- Best Friends.
- Fear of Gosh.
- Cambodian New Year Celebration.
- The Cambodia trip.
- When Ka Leap cry.
- (To be continue...)
When I was eight years old my family moved to the new house. My father said that I’d like our new environment, because it was near the school, the pagoda and a large Khmer community. Back then I didn’t have any Khmer friends. There were many Khmer kids at my age in the new neighborhood, but most of them were cold and some were very rude. For a whole month, I sat in front of my house watching these kids play and most of the times I found myself laughing with them. They were very silly sometimes. They were fun to watch and I was hoping they would extend the invitation to me, but they never did.
One day I gathered up all my courage, went out and asked if I could play with them. Not only they didn’t want me around, but they also were yelling at me in Khmer, “ tov oiy sngai mi Youn. “ (Go away a Vietnamese girl). Shocked and humiliated, I ran back in side the house cried and cried. I didn’t understand why they called me Youn(Vietnamese)? I didn’t understand why they hated me? Why can’t they tell that I’m Khmer? My father is Khmer and my mother is Chinese. It never crosses my mind that I was rejected because of my fair skin, straight hair. To them, I was atypical Khmer Krom. I spent the rest of the summer, alone, watching Khmer kids play, without a soul to call as friend.
“ How was school?” Mom asked.
“ It was fine, I like it.” I answered Mom with a big smile.
It wasn’t fine that morning. There was such chaos at my house because I didn’t want to go school. Despite both grandparents threatening, I refused to leave the house. Mom had to literally drag me out the house. I was so scared of going to the new school that I cried all the way to school. When we finally got there, I hung on to Mom and begged her to stay with me. I was hysterical when Mom left me there, with a classroom full with strange faces. At recess, I stood alone at the farthest corner watching other kids play. I was so scared that I would run in to the neighbor Khmer kids. However, I saw very few familiar faces at my school. Although, I didn’t like the way they treated me. I was wondering why they were not at school? There were many Vietnamese kids at my new school. Unlike Khmer kids, the Vietnamese kids were very nice and friendly to me. They came and asked me to play with them. I started to be friend with Vietnamese kids. They didn’t call me “Mi pahok” (pickle fish) like they called the other Khmer kids. When they heard that the Khmer kids were mean to me, the Vietnamese kids went ballistic; they swore to avenge. That was how the fight started. Tha was just happened to be at the wrong place. The Vietnamese kids picked on her because she has dark skin, curly hair and because she is Khmer Krom.
Back then, Tha and I were not friends. She used to give me the funny looks each time when she passed by my house. She never smiled or said anything to me. Neither did I. Although I was not pleased with her unfriendliness, I’d tried to ignore her funny looks. Other than that, we never gave each other problems.
The Vietnamese kids and I surrounded Tha; there were six of us to be exact. I just stood there and watched the Vietnamese kids attacked Tha. I didn’t make a sound while they were pushing, cursing at Tha, and one of them even spit at her. As Tha tried to fight her way out the crowd, she passed by me. I stepped back to make room for her to escape. I was afraid to look at her, her tiny frame brushed against mine; she paused long enough just to look directly at my eyes and ran. It was the first time that I got a close-up view of her profile. She was a very beautiful girl, curly long black hair with the big brown eyes. I never forget that look on her eyes. Those sad eyes grabbed my heart.
I ran after her, the Vietnamese kids followed me. They thought I was trying to catch up with Tha. They were yelling, “ Don’t let her get away!” Tha tried to run faster but I was very fast. I ran and stood in front to stop her. The Vietnamese kids were once again, surrounding Tha. They were surprised when they saw I didn’t do any thing to Tha.
Mai gave me the command, “ Go ahead and beat her!”
“ No!” I said to Mai then turned to Tha.
“ Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you, I’m Khmer also.” I spoke Khmer to Tha.
“ What language are you speaking? I hope it is not Khmer.” Hong, the group leader asked.
“ I speak Khmer. I’m Khmer.” I said.
The Vietnamese kids looked stunted and speechless. Lien broke the silent by pointing finger at me, with the loudest voice, she yelled. “ You and Mi Pahok are my enemy then.”
Tha stepped forward, pointed her finger back at Lien and shouted out from the top of her lung.
” You’re our enemy, mi Youn si ske.” (Vietnamese dog eater).
It was the first time I heard Tha spoke. Suddenly, there were two of us against five Vietnamese kids. Actually, it was Tha, who did most the verbal fighting against the Vietnamese kids. She was so smooth, so loud, even the bad words sounds like melody coming out of her full lips. She was in control. The Vietnamese kids were no matches in the shouting war with her. I didn’t have to do anything but watch, admiring her exquisite solo performance. I thought what a brave Khmer girl she was.
“ Stop it, all of you.”
My grandfather appeared with a stick on his hand. He told all of us to go home or he’ll smack us with the stick. Van pointed finger at Tha and shouted back to my grandfather in Vietnamese.
“ Why don’t you tell Mi Pahok to go home.”
Tha dashed out in front of Van, pointed her index finger right at the middle of Van’s forehead and screamed.
