We waited in the long line at the airport check-in counter the most affordable airline to fly to Cambodia. A Taiwanese company called EVA Air. There were other Khmers in line with us, families that looked like ours, with the same huge valises.
Red-eyes were popular. Beginning our flight in the middle of the night meant that we would get to Cambodia sometime mid-day.
My father requested a wheelchair for my grandmother. Her legs already hurt. I knew that squeezing them was not going to help much, but I knelt down and did so anyway, trying not to be self-conscious about whether I looked like I was trying to look like a good grand daughter. Rather than just being one. The line is thin.
When we got to the front of the line, my father spoke for both of us even though he wasn’t going to fly. It was easier to defer to him in this instance rather than try to assert my adulthood by going to the counter myself. He’d traveled to the Cambodia once on his own a couple of years earlier. A test visit of sorts, to see how the country was and whether we might take a family trip there one day. The political situation in the country and the amount of corruption among the officials seemed to be growing less and less, and my aunts across the ocean vouched for the improvement in their phone calls over the last year. He handed over our passports and checked our luggage. The giant suitcases were weighed, placed on the conveyor belt, and our carry-ons were passed back to us. I slung my pack over one shoulder and hung my grandmother’s large black purse on the back of her wheelchair as my dad gathered up the boarding passes, tapping them once on the counter to straighten them before turning around to lead us to gate.
The fluorescent lights of the terminal glared down at us. My parents could take me and my grandmother as far as the gate. Then, it would be just me and her waiting to board, just the two of us on that plane together, just the two of us waiting in Taiwan for the transfer flight into Phnom Penh.
I realized with some anxiety that I had not sat alone with her in almost a decade. I looked at her salt-and-pepper hair. It was more salt than pepper now. When did that happen? I wondered. She used to dye her hair black every month or so when I was growing up. To notice the white hair so much more pronounced took me aback. I had a moment of worry. What if something happened while we were in flight together? What if something happened when we were in Cambodia? What would I do? Suddenly my grasp of Khmer felt frighteningly inadequate.
We reached the security check area. Another line. Traveling by plane involves so many lines.
“Be careful, okay? Tahy-ra-sah cluon. Help yey.” My father’s voice was a low rumble, comforting as usual. Whenever he told me to do something, it seemed that I stood a little taller, a little more at-the-ready. I became more ready.
“I will,” I nodded. I stepped toward my father and hugged him. A brief squeeze. Not like the kind that I shared with friends or my young aunts or my mother. He patted me on the back as if to hurry me along. I knew that such contact was awkward for him, but he tried, and even though the embrace itself was not warm, I was warmed by it.
“Prayat, okay? Take care.” My mother said it lightly, but her eyes revealed her worry. She gave me a tight hug and pressed her lips together into her tight smile, the one that seemed like it was caught between emotions. I had that same tight-lipped smile, which often wavered toward a grimace more than anything.
“I always am, Mom.” It was strange to be going without her. To visit Cambodia before she did. I always thought about it as “going back,” but how do you return to a place you’ve never been? And yet her stories had always made me feel like I’d been there. A certain version of “there.” A version that didn’t exist any more except in the minds of a million people– a million? Was that number even right? Cambodia was a small country, but the number must be larger. There were half a million of us in the United States, and more in Europe, Australia. A Pot’s Cambodia lived on in a million memories and in the inherited memories of all the children who came after. I wonder what it was like being born in Cambodia, growing up there after the war. There was so much I didn’t know. So much I suppose that I was going to Cambodia to try to learn. It all felt a little strange.
But there was my grandmother. Nearly eighty years old. She’d lived through the war-torn country twice. And then left. What was it like to leave a country after already living there for over a century? To go to a strange place where suddenly you were strange and weak and everything was so different? What thoughts were going through her head? I wondered. Perhaps whether she’d be able to chew her betel leaves and nuts on the plane. She had a small kit in her bag. I hoped that security wouldn’t take it away as some kind of contraband. Did they let people chew tobacco on the plane?
The security check line was growing longer by the second and my father urged us to get in.
I looked down at my grandmother. The Khmer words stuck at the back of my tongue. I forced them out, imperfectly formed as they were. “Yeung thdew, yey?”
“Dthah, yeung. Sok sa bai, nah.” Let’s go. Be well, okay? She extended her hands out to my parents and they each clasped one tightly for a moment, raising their hands to sampeah her goodbye, fingers and palms pressed together, index fingers brushing their foreheads.
Gripping the handles of her wheelchair, I pushed her through the corridors of the winding line. We got to move a little faster since she was in the wheelchair. I placed our bags on the conveyor belt.
A security guard asked me “Can she walk?” I told him that she could, just not for too long, and he asked me to ask her to get up and walk through the metal detector.
