CROCODILE AND TIGER
There is a saying in Khmer, the language that left me in my youth but links me to a land across seas because it plinks off my mother’s tongue: “Joh duc, kapeur; laurng loeur, klah.” Go in the water, there’s the crocodile. Come up on land, there’s the tiger. Ma was twenty-two years old when she had to decide. The grandmothers in the village scolded her, “You’re too old. Your father is a drunk. No one will want to marry you.”
Being college-educated and unmarried at age twenty-two made my mother an anomaly twice over in rural Cambodia. Her mother married at fifteen; her older sister at eighteen. Matches made among elders. Her time was coming, she knew, but as she snuck past her teens and entered her twenties, she hoped to be forgotten.
The boys started coming around before she finished college. A simple village girl whose feet clapped across her dusty town in a pair of plastic flip-flops, my mother was raised by a benevolent uncle who deemed her brain too valuable to waste in the rice paddies. He told her, “When you get an education, you can do anything you want.” And she believed him.
These boys, the sons of professors and businessmen, followed her straight to her uncle’s door, begging to marry her. She wanted none of them. She wanted, instead, the thing that Khmer girls are not born to have or raised to want—dreams. She dreamed of becoming a businesswoman and traveling the country. Maybe even the world. She dreamed of living free.
But soon after she finished college, a rumor reached her ear. Her father, who had been mostly absent from her life, had arranged her marriage. He came around now that there was a profit to be made, when the dowry for his daughter might sustain more months of gambling and drinking. But Ma’s dreams were bigger than his greed. Before the invitations were sent, she fled.
She traveled east on a local bus that took her to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, where she transferred to a regional taxi to Prey Veng province, on the eastern edge of Cambodia, mere miles from Vietnam. Her older brother lived there. He was sensible. He was kind. He would, she hoped, hide her.
But it was 1967, and that strip of earth along the Cambodia-Vietnam border shook and broke open beneath her feet when bombs from American B-52s burst in the paddies. The night sky lit up with machine-gun fire from the jungles, and she ran to the riverbed with her brother and his family, cupping her ears against the whistle of weapons, curling her body against the dirt somersaulting all around her.
A thought sprinted across her mind—I could die here. In the end, a part of her did. Along with an estimated 150,000 Cambodians. Casualties of a Western war imported to Vietnam, then stretched into Cambodia. “Collateral damage” was what the Americans said.
My mother realized she could stay with her brother and die trying to hide. Or, she could go back home and get married.
What do you do when you cannot go in the water or come up on land?
* * *
I was two when my mother taught me how to run and hide.
“Mouy, bee, bei … rort!” she would say. One, two, three … run!
Rort! Boern! Run! Hide!
And I would scoot off the sofa and skedaddle for a far corner or a closet or a bedcover and stay perfectly still. Rort boern. A game we played. I laughed and laughed when she found me, never successful in tricking her; she always knew where to look.
But then, one year later, another kind of running.
“Get down,” Ma said, hastily fastening her seat belt, eyes darting. “Keep quiet.”
She had woken us kids from our slumber and rushed us to the car.
“Like this?” I said, my body laid out on the back seat with my sister Chan.
She craned her neck to check the rearview mirror.
“Yes, gohn,” she said. “Lower.”
I rolled to the floorboard. My brother, Sope, was jumpy in his seat.
“Where are we going?” he asked, peering out the passenger-side window as our mother shoved the car’s gear into reverse and we shot, like a rocket, clear out of the driveway and into the lamplit stillness of our street.
“Nov aur sngeam!” she snapped, stay still, her voice starched with tension, struggling through her tears to shush her babies.
I felt the ridges of the plastic floorboard, cold and gritty, stamp their pattern into my cheek, and heard my own wheezing. Before she told us to duck, I had caught a glimpse of him, standing in the darkened doorway, hands on his hips, his lips spitting words I could not hear through the closed car window.
Why were we leaving my father?
There was so much I didn’t yet know, things about my parents’ lives and our family’s past that I would eventually come to learn by watching, and later, by asking. I didn’t know, for instance, that my mother had run away from her husband, from her family, before. Or that duty was what brought her back every time—because a Khmer wife stays.
I also did not know that when your mother teaches you to run and hide, you will keep doing it until it forms into habit, until it becomes your very best skill.
* * *
My mother, Sam-Ou Koh Reang, raised four daughters and two sons—including two of my cousins whom she loved like her own, not counting five other cousins who had passed through our home—on a lunch lady’s salary. She called us “gohn,” a term of endearment reserved for one’s children, and she used it liberally, whether we were hers or not. We called her “Ma” until the first stray grays peeked from her hairnet, and then she became “Yay Thom,” or Big Grandma, because she was the eldest of her siblings who had escaped the genocide in Cambodia and immigrated to America. And in our culture, to be the eldest was to be the mother, to have the duty of taking care of everyone. Ma had a heart big enough to hold us all, and we thrived.
We graduated high school and then college and then left her, one by one, to go on and become the thing she most wanted us to be, the kind of people whose offices she’d once dusted and mopped, who spent their days clacking at a computer keyboard with nameplates on their desks, laser-engraved with perfectly straight and even letters, rather than stitched in serrated cursive above the right breast pocket, the way her own name appeared on her white cafeteria smock.
“Use your brains, not your back,” she told us when we were kids. “Don’t be like me.”
She urged us all toward academic and professional excellence: Sinaro, Sophea, Motthida, Chanira, Piseth, and me. From our crowded ranch house on a corner lot in almost all-white Corvallis, Oregon, we grew up to become experts in finance, communications, business, and academia. One among us, Chan, has a doctoral degree. I am a journalist, the one in the family who wanders, who has always struggled to stay.
