, because the answer to the question involved my period and even I knew period talk was a no-no on a second date–again, per the rules of heteronormative millennial dating.) The game inevitably led to me admitting I was a virgin, and doing so felt just as uncomfortable as the last time (due to my own insecurities, not anything he said or did). Brian #2 was also game to answer every question I posed to him. I don’t remember much of the details–but it was all very personal and sexually explicit. At one point in this game I thought, Okay, we should stop. But calling it quits would make me a coward. And what would the alternative be? Having nothing to say to each other? So we kept at it, even when we were done drinking and in the middle of leaving the bar.

“Should we keep playing?” I asked once we were outside. “We don’t have anything to drink now.”

“Okay, instead of drinking when we can’t answer something, how about we kiss?” he suggested.

Oh my fucking God. “Okay, sure,” I replied, smiling to hide all the panic and turmoil churning inside of me. Kissing?! Well, it was obvious he was interested in me now. I was nervous because I didn’t have much experience with kissing and I wasn’t sure if that was something I wanted to do with him. I’ll just keep answering whatever he asks. That way I won’t have to kiss him, I thought.

We walked around downtown Oakland, engaged in this rhetorical game of sexuality and desire. Questions became more probing, more intimate. I answered them all. He did the same. Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t just say good night and leave. I guess I was still clinging hard to the possibility that I could eventually like Brian #2 enough to have him devirginize me, per my aforementioned desperation.

tinderp 8.4

We started interrogating each other about kissing. I confessed I hadn’t kissed anyone in about 3 years. He asked why. “I don’t know if I like it, honestly,” I said. “I didn’t really enjoy any of my experiences. The first guy I made out with used too much tongue and it really grossed me out.” I asked him if he was good at kissing. Out of all the questions I asked him, this was the one that stumped him for whatever reason. He stopped walking. “Let’s just kiss,” he said.

I stared at him. “What?”

“Let’s kiss,” he repeated.

“Um–okay–” I leaned in and closed my eyes. His hands fell to my waist. And just like that, we were kissing. In the middle of the sidewalk. And it felt…gross. Ugh. I was stuck on how bland his mouth tasted, the sliminess of his tongue. The unavoidable wetness. I pulled away and resumed walking. Good thing no one was around.

“So how does it feel to kiss someone after 3 years?” Brian #2 asked, falling into step beside me.

“Um. It feels okay,” I lied. I felt betrayed, even though some part of me knew I was being irrational. But I had told him what I didn’t like about kissing, and he went ahead and did it anyway. “How was my kissing?” I asked out of curiosity.

This bitch actually paused to deliberate. “Hmm, I think you should use more tongue. But let me see.” He stopped me so we could kiss again. I hated it just as much the second time. I let him walk me to my car, feelings of repulsion and resentment and disappointment boiling underneath the surface.

“Well, thanks for hanging out,” I said. “I’m gonna be gone for that trip, but it was nice seeing you.”

“Would you like to kiss again?” he asked, smiling.

I smiled back. “No.”

His smile faltered, then disappeared altogether. “Oh–okay.”

My insides twisted momentarily. I ducked into my car and tried to ignore the slinking figure I had rejected and was now driving past.

FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK. I was angry–at him, at myself. Why couldn’t he just be a good kisser? Why couldn’t I just enjoy kissing him? Will I ever enjoy kissing someone? Was the problem with me? Why hadn’t he taken notes from what I had said about kissing, and applied them in our situation? Did he really think he was the exception to the rule? And he had the fucking nerve to actually critique my kissing ability when his was shit! If my kissing was so bad, why the fuck did he keep asking to kiss me? The fact that he kept initiating meant that he must have enjoyed it on some level. You don’t keep asking for things you don’t enjoy.

The worst thing of all to contemplate was whether this disconnect would happen with sex. Was a guy going to fuck me and enjoy it, while I was going to be left feeling disgusted and disappointed? What was the point of being straight when cishet men were so clueless, unsatisfying, and inconsiderate? I briefly wondered, not for the first time, if I was asexual or a lesbian. I didn’t think so, but still. Fuck men. Fuck dating. I was fed up with it all. Thank goodness I was leaving the country, where I wouldn’t have to think about my shitty dating life.

