Thursday, July 1, 2010

Blog Update: Back to the Blogging World

So I know I have been M.I.A. for a long while (3 months?). For that, I apologize, BUT in good news, I have begun blogging again. If you enjoyed my blog on the time I spent in Cambodia, you may enjoy my new blog which I have named Experiments With Pharmakon. Wondering why? You can read about the genesis of this blog here. A few things about my new blog: it's not honed in on any one subject nor place as this blog is. It is a cornucopia of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and as my tag line reads, "anything in between." I invite you to read my first few posts, which include a short story I've been working on: Pare Jones. Don't forget to add this blog to your reader:!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Left in Vertigo

During my last few weeks in Cambodia, I didn’t want to blog (and to the avid readers of my blog, I apologize for that). For some intangible reason, writing about the events that were happening at that time, the words that were spoken, threatened my experience. I didn’t want to intrude on the experiences or alter them by writing about them. I’m not entirely sure this makes sense, but I’ll try to articulate these feelings as best I can. During these last weeks, I wanted to live, to really live. I didn’t want to worry about writing, and when I began blogging about my experiences in December, I fell into the weekly routine of doing so at least twice or three times a week. This is the expectation I set up for myself, and I felt that it was an obligation I now had to others as well. What I mean by saying I wanted to live is perhaps best described by Oscar Wilde’s words: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist.” Blogging during these weeks seemed to me a way of just “exist[ing]” because I would have written the bare facts, but doing so would have diminished my experience that I knew would be much more powerful than these facts that were composed of a series of events. Existing and living can be thought of as closely related words, but the latter connotes a passion that is absent in the former. I wanted to live, and then later, when the time was right, write with the intensity and passion driven by experience coupled with deep reflection and understanding.

The life of a writer involves an unveiling of the self, and it seems that the good writer exposes herself nakedly before others, keeping no secrets, and refusing to be limited (or self-limit). I’ve been thinking about writing a lot lately, and this is in large part because I have been deciding on what MFA program I want to enroll in this upcoming fall. In particular, I’ve been thinking about blogging. What is it? With my own experience in blogging and judging from reading other blogs, the nature of the writing is oftentimes casual. Now, I’m not saying that all blogs feature writing that is less probing or serious, but it is for me the kind of writing that is in the first stage of the writing process, the immediate finger to keyboard thoughts. I can’t speak for other bloggers, but I can safely assume I think, that heavy revision is not required of the blog. The blog is quick, easy to scan, easy to access. That’s the beauty of it.

Towards the end of my stay in Cambodia, I began to feel things—things that I hadn’t really felt before during my time there, things that I couldn’t pinpoint or express in words for I had yet to understand or identify them. I still have yet to identify these feelings. I guess that’s what living is—feeling. For someone who is somewhat a connoisseur of words, it seems odd to me that I can’t describe these feelings. Happy. Sad. Angry. Emphatic. Disheartened. Disillusioned. Nostalgic. Nope, none suffice.

The act of leaving a place does this; it complicates feelings and displaces you onto the brink where you’re not yet gone, but almost, and so you’re not entirely present either. You’re already thinking about the future when this place becomes another place you’ve left, the people you’ve met characters of your brief story, and slowly your tongue no longer twists to form the soft th sounds of your mother and father’s language, and you’ve lost what you had gained over these months. You fear loss.

Or, at least I do.

I am sitting now in my nicely heated room. Birds chirp. Dogs bark. No chickens squawk. I’m back in Highlands Ranch, Colorado—a suburb composed mainly of monopoly-like homes tucked discreetly into organized rows. I used to complain of this suburb as being a place that lacked character because every “thing” is seemingly so uniformly the same. Things. We always notice things. The material. The house or car or ring or phone. It’s all about these things.

Right now, these things don’t matter to me. But I fear that the longer I am here in America where I was born, these things will start to matter again. People should matter more than things. I think this is a pretty simple concept, and I think in every situation it holds true.