That my mother arrived in America without a single dollar or English phrase to help her, that she worked her way up from being a janitor at Oregon State University’s student health center to running her own stall at the campus food hall, slinging chicken cashew stir-fry and rice stick noodles in two massive woks; that none of her babies ended up “dead or dealing drugs or under a bridge somewhere,” spoke to her striving, to her diligence and fortitude in Khmer mothering.
“I just did what I needed to survive,” she’d say to friends and strangers alike, careful to maintain a mother’s modesty.
She made sure her family survived, too. A single story, a tale told so many times it has become family legend, proves it. Just one in a rotation of myriad fables and fictions she spun that kept us suspended in a warm cocoon of wonder. Except this one was different.
“This one,” she assured me each time, “is true.”
* * *
There wasn’t much to eat on the boat. They gave us rice and sardines but sometimes the rice wasn’t fully cooked and sometimes the rice was burnt. Grandpa Sin yelled and screamed. He was hungry. It was so hot, your dad tied a krama to the railing and the big gun to make a cover over our heads.
All we saw was sky and sea, every day. That was it. When we stopped in Thailand, all these Thai people came on board. They were dignitaries and medical people. Do you know Soya’s mom? She was part Thai, so I asked her to translate for me. I wanted medicine for my baby.
They gave me a pouch of IV but there was no needle. I said, “What do I do? My baby is so sick.” And they said, “Open that and feed her with a spoon.”
I fed you day and night, Put. You swallowed a little at a time. Then the next morning, Seng got a cabbage and a banana. The Thai people gave us food but wouldn’t let us stay in their country. I took a piece of cabbage leaf and gave it to you to hold and you grasped it. Before then, it’s like you were in a coma. Your eyes rolled back in your head. The IV helped you. I thought, Okay, my baby is alive. About two or three days later, you started a small cry again. Your lips and face were so dry.
After a while, you didn’t move again. I was thinking, What am I going to do if my baby dies? Where am I going to bury my baby?
* * *
Cambodian Naval Ship P111 was built for a crew of twenty-eight men, with officers’ quarters, a galley canteen, and two heads belowdecks. But on April 20, 1975, the landing craft rode low and slow, weighed down by more than three hundred people and everything they had hoisted on board. One woman dragged a mattress on deck, which she flopped down near our family, and piled her children, husband, and other relatives on top. The family stayed like that, marooned on their own private island in the middle of all of us.
Three days earlier, Cambodia had fallen to the Communist Khmer Rouge regime, and my family hurried to the dock at Ream Naval Base to board one of four Cambodian navy vessels reserved for military personnel and their families.
There were kids and pigs and no space for either to run around. Up on deck, the sun burned so hot, Ma was certain her family would shrivel up and die. My family cordoned off a spot under one of the two fifty-millimeter mounted machine guns at the front of the ship, marking a perimeter with flip-flops and kramas.
“Think about it, all of us, for almost a month, in that one spot,” Ma said. She was in the living room, her head turned toward the TV, where the local news was on. She spoke to the screen rather than to me. Easier that way, to transmit old pain into the impersonal glow of polarized light than watch her youngest daughter’s face break with emotion.
* * *
It wasn’t easy to sleep, there wasn’t room. So we mostly just sat, and then we squeezed in together like a row of grilled catfish on a stick and slept.
I cradled you in my sarong, Put. You didn’t move, like you had nothing left in you, no energy, no spirit. You had diarrhea for days. When you pooped, nothing came out except clear sticky liquid. I stood up and rotated my sarong and sat down again so you would have a clean place to sleep. I just kept doing this until there were no more clean sections, then I changed into my silk sampot, the one my mother made me in her loom, and I washed my sarong with a bucket of seawater.
The captain was walking around, checking on his passengers. He wore a uniform that was so white it was gleaming. I don’t know how he kept his uniform so clean. We had been on the boat for several days already. When he saw me and he saw my baby wasn’t moving, he told me, “Miss, do you see, we are so crowded here. If your baby dies, you have to throw your baby in the water or else the corpse will spread disease to everyone else.” When he said this, my spirit left my body.
I explained to the captain that you were just sick. I begged him. “Let me keep my baby. We are Buddhist. Please let me bury her when we reach land.” I looked him right in the eyes. You don’t do that in Cambodia. It’s disrespectful. I was desperate. I didn’t know what to do. The captain agreed to let me keep you. I was so sad, so I passed you to my stepmother. I went belowdecks to the storage room where they kept all the bags of rice. I collapsed against them and cried.
That was so difficult. I don’t want to remember anymore, Put. How many times were you close to dying? Out of all my kids, you were the weakest. You were the smallest of all. You were the hardest to take care of.
* * *
Over the years, people have asked me, “Do you have any memories of that time?”
“No memories,” I will say, “only feelings. Things my body knows.”
Like hunger. Like leaving. My first feeling was flight. Running away became my enduring lesson in surviving.
And over the years, as my mother retold this story, she smoothed out the corners but kept the core the same. Every now and then, she would abide my curiosity for more details. “Ma, did you think I was dead?”
“I had hope, just a little, you were still alive,” she said.
According to my mother, I had survived on drips of water she drew to my lips, and a stubborn, unsinkable hope, the kind that only mothers have, that she whispered into my ears.
