As we rode the tuk-tuk across the Bassac River, my aunt pushed her head against mine and asked in a low, conspiratorial voice, “So, don’t you think it’s time for you to get married and start a family? Do you have any plans?”
It was a month into my 3-month stay in Cambodia. My parents had gone back to California, and it was just me, floating between relatives, learning to read Khmer, speaking Khmer with less and less self-consciousness about my American accent. At 27, I knew that I was well past the age when Khmer women typically got married and began to have children, and had braced myself for some of those questions. Having recently ended a relationship and with no interest in pursuing another, I could answer honestly that there was no one I was interested in and I had no interest in having a family.
The air was slightly cooler in the evening than during the day, and the roads seemed less dusty. I looked out over the water, moonlight and streetlamps reflected on the rippling surface. My aunt sighed. Her disappointment and confusion were palpable in the humid air between us. I was tense, but rather than react in the ways that I have in the past– with indignation and defensiveness– I stayed calm, knowing that her questions came from a place of love. I let our conflicting wishes hang in the air.
It was so hard, when I was younger, to understand how people sometimes do not know how to love one another in the ways that are wanted or needed. I am afraid that that is the case when it comes to me and my family. But there is no right way to love, only the persistent effort to be better.
I felt loved during those months in Cambodia. I began to love my family in a way that I hadn’t before. Perhaps because I was an adult, secure in the life I was building, as difficult as it could be to explain to myself, let alone to my family. To love them is to learn how to explain to them what I am doing, to give them a chance to accept it, and to have compassion for them when they don’t know how. I see now how threatened I have felt by their love, by what their love makes them want for me.
During those months, I learned to articulate with more and more conviction what I do with myself. I learned the Khmer word for “writer.” I tried to explain rock climbing to them. I even tried to talk about my relationship with work and money, my skepticism about capitalism. It always came back to the idea of raising a family, though.
“Are you just going to be alone, desolate, in the world?” my aunt would ask. I know that to her, friends are not the same as family, and getting older without having children to help you out and grandchildren to keep you young is a strange and scary thought. I could have tried harder to explain to her about independence, self-sufficiency, and the many very wonderful relationships in my life, but I wasn’t quite up for that. So I cheekily replied that when the time came, I would just crawl away into the woods to die quietly among the trees. I was joking, but I do like the idea of getting down there with the fallen leaves and hungry microbes, plants eventually sprouting out of me.
title from machine.