I’m scrambling right now to identify my feelings, and it’s not working out so well. Maybe, there’s a reason they’re unclear to me. You see, I’m sort of rambling in this post, but this is how I feel. A little bit topsy-turvy. A little bit like I’m standing on one foot. Or like I’m a quarter spinning, and about to land, splat, head on the ground.

That’s what leaving feels like. Twisting, turning, directionless, moving, and then, falling, finally, into vertigo.

I’m beginning another journey now, a separate one but very connected one to my journey in Cambodia over the past four months. My new journey is one through memory—some recent, others old, some known, others buried. This will be my last post on my trip to Cambodia for a while as I return to write and re-write the memoir I’ve been working on these past few years. I leave you with a prose poem I wrote a while back that captures this feeling of mine that I can best describe now as vertigo.


That final shot got me, as I lay down only to get the spins. Unleveled, I sway without moving, or is it my eyes that did the swaying? Like a child with wings spread, turning foot by foot, round and round and round, and when stopped, the world shakes for a few moments. Not knowing if I’m upside down or right side up. The ease of being out of control, for once, and not knowing when my next breath will be and what will happen when it comes. It’s nice. Slow-motion inhalations and exhalations as I watch life through foggy, little windows. Playing connect the dots. The game of tops. Quarters set in motion, with quick twists that slow to a wobble and fall. Moments pass and the ground becomes still. My body moves. Boredom sets in.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Being a Hater and a Lover: Phnom Penh Compacted

The writer’s block that inspired my last post still plagues me. One of the tricks I’ve picked up from an undergraduate class with memoirist Jennifer Brice is creating lists as a step to begin writing. This is an exercise I’ve used with my students at the Nou Hach Literary Journal, a literary organization here in Phnom Penh. While some may think of doing writing exercises as a “thing” for novices, I’ve been doing exercises ever since I started writing. Plus, lists are fun. The following two lists are written in no particular order and are full of my biases. Take it with a grain of rice. Cliché remark? Absolutely. I’m totally failing as a writer today.

6 Things I Hate About Phnom Penh:

1) The Trash

A pile of smoke rises from the side of the road. From Uncle’s yard. Next to the vendor selling grilled potato cakes and bananas. Oh, no worries. It’s just trash burning. That’s the way many people eliminate their waste here. Or, it’s dumped into the river. “I don’t go one day without smelling this sweetness,” my friend Chakrya tells me sarcastically as we drive past a river of sewage. Now, let’s talk litter. Much of the city looks as if an evil magic fairy sprinkled Coke cans and scraps of banana leaves and wood confetti over the land and water. Try to sweep that shit up, Cintri.

2) The Stench

OK, so the smell of trash is an ashy-burnt-plastic kind of smell. When I speak of “the stench,” I mean the city carries with it a special scent that is vomit inducing at first, and unfortunately, after being here for nearly four months, I have now become accustomed to it. But let me go back to my first experience taking in the city’s odor. Say you were making a mixed drink. Perhaps Fear-Factor style, and you want to put in the nastiest ingredients. Piss. Gasoline. Burnt hair. Dog shit. Human shit. Exhaust. Rotten milk. Gutted fish. Days of unflushed excrement. Shake it all up in a blender, and take a whiff of that. Hellooo, Phnom Penh. OK, OK. I might be being a little unfair here because ¼ of the city doesn’t smell like this. Congrats to this lucky crowd.

3) The Night Noise

So, if you read my earlier post on “Leaving Harpswell,” you’ll find that I am ambivalent towards “the night noise.” In some ways, my earlier post suggests that I might even like it. Well, today, I must tell you that I’ve changed my mind. For troubled sleepers like myself, take heed of this advice: bring some Ambien if you’re going to visit this city. When I lived in Brooklyn, NY for a brief time, I was troubled by the late-night honking, early morning construction, police-whistles, the old-crazy-polka-dot dress lady hollering at 2 AM, the babies balling. Phnom Penh is like this, but consists of different sounds. Like roosters crowing, dogs fighting, bakers clanging, carpenters banging, hookers prowling, karaoke-all-night-long. And right now as I am tapping away at my now dirty white laptop due to the dusty city and my carelessness, all I wish for is that my neighbor sing a different song. This ShinEE one is way overplayed in my head. (For those who do not know of the pop-scene here in SEA, this Korean boy band is an obsession of the teenybopper crowd. Confession: I went to their concert at the Olympic Stadium here in Phnom Penh. Don’t judge me. I was the responsible adult of four teens.)