In another telling of the story, years later, Ma said that I was heavy. “What do you mean I was heavy?” I asked, feeling a little bit sad and more than a little guilty—I didn’t want to think that I had burdened her. How could a malnourished one-year-old baby be heavy?
“You were not light,” she said. “My arms ached so much from holding you.”
So she passed me to my aunt Pech, my cousin Piseth’s mom. Who passed me over to my Grandma Thoen, my mother’s stepmother, who eventually passed me back to Ma. In this way, the mothers took turns, cycling sorrow between them.
Now that I am older and have seen so many photographs of refugee mothers from Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, gripping their babies like buoys on overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean Sea, I think I know what my mother meant. Heavy, as in My daughter might not make it on this journey I decided for her. Heavy, as in How did I fail? Heavy is the feel of death.
How many mothers have had to wonder where to bury their babies?
* * *
In that moment when my mother fought to keep me, the terms of my life were set: Ma was the savior and I was the saved. After hearing the story so many times, I made a promise to myself: I would do my best to make her happy. I would strive to be worthy of her rescue.
For a long time, I believed I owed Ma my life: whatever she wanted me to be, I would be; whatever she wanted me to do, I would do.
I tried to live an immaculate existence, tucking my flaws behind a façade of perfection. I graduated high school and then college with honors, pressing awards into my mother’s hands. I turned the storytelling skills that she passed on to me into a full-time career, scrambling for scoops and front-page stories at newspapers up and down the West Coast. Eventually, I had a home, a high-paying job, money in the bank. I sent my parents on vacations and put several of my cousins through school. I filled my parents’ home with treasures from my travels—statues, paintings, rugs.
And Ma had made a myth out of me, spinning so many stories about my travels and adventures that some of her friends did not believe I was real.
“Is this the one?” one of them said as I sat in Ma’s kitchen, tucking into a bowl of noodles. I was on leave from a journalism job in Cambodia, always choosing to go home when I had time off, rather than on holiday.
Ma’s friend smiled and squeezed my arm as if to confirm I was not a ghost. “Is this your baby girl with the big job and all the money? The one who almost died on the boat?”
Ma smiled and nodded. Her friend turned to me.
“Your mother talks about you all the time,” she said, still holding my arm. “She says you are special.”
I worked to maintain that reputation, for her. My mother guarded our family’s reputation with ironclad diligence. Reputation was the tall shadow that tipped into the room before you entered the door. Reputation let you walk with a straight spine in the world, your armor against all the ways the world judged. Reputation made you marketable for marriage. In my mother’s world—the one before now, the one she exported to America—reputation was everything.
“I won’t let anyone look down on me,” she said, a regular refrain, by which she meant, “Don’t do anything stupid,” because a mark on any one of us was also a mark on her.
So, I tried harder. I worked toward repaying my debt to Ma by trying to achieve a single vision I had of myself, the image my mother carefully, methodically crafted of me: that of the dutiful Cambodian daughter, devoted to her family. The youngest of the brood, who would fulfill her parents’ wishes.
Without knowing it, for a long time unable to detect my mother’s sleight of hand in holding and molding me, I would become the keeper of our culture, the vessel for her secrets and sadness, the captive audience for all her stories.
But the image of the good Cambodian daughter was only that, a fiction Ma created to keep her own and our family’s status elevated in the eyes of our Khmer community. A story of the finest weave, like the silk her own mother spun to clothe and cover up her family’s imperfections when she was young. A myth that unraveled around the truth of who I am.
When I told Ma, in my twenties, that I was gay, she said she still loved me, but she clearly hoped it was just a phase. When I told her, in my thirties, I might never get married, she brushed me off with a wave of her hand. When I told her, at forty-two, I planned to marry my partner—a woman—the scaffolding of our bond collapsed, spewing splinters too deep to tweeze out.
We fought for days.
Which turned into months.
Which have now become years.
Our fighting left us stuck on either side of a broken bridge, my father and siblings ensnared in the battlefield between us. I could choose not to marry my partner and let Ma preserve her reputation and an important piece of her Khmer identity, or I could live free.
One time when we were ribbing each other, not so long ago, Chan asked me with a wry smile: “How do you know Ma didn’t want to throw you in the water, Put?”
Ma herself had joked along these very same lines. When I made her mad, she would tell me, “I nearly dropped you in the water, gohn.” But I never let myself believe it. No child wants to know she was so easily disposable.
How do you know Ma didn’t want to throw you in the water?
I had no answer, no way to know that in the end, that is what she would do.
* * *
By my own math, it comes out close to twenty years that I have been trying to tell this story, or some version of it. It kept getting away from me, shifting and trying to be what it was not. A sort of identity crisis, the same as mine. We don’t always know who or what we’re meant to be. But if I have learned anything along the way, it is this: a story is going to go its own way, and sometimes you just have to sit back and let it.
We are both storytellers, Ma and I. The difference is merely in form. She peddles in fables and folktales, wrapping stories in approximations and a gossamer of myth. As a journalist, I deal in hard facts and truth. This story, then, is my attempt to tease the truth out of her fictions. To build a bridge of story that brings us back together.
You want to know about my marriage? Why don’t you go ask your father and get out of here? I’m busy cooking something for us. How many thousands of dollars are you paying me for this interview, Put? Let’s eat something first, then you can ask your questions.
I had no choice. My dad said I had to marry. I could not say no, because everyone was pushing me. If I said no, I would be kicked out of the family. But I couldn’t hide, because of the war. I had to run. You could hear bombs. Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping! I was so scared. I thought, Where am I supposed to go?