“WE’RE HOME. YOU PEOPLE GET THE HELL OUT OF MY COUNTRY!”(Back to contents)
“Do you want to see my piglets?", I asked Tha.
“ You have piglets?” Her big eyes lit up as she spoke.
I held up my hands displaying all of my fingers.
“ Ten of them. They‘re one month old.” I answered.
” I love piglets. ” Her voice sounded excited.
As we walked back to my house, I noticed her blouse’s pockets badly torn from the fight.
“ Hey, your pocket ripped.” I told Tha.
She gave a quick glance and said, “ I’ll mend it later.”
“ You can mend?” I was surprised.
Later I learned that Tha not only can mend clothes, but she also can wash, cook and help take care her house. Her father was a farmer. He was working for someone else. The only time Tha saw her dad was when the sunset. He usually left for work before she awake. Tha told me that, her father was trying to save money to buy back a piece of land, which was belonging to their family, but the Vietnamese government took away. Her father didn’t like to work for other people and he was very bitter with life as a farmer with out land.
Her grandmother worked fourteen hours a day, peeling off octopus skins and picking crabmeats by hand at one of the local Seafood Company. Her grandmother was trying to pay back the money, which they had to borrow for her grandfather operation. He died from some kind of complication right after the surgery.
Her mother worked as a housekeeper for a wealthy family, which her grandmother borrowed the money from. Her mother also tried to help pay back their debt and save money for her father to buy land. Tha had not seen her mother since Bonn Chole Chnam (Cambodian New Year), which takes place in mid April and at that time it was the end of June. Tha was looking forward to see her mother at Bonn Donta (Cambodian Memorial Day) in late October. For over two years, they left Tha tending home alone.
My grandmother handed Tha a set of my cleaned clothes and a towel. “ Di tam!” (Go shower!) Grandmother spoke to her in Vietnamese and pointed to the bathroom. I translated to Khmer for Tha, but she told me she understood Vietnamese. My maternal grand parents speak only Chinese and Vietnamese. I’d speak all three languages at home. I’d speak Chinese, Vietnamese to my mother and maternal grandparents, and Khmer to my father. He always said,” Khmer neveay Khmer.” (Khmer speak Khmer). Some times, I got mixed up with all the languages. Some times, I got upset because I didn’t know how to expressed in Khmer, Vietnamese nor Chinese. Most of the time, I spoke half-Khmer, half-Vietnamese or half-Vietnamese, half-Chinese to my family. It was not easy for growing up in a family with multi-cultures and languages.
“ Ooooooooooooo. Saat nassssssssssssss. ” (So pretty)
Grandfather exclaimed in broken Khmer, as he saw Tha entered the kitchen. She beamed a smile at grandfather, looking down at her bare feet and swirled her toes on the floor. Her cheeks was red from blushing, she looks beautiful.” My grandma is going to give you more clothes.” I told her.
“ Are you giving me this outfit? “ Tha asked me.
” Yes, grandma said so.” I answered her.
Tha was quiet at the dinner table, politely nipping on plain rice.
“ Eat!” Grandfather commanded. She smiled and said “ thank you,” when grandmother placed some meat on her bowl.
“ Don’t be shy or you’ll be hungry.” Grandma told her.
I was chirping through out lunch. I was very happy with Tha presence; there was something about Tha that made me happy. That day I’ve found my best playmate. Tha was three years older than I was, but she was petite comparing to me. Since the incident, Tha became the big sister that I never have, my guardian angel and my best friend. We were inseparable. As our friendship grew stronger, at daytime, Tha came and stayed at my house. For months, each morning, she’d walked to school with me, and was waiting to walk me home after school. She was trying to protect me from the Vietnamese kids, and the Khmer kids that called me Youn.
I learned Tha had never been in school. She couldn’t read or write neither Vietnamese nor Khmer. She said her father wouldn’t let her learn Vietnamese language. According to her father, there was no need to learn Vietnamese. He told her that Kampuchea Krom soon would be back to normal, and no more Vietnamese on our Cambodia land. Unfortunately, her father was illiterate man. He was unable to teach her Khmer either. There was no Khmer public school in our province. The only schooling offered to us is in Vietnamese. The poverty kept Tha and many others Khmer kids in my new neighborhood from attending school. I also found out that a lot of Khmer kids were child laborers. Some worked alongside with their parents and some were working as cowboys tending cow and water buffalo. Many spent all day, under the hot sun, in bare feet walking from house to house, selling lottery tickets and homemade snacks. They were very hard workers.
I taught Tha how to read and write Vietnamese after school. She was very smart. Most of the times, I only had to show her once, and she picked it up rapidly. My mother gave her a personal black board and white chalks to practice writing. I remember one early morning. We were still asleep and awoke by the sound of crying in front of our house. Grandfather got up, he opened the door and he saw Tha sat on the hammock, weeping. She looked so sad, her hair was messed up and her eyes were swollen reds. She told my grandfather that she has been crying since last night, after she realized someone had stolen her personal black board. Grandma said to her in Vietnamese. ” Tro`i da’t oi, tao nghe ma`y kho’c m`a tao he’t ho`n, tao tuo?ng o? nh`a ma`y c’o ai che’t. ” (Oh my God, it scared me to hear you cry, I thought you had a death in your family). However, my grandfather was more sympathized toward her. He told her that he understood what she went through. He would cry too if someone stole his favorite hat. He told Tha to go wash up and promised to replace with a new one.
