I attribute my still-decent grasp of Khmer to the hours I spent with my grandmothers watching Chinese and Thai television shows. They were rented from shops in Long Beach, some of them twenty or thirty VHS cassettes long. There were fantasy series in which people used their qi to do incredible things: fly, shoot lasers from their fingertips, heal each other’s wounds. There were modern shows: sagas of love and betrayal, comedies, stories of family drama. All of them were dubbed in Khmer by the same handful of voice actors. I used to watch my favorite ones over and over again; the actors and scenes and voices are imprinted upon my memory.
Though I am as fluent in Khmer as most of my American-born peers if not more so, I have always been extremely nervous about speaking it. I would only speak in Khmer with older relatives who had no English at all; I would go mute with anyone even remotely close to my own age. I was always afraid of being judged. Soon after I started elementary school, I stopped speaking Khmer at all at home; my parents would speak to me in Khmer and I would answer back in English. Sometime in high school, I stopped calling my father “Pba” and trained myself to call him “Dad,” I stopped calling my mother “Momi” and started calling her “Mom.” The first time I called him “Dad” when I was talking to her, my mother was confused for a moment. I was trying to be more mature, to feel more assimilated, and, in a way, I was rebelling.
I was selfish; I would rather they make the effort to understand me than to make the effort myself to communicate with them. I don’t recall them ever chiding me for it; my mother appreciated the English practice. How ashamed I am to realize that I spent so much of my childhood embarrassed by my mother’s broken English rather than being proud that she is literate in two completely different languages. Khmer script might as well be code to me.
When I switched from going to school in (then) predominantly-White Bellflower to Little Saigon, I was culture-shocked: never before had I been among so many Asians. In my first days of seventh grade, I gravitated toward the non-Asians because I was comfortable with Otherness. A new word was introduced to my vocabulary: fob. As in fresh-off-the-boat, as in not-born-here, as in speaks-English-with-an-Asian-language-accent. No matter that I was second-generation or that my parents came to the U.S. by plane or that I spoke English well– I was intensely anxious that I would hear that term aimed at me. The cliques throughout junior high and high school were divided by degree of English fluency as much as by the typical classifications of jock, nerd, preppy, geek, skater, punk. And in my mind, the more assimilated to “American” culture, the better.
I didn’t know then what a fabrication the television version of the “typical American teen” was. By the end of high school, most of my friends were Vietnamese– I suppose I became more comfortable being friends with Asians once I found that being Khmer allowed me to maintain some level of Otherness. In college, I did not seek out the other Khmer students, likely due to the fact that at eighteen, I was more concerned with my sexuality than my cultural background. A person cannot be so easily divided, however, and exploration of the former would eventually bring me to explore the latter.
As I’ve gotten older, that subconscious attachment to an exotic status has waned enough for me to know that it existed. I have begun to hunger to know, to be a part of, the Khmer/American community. I have begun to unravel the years of wanting to be the fictional “typical American.” I have begun to finally accept and respect the bond of family. I have begun to want to speak Khmer.
There is an intimacy in speaking the language of your parents, an intimacy that I did not understand or value when I was an adolescent, but that I instinctively recognized: hearing my father call me “child” in Khmer, “kohn,” affirmed his tenderness and love for me even when I was least receptive to feeling it. Though I do not speak Khmer with complete confidence, it has become a pleasure to be able to speak it at all.
It makes sense: it is the language in which love was first expressed to me. It is the language spoken by those who nurtured me from birth. When I speak Khmer, it invokes the visceral sense of my family’s love.
It invokes my memories of my grandmothers, of falling asleep with them while the VHS tapes turned to snow.