As a child, my aunt told me, she was luh-peuh. During the high water season, she would sneak away in a little boat and paddle out to the temple. Or she would jump out into the Bassac River from the veranda of my grandparents’ stilted house and swim. Those were not things that little girls were supposed to do, and my grandparents got very upset with her. She told me those stories with such a twinkle in her eye. I could see that I came by my mischief honestly.
The American model minority myth coupled with my parents’ expectations of me to give me this idea that all real Khmer girls were perfect, obedient, obsequious daughters. I thought that if that were what was expected of me, then I wanted to not be Khmer, and I wanted to distance myself from all things feminine. What a terrible alchemy that was.
I want to say that I have a fuller conception of Khmer girlhood now that my aunt has shared these stories with me. And that feels awful to say because it makes me realize that I am a product of the process by which racism in this country dehumanizes us to ourselves. That there was something flat and uninteresting about being an Asian woman to me as a girl trying to be American. And then I would look in the mirror and see this face look back at me that embodied so many limitations, not possibilities. Possibilities and hope and excitement and rebellion and adventure were for white people.
And it wasn’t true. It was never true. But I didn’t see it, so it didn’t exist.
Would I have felt differently, grown up differently, had I heard my aunt’s stories when I was younger? I don’t know. But I wish I had. I wish I had heard or seen more stories like it.