After people got their beverages and began waking up, window shades started to open around the cabin, adding bright sunlight to the artificial lights. I wished for a window seat. My grandmother and I were in the four-person center seating on this enormous plane. At least in the window seat you could lose yourself in the sky outside the window and pretend you weren’t crammed into a huge mass of metal with hundreds of other people. It would have been hard for us if I had a window seat– my grandmother would have had to maneuver past a stranger to get out of her seat.
She and I sat quietly next to each other. I hadn’t sat with my grandmother since I was a young child, when she was the only person I had to talk to, the only person I spent most of my non-school days and nights with. The hours of my childhood were filled with memories of sitting with her on the kitchen floor, peeling garlic, pounding lemongrass and turmeric and galanga root for her Khmer kreung, or watching her tend to the weeds among her herbs and lettuces, or watching a drama dubbed in Khmer with her.
“Yey kleaun nuew?” Grandmother, are you hungry yet? For lack of knowing how to say much else, I could at least talk about food with her.
“Oht thoun thei, chjow.” Not yet, grandchild.
I wasn’t sure how to tell her that they were about to serve food anyway. So I was silent again.
Are you tired? I asked in my broken Khmer. Do your legs hurt?
My legs are okay but my lower back is hurting. She said it in the way she always did, in the way that I’d heard many older Khmer relatives talk about their aches and pains, with a kind of resignation to their bodies feeling that way. Not a whine, but an expression of fact.
Should I squeeze? I reached between her back and the seat and began to press my fingers into the muscles at her lower back. She leaned forward into the lowered tray table, carefully avoiding the plastic cup of now-lukewarm water she had been sipping. I knew that she was trying not to drink too much water because of how difficult it was to get up and go to the restroom.
I heard the flight attendants beginning to go down the rows and ask people what they wanted to eat. It was that strange time in the flight when they could have served anything, everyone was so groggy. With the sunlight streaming in, it was to be breakfast time. I had finished my cranberry juice cocktail and looked forward to a cup of coffee, as weak as it might be, as weak as it always was on airplanes. The flight attendants were going down the rows asking whether people wanted rice porridge or eggs.
In the realm of airline food and really, any food that’s served to large groups in tight spaces, I knew not to expect much. I knew that rice porridge could go terribly wrong. I asked my grandmother which she wanted. To my surprise, she chose the egg meal.
I know their porridge is not going to be like the kind we make at home. Aha. She had made her decision based on lower expectations, too.
The warm plastic trays were brought to us. Soggy rice with steamed vegetables and a large yellow lump of eggs, similar to what you might get from a fast food restaurant. The warm bread roll was the most pleasant part of the meal. Hard to go wrong with warm bread, butter, and jam. I picked at the food, mostly, and drank coffee.
I watched my grandmother eat slowly and methodically. She would try very hard to waste as little as possible, no matter if she liked it or not. I asked her about it even though I knew how she felt.
“Mun ey thdei ey?” Is it okay?
“Mun dohyt mahope yeung,” she replied, “bpun ngam kahyt.” It’s not like our food, but it is edible.
It had always been hard to waste food at our house. Every morsel was eaten. Leftovers were saved. There was always more than enough food, though. One thing my parents seemed adept at was making sure that they were able to feed us well through a combination of our backyard garden and good deals at supermarkets. My mother was always buying “London Broil” cuts of beef. I wasn’t sure what that was, exactly, but it certainly was not the kind of cut that would be advertised for restaurants, nor the cuts that cooks on television were ever interested in, but she always turned it into the most delicious loc lac. Every so often my parents would talk about things that they ate during A Pot, the rice porridge that was more water than rice and the bits of salt they had with it. There was dried fish sometimes, when they were lucky. They each spent three years doing hard labor while hardly being fed. It was not hard to understand how they could be so careful about food.
Looking down at my nearly full tray of food, I picked up my fork and began to nibble away at more of the meal, trying to find the proportions of rice to eggs to overdone vegetables that would be most pleasant.
And then I thought about the cost of the plane ticket. They had saved money for a long time for this trip. This meal was an extension of that. Wasting the meal was equivalent to wasting their money. The thought of that left a worse taste in my mouth than any poorly-prepared airplane meal could. The taste of guilt. The food was not that bad. Besides, I thought, maybe being full would help me sleep through more of this trip. I ate nearly all of it, leaving behind only a few bites of the spongey egg.
When my grandmother finished with her meal, she asked me to reach down and grab her purse for her from under the seat. She felt around in the bag and produced her betel nut chewing kit. She took a dry, thin, dark green leaf and spread it with that familiar strange gray paste, placed a sliver of red betel nut inside, and wrapped the bundle neatly before putting it in her mouth. The scent was so familiar to me. It made me think of childhood, and home. I supposed that, beyond the addictive properties of the nut and leaf chewing, my grandmother also might have used it to help remove the taste of the food from her mouth. I was glad that the small package of leaves, nut slivers, and paste were not confiscated by security.
I chose to get more coffee. With some cream and sugar, it was relatively pleasant. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to sleep, even with a full belly.
We were lucky during that first part of the flight; there was no turbulence during our meal, and my grandmother’s limbs did not ache too much too quickly. After they took away the food trays and our beverage cups, I asked my grandmother if she’d like for me to rub her back again.
It’s okay, grandchild, I am just going to try to sleep again, she said. She pulled the blanket out from under her and I helped her spread it over her knees. I found the second blanket I’d gotten for her and made sure that it covered her feet. My feet always got so cold on airplanes. I wished for a thicker pair of socks myself. Down in the economy section, we did not get free socks. I took off my shoes and tucked the blanket in under my feet and around my legs. The pattern of eating, then sleeping on long plane flights could not have been good for our health, I thought.
I looked at my grandmother. She was working the betel packet in her mouth, spitting the dark red juice into a cup. The person sitting next to her did not seem to notice or care.
I would have been embarrassed about such things when I was younger. There had been a lot to try to disguise. I tried hard to pass as an American kid at school. At home I wasn’t quite sure where I fit. I knew I was not like the other kids. I was jealous of my younger cousins, the ones with younger parents who seemed to be so much more Americanized and able to navigate the society we were in without seeming so deeply entrenched in older traditions, traditions from Cambodia, ideas and customs from Cambodia. I had a hard time understanding those traditions, and my parents had a hard time explaining them to me. Not that I ever asked. My participation in the ritual was perfunctory and I was fine with that.
And then, I found myself on a plane to Cambodia. To the source of these rituals. To the source of my family. To the source of all that I had known superficially and pushed away carelessly.
I suppose I didn’t understand why I was doing it too much more than Kelly understood my reasons for it. I had hardly been curious about Cambodia. There was no great pull for me to go and to know the place.
I only knew that there was a sense in my guts that I had to go, that I wanted to go, that it was the right thing to do, that it would be worth it.