Visiting Cambodia was a profound experience for me. It was beautiful and affirming to be there with family I had never met, but it also served as a stark and painful reminder of how much of an outsider I was, whether I was in my mother’s homeland or in the country I was born. By the time I returned to the United States, I found myself engulfed in the throes of a deepening existential crisis. I didn’t know what direction my life should be taking. Not even the people in my life stayed constant. I burned bridges, one after another. I realized I hadn’t felt happy in a while. Only Queen Beyonce and her masterpiece, Lemonade, provided me with any relief from the stresses of life.

There wasn’t much room for dating exploits in the midst of all this. I deleted Tinder at the end of April, the month after I came back from my trip. The optimism I had worked so hard to keep aloft had deflated considerably. So what if I died alone, unlaid and unloved? I had other things to worry about, like systematic oppression and the meaning of life.

Of course, if you’re a loyal reader of mine, you would know this was just a brief hiatus from the bullshit of millennial dating culture. I would get back out there and fail again. I still really wanted to get laid, after all.

tl;dr Learkana desperately wants to lose her virginity! Learkana makes out with a guy and wants to throw up! Learkana does not get laid!

 Now it’s time for…

RATE THAT DATE VENUE!
Venue: i-Tea
Rating: *****
Review: I ordered the milk tea with boba. It was delicious. The tapioca balls were perfectly made: soft and chewy, with a sweet undertone. 5/5 for the boba alone. There’s nowhere to sit but you and your date can walk around the area and talk. (Being active can make things less awkward anyway. Right? Fuck if I know, shit’s always awkward for me regardless.) Totally visit the playground. The playground is fun. (Maybe just sit on the swings though if you get milk tea.)

0

Tinderp Tale #3: Truth or Drink

What are you looking for?

That’s it. The most important question you can answer as a single navigating the dating scene. The 3 options and their consequences to keep in mind are as follows:

a) If you answer dishonestly, you might hurt someone down the road.

b) If you answer honestly, you might scare or turn someone off.

c) If you skirt around answering or addressing the question, you or whoever’s the most neurotic in the flirtationship will live in an amorphous and complicated state of confusion, anxiety, and stress over where things are going and why.

In my experience, we millennials rely heavily on c), much to my dismay and detriment as a neurotic single. Apparently, direct communication is out of style. Let’s just be chill and not specify what the fuck we’re actually doing!

Back on OKCupid, I was looking for a long-term relationship while also pretending that I wasn’t actually looking for a relationship. (Obviously, this plan was set up to fail and did, in fact, fail.) Now that I was on Tinder, I was unclear of what I was looking for but knew it vaguely had something to do with chemistry, whatever that thing was. Must I resist the urge to throw myself at him in person? Then yes, it’s really a match!

There wasn’t much room to be selective on Tinder, anyway. You judged based on pictures and a brief bio, which may or may not have actual words in it. Which in my case translated to: I forced my Dating Sensei/roommate/friend Sayuri to judge based on pictures and on the bio which should definitely have at least SOMETHING in it, because I’m not that fucking shallow, goddamnit.

One of the matches she obtained for me was a guy I will call Anthony. Anthony was cute. He had high quality photos that included an adorable close-up of him and various action shots that showed he was a fun guy who possessed an actual social life. Also, his bio had words that made sense! (Yes, my standards for dating material had lowered considerably post-OKCupid.)

I was excited and optimistic enough about Anthony to hit him up first and decided to go with a pickup line I would never have the guts to use in real life. (To be fair, it wouldn’t make much sense in real life anyway.)


You matched with Anthony on 6/25/15

Me

What brings your handsome mug to this dating cesspool? 😉


 Anthony

Wow I was about to give up on this whole tinder thing. First time a cute girl actually messages me first


Me

So I win?