Later that day, grandfather took us to the market; he bought Tha a brand new black board and a box of chalks. He also bought us identical backpacks. Tha was very happy, she kept said thank you and “sompeas”(tradition Khmer bows with both hands clasp together) to grandfather. On the way home, we wore our new backpacks. “ I look like a real student.” Tha said, grinning and pointing to the backpack on her back. Tha loved that backpack, it was packed with her treasures dried flowers and dried death butterfly, pressed neatly between the pages of old books that I gave to her, along with the black board and chalks. Everywhere Tha went she’d carry the backpack with her. She loved writing. Unlike mine, her handwriting was very neat. She got a lot of compliment from my family.
I learned a lot from Tha. She taught me how to mend clothes, how to start a wood burner stove without getting hair, face on fire. She was the first one, who taught me how to cook rice and gave me a few street-smart survivor tips. My parents taught me to stay away from trouble. I didn’t like to get in an argument or fight with anyone either and that bothered Tha. She said in order to survive we needed to be strong and tough. She spent hours preaching me and teaching me how to become one. She told me that we should never be afraid to stand up for our right, and always speak up for what we beliefs.
She said, “ Make sure your voice heard. You’re going to die anyway, but don’t die in silence.”(Back to contents)
“What are you doing?” Tha asked and sat herself down next to me.
“Looking at the book.” I answered.
”Is it a good book?” She asked.
“ Yes I think so.” I answered.
“ What’s all about?” Tha was curious.
“ I don’t know, I can’t read.” I laughed.
“Let me see.” Tha grabbed the book from my hand and flipped through.
“ I can’t read French. “ She threw the book back to me, but it landed on the floor instead.
“ It’s not French it’s English, and I can’t read either.” I cracked up.
“ Then why you read it? Are you crazy? “ Tha laughed out loud. I laughed with her, and I was going to pick up the book when my grandma appeared.
“ Girls, be careful with the book. “ My grandma spoke with a firmed voice as she picked up the book.
“ I had better not see any books on the ground again. Do you understand? ” My grandma has this thing about books. She treated them as it was gold or something. She would get very upset if I didn’t take good care of my books.
“ Yes grandma.” My face was dropped and pale as gosh. Whenever my grandma raises her voice, she always scared the living day light out of me. Tha and I, we sat straight up, low our heads and waited till my grandma out of sight. I elbowed Tha. “Ouch. What’s that for?” Tha howled as she rubbed on her belly.
“ You almost got our butts whips.” I whispered to her.
“ Your grandma is mean.” She said.
“ No she isn’t. We’re wrong, we deserved to be whips.” I told her.
“You deserved it, not me. She’s not my grandmother. “Tha laughed.
“ But she has the right to whip your butt too.” I snapped back at Tha.
“ I can run faster than she is. She would never catch me.” Tha said.
“ She will send her Chinese spirit come look for you.” I whispered.
” She really has Chinese spirit? “Tha eyes got bigger as she whispered back.
“ Yes. She talks to them everyday.” I nodded my head. Tha scooted her body closer to mine.
” Did you see really see Chinese spirit?” Her voice trembled.
“Yes. Do you know what the Chinese spirit looks like? “ I asked her.
“ No. What’s look like? Her eyes was wandering around when she answered.
“ It looks like you.” I broke down and laughed hysterical.
“Ouch.” I screamed and rubbed on my thigh where Tha pinched me.
Actually, I was petrified whenever spirit or ghost subject came up. I was only pretending and acted like I didn’t believe, or wasn’t scared of ghosts, because I know Tha was also very frightened.
Tha told me the story of her grandfather’s funeral, how she hid in the bush and watched her father and uncles bathed her grandfather body, how she got whipped at his funeral. She told me that while they were at the cremation site and everyone else was on the ground praying and crying. Tha and few neighbor kids climbed on top of the big tree to watch the cremation process. There were so many popping sounds, when Um Mit and Ta Thum poked the coffin with the sticks to get the fire burn evenly. She described how the wind swept up the smell of the burnt flesh and caught their noses making them gag, and how one kid was vomiting from on top of the tree. Her father had to climb up the tree, and helps bring her down; and how she got her butt severely whipped by her mother. That night, she said, she woke up in the middle of night screaming, because she thought she saw her grandfather. I tried to be tough and laughed at her. I told her it probably from the whipping pain.
