Monday, February 15, 2010
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 so...so 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.