Taking a Step Back

We had just landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia less than 6 hours ago after a 21 hour flight and departed the city towards Svay Rieng Province. The sky was getting darker as the moon shone brighter. We were at a wedding reception in the countryside. This one in particular was outside in front of the bride’s house. Like many houses in rural Cambodia, this one was wooden and uplifted by tall pillars so that the first floor was just open space to sit and lounge. Two long, wooden staircases extended from different entrances to the inside of the house to the ground. There was a clearing in front of the house which was supposed to be the dancefloor. Tables were set up all around the dancefloor. On one side, stacks of large, black speakers blared out Khmer music.

I was wearing a light pink cardigan with a lacy white blouse and distressed jeans. The other girls had a full face of makeup on, their heads of hair were stiff like cardboard, and their dresses looked like something out of Toddlers and Tiaras. They must’ve prepped all day for this wedding, I remember saying to myself. It was night time and I was struggling to stay awake from the jet-lag. Even all the food on the table couldn’t make up for it. I stared at the beef larb, the Khmer-styled sweet and sour soup, and rice in front of me. There were flies and mosquitos everywhere, and they had a special liking for my face. I kept wiggling my arms and stomping legs to shoo the mosquitos away. The locals are never preyed upon by those bloodsucking vampires. “They can smell foreign blood,” my mom would say. I guess my agitation was apparent because some guys were setting up a lamp near my table that attracts and then zaps and kills the flies that comes into contact with it. Some of the men and women standing right in front of me found it very amusing that I couldn’t stand the aerial pests. They did not bother to try and hide their laughter. My vacation was already starting off terribly.

I was born in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. My parents and two older siblings moved to the U.S. when I was around three years old leaving me with my grandmother. My parents worked for several years to build a life there for my family. By the time I was six, they had saved enough money for me to move to the U.S. to be with them. I began first grade in a charter school in Philadelphia not knowing how to speak any English. I remember having to be separated from my classes frequently to go with the English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. However, it didn’t take long before I became fluent in the language and caught up to the rest of my classmates. I didn’t think much of it then as a first grader, but my life would never be the same. Because I was so young when I learned, I don’t carry an accent when speaking English. Now, there was nothing to set me apart from the rest of my classmates. I grew up doing everything my classmates did. Even in high school, my friends forget that I am from a different country.

The mosquitos wouldn’t quit. I was itching all over. I was so ready to go home and get some sleep. I alerted my parents that I had to use the restroom. My dad motioned for me to follow him. We walked away from the house and out to the fields. “Go ahead,” he said, pointing to a corner of the field were tall plants were clustered. I stared back at him in astonishment.

“What, you want me to pee behind the plants?”

“Yeah, where else? No one will see you,” he said, pointing at the plants once again.

“No! Nevermind, I don’t wanna go anymore,” I exclaimed.

“Alright then, wait here. I gotta take care of my business too,” he responded and headed off.

I crossed my arms and released a big sigh as I looked up at the sky. The moon in Philadelphia was much bigger, but here there are stars. There are palm trees and fireflies. There are motorcycles, coconuts, and breathtaking beaches. The smell in the air was dewy and I start to remember how much I missed it. Everything about the place. I wanted to cut open a pocket in the sky where I could crawl into and breathe this air forever and be smothered. This was my home, but people were treating me like an outsider because I was already having issues with the insects. What was once something I did not pay attention to was now so foreign. I used to pee by bushes all the time when I lived in Cambodia. Everyone did it because not everyone had money to install toilets. I was surprised that once again, I did not fit in with everyone else. I didn’t like how that felt.

In contrast to that, my mother intentionally tried to set herself apart from everyone else. She went to the salon run by ladyboys daily to get her hair, makeup, and nails done. In the U.S., she never did anything like that. She made sure to flash her earrings, necklaces, and rings and always carried her finest purses which were never taken out of her closet in Philly.

“You’re going to get snatched,” my grandmother warns my mom. In Cambodia, no one really wears fake jewelry.

If my mom didn’t do all of that to look fancy, she would fit right in. Moving to America didn’t change anything about her identity. She doesn’t speak English and she never did grow up around Americans like me. In the future I will become even more distant from my past which I cannot control. I struggle to hold onto my identity which is largely defined by my culture in a country that holds different traditions. My homeland will become a distant memory after my parents are gone and I don’t want that to happen, but I know it most likely will. I don’t know how to deal with this internal conflict until I do grow up. All I can do is continue to speak my language, eat the food I eat and maybe cook that food in the future for my family.

I ended up leaving the wedding early that night. So much has happened since the last time I set foot on my grandmother’s house and I have grown so much. Everyone is always moving from one thing to the next. Our world is constantly changing as we are experiencing new things that shapes our lives and we adopt to it and it adopts to us so quickly that we don’t even realize what is happening until we take a step back. That is why we must surround ourselves with the people, places, and things that reminds us of who we are and where we came from so that we don’t get lost.


Comments (3)

Nadia Green (Student 2018)
Nadia Green
  1. I learned that she is from a different country and that there are many differences from her homeland than the US.

  2. What I liked about the writing was that it was a story that flowed well. I liked that there was dialogue throughout the essay because it add a personal aspect.

Lotus Shareef-Trudeau (Student 2018)
Lotus Shareef-Trudeau

Reading this essay I learned a lot about Cambodia and your heritage that I didn't know before as I am quite ignorant on the subject, so I appreciate the small amount of knowledge I now do have. I really liked the amount of detail that you put into this essay when describing your anecdotes, it made it easy to picture exactly what you were describing.

Athalia Tan (Student 2018)
Athalia Tan
  1. I learned that Sopheary is someone who experiences two different culture, she's trying to keep both but at times it's hard because every culture is different.

  2. I like that you explained the details of your trip and went in depth about what you were experiencing throughout your life and your changing world.