When I came back from Prey Veng and people knew I was home, everyone came right away and put up the wedding tents. Yay Yeim came. Ta Khann came. The villagers from Preah Thom, that’s your dad’s side. The day of the wedding, I hadn’t even taken a bath. I had no mother to help me. Yay Leour gave me her watch to wear. My cousins brought makeup and put it on me. I never wore makeup before. I never had lipstick or powder.
We had a big wedding. There was seafood soup. There was vermicelli noodle and pork stir-fry. There was pickled mudfish with vegetables. People who came late didn’t have anything to eat. Your dad’s side ate all the food. Your dad didn’t have a single dollar when we got married. Did he even give a dowry? No, I don’t think he did. Maybe he gave a water buffalo. That’s how much I cost.
* * *
The summer of 2010, when I was thirty-six years old, still unmarried and unmoored, my mother called me home from Cambodia. I had been living and working in Phnom Penh, fulfilling my dream of being a foreign journalist—a job I wanted but a word I resisted. The word “foreign” cut like a betrayal in the context of Cambodia: I was indeed a foreigner in my own homeland, but then what did that make me in America, where my parents raised me? Where I still felt American even though I knew my brown skin made me different?
I had been born into the lush topography of my ancestors’ Cambodia, born into its wishbone of muddy lakes and rivers and broadleaf forests of ebony trees tinseled with vines. As a baby, before my feet ever touched the earth, I was abruptly severed from that land. As an adult, a daughter of Cambodia come home, it was that paradox, of a beautiful landscape set within my country’s dark history of genocide, that captivated me and compelled me to stay. That, and the fact that I was gay.
But my father’s heart attack and my mother’s call drew me home, which, by then, was no longer in Corvallis, where I grew up. The home I would return to as an adult, after years of running away from people and places I loved, was a five-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath behemoth in the Salem suburb of Keizer, Oregon, in a tony subdivision pretentiously called “The Vineyards,” that my parents bought when they retired. My siblings and I called it ostentatious and our mother called it necessary. It was just the two of them, Ma and Pa. There were no more kids. No more genocide survivors trying to make their way over. No reason for such a big house.
“I want a place for my grandkids to stay,” she said, and when they finally arrived, ten in all, at one point filling her family room like a day-care center and turning her kitchen into a makeshift school cafeteria, she just sat back satisfied, rocking and grinning in her La-Z-Boy recliner.
I arrived at Ma’s kitchen counter clutching black-and-white photographs. Three and a quarter by three and a quarter inches, they felt unfamiliar in my hands, dimensions from another time. Perfect squares, capturing a moment my mother wished to forget.
When I was younger and tried to talk to my parents about Cambodia, they made it clear that the past was another country they had no wish to visit. “I don’t remember” was the simple lever they used to uncork themselves quickly from my questions, the dead end to my constant curiosity. I would wait some weeks or months more, and then ask another question about our lives before we fled Cambodia. And again, the familiar dodge: “I don’t remember.” It was part of their Buddhist upbringing to leave the past alone. Don’t look back. Go on.
As a grade schooler, when I asked Ma about her life, she distracted me with folklore and myths. She told me about clever animals who outsmarted predators and village fools who survived on the strength of their resourcefulness. Ma described a world of towering coconut trees and banana leaves the size of kayaks, sunsets the color of a cook fire that seemed to singe the very rice paddies they slid into, and rivers so full of catfish you could walk across on their backs to reach the other shore.
Ma told me stories of her mother, my grandmother Nhim, whose sugar palm cakes with fresh coconut cream steamed in banana leaves thickened the air with a sweet aroma so powerful it could hypnotize villagers. She talked about her family’s water buffaloes—those barrel-chested beasts of the countryside that were stubbornly slow but dependable workers, plowing the river-fed fields until the sinking sun drove animal and farmer back home. It was a rich world, so vastly different from the reality of our lives in rural Corvallis, Oregon, full of evergreen forests and food in freezers, that I always begged Ma for more. I knew these stories were folklore, but they reverberated, even now, with profound truths and lessons in living virtuously, honorably, obediently.
The protagonists of Ma’s stories were smart, hardworking, clever, and resourceful—qualities that made Ma nod with approval and made me strive to be those things, too. But her stories sometimes left me confused, uncertain of where I stood in her eyes. I alternately felt strong or weak, smart or dumb, hardworking or lazy, depending on which story she spun. Each one came spiked with its own moral code. Delivered in measured doses, designed to teach, cajole, or warn, these stories beat like secrets inside me.
For years, I kept trying to burrow my way into the folds of Ma’s memory, into the stories I sensed were stored somewhere beneath her surface. I loved the legends and myths, but I wanted to know about her.
Now here I was, holding wedding photos taken in 1967, causing her to remember. It is a cruel thing to do, to make your mother go backward like that. Like so many other sacrifices she made for her children, she did this for me because I asked. Because she was so close to losing my father. Because she knew I would not stop asking.
In one photograph, my mother sits next to my father, her face cast down, drained of joy. A clutch of family members crowds the background, Ma’s best friend, Sata, half of my namesake, peering above a dense cluster of shoulders like a line of cursive. Banners and blessings in Mandarin hang along the bare plank walls, likely for the benefit of my paternal grandfather, a Chinese rice farmer known for his prolific garden of bitter melon and morning glory and reliably productive rice paddies. The photo was taken in my maternal grandfather’s stilt home in Takeo provincial town, just south of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, where the Mekong River scatters into skeins of water used by fishermen and traders to ply their wares.
