The temples we went to did not look like temples, but they were still called “wat.” They were usually buildings tucked into neighborhoods. Houses dressed as places of worship. Places of worship disguised as houses with huge gravel parking lots and hammocks hanging between trees. There were trees all around the property of our little wat. The building consisted of a kitchen, a large room lined with thick synthetic fiber blankets and rugs that were easily acquired in Chinatown, and the mysterious rooms that I never saw where the monks slept, I assumed. There were tarp awnings set up in the lot outside with folding tables and chairs, and a big grassy area where more families could lay blankets and eat because there were always more families than the tables could handle.
If you were a grown woman, going to wat meant putting on a skirt made of stiff, shiny fabric, knotted at the waist, and a blouse on top. Sometimes the blouses would have an intricate brocade pattern. There were short sleeves and long sleeves, thin material or thick. A long thin scarf worn as a sash over one shoulder.
I never knew what any of it meant. I just went because we were a family and that’s what our family did.
I only knew that wat was a place where I would see a bunch of other Khmer kids. I eventually realized that not all Cambodians were related to me. I must have been four or five years old when I realized this. Maybe older. I thought that Cambodian meant family, and not -Cambodian meant not-family. I’d eventually be challenged in that notion on various levels.
My mother made me wear dresses or skirts and blouses that itched and made it hard to run and play the way I wanted to. So I sat and read books most of the time, watching the kids play some version of steal the bacon from my family’s blankets.
Going to temple was bearable because I could read as much as I wanted. I found a place on the blanket, laid on my belly, and read under the sun.
All that time, I buried myself in fantasy novels, mystery novels, and romance novels. My head was full of stories that looked nothing like my life. Kids who grew up where there was snow in the winter. Kids who ran off to the woods and built homes in giant tree trunks. Kids who were rich, or at least, I assumed it. And they were all white. Like the kids at school. The latest book I found was about a time traveling little girl, looking for her scientist father.
I usually recognized a lot of the same faces of the other kids there. I never talked to any of them. They always seemed to be looking at me funny. Maybe because I always had glasses slipping off my nose and a thick book under my arm, and because I always looked away. There was one kid who was obviously the one all the other kids who knew each other looked up to. He was lanky, a few years older than me. He went to a high school in the neighborhood. He was a local, not like me and my little sister; we went to school in another district. The other kids just seemed to listen to him without thinking twice. I was jealous of that. But I didn’t want the other kids to listen to me, anyway. I lifted my eyes from the pages of my book a few times, watching that kid laugh as his team won yet again. I heard one of the kids call him “Victor.” His parents called him Veasnah.
It was hard being an only child. I don’t know how Veasnah or Victor or whatever his name was got to be so good with the other kids. I hardly talked to my cousins; they were all so much older than me. Some of them had kids already who were just a little bit too young for me to be able to talk to them. I played with them when they were really little, but it got harder as they got older. They just played among themselves while I read.
The adults gossiped about all the kids, and compared us, too, right in front of us, oftentimes. They complimented Veasnah on his grades, and how well he knew how to play with the younger kids. That he was a good older brother type and what a shame it was that his parents didn’t have any more children. There was always a wistful tone in their voices when they talked about that, and a little bit mournful, too.
Inside the main room, my grandmother, my parents, and my aunts and older cousins were praying. I could hear their chorus, a hundred people or more, chanting along with the monks. The low drone was comforting, but I didn’t understand it. I knew that some of the cousins went to Khmer school, but the language they were praying in was different any way. I didn’t know what they did there. I never asked my parents to go. I was always reading my books. Thick novels that made the other kids think I was a nerd and fooled adults into thinking I was studious.
“So, why are you reading all the time?” Veasnah startled me. He was squatting on the grass right in front of me. “Don’t you get bored with it?”
My brows wrinkled together. “No. I don’t. I like reading.” I closed the book with my finger between the pages even though I had a bookmark. I held it in my lap.
“What are you reading? Can I see?” He kneeled down and reached toward the book.
“Uh, okay.” I took one more glance down at the page I left off on and placed the bookmark inside before I handed it to him.
He looked over the cover and read the back. It felt weird to have him know what I was reading for some reason. I was kind of embarrassed, but also curious and surprised that he was interested.
“This does seem kind of cool, I guess.” He handed the book back to me. “You should come play with us, though.” He gestured over to the other kids, who had started kicking around a hackey-sack, laughing and running after it when someone kicked too far, too high. It looked like fun.
I was tempted for a split second. But I was also wary. “Um.” I bit my lip, looked at my hands.
