Uncle O had braces, glasses, prematurely thinning hair, and a gentle disposition. (The image that comes to mind is a Khmer version of Florentino Ariza.) My most vivid childhood memory of him is of watching him peel and eat an orange while telling me stories about Cambodia. I was around seven years old at the time, home from school, sitting with him on the long, brown sofa in the huge den. I remember the brightness of the fruit in his hands as he peeled it. Because of the braces, he took the membrane off of each section before eating it.
He told me about romping around in the mud during the monsoon season, catching freshwater crabs. He told me about how one time, my grandparents had to take him to a doctor because he stuck a sweet-smelling seed of some kind too far up one nostril. These are the only two stories I remember clearly; most of the other times I spent with him have faded out of my memory.
I must have been eight or nine years old when he packed up and moved back to Cambodia. When I saw his packed bags, I didn’t know that he was leaving permanently. We joked that he had gone back to find a wife. That wasn’t exactly it. My mother later told me that he had difficulty finding a job after getting his degree, in part because of his imperfect English, and so he decided to return to the homeland. He went to Cambodia so that he could make a life.
A couple of years later he found his Fermina Daza– luckily, she didn’t take half a century to marry him. Their children are adorable.