A sense of levity and restrained jubilation are etched in the faces of the guests. How could any of them know that within a decade, nearly everyone there in the background at my parents’ wedding would perish in Communist leader Pol Pot’s “Killing Fields”? My paternal grandfather, my mother’s best friend, my father’s groomsmen, cousins, aunts, and uncles, captured in the lingering light of the photographer’s frame. All of them gone.
My mother’s expression that day is different from the guests’; it holds a deeper sadness of living. She wore a simple av pak and a silk sampot, a traditional wedding outfit of blouse and long skirt, made from a bolt of fabric my grandfather purchased at the morning market just days before her wedding and set down, unceremoniously, at his daughter’s feet. The silk Grandpa selected was flimsy and coarse, not the smooth, structured silk her mother wove in the ancient loom beneath her family’s home when she was growing up. She missed Nhim. A daughter needs her mother on her wedding day.
Before the wedding procession, a rush of cousins applied a line of rouge to her lips. Someone pressed a single orchid behind her left ear, turning her into the bride she never wanted to be. Her aunt hastily unfastened her wristwatch and joggled it over my mother’s delicate wrist. “There,” she said, annoyed that the girl lacked basic jewelry to adorn herself. “Now you’re not so bare.”
But to this day, even with that watch, my mother can’t tell you what time her marriage became official, when the red strings were tied to her and my father’s wrists and final blessings were made for a prosperous, happy life together.
“Let me see,” Ma says, squeezing into the counter stool next to me and reaching for the photo. She hadn’t seen these pictures since the time they were taken.
“Why aren’t you smiling?” I ask, as Ma angles the photo closer to her face, her reading glasses abandoned somewhere upstairs. “Aren’t weddings supposed to be happy?”
“Don’t be foolish, Put,” she says, shooting me a look I know well, one that says, You should know better. “That’s Cambodia. Weddings are serious. You’re not supposed to smile.
“My father was so angry when I returned from Prey Veng,” Ma said. I had known she had fled before the wedding date was set, but I had yet to hear this part of the story. “He grabbed the metal rod holding up the mosquito net on his bed and hit me. I rolled on the floor to avoid his strikes. He just hit me until he got tired and threw the rod to the floor.”
She shook her head, as if the mere mention of that moment wounded her all over again.
In the photo, no one can see she is in pain as she prostrates herself before the achar, the ceremonial adviser, her body compressed into a question mark. Nobody knew about the blood on one of her legs dissolving into her skirt—or the scars that would form later—from the angry lashes of the rod that had rained down, blow after blow. Punishment for the humiliation she caused her father by running away.
I had questions, but years of interviewing people taught me to wait, that bombshells sometimes fall at the end of pregnant pauses.
“I knew if I married, I would lose my freedom forever,” she said finally, her eyes locked on the picture. “You should know. You’re a journalist. I wanted to go here and there, like you.”
Her admission struck a blow, piercing my heart. She had been the adventurous one in our family, always eager to check out new places. Whenever I moved to a new city for a newspaper job, she followed me. To check things out, to see how her baby girl was living, her curiosity about the world rivaling my own.
My mother was thirty years old when she crossed the Pacific Ocean, carrying me in her arms. I was thirty years old when I crossed back the other way, carrying a pad of paper and pen—our lives, hers and mine, becoming a series of perilous crossings. I had been far away from Ma for nearly seven years by then, hopscotching the globe for work. I had found a studio apartment in the heart of Phnom Penh, which I would use as a base from which to boomerang to other locales. At one point, I had considered never returning to America.
But there in the stubborn warmth of Ma’s kitchen, which feels like a bunker for the end of time, counters and cabinets lined with jars of pickled garlic, limes, duck eggs, and mustard greens, and three freezers full of discount meat, it is only Ma and me, and all the space between now and then, back when those wedding photos were taken.
My mother peers into one of the pictures as if to find something particular there, something only she can see. I don’t know what memory she is trying to get back. For a moment, I think she is done talking. But then she speaks again, and her words hit like stones, landing hard on my heart.
“That was the saddest day of my life.”
SOMETHING TO HIDE
I wasn’t the obvious choice of helper for Ma to recruit after my father’s surgery. When my phone rang, so late at night in Phnom Penh, I hesitated. Each of my sisters and my brother lived out of state, two of them halfway across the country. I had them beat by an ocean, hunkered in my studio halfway across the world. Of her children, I was the farthest from Ma—both in terms of miles and expectations. My life was the most unconventional. To Ma’s mind, my being gay was an unacceptable stain on our family’s reputation, so I stayed away, letting Cambodia hold me and hide me.
But when Ma called, her voice throttled by sobs, I couldn’t find it in me to ignore her. I was the one she always called when she was sad or scared. I went home because it was my duty as a good Cambodian daughter to be there, but also because I could not quell the impulse to take care of her.
Something happened to both Ma and Pa after their brush with my father’s death. The curtain that had been drawn against my parents’ past opened up, and I came home just in time to slip into that space, to explore the glades of my parents’ history, the pain and loss, and their helpless surrender to it all. In the same way Pa’s heart attack sparked in Ma a need to unburden herself of stories, so, too, did it amplify my need to capture what she had to say while they were both still alive to tell me.
Over the next two years, I would spend hundreds of hours at my parents’ home in the Vineyards, eating my mother’s food, escorting my parents through the snarled and suppressed strands of their history. When it was too much, when Ma had lightened a little more of her load and my heart overflowed with the weight of her tragedies, I headed to my own home in Portland, a newly built, too-big house that I’d bought in early 2010, sight unseen, from Cambodia. An impulse investment, claiming American roots from abroad, and a decoy for my mother, drawing her attention away from the fact that I was still not married. Acquiring a home, it turns out, is much easier than acquiring a husband. Portland became my retreat, a place to heal from the kind of trauma that sloughed off from those stories.