4) The Showers

I. Like. Hot. Showers. If you want one, and you’re going to live here, forget about it. (Unless you live in one of those uppity villas or American-like gated neighborhoods).

5) The Traffic

Phnom Penh is a relatively small city. Traffic consists of a conglomeration of cars, trucks, motos, cyclos and tuk-tuks. All mushed together like one of those nutty cheese balls. Where’s the public transportation? At one time, public transport did exist. With the current urban sprawl, the city is becoming overcrowded with people and vehicles. Public transportation could certainly alleviate this problem. Also, it is an easy city to walk, especially if one lives in a neighborhood that typically has all the services one needs. But nobody walks. Why? There are no sidewalks (except near the Independence Monument and riverside). And walking in the streets might be a recipe for disaster. “Hey, Lexus. Run me over” is the sign on your $2 T-shirt.

6) The MSG

It’s unavoidable, unless you want to be the horrid foreigner who prefers only to eat at borathiy or Westernized places. Usually when I eat out, I request that MSG not be added to my food. Whether or not this really happens, I’m not sure, but I feel better that I’ve at least tried to avoid it. Usually restaurants and vendors have pre-made broths or porridges from the morning and have already added MSG to these dishes, so I wouldn’t expect an MSG-free bowl to be made just for me. Most of these places nod to my request, and bring me out a my dish three minutes later. Some places do advertise that they are MSG-free. Be wary, however, these are the less authentic Khmer places. Saying that Khmer Kitchen is really Khmer is as if saying that Chipotle is real Mexican food (No less love to Chipotle, however).

6 Things I Love About Phnom Penh:

1) The People

I’ve never been surrounded by so many Cambodians. Go figure. I’m from Denver where the entire Cambodian community can probably fit under one rooftop. I went to Colgate University where there was one other Cambodian: Robert. I’ve never really had a Cambodian friend growing up. And now...I have over fifty. Also, they’re awesome. Most of the people I meet whether they are strangers or family members have large welcoming smiles when I see them. The people here radiate more warmth than I’ve ever felt in another place. Maybe it’s because I’m Cambodian that I feel so, but I think not. Many foreigners who I’ve met have voiced this same feeling of warmness and kindness experienced when interacting with Khmers. The big smiles and welcoming nature of Khmers is in part cultural, I think, but more so, I have a feeling that it stems from somewhere much deeper...I’ve yet to put a finger on where this is however.

2) The Local Love

If you want to buy a pair of custom made shoes, venture to the fifteen shops surrounding Tuol Sleng. They’re all neighbors selling basically the same shoes. If you want some ice, check out your neighbor’s house. He might be selling some. If you want some fish, go to your mouy, your go-to person.

In a developing country such as Cambodia, people try to make money in any way they can. This could be doing anything from selling cigarettes at the front of one’s house just as kids in America might sell lemonade, bringing in about 30,000 Riel a day (the equivalent of a little less than 8 dollars) to baking goods and setting them in a basket atop one’s head while wandering up and down market aisles for fourteen hours straight. There aren’t really mega-marts here. Just little mini-tents selling certain items. The glory of having a lot of the same businesses is that everyone here buys from local vendors.