I translated as best I could, and braced the wheelchair as she pushed herself up, her back stooped at first, and then slowly, slowly, she pulled her torso upright. The light grey cardigan she wore dangled open and the large-necked shirt hung loosely on her bony shoulders. She wore shiny black pants with an elastic waistband and slip-on open-toed shoes with thick socks. We had packed away her cane in the luggage because we knew she would be using a wheelchair through most of the journey, but I wished we had it then as I watched her shuffle her feet carefully on the path through the metal detector. As expected, no alarms went off.
The security guard took the wheelchair from me and rolled it to the other side for my grandmother to sit in. He held it steady for her as she gripped the arms, turned herself around, and slowly lowered herself back into it.
Everything gets so much slower when you get older. Her bones, her knees, her body had been through so much. She still sat in the backyard pulling weeds and planting herbs. The only way to have enough herbs to cook with was to grow them yourself, here. Without them, the Khmer dishes just wouldn’t be right. Though we lived near Little Saigon and there was a small Khmer market not too far from us, it just wasn’t the same to buy the herbs. My grandmother was committed to her lemongrass and chi krahom and the herbs I hoped to be able to name better by the time we returned from Srok Khmer.
It must have been painful for her to take even those few steps upright, I thought as the security guard gestured for me to walk through the metal detector myself and receive her. My grandmother watched me come through. I turned her chair toward the side of the conveyor belt where our bags exited the X-ray machine. Thankfully we didn’t have to deal with anyone questioning us about the betel nut kit. Replacing her purse on the wheelchair and my bag on my shoulder, I took us to our gate.
Entering the duty free area, we rolled past the brightly lit shops. I was getting weary of all the bright lights in the airport. All of the stores selling duty-free cigarettes and huge bottles of liquor. We passed fast food restaurants and coffee shops and bars. On our rare occasions of flying, I couldn’t remember our family partaking in any of these airport “conveniences.” I used to think it was just the inflated prices that were a deterrent, but I eventually understood that restaurant food just could not compare to what we could have together at home.
I found our gate and settled us in the seats nearest to the boarding area. It was nearing midnight. I could see my grandmother beginning to look weary.
“Yey chjong banh ey thdei?” I cringed at my own accent. Hopefully that would get better, too, I thought. I should just know what to get her, I thought. Water, of course. Maybe I could find some hot water at one of those restaurants.
When she didn’t answer for a long moment, I thought she might have fallen asleep. I peered at her face and saw that her eyes were staring off into the distance.
“Yey kidt ey?” What was she thinking about? Stupid question. If I were visiting my home of half a century after decades away, I’d be lost in thought, too.
It’s going to be a long flight, she said. I hope I’ll be able to sleep on the plane. My legs hurt already.
Without asking her if she wanted me to, I once again knelt down and began to massage her calves through her shiny black pants. It was hard to tell whether her muscles were taught or if it were just her thinness causing them to feel so ropey. I supposed that it must be a combination of the two. The material of her pants was smooth and heavier than it looked. I was surprised that they kept her warm enough in Autumn, but I imagined she was dressing for the Khmer heat. I should make sure to get blankets right away when we board.
The flight staff walked up in their neat outfits, pulling their small rolling luggage behind them. They seemed so put together at first, but when I looked more closely, I could see a few errant hairs and small wrinkles in their clothes. They’re human, I thought with a mixture of relief and amusement. The other passengers around us began to do the typical impatient boarding shuffle, as though all the shifting and standing would actually help get the plane boarded faster. Better to just relax.
One of the airline staff approached us and let us know that we had priority boarding. That was a change. It would take some time to negotiate bringing my grandmother through to the narrow aisles of the economy section. I slipped her bag over one arm and gave her the other arm. She stood up, bracing one hand on my arm, again making her body upright. She gripped my arm tightly as we moved. I was glad that we didn’t have any other carry-ons.
As we got through the doors and began walking down the long corridor to the plane, she began to stoop again. We walked along, following the attendant through the doors of the plane and finally to our seats.
It would be a long time before people filed in, filling in the seats all around us. I was glad to have an aisle seat except as people brushed past with their belongings, some of them unaware of how they brushed against my head. I leaned into my grandmother to avoid them.
When it seemed that all finished boarding, I remembered to ask an attendant for blankets before he walked back to the front of the plane.
When he returned with the extra blankets, I took them and turned to ask my grandmother whether she wanted to cover herself then, or wait until later.
Her head was already pressed back into the headrest, eyes closed, jaw hanging slightly agape. I reached across her lap to buckle her in, and covered her with the blanket, tucking the edges in behind her shoulders, under her thighs.
By the time we took off at around one A.M., I was asleep, too.