In Keizer I would learn the extent of my mother’s scar tissue—how the many stories she had told over the years were scrubbed of the darkest facts about my parents. I grew up without hearing the story of my mother’s attempt to flee her own wedding, hearing hardly any stories at all about her or my father’s lives, until I was deep into adulthood. But I understood, even at a young age, that theirs was not a happy union. Their constant quarreling, my mother’s repeated threats to run away, my father’s rage—I grew up incubated in chaos and conflict. I see now what was so difficult for me to understand when I was a child, when I’d see my friends’ parents laughing and dancing and wondered why mine were never like that: that kind of levity is a luxury when you are simply trying to survive.
My parents’ stories were spellbinding, surprising, and disquieting, doled out over the years spent in their kitchen like poker hands, the deck reshuffled at the start of every visit, and when we were done, I would realize the truth of the connection between my mother and me, which began with a country and the wars we were born into. I would realize that the day a Khmer girl is born is the day she comes into debt, purely by the fact of her existence. That she owes her parents for bringing her into the world, for raising her, and that the only way she can settle the score, or sang khun, is by getting married, when the authority over her is transferred from her parents to her husband.
I would learn about secrets long scuttled away, but take a stick and tap my family tree and all sorts of stories tumble out. Stories that would help me understand how easy it is for daughters and mothers to misinterpret, misunderstand, and disappoint each other. How years of silence and broken hope and gathered grief would leave Ma and me shipwrecked on our separate shores of hurt.
The business of interviewing your mother is treacherous, like slow, gut-twisting steps through a minefield. We were new to this. A daughter raised to swallow her emotions and discouraged from questioning the inner dimensions of her parents’ lives, much less her own, was now gently probing.
I brought a digital recorder and placed it at the far corner of whatever room we were in. We were almost always in the kitchen. She cooked. I questioned. Both of us doing the thing we were good at. I took fast notes, but I was afraid to miss something. I wanted all of what she had to tell me before it was too late. A part of me worried whether her days, like my father’s, were numbered. Whether it would be her next in the operating chamber, her heart exposed and someone with a laser light peering in. I wanted to be the first to look. I pushed Record.
* * *
The elders used to tell us, “First came the locusts, then came the Japanese.” The locusts landed in the rice fields and it was the village children’s job to run and chase them away. They flew up in big swarms and filled the sky, blocking the sun, so many it turned the day completely dark. Those little insects ruined the rice crop that year. Everyone was hungry. And then the Japanese came. The soldiers came into our village and asked my grandparents for shelter from the monsoons and food from their rice pot. My grandparents couldn’t say no. They all had big guns on their shoulders. I don’t know who they were fighting. I guess the Americans, because the Americans were bombing the Japanese. The more I think about it, Cambodia has always been under attack by someone or something. There has always been a war.
* * *
It was 1945. Cambodia was at the center of a tug-of-war between French colonialists, who had by then ruled Cambodia for more than eighty years, and Japanese forces who hoped to gain dominance over Southeast Asia and access to the region’s natural resources. American allies entered the fray, bombing Japanese bases across Cambodia before eventually returning Cambodia back to the French. Into that tumult, my mother, Sam-Ou, was born, the third of nine children.
Aside from the Japanese soldiers who sought respite beneath their stilt homes, the battle over Cambodia didn’t impact my ancestors greatly. They seemed to live oblivious to the extent of the tragedies unfolding in their country, already inured to the hardships of fleeing. According to family lore, my great-great-grandparents had fled famine and peasant revolts against monarchy rule in what was then Indochina. They traveled for months by foot, rice balls and boiled eggs softening in their pockets, finally arriving at a strip of land where the sediment-rich Tonle Sap River provided the perfect conditions to grow rice and raise babies.
My great-grandfather headed the district’s transportation department in Takeo. Saing San was a handsome man, unusually tall, who favored natty suits and two-tone shoes with bows and pointed tips. He carried a cane, though no one seems to know whether he needed to.
Everyone called him “the Corporal.” When his daughter, Nhim, my mother’s mother, gave birth to my mother, he bequeathed to Nhim an abundant share of the family’s rice paddies, which stretched from the highway to the hills “beyond the tip of seeing,” my mother told me. Nhim inherited the family home, too, which, when Ma lived in it as a toddler, buzzed with activity from a retinue of servants my great-grandparents employed.
It was an era of elephants, which you rode if you were wealthy. The Corporal owned four, left to stable in a neighboring village where there was more room. During holidays, the Corporal would round up the elephants and transport his family to the pagoda. The lumbering hulks heaved their way down narrow lanes, past rows of tamarind trees and bleeding hearts slung along bamboo fences. They kicked up so much dust you could hardly see through the plumes, but the village kids ran and laughed alongside them anyway. “The Corporal’s coming!” villagers would say, then plunge out of the way, because with money and a uniform came power.
“Mai came from a very rich family,” Ma told me, as we sat in her family room. Willamette Valley fog hung low outside the window, like spirits begging to enter, my mother rocking slowly in her recliner as I sat nearby. Whenever she talked about her mother, she used the reverential term “mai.”
“Then she married my father. They got land and my grandmother’s gold jewelry, her bracelets, necklaces, earrings. We had plenty of money until my father played cards and lost it all.”