As we were laughing, we heard a lot of commotion from the back yard. We ran back to see what were going on. Ah Ngoy was screaming and pointing to a coffin floating on the river. He was bathing and he saw the coffin floating toward him. My dad and some of the neighbors jumped in the water. They pulled the coffin to the shore and carried to the pagoda. My grandfather said, since they didn’t know where, and which family the old coffin belonging, the pagoda was a proper place to bring the coffin to. He said, if no one claimed the coffin, the monk would bless the coffin before it is cremated. It scared me to talk about death, and it nearly scared me to death when I saw the coffin.That night, I asked Tha to sleep over with me, she was more than happy because she too, was very scared. I didn’t think any member of my family slept well that night. First Tha cried, because she thought she saw a big ghost starred through the mosquito net. But it turned out to be my grandma was making sure the mosquito net got secured around our bed. Every one was in bed and the house was quiet. But Tha and I we were still up whispering to each other, we were too scared to sleep. Tha said she needed to use the bathroom, but she was too afraid to go by herself. She asked if I would go with her, but I was too scared to get up. I screamed for my mom. My mom woke right up and took Tha to the bathroom. Hours or so later, I screamed for my mom again.
“ What’s wrong now?” My dad yelled from his bedroom.
“ I have to go to the bathroom.” I howled. Poor mom, she got up and came to get me.
“ Why didn’t you go with Tha while ago? “ My mom asked, as she walked with me to the bathroom.
“ I didn’t have to go then, mommy!”(Back to contents)
Tha tapped on my shoulder.
“ Come with me.” She said.
“ No, we’re getting ready to eat.” I told Tha.
“ I know, but come with me first.” Tha commanded.
” Get off the floor. “ Tha pulled my arms up and lithely pulled me off the floor.
“ Nae, kom tov na.” (Don’t go anywhere.) Her grandma spoke in Khmer and signaled us to sit back down.
“ Ja koun som tov m’plet na yea?” (May I go for short time grandma?) Tha asked with a smile.
“ Lourng lerng.” (Hurry up.) Her grandma gestured for us to go.
Tha lead me through the crowded sanctuary; we were at our community pagoda. On religious holidays the pagoda is always packed, especially on Bonn Chole Chnam Thmey, (Cambodian New Year.)
The monks had just ended the ceremony with blessing prayers and everyone was getting ready to eat.Traditionally, each family would bring food offering to the pagoda. After finished praying, we took the food down and ate together like potluck meals in America. I saw Um Min pass a roasted pork dish to Um Simone with a smile. They were talking and eating at same group. Every one knew these two ladies didn’t get along for years; it was over some business dispute. I was very pleased when I saw them together and sharing food. I was very young then, but I noticed one thing. Once our Khmer Krom people set foot on the holly land, we left all problems outside the pagoda and we were bound with prayers in front of Buddha. At Buddha’s house, there is no discrimination. Every one is the same. I saw richest and powerful people sat happily and ate side by side with the poor and the powerless. I like going to the pagoda. I love the comfortable, peaceful feeling and I felt very safe whenever I visited.As Tha and I made our way through the crowd, Tha stopped and eyed a plate of spring rolls. She politely asked an elderly lady if she could have one spring roll. The nice lady gave Tha four spring rolls. Tha told me, “ Look around, if you see anything that you like to eat. Ask nicely.” I saw a bowl of shrimp pa-ok (pickle shrimp) that I would love to take with me, but I was too shy to ask. Tha knew that was one of my favorite foods, then she asked a gentleman if he would gave us some. He laughed and told her to take it all. He said his wife made shrimp pa-ok all the time, and he was very tired of eating it. There were so many good foods, the further we went, the more food we got. Our little hands were whopping with foods. I ran in to many friends, neighbors and relatives. So many smiling faces and everywhere we went by. Everyone invited us to sit down to eat with them or was trying to give us more food.
Holidays were joyous time for children like us. We were happy, carefree little kids. It was one of many few occasions that we got new clothes, and got to eat so many foods. I remember I was so proud to show off my oversize new clothes at the pagoda. I didn’t mind the outfit was three sizes bigger than I was. I didn’t care the pant legs was too long. I used to roll my pant up and tucked around the elastic waistband several times on both sides. It was the only way I can walk freely. I didn’t complain about the tightness on my neck from all the gold choker necklaces that my mother and grandma made me wear. Beside new clothes and plenty foods, holidays at the pagoda gave me a chance to check out all the beautiful clothes and jewelry that our gorgeous Khmer Krom ladies wore to the pagoda. Some of the jewelry was magnificently, splendid, shinning in many color stones.
“Look at bong Muong’s necklace” Tha said. (Bong meaning someone older; can be either male or female.)
“ Oh she looks so nice, but did you see bong Kanha? ” I turned my head toward bong Kanha direction.
“Wow, she’s so beautiful.” Tha exclaimed.
“ I love her blue blouse and the ivory lace shawl.” I gave a quick glanced at bong Kanha lovely figure as Tha leaned over and whispered to my ear.
“ Hey, check out Poo Heng.” (Poo meaning uncle, elderly male.)