Anthony

Yep, I think I owe you a drink or two now


Looking back at this exchange, I must say I’m pretty impressed with my ability to establish flirtatious rapport with a cute guy without fucking it up even once. (It’s the little victories, okay.)

tinderp-3-1

Anthony and I made plans to meet at Cafe Van Kleef, a divey sort of bar in downtown Oakland with eclectic wall decor. The last time I was there on a date was 2 years ago, but I figured it was unlikely I would run into Steven #1. Anyway, I had given up on making an effort to try new activities or places for first dates and decided recycling through previous bars would suffice. (Lowered standards, check. Brief flirtatious exchange based off little to no information, check. Half-assed planning, check. My transformation into your typical millennial dating app user was complete.)

I think Anthony got there before I did. (I am more often than not shamelessly running late to dates. Time as we know it is a Western bullshit construct anyway! Just kidding. Actually, that might be true. Hmm.) He was sitting at the bar and got up to give me a hug when he saw me. Much to my relief and joy, he looked just as good in person as he did in his pictures! We each ordered a beer and got to talking.

I remember enjoying our conversation and feeling somewhat shy, which tends to happen when I’m around guys I find attractive (and is really fucking annoying to my inner/outer radical feminist). He was a techie college dropout who was completely disconnected to his Latin roots, but he was hot and a good listener. His laugh however was really annoying, to the point where I was inwardly cringing every time he chuckled, but I mean, it would have been stupid of me to make that a dealbreaker, right? (Although the dude waiting in line with me for the unisex bathroom at one point in the night jokingly[?] offered the opinion that I should just run away when I confided in him and another stranger about how my date was going (yenno, because I’m an embarrassingly open book, on- and offline).

I could tell Anthony liked me because whenever the conversation trailed off, he would just stare at me and smile. I would look back at him, but I couldn’t maintain eye contact for too long. He made me nervous. It was too intimate. But it was nice, being looked at by someone who clearly desired me in a consensual, non-creepy way.

This is it, I thought excitedly. This is what they call chemistry! 

I ended up suggesting we play the game “Truth or Drink,” in which we took turns asking each other questions. You had the option of either answering honestly, or passing and taking a drink. Unlike previous times I’ve played this game with other guys from the Internet, this round with Anthony opened up actual dialogue. There were two things of note that were brought up in the game: his ex and my virginity.

I think it started with me asking, “How long was your most serious relationship?”

“Seven years,” he answered.

WHAT. “Wow, that’s a long time,” I said. “What happened?”

“One day she just stopped loving me,” he said with a straight face.

“Uh, okay.” Kind of a grody way to answer, but okay. I wonder if he was still hung up on her. Given the way he phrased it, maybe. Ugh.

“How long was your most serious relationship?” Anthony asked in return.

“Oh. I’ve never been in a relationship,” I replied, feigning casualness.

He was taken aback (as they usually are). “Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Have you ever been with anyone…? Like intimately?”

“Oh, uh…no,” I said quietly. “I’m…a virgin.”

It was uncomfortable to say it out loud. I had never been a proud post-adolescent V-Card holder, honestly. Not that it’s anything to be proud of (boo to implicit slut shaming!).  But to me, being a virgin signaled a lack of worldly life experience. It meant I was sexually naive and immature, and only three-quarters of an actual adult. It wasn’t like I was waiting until marriage, or anything like that. I was simply too awkward and insecure to make it happen, and a real opportunity had never presented itself.

My public confession was made worse by the look on Anthony’s face. I could have been reading too much into it, but he looked like he was the slightest bit dismayed by the news. Like maybe me being a 23-going-on-24-year-old virgin spinster was a total turnoff and dealbreaker. Like maybe he wouldn’t have sex with me because he thought I was an attached bleeder.

tumblr_mex5dihk6k1ryf8if

From S1E04 of the HBO show Girls.

I was definitely not looking at him anymore.

“Are you okay?” asked Anthony. “You’ve gone quiet.”

“Oh, yeah…” I mumbled. “I just feel like…it’s weird.” Damn it, I should have drank instead.

“I mean, it’s fine,” he said. “I’m not judging.”

tinderp-3-2b

The subject was changed, and we thankfully moved on. At the end of the night, he walked me to my car. He smiled like he meant it and gave me a hug that told me he wanted to see me again. I drove away, in awe that I had finally met someone I was interested in, who was also interested in me! Maybe this would turn into something real for once. Maybe I wouldn’t be left disappointed.