No one can say how Grandpa Sin got so lucky as to marry the Corporal’s daughter. He hailed from a simple farming family nearby. Maybe it was all the rice paddies his family claimed or just a deal struck between friends, but young Sin was hastened out of the monkhood just in time to marry Nhim before the Corporal had a chance to change his mind. The Corporal and his wife had been seduced by the idea of Sin. How bad could a man dedicated to the monastic order be?
Grandpa Sin had barely slipped out of his saffron robe, sun glinting off his shaved monk’s head, when a priest blessed the young couple and flicked holy water on their heads. Nhim’s parents had probably consulted a fortune-teller, because no marriage in Cambodia proceeded without discussion of birth dates and stars and zodiac signs, but the match was not auspicious, and the promise of happiness began and ended on that single prayer.
Though Sin and Nhim began their new lives with abundance, the young couple began to lose their fortunes, slowly at first and then all at once as my grandfather, along with his schoolteacher’s salary, disappeared into gambling halls. On weekends, he pedaled his bicycle home, swerving herky-jerky down the dirt road, a bottle of liquor inside a plastic bag swinging like a pendant from one handlebar.
“By the time he got home, he was usually drunk,” Ma said, a tinge of embarrassment hardening her words as she recalled spying her father sloppily make his way home.
Still, Nhim was prepared. She boiled a chicken, whacked it in half, and set aside the best pieces for her husband. But in a drunken stupor, Grandpa Sin chucked the chicken in an open field, and when Sam-Ou’s younger sister, Samnang, hungry and brazen, went to retrieve the food, he snapped a switch from the tamarind tree and whipped red stripes into her legs.
“He was drunk, so he just lashed out at anyone, and Samnang was in his way,” Ma told me. “All of his children were hungry, but he didn’t care.”
He left no money for Nhim to raise their babies. So Nhim bred silkworms and wove stylish silk shirts, skirts, and kramas, sparing her children the misfortune of wearing rudimentary clothes made of fiber from a kapok tree—a pitiful sign of poverty—and sparing herself the judgment of others. My mother learned, early in her youth, that there were ways to conceal a shameful situation. A lesson Ma would pass on to me.
Nhim’s life became a relentless hustle to ensure her children’s survival. Such was the duty of a Khmer wife and mother. She picked fruit and scavenged shoots from the jungle, preserving every scrap of leftovers—mangoes, watermelon rinds, young bamboo—into pickles. And when the rice supply ran low, she boiled maize and stirred it into her rice pot, food fit for pigs, inhaled by her hungry children. They lived this way, braced by their mother’s determination, through droughts, floods, and famines.
But there were too many mouths to feed, so Nhim did what other Khmer families do, given the circumstances: she gave a couple of her kids away.
When my mother was five, and her younger sister, Samnang, was three, they went to live with Nhim’s younger brother in Takeo provincial town. The girls did not protest, they did as they were told. Having only two boys, Nhim had none to spare, needing the strength of her sons to work the fields. Two girls would also benefit my bachelor great-uncle. Nhim promised her brother the girls would cook and clean, the way good Cambodian daughters do.
But Uncle San had a radical way of thinking, far different from Cambodian men in the 1950s who expected girls to grow up and into servants, existing purely to serve their husbands. Girls, Uncle San believed, had the same potential as boys to learn.
He saw no reason to waste a pair of perfectly good brains, so he bent his long body into a small wooden chair and sewed school uniforms by candlelight after work, his knees constantly bumping against the legs of the treadle sewing machine table. In the morning, he pressed books into his nieces’ palms and shooed them off to school.
After school, my mother and aunt did their chores. At night, it was my mother who took to her studies with vigor.
“She would recite the alphabets out loud, the whole house echoed with your mother’s voice,” Aunt Samnang told me recently. “She was always busy studying.”
As she got older and looked around, surrounded by the sons and daughters of business tycoons and politicians, all the girls wearing the latest imported fashions while she wore her uncle’s handmade clothes, she knew she didn’t quite belong.
But Uncle San kept encouraging her.
“Gohn,” he called out to his nieces one night as they studied in the far corner of his home. “Study hard. Grow your brain. When you have an education, you can do anything.”
A mantra he repeated often, and when I met him on my first trip to Cambodia, one he would also say to me.
Sam-Ou and Samnang flourished under their uncle’s care. Uncle San rubbed Tiger Balm into their temples and fed them rice soup when they caught a cold. He drove them to the coast, picking up Nhim along the way and cruising with the windows down in his silver four-door Simca, cackling as his passengers’ bodies jumped and jangled, the sedan dipping into and out of potholes by the dozen. In the entire fifteen years Ma lived under his roof, not once did Uncle San lay a hand on her, unusual for the simple fact that men in Cambodian society were granted social permission to hit their wives and children. She never wanted to leave. “He was like a mother and a father together,” Ma said.
Year after year, as his nieces kept growing, my great-uncle sat at his sewing machine piecing together simple white shirts and blue skirts, giving the girls a single riel in the mornings to buy their breakfast at the market. With the rest of his salary as a driver for Takeo’s governor, he bought books and, later, bikes, which the girls rode from their uncle’s house in Takeo provincial town back home to their village at least twice each year, when Uncle San cajoled his nieces to go help their mother.
When my mother was eight years old, Nhim put her in charge of the silkworms, spreading the fat white caterpillars onto mulberry leaves, wide as a baseball mitt, to let them eat their fill.
During fallow months, my mother helped her mother process the silk, carefully extracting raw fiber from the silkworms’ cocoons by slowly stirring them in boiling water and gathering long wisps of silk, like dental floss, that Nhim would hand-pull three times through a spinning spool until the thread emerged smooth and glossy. My mother, lacking the skills to operate the loom, was content just to watch her mother’s measured movements.