Tha and I cracked up when we saw Poo Heng combed his hair, again. There was not a single hair out of line, on his overdone and greasy hairdo. Yet, he kept combing. We stopped counts after dozen times. We knew he was trying to impressed bong Kanha. Tha said it look like he washed his hair with coconut oil this morning. We saw his eyes were followed bong Kanha everywhere. I saw bong Kanha eyes lit up when she caught Poo Heng starring at her. I thought that, soft smile at the corner of his mouth and the pinkest glaring from her high cheekbones when they made eyes contacted, was very romantic. It was not hard to tell they were in love. Everyone in town knew Poo Heng was head over heels with bong Kanha. We knew she liked him also, but they were too shy to make the connection. I heard the adults were betting if Poo Heng got enough gusts to ask bong Kanha to Rom Vong (Khmer traditional line dance) with him tonight. I was hoping he would. They were very cute couple.
“What’s all this? ” My dad took some plates off my hands.
“Are you guys going to eat all this? “ My dad asked. Tha and I quickly nodded our heads and laughed out loud. With dismayed expression on his face, my dad shook his head.
As we sat down to eat, we were very amusing to see plentiful of all our favorite foods spreading right in front of us, and the food-gathering trip we took was unnecessary. But our trip brought a lot of laughter to our eating groups, the elders cracked up when they saw what two little greedy kids did.
I loved that moment. I love everything, from the sound of people talking; laughing and the tradition music were playing at the pagoda. I love the closeness, the bonding of our Khmer Krom people. I felt specially touch by the magic of compassion and love surrounded. It was such a peaceful, happiness feeling to see the strengths of our Khmer Krom people and the willingness to put away all differences, sadness, and worry for that just one day.
Sour sdey Chnam Thmey! (Happy New Year!)
Lok Poo Rith took the karma (scarf) off from his neck, and very gentle dabbed off the tears on my face.
“ Choup yum tov kmoy.” He told me to stop crying, but when I saw him wipe his red eyes, I cried even harder.
“It’s time to go.” My dad said, with trembling voice. Throwing our bags on his shoulder, he held on to them with one hand and with the other he held my hand. We began to walk cross the border toward the Vietnam entry station. I turned my head back for one last look at Lok Poo, who was still sitting on his motorcycle at the Cambodia line, watching us and waving his hand at me.
” Good bye Lok Poo, so long Cambodia, lear huey Kampot.” I mumbled and waved back to him. I tried very hard not to cry but I lost control of the tears. We were leaving Kampot to go back to Karmourn Sor ( Kien Giang ). I didn’t want to leave the new family and friends I had gotten to know and love during the short month I had visited. It was very hard to leave your loved ones behind, especially when I had grown a special place in my heart just for them.
I thought it was the first time I’d crossed the border, but my dad told me that was my second trip. He said the first time I was only two or three years old. I guess I was much too young to remember anything then. Kampot located on other side of the border, only a few hours by motorcycle ride away from where I was born.My dad has many relatives and friends in Cambodia. But my dad said due to many political problems, and the safety reason, he regretted not able to go visit them as often as he wanted. I couldn’t waited to meet all his relatives in Kampot, that I have heard so much about from him, but never had a chance to meet them before.
Once we were on the Cambodia side of the border, my dad hired a local motorcycle taxi to take us to his old village. The ride from the Ha tien (Pream) to Kampot was rough; the road was very bumpy and dusty. I was so excited about the trip that I didn’t mind being sandwiched between the rider and my dad. There was not much space for the three of us on the old and noisy Honda. I thought, the countryside road on the way to Kampot looked exactly the same as my village. It was very green and beautiful. The sound of the wind, the noise from the Honda, and the echo from the conversation between my dad and the Honda rider put me to sleep.
“ We’re here.” My dad woke me up. Many people ran out their houses to greet us. They cried, they grabbed and hugged my dad and I. I was very excited and happy to see all their smiling faces, but I have no idea who they were.
“ Welcome home!” Almost every one said that to us.
“ Dad, why do they all say welcome home to us?” I asked.“ Because we’re home, baby!” My dad said.
“ Dad”, I said, “we just left our home few hours ago. Our home is not here, our home over there (pointed my finger toward Kampuchea Krom), where mom and my grand parents are waiting for us to come back.”
“ Yisss, ah koun Youn ey na hean mov lo la ptes anh ? ” (Who’s this Viet kid that causing commotion at my house?” Said an elder man who came out to greet us; he laughed out loud when he saw me give him “the look.” My face dropped, I didn’t like to be calling Youn. My dad pulled me closer to him, he knew the elder man has offended me.
“ Koun Youn ey na, mein ta koun kromom Khmer Krom robos kyom te, lok bong!” (This is not a Viet kid, it is only my Khmer Krom daughter, brother!) My dad said. While every one, including the elder man laughed, I pouted. My dad looked at me and whispered, “Lok Um was only joking, baby.”