3) Toul Tom Poung a.k.a. The Russian Market

As an admitted shopping addict, I confess that during my first two months here, I frequented this market at least twice a week. But hear me out: I’ve bought a good amount of dresses ranging from $2.50 to $5, which is a good incentive (in my skewed head) to keep shopping. Many foreigners ask me, “Where did you get that dress?” To their surprise, I say here in Cambodia, and they are shocked having found “nothing worth buying (clothes-wise).” If you are willing to Forever 21-it, and dig for the good finds, Toul Tom Poung is the way to go. And by dig, I mean dig. There are also clothes from brands like Gap, Bebe, Old Navy, Abercrombie, Hollister and the list goes on that manufacture clothing in Cambodia. I got three Gap plain T’s for five bucks. I’d say that’s quite the deal.

Toul Tom Poung also is known as the Foreigner’s market because it is the souvenir hot-spot. From silver trinkets to opium sets, you’ll find it here.

4) The Fruit

I believe I have harked on the fruit before, but indulge me. I am going through one of those moments where I miss a lot of American things. This also makes me think of how I will feel when I am back in America when I am sure I will miss Cambodian things. People aside, I think fruit might top the list. I can’t get enough of it, and many don’t exist back home. The ones that do aren’t the same. There are at least five different kinds of bananas here and five different kinds of mangos. I pick these off trees and eat them. Note to those who love me: A banana or mango tree is on my wish list for any special occasion.

5) Cheap Living

I’ve lived here for almost four months, and before I came here, I set my budget max as $2000. I don’t think I’ve reached over half this amount. And I don’t live cheaply. I indulge in daily coffees, teas, and croissants—things that add up. I buy dresses and fruit (which is relatively expensive). I ride tuk-tuks, the more expensive way of traveling that caters mostly to foreigners. Back home, I would be broke well before now.

6) Angkor Food (located near Toul Tom Poung)

Food here ranges from 3000 Riel to 7000 Riel a dish. Don’t expect a waiter with a napkin tucked into his server’s belt and spotless utensils. Angkor Food opens to the street, and many of the dishes are cooked at the make-shift kitchen on the sidewalk. Utensils are brought out soaked in a cup of hot water, and you polish your own silverware. Aside from being cheap, this food is real Khmer food with the perfect amount of lemongrass and tamarind and chili. The mee, yellow egg noodles, with some veggies is a must. Somlaw krung is also a must. Way more “finger-lickin’ good” than the overpriced KFC faux-chicken that my cousins pine for.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Living up to the Cliche: Watching the Sunset in Koh Kong

During the past few days, I’ve had a dry spell—oh no, not a sexual one, that’s been here for some time now—a writing one. It’s not that I don’t have things to write about, but I know that if I wrote about these things now, they’d be uninteresting to read even though they are in actuality very interesting matters. They would be a bunch of words that aren’t written with the passion and energy behind them that I believe good writing has.

To spare you the boredom of reading a lazily written post, I want to share these photographs with you. They were taken about a week and a half ago when I was in Koh Kong, a southwestern province of Cambodia that lines the Cardamom Mountains.

I snapped these photos as I was driving across the newly built bridge that crosses over to the Thai border. These photographs remind me of when I was in Cinque Terre two years ago. I took photos of my hike along the coast of the Italian Riviera, crossing five villages lined with pastel-colored homes with a sub-par camera, no photography know-how, and a shaky hand. Somehow, every photograph was captivating. A beautiful setting makes this possible. It makes up for what’s lacking on the other end of the lens.

Saying that the sunset in Koh Kong was beautiful would be cliché. Maybe. And an aspiring writer should avoid clichés at all costs, so I’ll skip the talk, and go straight to the photos. I hope you enjoy these as much as I did when I took them.

As a side note, if you enjoy photos of sunrises or sunsets, I invite you to look at Laura Guese’s paintings. She is a painter based in Denver, Colorado and in her artist statement, she writes of sunrises and sunsets saying, “I am captivated by the few seconds when the sky becomes full of infinite color and energy. I believe that the sky is an impermanent, universal landscape, which I find extremely appealing...The sky is ever-changing and never duplicated. The feeling of insignificance is overwhelming when observing the sky. The atmosphere has the power to evoke a full spectrum of true emotion, which I find fascinating.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Catch Me If You Can: My Battle with the Spirits

I’ve devoted hundreds of pages to dead people—people I don’t know other than by name or photograph. But despite the fact that these people are dead, they still talk to me. I began to write years ago because I thought this would stop the noise. I thought that perhaps by writing these spirits would be vanquished by reason. To this day, the act of writing hasn’t vanquished anything. I suppose I have my mother to thank for that.