He texted me a few days later, asking me if I wanted to get dinner.

I said yes. Then, my worst dating nightmare happened: I had an acne breakout.

FUCK. WHY?!

It was one of the worst breakouts I’d gotten in a while. Of course this would happen right when I had made plans with a guy I finally clicked with. Of course.

He thinks you’re cute, I tried to console myself. So what if you have a couple of pimples on your face? You’re still cute. The pimples will pass.

Shut up and crawl under a rock, you ugly fuckface, my inner mean girl voice replied.

I cancelled the date, citing tiredness.

That’s when Anthony invited me over to his place.

Oh. My. God.

This was it. My opportunity to get laid!

Excitement quickly devolved into anxiety and fright. This was a really last minute request. I hadn’t even properly groomed myself (i.e., thoroughly shaved down there). And I still had those fucking gross zits to reckon with. I bravely looked at myself in the mirror. It’s okay. You can do this. You deserve this. You’re beautiful. You’re awesome. You’re–

Nope. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do this. Insecurity took over.

Well, maybe we don’t need to have sex.

Bitch, please. He did not invite you over to play board games. 

tinderp-3-3b

I was disappointed and frustrated with myself. I had spent years trying to unlearn the shame and self-loathing that came with my body and my sexual desires, in a world that taught me both were wrong. It seemed I still had a ways to go.

I let Anthony know I couldn’t make it. He seemed okay with that.

A couple of days later, he texted me with some bad news.

Anthony: Hey I know this is really sudden, but I’m moving to New York next week. My company offered me a promotion and I accepted. I didn’t think it would happen so soon. The timing sucks because you’re the first girl I’ve really liked in a while.

I read his words, feeling kind of sad but not too upset. I didn’t know him well enough for this to have really impacted me, but it was disappointing that the first guy I ever had chemistry with was being snatched out of my hands by the tech industry. I mourned the lost potential. I would never have sex with him now. I mean, I could, but he was leaving for good and having sex with someone in those circumstances would make me feel used. Was this it, then? I realized I still wanted to see him regardless, even if we weren’t gonna bang.

Me: Thanks for telling me. It sucks because I like you too, but I’m happy for you. 🙂 Would you be down to hang out one last time?

Anthony: Lol sure

Per the suggestion of my Dating Sensei, Anthony and I met at Off the Grid in Oakland, a weekly food truck event hosted by the Oakland Museum of California. My breakout had subsided by that time. I was relieved when he did not look at me like I was a fizzling slug. Instead he hugged me and briefly rested his head on mine, a small gesture that made my heart leap with joy.

We ordered food and sat down to watch people dance along to the live band playing salsa music.

“I don’t understand how you’ve stayed single,” he exclaimed at one point. “You’re so cute!”

I gave him a small smile and shrugged. No point in ruining his projected fantasy of me. But it also irked me, to be diminished to this one word: cute. He only liked me because I’m cute? Is that really the only prerequisite for a guy to like a girl? I was more than just cute. Cuteness was only something I had recently made a conscious effort to cultivate. It was mostly aesthetic and superficial, and I had other valuable qualities outside of this flimsy label. Obviously, this train of thought didn’t make for dateable commentary, so I just shut up and took a huge gulp of my Coke.

The event ended close to 9. I asked Anthony if he wanted to walk around Lake Merritt with me. “Is this where you take all your dates?” he joked.

“Haha, no,” I said. (Just some of them, ahem.)

Night had fallen by this time. We walked side by side, under the soft light coming from the lamps strung along the path. I had this strong urge to hold Anthony’s hand, because I had never held hands with a guy before. Yes, this is pitiful, but bear with me. Who knew when I was going to meet a guy with whom I shared mutual attraction to again? The time to lose my handholding virginity was now.

“I….I have a question to ask you,” I mumbled.

“What is it?”

“Um…uh…it’s a really awkward question.”

“Just ask me.”

“Uh…”

This literally went on for 10, 15 minutes and is definitely one of the top 10 Most Embarrassing Date Moments I’ve suffered in my entire anticlimactic dating history.

Eventually I burst out with, “Canweholdhands?”

“Sorry, didn’t hear you,” said Anthony. “What’d you say?”