Once we got in side the house, I sat behind my dad and buried my face between the knees. I didn’t like the way Lok Um was joking around with me. I was not prepared to get the same treatment that I got from home, in Kampuchea Krom. I never thought anyone in Cambodia would call me Youn. I was very disappointed with Lok Um lame remark; it made me very uncomfortable and sad. I have been in Kampot less than an hour and I already felt as if, I was not welcome. Only if Lok Um knows that there were times, I wished I could be like a snake so that I could peel off my light skin, like the dried, death snakeskin I found in my back yard. Many times, I wished that people would go colorblind when they looked at me. I wished that they could only see that beneath my skin I was just a normal Khmer kid. I was very upset, because I thought prejudice was only happened in Kampuchea Krom. I had no idea prejudice would spread this far. Like a little brat, I sobbed and told my dad I wanted to go home.
“ Yiss kromom Khmer Krom nis sap khung phong veuy. Um neveay leng te kmouy srey. Kmouy aing deng rir te, Khmer ler rir Khmer krom kor Khmer yerng tang oss te kmouy. Um somnang nas banh bann kmouy mov leng.” (Oh my, this Khmer Krom girl is so sensitive. I was joking with you. Do you know that upper Khmer or lower Khmer. We’re all Khmer. I am very lucky to have you come visit. ) Lok Um said, and then he handed a *num poantear* (Khmer pound cake) to me. I looked but I didn’t take. My dad knew I was still mad at Lok Um. My dad told me to be good and take the cake. After wiped off my running nose with one of my pant legs, I clapped my hands and bowed my head before accepting his peace offering of *num poantear*. As I took the cake from Lok Um's hand, I respectfully bowed my head again, to show my appreciation and forgiveness.
The next day, my dad and I went to visit his cousin who lives at the far end of the village, Lok Um and his wife took us on their motorboat. My dad's cousin, Lok poo Rith had never married. My dad told me the Khmer Rouge raped and killed Lok poo Rith’s girl friend who he loves more than life. They were planning a wedding before she died. After all these years, he still kept his vow to her. He told me later that he would be faithful to her till he die. He was very sweet and very special person. He was my favorite uncle.
We were in Lok Poo Rith’s home less than half-hour; many people from his neighborhood started to come see us also. While the men stayed in front drinking homemade red rice wine with my dad, their wives would disappear to the kitchen. Seeing I was the only kid among the elder men, Lok Um’s wife came out and asks me if I would like to go the kitchen with her? But I told her I had to stay with my dad because my mom told me to take care of Dad. One of Lok poo Rith's neighbors got up and stood in front of the house, yelling “ Ah Mao, ah Mao.” A moment later, a young woman ran over from the house, across the street.
“ Ja Pa!” (Yes, father!) She said to him. He signaled her to come in the house, and introduced her to my dad and I. She clapped her hands and “sompeas” (bowed) to everyone, even me. I returned “sompeas” to her. She was pretty and she has the biggest eyes I have ever seen. The man gave her some money and told her to go to the store for wine and ice. He asked her to take me along.
“ Let’s go little sister.” She said, smiled and extended her hand out to me. She seems to be very friendly, I wanted to go with her but I was afraid to leave my dad. It was getting very bored watching the elderly men drinking and talking. I was more than happy when she asked me to come along with her. My dad told me it was fine with him if I wanted to go with her. Lok Poo Rith told her to take good care of me because, someday I could be her sister in-law. She blushed at his comment. The elders were roaring, they were having good time teasing her and my older brother who is living in America.
“How old are you?” She asked as we walked.
“I’m nine years old.” I said.
“How old are you bong srey?” I asked her.
“I’m sixteen.” She said.
“ My bong pros is twenty one and he going to graduate from college this year.” I told her.
“ Wow. That’s very nice! “ She said, and continues, “ I wish I knew how to read.”
“ You don’t know how to read? How can that be? You’re Khmer ler, you suppose to read Khmer.” I said. On the way to the market, she told me her sad story. She was three years old when Pol Pot regime took control. She said that she was lucky to be alive after suffering five years with Khmer Rouge. Unfortunately, she lost two brothers, and a sister during the Khmer Rouge killing fields. Her mother died of illness and youngest brother got shot during the Youn invasion in 1979.
“It is too late to learn, I’m too old.” She said.
“No, my dad said you never too old to learn. I wish I could teach you to read Khmer, but I can only speak. “ I told her.
“ What? You speak Khmer and you don’t know how to read Khmer? You and your father looks wealthy, but why can’t he afford to send you to school?” She asked. She has no idea that most Khmer Krom children are not reading Khmer, and she was surprised when I told her that some of Khmer Krom kids in my neighborhood couldn’t speak Khmer.
“Why do you go to Vietnamese school and not Khmer school? “ She asked.I told her, like many Khmer Krom kids, we had one choice which we either learn Vietnamese or be illiterate. I continued to tell her what my dad said, that when French government illegally gave Kampuchea Krom land to Vietnam in 1949 there were no longer Khmer public school in Kampuchea Krom. I told her if I was born as a male, I could become monk and learn Khmer language at a pagoda like my cousins. I continued told her that my dad said luckily, there are many Khmer Krom started to look deeper into the future. Many like my dad who bites their tongues, and swallows their sorrow to send their children to Vietnamese school, with hope that education will help find a solution to get out poverty and better life. My dad also said that, there were some Khmer Krom pretending to be Youn for the safety of their families.