When I was seven, my mother told me a story that I would never forget. “Buddha was living in Pou Tea, and he kept smiling at me. Smiling. Sitting. Smiling. My eyes became stuck on a candle. I was fifteen at the time. All of a sudden, something came into my stomach like a big lump. You can feel it, rising, rising.” She touched her neck, and it made me nervous. “And I knew something was in my body, and I tried to stop it. I knew what was happening. I kept trying to block it. I tried to close my jaw. I was fighting with the spirit. Since I wouldn’t let it talk, it made me shake my head like a peh, a bad angel. I didn’t let it because I knew if a spirit beat me once, spirits would always be able to come into me.” My mother pulled the bedcovers over me, and I held on to them tightly. “It happened to me – ” she said “ – So it is real. You must believe.”

My mother vouches for these spirits, telling me that they not only exist, but also are in many ways alive. To be alive means that they can hurt you, help you, become a part of your existence. How foolish of me, it seems, to try to kill them with pen and paper. When I was in America, Cambodia was still a place that existed only in books and photographs and stories. There was a separation between me and the land, which included the spirits living there. The spirits couldn’t catch me in America where they’d perish because they had nothing to feed on. No mudfish, or ground-up shrimp. No mounkout, or sai-mai, or lamout or pinkie-sized bananas. In America, they wouldn’t have bowls of rice for every meal. Yes, in America, they’d die. My reasoning that spirits needed physical nourishment may seem peculiar, but in Cambodian culture, spirits still need physical and emotional nourishment. I was successful in ignoring the spirits’ existence for some time, but how strange it is that I’ve now run to their home here in Cambodia.

Maybe they’ve reeled me into their soil because I’ve denied their existence for so long. I think I’m starting to believe my mother about these living spirits. Or, maybe I am starting to admit that I’ve been a believer all along, but feared admitting belief in something that wasn’t accepted by the Western culture I’d always known.

I went to a Kru two days ago, which is a person who has a spirit living in them like Pou Tea, the man in my mother’s story. My aunt took me to see Kru. This Kru lived in a beautiful wooden house that was built for him by one of the people he had helped. He asked for nothing from people who came to see him, but those who he had helped reach great success repaid him with land, villas and cars. This somewhat helped his credibility in my eyes, so I thought why the hell not.

Kru wore dirty white cotton pants and an equally dirty white tank. Otherwise, he looked like a normal man. He didn’t have a strange headdress or long overflowing beard as I’d imagined a Kru might. He spoke casually as we prepared to have what might be called a seeing. I lit five incense sticks as instructed to by my aunt and looked up at the Buddha shrine before me. I closed my eyes and prayed. That’s another thing I’ve found myself doing more since I’ve come to Cambodia. Praying feels less awkward. But I still feel strange and don’t really know what to pray for. I think I end up praying for the same thing—people.

My mother who did her seeing first began asking questions. While I usually divulge her secrets, I think I’ll let her keep these ones. In the middle of asking one of the questions, Kru looked up alarmingly. He pointed to me, and in that moment, I became afraid.

“Your daughter must be careful,” he said. He closed his eyes and listened to Buddha. “Pra-ong says that she must be very careful here in Cambodia. I see a tall man chasing her. A thief in a car. Yes, you must be very careful,” he said looking at my hands. “Give me your jewelry.”

I took off my bangles, watch and ring, and handed them to him. He held them for the next hour we were there, blowing on them and blessing them, so as to keep me out of harm’s way.