“UGH! FORGET IT!”

He laughed, came closer, and slipped his hand over mine. It sent thrills through me. I was elated, and also really nauseated by how elated I was by this sappy, innocent gesture. People passed by us. It struck me that to them, we were a couple in love, not two singles going on their final date together before they never saw each other again because why the hell not. It was sad. But also, gross. I had become one of those people who blocked up public pathways with my desire for physical affection.

tinderp-3-4b

We ended up cuddling on a bench overlooking the water. We talked about random shit, but kept returning to the subject of relationships (or the lack thereof).

Anthony elaborated on his 7 year relationship. They started dating when she was a senior in high school and he was in his first year of college. They were even living together, but then she started getting distant. She eventually cheated on him and that was the final straw. They split up.

And apparently, this officially ended like only a month or so ago. He did clarify that the breakdown in the relationship happened long before, but still, COMPLETE turnoff. Part of me was glad he was leaving. But I knew that at this point, I couldn’t really be picky about anyone’s relationship baggage, just because I was some weird anomaly who had none.

“I don’t really like dating,” said Anthony. “I prefer relationships.”

“I don’t know if I could be in a relationship, honestly,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“I like being alone, and being independent. If I were to be in a relationship, I would want some personal space. I wouldn’t want to hang out with someone all the time or feel obligated to text or call someone everyday.” As I was explaining this, I could see disagreement register on Anthony’s face. Hmph. I guess it was a good thing he was leaving after all.

“I still don’t get why those other guys never worked out,” he said.

I took a breath. “Okay. So when I first started doing online dating, I was set on finding someone who had the same sociopolitical beliefs as me, because I don’t want to date someone who’s racist or sexist or whatever. I would ask guys to define rape culture on the first date, and bring up feminism and stuff. But then I realized doing that wasn’t helping me find someone I liked or clicked with. So I stopped.”

“Oh. Well, I consider myself a pretty open-minded guy, so–”

I looked at him. “I think you should stop talking.”

He laughed. We stayed on that bench for a little while longer, trying to savor the moment.

Eventually we made our way back. He walked me to my car and gave me a final hug. “I’m glad I got to see you again,” he said.

“Yeah, me too,” I replied. He was just looking at me and smiling. Anxiety kicked in. Oh god. Were we supposed to kiss? It didn’t seem like he was trying to do that, though, and I didn’t know how to initiate one. I didn’t think I wanted to anyway, because kissing in my experience was shitty and I didn’t want to ruin our farewell with a gross, sloppy tongue dance. Also, we had both eaten garlic shrimp pasta for dinner, so no. Definitely not.

He told me to keep in touch. I was surprised.”Do you mean it?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Yeah. Why not?”

I didn’t keep in touch, and he never reached out to me again either. What was the point? We were on opposite sides of the country. He was looking for love, and I was looking for something that couldn’t be provided to me through a long distance connection.

I think about him from time to time, wistfully wondering what could have been. It’s my default dating mode. I’m always looking back. Pinpointing mistakes. Stuck on what-ifs. Longing for what isn’t. Fantasizing about what could never be. Filled with regret. It’s incredibly lonely when romance and desire are experienced more through retrospect than in the present. But the ache is so familiar, it’s become a part of me.

tl;dr Learkana finally has chemistry with a guy! Learkana freaks out about some zits and her cunt and doesn’t get laid! Learkana engages in some nauseating handholding for the first time, woo hoo!

Now it’s time for…

RATE THAT DATE VENUE!
Venue: Cafe Van Kleef
Rating: *****
Review: Well, this is the second time I’ve been here, so obviously I think this place is awesome. Chill vibe, cool decor, nice people. 5/5 would go again (and did *cough*).

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#lifegoals

i want my words
to make you laugh
move you to tears
nourish your mind
inspire you
to fight back
and join a
revolution

i want my words
to send shivers
down your spine
instill an ache
inside your heart
and between
your legs
make you believe
you know me
as if reading
what i write
is the same as
your fingers
lightly pressing
on my soul

i want my words
to reach the horizon
in endless droves
while i chase them
crying
screaming
shaking
thanking them
for setting me free