“ At least you can speak Khmer, is not very clear but I understand every word you said. ” She said, smiling at me and gave me a wink with her lovely big brown eyes.
“ That’s one thing my dad make sure that I do. Even though there are some Khmer that couldn’t speak Khmer, but if you ask they will tell you they are Khmer, because each and every one of us are very proud to be Khmer Krom. ” I told her.
“ Wow, where did you learn how to speak like that?” She exclaimed. I kept walking and didn’t answer her question because her comment got me blushed. I felt this heavy gush of hot blood circling on my cheeks and face.
” You are shy too little sister? Your face is so red.” She grinned at my red face. “ Come on, talk to me. I like to hear you talk.” She ran in front of me, squeezed both my cheeks gentle and said, ” Look, I got the red out of your cheeks, now you can started talking again.” She made me laugh at her silliness.Bong Mao and I spent a lot of time together during my stay in Kampot. She even went to sightseeing with us. My favorite place was the Cham Malay fishing village. The people there were very nice and friendly to us. I remembered how beautiful the women looked with their headdress. One lady wrapped our heads with colorful scarves and told my dad to take our picture. She said we look like Cham’s princess.
We visited my dad’s old friend who has a durian farm. It was so much fun dressed up before we could enter the farm. I laughed at my dad and bong Mao, they looked very funny with all the necessary apparatus. My dad said it to protected us from the durian spikes, he said if you are careless you can get kill by these fruits.
“ Tell me if this the best durian you have ever tasted. These durians are much sweeter than the one you have in Kampuchea Krom. “ The owner said and handed a fresh durian pulp for me to taste. I held the sweet piece of durian in my mouth for a long time, trying to distinguish the differential. I remembered very clearly that I couldn’t tell the different.
“ Is taste the same, I can’t tell the different from Khmer Ler and Khmer Krom durian. ”I told him and it was an honest answered.
I also noticed that the Kampot kids were similar to Karmourn Sor kids. Many kids my age were very friendly, they asked me to play with them and they would hang around with me whenever they could. But there were also a few kids that were as mean as those meaner ones from Karmourn Sor. They also called me Mi Youn and some even told me to go home. When bong Mao heard that she told them to shut up and cursed at them, but I just ignored them as if they were not existed. My mom has warned me before we left home, she told me there will be good and bad people wherever I go. She told me if I could walk away, do so.
“ Oh my God, I miss you guy so much. Did you have a good time?” My mom asked.
I was very happy to see my mom. My maternal grandparents gave me big hugs. My grandma ran her hands and felt my body and she said that I lost weight. I told my grandma I ate like my piglets in Kampot.
“ She’s telling the truth.” My dad laughingly answered. My grandfather said I have grown an inch taller.
“ Welcome home!” My cousin cried.
But I never left home.” I told her.
“ What do you mean? Did you loose your mind in Cambodia?” My cousin said, she had a fuzzed look when I hugged her.
“ I know what she meant, she went to Kampuchea Ler, and she came back to Kampuchea Krom. Basically she’s still in Kampuchea, she never left home. ” Tha said and then she gave me a big hug.
“I love our home.” I told Tha.
I learned a very value lesson during my trip to Cambodia, is that whether Khmer Kandal, Khmer Ler, Khmer Krom. We are all Khmer.
“Tiek heuy!” (Not again!) Tha groaned in Khmer. The screaming and whipping sounds from next-door got louder. I paused from eating, holding the chopsticks up right in my rice bowl and looked at my grandparents, pouted.
“Please, you’ve got to save Ka Leap before Mrs. Ba kill her,” I begged.
“Ignore it, eat your rice. It is not our business,” my grandma said.
“I am full.” Tha stood up, took her half empty bowl of rice and heading toward the kitchen.
I got up and said “I am full too!”
“Sit down, you two!” My grandfather commanded. Without a word I sat back down as Tha slowly walked back to the table. My grandfather who was the head of family, a man with very few words but whenever he spoke, we listened. He told my grandma to go interfere with Mrs.Ba and he told us to finish our dinner.
”Troi` da’nh con`tra’nh bu?a an ma`, bao nhieu duo.c roi`!” (Even lighting doesn’t strike at dinnertime, that’s enough!) I could hear my grandma yelling in Vietnamese to Mrs.Ba from next door. The whipping sounds stopped but Ka Leap’s wailing continued. “My God, she must be in a lot of pain.” I cried. Usually, when Mrs.Ba stopped hitting Ka Leap stopped crying. I heard Mrs.Ba asked Ka Leap “Muo’n nu?a h?a ?” (You want more?) Then I heard Mrs.Ba started her post-beating routine—cursing and name-calling at Ka Leap. I heard my grandma tell Mrs. Ba to stopped it and that she would take Ka Leap back to our house so Mrs. Ba could pull herself together.
