Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dispatch from Cambodia, 10 // Meaning

I stumbled upon this post on Tumblr by knowthesaurus which triggered a lot of thought about my time here: 
Journey to the ancestral “homeland” constitutes a rite of passage for many of my second-generation Asian American peers. For me, the urge to travel to this “home”land flickers weakly at best, stifled by the fact that it would be little more than tourism with all the baggages of my Western and American-born privileges. In quest of homeland, I would find myself in a position which contradicts the journey in the first place: I would be surrounded by strangers in a time and space where we meet but never touch. Can I feel home in a home that isn’t and never was mine? What connection am I expected to have with these strangers I may have, in another life time, loved or hated or fucked or killed? What connection do I have with these strangers who I still love, hate, fuck, and kill by virtue of my position? 
Strangers that I care deeply for, yes, but strangers still.
I have been grappling with similar ideas since I landed in Cambodia. Early on, I understood my privilege, and I'm uneasy with it: many Khmers, including members of my family, barely expect to visit bordering countries in their lifetimes, let alone the United States. 

I thought that I was here to understand my relationship to Cambodia as a Khmer American. It’s an ethereal question. I feel an inexorable bond to this country, to the way foreign interests shape its politics, to the way money flows in and out and trickles down in a slow, thin stream to the general population after filtering through politicians’ pockets. The reason I care is as simple as the fact that people I love, people I share blood and ancestors and history with, live here. 

When I told relatives that I was toying with the idea of finding NGO work here, they encouraged me to do it: foreign-born and educated people are paid well, much more than native Khmers. The idea of reverse migration certainly tempts me. The people I see who’ve done it are in good shape, saving lots of money, living well, happy. A part of me thinks enviously about what it might be like to live in a place where I face white supremacy from a greater distance than I do in the US. I watched children playing in a park in Ho Chi Minh City and envied them a bit, thinking of how they don’t have a set of insecurities about “fitting in” tied to looking “foreign,” and how “go back to where you came from” is not the same kind of insult. 

And yet, I also see how my fiercely independent nature could not abide by a place in which I feel so much less power as a woman. I admit that I don’t have the emotional fortitude to make myself vulnerable here, where I am barely literate and where my accent labels me foreigner (how funny to have that reversed from my lack of accent helping me to proclaim my natural-born citizen status in the US). Beyond that, and intertwined with that, there is my queerness setting me apart. There is much to say about this, another time. I acknowledge my fear, my cowardice, with a hope that someday I will be a little bit stronger.

Long before the horrors of the Killing Fields, there was war and conflict and occupation in Cambodia constantly, with only brief periods of peace. The current state of affairs is tormented by memories of when the streets of Phnom Penh were beautiful, its inhabitants sharply dressed, when teachers were paid a living wage, when culture was in bloom. History is a raw, slow-healing wound in Cambodia. Perhaps that’s why many books talk about how Khmers are wont to forget and move on, ever forward. 
Though over 80% of my blood relatives still live in Vietnam, I find it hauntingly bizarre that I could walk through a market in Binh Dinh on any given day and perhaps pass by so many uncles, aunts, cousins, and half-siblings, never knowing that our mothers were birthed from the same womb, wondering about the conversations that never were, never could be, and never will be. And what haunts me still is the fact that my mother and father who remain as the tenuous bridge across the Pacific are growing older and dying quicker in the United States.
Now in week 10 of my 12.5-week stay, I see that my journey here is about a more fundamental urge than any heady examination of politics or culture, though it’s inevitable in a developing country with colonization, war, and corruption in its history, its present, its future. At the heart of my longing to be here is a desire not to forget, not to lose the connection. My time here is about a very basic human need: to know where I came from, and who I came from. To be able to communicate with those who know and share my history. To not let go of family, which is so easy to do in the hyperindividualistic United States. As I get older, I find myself wanting to draw those close to me even closer. And because being Khmer is such an important part of my identity, because it makes up who I am: Khmer American. The Khmer legacy of forgetting is one I don't want to carry on. 

My journey here has been about no longer being strangers. About being able to be a bridge. Because my parents are older, and I would feel a part of me lost, too, if I l did not create my own ties to Cambodia. And it is hard. It takes the fortitude to be vulnerable for judgement for all the ways that I’m not Khmer, just as I grew up constantly fearing being perceived as not American. But they are my blood, and I’ve felt a lot of love here. I’ve come to know those family members who have been sent photos of me since I was a child, the ones who ask after me as I’ve gone about my life completely oblivious to them. I want to remember how to connect.

And I know that there are things that we will never share. I know that there are things I would rather not give them a chance to try to accept. I recognize this as a part of who I am. That I would rather bend and fit myself for a time into their lives, than see how they may bend and fit themselves into mine.  

I hope not to spread my Western lens too much here, and yet that is who I am. And in an increasingly global world, it’s already happening through media and commerce. A friend mentioned a fear of further loosing a colonizer’s tongue around the homeland. This is already happening. What good is it to deny ourselves the experience of visiting ancestral lands based on such fears? Worse than spreading a colonizer’s tongue, worse than performing an occidental rite of passage, worse than complicity in the inherent destructiveness of tourism, is the act of forgetting, of ignoring our bonds, of declaring that a place is not our place. What is the purpose of travel if not to prove that we do not have to remain strangers? And why should we in the Southeast Asian diaspora feel any less sure of ourselves in visiting our ancestral lands than the millions of tourists who pass through each year?

In many ways, I’m still struggling with the same things I struggled with when I first visited Cambodia in 2004. In addition to thinking about my internal experience, however, I am now thinking more about relationships. Thinking more about my uncle and his affectionate family. My aunts whom I’ve gotten to really know for the first time, and who are now in their late sixties. I think of my cousins and their children. I think of my great uncles who look and sound so much like my grandmother.

Whether I travel through this country like a tourist is less important to me than the fact that there are people I love in Cambodia. People who can tell me about my family, where we come from. There are certain Americans who take great pride in being able to declare themselves descendants from pilgrims on the Mayflower. I am Khmer American, a child of refugees who arrived on planes from a ravaged country-- and I am more than that. I came here to remember that. To make it real for myself. To remember that there is more than war to my history. To see the land that my parents were born on, even if it looks nothing like before. To cross the same river that my grandparents crossed, though it may be more polluted. 

It seems that closeness to homeland is something that belongs to the wealthy. Those of us who must struggle for economic stability in our countries of residence can hardly consider making frequent visits to homelands or motherlands. Race and class are intertwined in this-- it’s easier to be different when you have social and economic capital behind you. When you’re struggling, you want to fit in, survive, make due.

History does not reset upon arrival in the United States. Rooted in my new relationship with Cambodia, with stories of my family's past, I feel less like I am floating adrift. Trying to make a new path in a country in which I am both native-born and strange feels less heavy a task. In holding on to Cambodia and locating myself within its past, present, and future, I’ve found myself able to let go of the last vestiges of not feeling “American” enough. I feel more whole. 

It's true:

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