It has been nearly four years since I last set foot upon Khmer soil, since I last sat atop Phnom Bakheng and watched the sun set upon the Bayon’s multitude of faces, since I last wantonly carved open purple-crimson mangosteen after mangosteen to devour the tart white flesh. It was surreal to find myself climbing over your steps, brushing my hand over the apsaras in your walls, walking through the jungles that have reclaimed the area.
You were one of the main reasons that I had wanted so badly to go to Kampuchea.
I spent four weeks wrapped in sticky humidity, meeting relatives, seeing where and how my parents lived, trying to grasp this place that I call my homeland. It wasn’t enough time. I had waited nearly ten years.
I was ten years old, slowly beginning to grasp the differences between myself and the white kids at school, when I found out that my ancestors built one of the seven wonders of the world (I don’t even know if you are still on the official list). I was so hungry to know more– I devoured books about you, watched PBS documentaries, asked my parents when we would finally visit. I had a difficult time with my “otherness,” but I was comforted by the knowledge of my extraordinary heritage.
I think that my family was surprised by the intensity of my interest. Learning about you made me feel more connected to my Khmer culture, more than the incense burning, more than the elaborate weddings, more than the Lunar New Year feasts.
I always felt Khmer; the problem was that outside of my family, I had little contact with other Khmers. It seemed taboo, as though my family was intentionally avoiding the community in Long Beach and Santa Ana. I grew up having a profound love of my history and a profound estrangement from other second-generation Khmer Americans. I still haven’t reconciled that gap. I am trying, though.
Perhaps it is a side effect of a desire to feel that connection with my Khmer-ness again, or perhaps it is just nostalgia, but I felt a profound longing for you today.
Peace & love,