“I had a dream ten years ago that my daughter would face danger in Cambodia,” my mother told Kru. “Then I had a dream a week ago and saw I man jump out of a car and try to pull her in. He held a white kerchief and tried to wrap it around her mouth. I screamed and told her to get in the house. And, the day before my daughter came to Cambodia, my husband dropped a frame with her picture in it, and it broke.”

My mother looked at me. “See, Kru sees the same thing. You must be very careful.”

I don’t know how I felt at that moment. Confused, probably. A bit scared. I’ve always thought that I’d only be in danger if I put myself in a position to be harmed, which I don’t think I do. But when Kru looked at me, I felt something. I don’t quite know how to describe it.

Kru later asked me, “Do you get headaches often?”

I thought of the killer one I had a few nights ago, and the ones that never go away. “Yes, yes I do,” I said.

“Does your body hurt?”

My ass was killing me during that moment, but in general, my body aches much more than a twenty-two year old body should I think. I nodded.

“Can you not sleep, and do you see terrible things in your dreams?”

“Yes, a lot.”

Kru closed his eyes again, and listened to Buddha for some time. “You have a peh in you.”

“What?” said my mother with wide eyes. My aunt gasped, covering her mouth.

I looked at my mother. “A what?” I asked, forgetting the meaning of peh.

“An evil spirit.”

Great. I have a fucking evil spirit in me, I thought.

“Well, can you make it leave?” I asked Kru in a slightly irritated voice.

“I can try to chase it out of you,” he said.

“Ok,” I said to Kru. “Get out of me you stupid peh,” I said to the spirit.

Kru laughed, and pulled out a black stone that I’d seen him use earlier when healing a sick child. He placed it on my head as I faced away from him. My scalp began to feel hot and heavy, and I thought Kru had replaced the stone with his hand.

“What is on my head?”

“The black stone. Is it hot?”


“Is it heavy?”


“Not to worry. It will get better. It feels this way because the spirit is angry it must leave you,” he said.

“Here, feel the stone,” he said, bringing my hand to touch the stone atop my head. It was cold, but I felt hot. It was light as my bangle, but felt like a book. I looked at the floor confusedly. How could this be possible?

I decided to stop being so confused for the moment, and just be there. In my head, I chanted Get out evil spirit. Get out. Get out. Get the fuck out.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Screw Disneyland, kids. How about some slots?

“Look. Is it beautiful?” Uncle asked me.

I looked up at Naga—Phnom Penh’s casino catering to the Western likes of myself. Red and green lights ran across the front side of the building. A water show was placed before it, shooting spurts to the beats of that 1, 2, 3, 4 song that was overplayed months ago in the States. The building was otherwise a rectangular glass-paneled box.

I curled my lips upward, creating what I thought resembled a smile and looked at Uncle. He stood with his hands on his hips, and looked up at the building, his lower lip jutting out in approval.

“Look,”—my mother said excitedly—“It’s just like Bellagio.” She was referring to the one in Vegas, not the one on Lake Como.

I sighed. Not Vegas again, I thought.

“I shouldn’t come in here. Only neak civilie come here, like you,” Auntie said. Neak civilie are people who are distinctly un-Khmer, who are not modest, who dare to wear shirts that bear their bosoms and pants that shadow their bottoms. I straightened my V-neck dress covering anything that might be showing. Auntie meant this as a compliment, but I suddenly became aware of my un-modestness.

“Come on, Older Sister Kanitha,” piped up Sang, Uncle’s youngest daughter. She grabbed my hand excitedly, pulling me towards Naga’s doors. Uncle’s three other children trailed behind us, each in awe of the world of bright lights and lured by the ching ching ching of slot machines.

A slew of languages echoed through the lobby—mostly Japanese and Chinese. Stepping past an enormous fake flower display into one of the game rooms, I looked up to a dome sky with puffy clouds giving the allusion of day.

“Just like Caesar’s Palace,” mother said.

I rolled my eyes and stifled a groan. She shot me that Don’t you judge me look.