“Come on! It’ll be fun. You never play anything.” He stood up. “Don’t be a snob.”
“What? I’m not a snob!” I was still sitting, and didn’t want to move. “I just like reading!”
“You don’t want to play because you think you’re so much smarter than us. Just because you go to school somewhere else and because you read books all the time.” He smiled, then, disarmingly.
“Tha- That’s not true! I just don’t know any of you!”
“Well, come on then. Let’s play, snob!”
“Don’t call me that!” That pouting quality started coming into my voice. I hated it when I started to sound like that. It meant that I also might start tearing up. I didn’t want Veasnah to see me cry. “Do you even know my name?”
He blinked at me. “Yeah, of course. You’re Sophie.”
I was still sitting on the ground while he stood there looking down at me. “How’d you know?” Did his parents know my parents? Did they talk about me? What did they say about me?
He cocked his head. “I heard your parents call you that.”
“Oh.” Of course.
I knew that arranged marriages were common. My parents’ marriage had been arranged. For a split second, the thought flashed in my mind that maybe we had been arranged. That there was some kind of plan to bring us together. The nerd and the popular one. That happened sometimes on TV didn’t it? But usually the girl was the popular one. I don’t know why the thought even crossed my mind. I didn’t like Veasnah like that. Besides, we were too young.
“I pay attention. I’m not a snob like you.” He smiled. “I’m Victor, in case you didn’t know.” He turned around to start walking away, tossing the words back over his shoulder. “It’s okay if you don’t want to play today. Maybe next time? You can’t always sit around by yourself. Leah hai, p’own!”
I watched Veasnah– Victor– trot back to the other kids. He picked one of the younger ones up and held him on his shoulder, spinning around. The little boy squealed with excitement as he whirled around and around. Finally Victor slowly stopped and lowered the boy to the ground. The little boy stumbled, dizzy, but grinning ear to ear. Meanwhile Victor was off chasing another little kid around, tickling her as she ran clutching a doll. He was always like that with them. The adults always said that he was going to be a good father. I could believe it, too, watching him go.
When the prayer was over, my parents came to gather me up. It was time to eat, again. We had lemongrass beef skewers and grilled marinated chicken legs. The heavy rice pot had been taken hot off the stove and wrapped in cloths and newspapers to keep it warm through the prayer ceremony. All of a sudden my quiet reading bubble was full of activity, relatives all around me passing paper plates, plastic forks and spoons, containers of chili sauce, tubs of pickled things. They traded ideas of how to marinate meat and talked about the next bon gathering, whose family initiated it, what people should make for it, interspersed with memories of how they used to do it, back home.
The temple was a strange place to me. It did not seem like a place anyone would imagine spiritual things happening. The building was plain. The gravel lot was plain. The trees around the lot were a bit scrawny, though they were tall enough to cast a nice shade against the noontime sun. The main prayer room wasn’t like the Christian churches I saw on television but had never been inside. The outside certainly wasn’t nearly as imposing. There were no prayer flags hanging across the space then. Inside the main prayer room were laminated posters of various images of Buddha, Angkor Wat; some of them serene scenes, some with bright colors, some which seemed to have Indian influence. There was something haphazard about them, there, all together, no apparent theme except that they were all placed there by the desire to find images to cover the stark white walls with.
There was a large framed sheet on the wall near the entrance to the main prayer room that had the names of people who had donated to the temple. I knew that somewhere in the Khmer script I could not decipher, my family’s name was written. Each visit to wat meant gathering up offerings, pooling money to help keep the space and to sustaining the temple’s livelihood. My grandmother was the one who was always at the fore of that process. She was both convincing and intimidating, every bit the matriarch. She had been honored that day with one of the seats nearest to the monks during prayer. People marveled at how long she could sit in prayer at her age.
When we finally made our way home, I knew that after the food was put away and we were all changed out of our temple clothes, I would sit with her on her bed, at her feet, and squeeze her sinewy calves and thighs, the tendons in them like ropes under her thin skin. I rubbed hard as I could with my thumbs, but never succeeded in softening those knots. My little hands grew sore quickly. She would be on the phone, talking with someone she knew from wat, going over the next bon, dreaming about the ways she wanted to improve the temple and how she wanted to help the monks.
The small building was not grandiose by any means, but it was hers. It was a home to her. I wondered whether it would ever feel like that for me. If I would ever care so much about a place. If I would ever love a place enough to spend so much time and bear such physical discomfort for it.
I knew nothing, really.