We found ourselves at Tom Bradley International Airport at ten o’ clock at night. November in West Los Angeles made the air damp and chilly. The streets were wet from the rain earlier that day. The concrete had absorbed and evaporated much of water and looked almost dry. There was a clean feeling to the cool, humid air. The lights around the terminal twinkled, the long rows of cars passing in and out of the loading zone seemed to be doing a choreographed dance, blinking turn signals, sudden brake lights flashing, the orange-coned flashlight of the security guards moving people along.
The thought of flying in the rain had made me nervous all day. I spent the afternoon packing and re-packing, sorting out what I should put in my checked luggage and what I should have with me in my carry-on. My notebook and my favorite book of poetry, of course, I would keep close for the flight. My lip balm, I could keep. I had to decipher which toiletries could come with me and which had to be packed away. How those new TSA rules about bottles kept flyers safer was lost on me. I doubted they really did anything other than make a lot of money for the tiny plastic bottle manufacturers.
We expected total transit time to equal twenty-four hours.
My grandmother’s first trip back to Cambodia since leaving the continent over twenty years earlier. I would be the one to go with her. It would be my first trip there, ever, too. My parents and all the older adults had to work. Not me. Plenty of free time now that I’d decided to take a break from school.
The huge valises we had with us were filled with name-brand shampoo and conditioner, lotions, video games, books, toys, hand-me-down clothes. I knew that, like other relatives who visited and returned from Srok Khmer, we would replace those items for the flight back with an assortment of dried fish, fermented fish, prahok, pickled things, fabrics, and perhaps trinkets like wooden or jade carvings of apsaras, rolled canvases of paintings of Angkor Wat or rice paddies, Khmer pastoral images with yoked oxen and small grass huts and people bending down to stoong.
My grandmother would see her daughters again for the first time since they’d each made the trek across the Pacific to see her ten years ago. I hardly remembered that visit. I was in middle school. What I do remember is their bright smiles, and the feeling of the care with which they tended to my grandmother, and how they spoke Khmer to me and I was embarrassed to speak back to them because I was shy about my limited vocabulary. They would be waiting for us when we got to the airport in Phnom Penh, to receive their mother back to the country that had torn so much from the family.
The car was unloaded with our luggage. We had made sure to make use of every single kilo allowed per passenger. Good thing visits to the International Terminal was always a family affair. My father quickly acquired two carts and carefully arranged our heavy bundles on each of them. I perched my carryon bags carefully on the top of one cart while my father handled the other. My mother supported my grandmother’s arm as we made our way to the sliding glass doors.
With her hunched back, my grandmother looked so small. When she stood straight up, however, that always changed. She was taller than my mother when she stood up. That wasn’t to say she was tall, exactly, but she was of greater than average height among the women in our family. I couldn’t remember exactly how tall my aunts in Cambodia were. My memory pictured them always sitting down near my grandmother, never standing. My grandmother so often allowed her back to stoop far that when she, through great effort, held herself tall, she managed to be imposing no matter the height of the people around her. I was shorter than her at those moments, and I had an inner sort of cringe when she stood tall, looming over me.
Even at twenty-one, I still felt a little bit scared of my grandmother.
And I had volunteered to be the one to escort her home. After years of coordinating donations to build a school in her old province, she had been invited to the opening ceremony. The nearby temple joined in the enthusiasm for her visit. She had received a call from the Cambodian television network in the US, wanting to interview her. With the help of my parents and the cache she’d saved from her small Social Security checks, she was able to purchase a plane ticket to be there.
I knew that there was another factor at play. At nearly eighty, though her mind was still sharp, her body did not have much longer. If she did not return now, she may never see with her own eyes what became of her country.