Uncle walked up to a table to observe a white haired fellow with a cig dangling from his lips playing some card game. His face looked distinctly Cambodian. I had heard that Naga didn’t allow Cambodians into the casino, that it was for foreigners. This man wore a gold watch and leather shoes. Maybe he was one of the wealthy Cambodians. Uncle observed the man lose five straight hands before he walked away.

“See. If you’ve got money, it doesn’t matter if you lose. It’s just a way to relax, have fun,” Uncle said.

We came to a slot machine. The kids ran their fingers over the buttons. “Find a chair,” Uncle instructed them. Mei, the twelve-year-old sat in the first chair. Sang to the right of her, and Pich at the end. Uncle pulled out his wallet, feeding each machine five bucks.

I looked over at the dealers in the little black vests. They stood watching us with their hands clasped behind their backs. This isn’t Disneyland. Uncle’s really going to get it, I thought.

“What do we press?” asked Mei.

Uncle motioned for a dealer to come over. “Tell them what to press,” he demanded.

“Wait until the numbers stop rolling, then hit this button,” the dealer said.

The kids pressed the buttons as instructed.

“Aren’t they smart?” Auntie said. “They learn so fast. I don’t even know how to play.”

Sang lost her five bucks in a matter of minutes. Next was Pich who then climbed into Mei’s chair. “No fair. Let me play, too.”

Mei was doing quite well. Fifteen minutes later, her five had turned to twenty-five. “Quit or press it again, Pa?” Everyone crowded around Mei, excited by the prospect of gold coins falling.


Moments later she was down to twenty. “Ok, ok, you can quit,” Uncle said. He motioned for the dealer to mark up Mei’s earnings. “Good job, Mei.” He patted Mei on the head as if she just passed an exam. “Come on, let me show you the rest.”

We walked to an open space where some Khmer girls stood on a stage dressed in Christmas costumes—red velvet and all. Apparently, Christmas runs past December.

“Very nice,”—I said—“What else is there?” We kept moving, and I thought I heard the tune of “Santa Baby” in the background.

Tall Cambodian girls stood in front of every door. I don’t know where the Naga HR office went to find these chicks, but they’re tall-tall. Think 5’11”-ish. One of these women, a slender one with a gnarly face, smiled at us when we passed Lady Bar. “This is where people go to drink,” Uncle said. “And there are girls who dance,” he added with a boyish grin across his face. “Want to go in?”

Mother shook her head. “No, no. That won’t be necessary.”

“Pa, Pa! I want to go in!” Sang piped up. “Let’s go see girls dance. Like this,” she said twisting her body. “Sexy girl,” she whispered to me.

Uncle looked amused, and half-convinced to go in. Auntie looked equally amused.

Mother shook her head again. “It’s not necessary.”

Ooo-ahh they?” Auntie asked me as we exited Naga. I’ve never quite figured out where this phrase comes from, but I wonder if it is from what people say when they are amazed at something—like oooo and ahhh—because that’s what I think this phrase means.

Ooo-ahh,” I said, shuddering as I passed by one of the giant chicks with long flowy hair, an elf-like nose, and crooked teeth.

Monday, February 15, 2010

My Mother's Journey: Re-Discovering Home

The very first home I grew up in had mirrors that stretched from the dining room floor all the way up to the vaulted ceiling—very Alice in Wonderland-esq. These mirrors had panels of some dark wood inserted between them. They had a romantic quality to them, the same romantic quality that one might associate with an old grandfather clock or record player. Whenever I think of the place I first called home, I think of these strange mirrors that I have never seen in any home, other than my first one.

Homes tend to be places of refuge. They are usually places we run to when we are in trouble, and the place we return to when we have no where else to go. But, some people don’t have a place that they can really call home. In a conversation with a friend, she expressed that she never really had a physical or emotional “place” of refuge—a place or person or memory she could associate with as being home. For those who have had troubled childhoods, home is not this romantic place. It is a feared place, a memory that one seeks to dissolve and forget.

