a story read to me

i wonder if my mother once thought
english looked like a mess of nonsensical lines
drawn at harsh angles absent of the curves
and gymnastic syntax of khmer script

i wonder if english looked as much a mess to her
as khmer did to me until so recently

until recently
learning khmer was just
a distant fanciful

two months ago i experienced at
twenty seven what i wish i
had twenty years ago:

a story read to me
in my mother’s native tongue
by my mother

it wasn’t a story about
being terribly hungry

it wasn’t a story about
losing everything

there was no talk
of land mines, night killings,
brutal work, or starvation

just a jungle
and a clever old man
and a foolish lion

and my mother
reading it to me,
as i looked over her shoulder
amazed at the tangle
she deciphered with ease

and i knew
i had to learn khmer

because no one
in the refugee camps
ever told my mother
how wonderful it would
be for her children
to listen to her read
in her old language

and immigrant families
trying hard to scrape by
are encouraged to
give their children wholly–heart
and tongue and history–
to their adopted country

i knew
i had to learn khmer

because i have so often
corrected her english
in my head
and aloud

because i can’t
remember when i decided
she couldn’t help me
with my homework

because too many years
have gone by during which
i left her to struggle
with language alone

2 thoughts on “a story read to me

  1. This is so beautiful and endearing. For all the reasons to pick up another language, to learn your mother’s native language is probably the most rewarding. Good luck on your journey!

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