“My mother could do anything,” Ma told me. “She was always doing something. She couldn’t sit still.”
During harvest season, Ma and her siblings rose at dawn and went off to the fields to help their mother plant a new crop of rice. Barefoot and back-bent, methodically pressing nubile rice stalks into holes they made in the mud with their thumbs, Ma learned to move quickly lest the leeches latch on to her legs. But the work rarely felt too onerous, surrounded as she was by her siblings. They kept each other going.
Afternoons, to cool off and shake the day from their shoulders, my mother and her siblings raced each other to the pond between the village and the red dirt road that connected them to Takeo provincial town, where they lived and studied during the school year, and farther beyond to Phnom Penh. Ma splashed in the murky, mocha-colored water, fully dressed in a sarong and shirt to maintain her modesty. The children plunged and laughed and played, lured back to land by the sweet perfume of palm sugar caramel bubbling in an enormous vat atop this or that auntie’s cook fire.
Evenings, my mother followed her older brother, Yain, to the rice paddies with long bamboo poles, a lantern, and a net. At twelve years old, Yain proved an expert at stalking frogs, tiptoeing through the paddies as my mother followed, her eyes scanning the tops of the banyan trees and her heart thumping with fear of the spirits said to sit upon the branches. When Yain felt satisfied by a location where the croaking was loudest, he smacked his long pole once, twice, three times, quick and contained as a fly fisherman, sending a spray of slumbering frogs vaulting as my mother raced to pluck them from the air. She laughed with joy as she and her brother leapt like the critters they caught, tacking so fast across their mother’s paddies that they tripped and tipped their basket enough for a few frogs to leap back out into the inky dark.
At home, she knew what was coming, grilled frogs tenderized in her mother’s lemongrass marinade. All the days of her youth were like this, free and salty-sweet, fortified by her mother’s food and encased in the safety of her siblings in the village, and her uncle in Takeo provincial town.
“We had fun growing up,” Ma told me, as the streetlamps outside blinked on. “There were times it wasn’t easy, but there were a lot of kids in my family. We helped our mother and we helped each other.”
My grandfather, meanwhile, traveled to nearby provinces to teach math before spending a stint in Phnom Penh, where he continued to indulge in cards and cognac. Finding himself alone in Cambodia’s bustling capital, he sought comfort in the arms of other women. When Nhim learned of his affairs, she piled all of her husband’s clothes and his hammock in the dirt courtyard in front of their stilt home, added kindling, and torched the mound with a flaming tip borrowed from her cook fire.
When Grandpa Sin returned home to find his belongings turned to ash, the uproar echoed through the village and quickly drew a crowd. Grandpa shoved Nhim to the ground, knocking her head with his knuckle and cursing her in front of everyone. He lunged for the largest branch from a stack Nhim used for her cook fire and began hammering her on the head, like a carpenter pounding an errant nail back into place.
“She even bowed her head to make it easy for him to hit her, and she screamed at him, ‘Go ahead and hit me! Hit me until I’m dead!’” Ma said.
My mother and her siblings scattered, near enough to watch but beyond their father’s reach.
“I climbed up into the mango tree. My father couldn’t reach me there because he was fat and he couldn’t climb the tree,” Ma told me. “I watched everything and just cried. What could I do? We were all afraid of him.”
My grandmother surrendered to her husband, quietly took what she knew she had coming.
In the morning, her face swollen from crying and her head tender from bruises, she served Grandpa his breakfast noodles and coffee. And by the following year, she was pregnant with their ninth child, my aunt Vuthy.
To my mother, looking back on it now, Nhim paid a terrible price for being such a dutiful wife. When my mother was sixteen years old, her father summoned her home. Nhim had fallen suddenly ill, her belly bursting with pain.
The village kru, the shaman, surmised a baby was rotting in Nhim’s womb. How else to explain her grossly swollen belly? The village elders gossiped their own theories, this and that about the spirit catching my grandmother.
When a full day passed and Nhim’s condition worsened, my grandfather took her to the hospital in Phnom Penh. But no one there could pinpoint a cause or a cure for her suffering. So, my grandmother just lay in her hospital bed, day after day, until a full month had passed. Uncle Yain came one day toting rice soup and salted fish, even though Nhim’s appetite had vanished. When he arrived, my grandmother’s bed was empty, the slightest impression left in the spot where her body had been. Nothing left to see but rice soup and salted fish splattered across the tile floor.
My grandmother died during the Khmer New Year, in April. A time of celebration, of children charmed by firecrackers and men and women dancing rorm woerng by moonlight at the pagoda, their hands fluttering at their sides like little wings.
“Everyone was having a good time except us,” Ma said. “We were all mourning.”
Grandma Nhim was barely forty years old, leaving my mother suddenly motherless at age sixteen. Ma took note of Nhim’s life, full of sacrifice and choices that were not hers to make. She promised herself, as she watched her older siblings bathe and dress their mother’s corpse for cremation, that she would never end up in a trap like that. Sam-Ou would make a better life. She would graduate college, get a job. She could do anything with an education, her uncle had said. And she would not, under any circumstance, allow herself to be at the mercy of a man.
But a good Cambodian daughter has duties she cannot escape. It was my mother’s duty to get married, have children, extend her family line. It was her duty to honor and respect her parents, to sang khun. No matter how much she resisted, she could not be cleaved from her culture.
Copyright © 2022 by Putsata Reang