Before my mother arrived here in Cambodia, I always hoped that she would take me to see her old home. I didn’t know if she would want to see it, though. I didn’t know if my mother’s old home, which she grew up in would be the same place of refuge that I find in my old home in Denver. It seems to me that the refugee flees from one home to another, but is unable to fully call any place home. If for my mother, her home in Cambodia is a place she fears, then I don’t want her to see it. Something that I’ve had to come to terms with here is that my mother’s journey back to her homeland is her journey, not mine. I cannot prevent her from doing something she desires, nor can I force her to go somewhere or do something against her wishes.

During her first few minutes of being in the city she was born, Phnom Penh, my mother was jarred. “Oh my god,” she exclaimed in English, and then in Khmer, “Are there no driving laws here? How can three people fit on a moto...or four! Are there not garbage men? Do they just let these naked children walk on the street begging? Why don’t they do anything about it? Everything’s just dirty!” Watching my mother react to her surroundings was a bit like re-living my first few days in Phnom Penh. For some reason, I thought that my mother wouldn’t have been as baffled at all these things as I initially was. She’d grown up here, so shouldn’t she be used to all these things?

The city of Phnom Penh was completely transformed beginning in 1975 when city dwellers were forced to leave. The refined urbanites who once inhabited the bustling city were replaced with a diverse mixture of people—a handful of wealthy and mostly corrupt politicians and loads of those struggling—shoeless and dirtied children, old men with ribs exposed and stubs for limbs, women with newborns lain on sidewalks exposed to the heat and dust. This was not the Phnom Penh that my mother grew up in. Somehow, in the past three months I’ve lived here, I have come to know Phnom Penh much better than my mother knows it. “This is not my home,” she tells me.

“Why do you keep mixing English with Khmer, Mom? Oum (Older Aunty) and Ming (Younger Aunty) can’t understand any of the words,” I ask annoyed.

She shrugs. “I don’t know. Because I’m used to it. I left for almost thirty years,” she says, again mixing the two languages. I don’t know why it irritates me, but it does. My mother clings to whatever is American in her, creating the distinction between herself and her relatives who never left Cambodia. Perhaps I am irritated because I’ve also created these levels of distinction, not only between the native-born Khmers and me, but also between my mother and myself. Between her imperfect English, and my English. Between my broken Khmer and her Khmer. Perhaps, I sense my own fear of recognizing myself as being fully Khmer, as if there is something shameful about being so.

On the second day in Phnom Penh, we began heading down Norodom near the Independence Monument. This is an area that I know fairly well, having spent a decent amount of time frequenting the cafes and little boutiques in the area. “That’s Moum’s house!” my mother shouted, slapping my leg and pointing to a home near the corner of the monument. “That means my house is around here. Isn’t it Ming? Isn’t it?” she asked her aunt.

We drove around, and eventually turned down Street 370. “This is it,” my mother said. “This is it.” We parked in front of the home. I remember my mother telling me once that her house had been demolished after the war, and that a new home had been built in its place.

“It’s still here,” she said to no one in particular. The house had been divided into two homes. One of the owners was outside cleaning his moto. She explained to him who she was, and he warmly invited us to look around.

We stood outside gazing upward at the house. “We’ve kept everything the same,” said the man. “We haven’t had money to restore it.” The house was white with square grid-panes along the patio. Large trees shaded the left side of the home, poking into the patio on the second-floor. There was something romantic about the house despite the wornness of it all. There were traces of my mother’s child-self running through it.

“That’s my room,” my mother said, pointing to the room on the second floor, which opens to a balcony. She stared it at it with a loving familiarity, and I turned away. I didn’t want to disrupt her special moment, and I gave her some privacy that I know is so hard to find sometimes, especially in moments when it is really needed.

I stood on the tile of the upstairs patio. “Is it the same floor?” I asked my mother. She said it was. I loved this tile—for its rusted maroon and dirty-whiteness, for its little cracks and scratches. This is my mother’s home, I thought, and snapped a photo, keeping it in my memory.