A few minutes later, my grandma came home with Ka Leap. I was so shocked at Ka Leap disfigured face. One of her eyes was black and blue, swollen up to the size of a duck egg. Her lips were puffed up and the upper lip was bleeding from a small cut. “Get me a wet towel!” My grandma said. I got up and ran for the towel. When I got back, my grandfather was examining Ka Leap’s eyes while my grandma applied green medication oil on her back. “Ouch, ouch…,” Ka Leap hissed and moaned each time my grandma touched her skin. Her back looked horrible. There were so many swollen red marks zigzagging on that tiny back. Ka Leap wiped off tears with one hand and with the other hand she held on to Tha’s comforting hand. Suddenly I got a sick feeling in the stomach; it felt like fish bones were sticking through my stomach wall. I felt pain. I didn’t know what else to say to Ka Leap. I wanted to give her a hug but I was afraid I would only hurt her injured body further. Very gently I took her other hand.
“ Are you hungry?” My grandma asked Ka Leap. Ka Leap nodded her head. I pulled out a chair for her to sit down next to me, while Tha ran in the kitchen to get a bowl and chopsticks for Ka Leap. I watched Ka Leap eating with tears rolled down on her swollen cheeks. When I saw that Ka Leap swallowed rice with her own blood from the cut, I tried so hard to hold back my own tears. My grandfather glanced at my red eyes and sighed. I took a spoon full of shrimp stir-fry and put it in Ka Leap's rice bowl. “Don’t afraid to eat here,” I told her. My grandma sat back in her chair, picked up the chopsticks and her bowl of rice, and started to nibbles on her food as if nothing had happened. But it had happened so many times, each time I would beg my grandparents to go next-door rescues Ka Leap, and each time my grandma would tell me to mind my own business. My grandma didn’t quite understand my feeling that if one of my friends is hurting it is my business. I found it hard to ignore the sound of Ka Leap crying for help.
Tha and I smiled when my grandma announced that Ka Leap will stay with us few days so my grandfather could treat her injured. “Thank you!” Ka Leap said softly and * sopeap* (Cambodian tradition bow) to my grandparents. She looked at me and smiled, I could see her eyes lighted up beneath the swollen bruises.
Unlike Tha who had never been in school, Ka Leap had a third grade education. She could read and write Vietnamese but Mrs. Ba said that was enough schooling for her. She made Ka Leap stay home to do all the household chores while she gambled on Tu Xac (Chinese little cards game) with her group of women. It got to the point that I could tell if Mrs. Ba won or lost gambling. That was unfortunate for Ka Leap if Mrs. Ba didn’t do well that day. As usual, poor Ka Leap would take the beating from her.
Mrs. Ba had two sons from a previous marriage and another son with Ka Leap’s father, but the baby Ah Ra died 3 years ago from an illness before his second birthday. Ka Leap loved her little brother, she talked about Ah Ra all the times. She said he was the only person that made her smile a lot. Mrs.Ba’s sons were older than Ka Leap. They were useless lazy boys and they didn’t have to lift their fingers with the house chores. They didn’t have to do anything at home except for study. I remember I asked one of her sons why they were not helping Ka Leap. "My mother said we don't have to. We're boys" they said. Mrs.Ba wouldn’t even allow her sons to help clear the table after meals. “Leave it there. It’s a woman’s job.” Mrs.Ba said. What Mrs.Ba should say was that it is Ka Leap’s job because Mrs. Ba didn’t even pick up her own rice bowl after she was done eating. I remember, many times, I sat on the deck with Ka Leap keeping her company, while she hand-washed a huge load of laundry. I saw most of the clothes from Mrs.Ba and her sons. Many times, I offered to help, she would laugh, “you’re too small,” and then she added, “I’ll get in trouble with your grandma and my step mother."
At age twelve Ka Leap was not much bigger than I, she was two years my senior.” Ka Leap told us, she didn’t know of her mother and her father didn’t like to mention anything about her mother. They were not married but from what I heard after her mother weaned Ka Leap from breast milk, she left Ka Leap in care of his mother and disappeared. When she was six years old, her father married a wealthy Vietnamese widow with two sons. At first her stepmother, Mrs.Ba was very nice and kind to her. She took good care of Ka Leap and the house while her dad was working. Mrs.Ba loved Ka Leap’s father very much. She used to adore Ka Leap and treated Ka Leap as her own daughter. But after the death of Ah Ra, everything began to fall apart. Her father started drinking heavily and withdrew from the family. He went out on drinking binges came home and passed out for days and Mrs.Ba started to get hooked on Tu Xac. She went gambling all day and sometimes all night and Ka Leap ended up taking care of the house. Several months after the baby died, they found her father dead on the street from an overdose of alcohol. Mrs. Ba went crazy; she went from a nice stepmother to a mean stepmother. Ka Leap said she understood what Mrs.Ba had been through and she never complained about the abuse she got from Mrs.Ba. The problem was whenever Mrs.Ba lost control, she only picked on Ka Leap. "She likes my mother I still love her." Ka Leap said.
That evening, the three of us snuggled on my bed but there was still plenty room left. Ka Leap slept in the middle with a piece of cloth on her head, which my grandfather tied over her injured eye. My granfather wrapped the cloth with his homemade herbs medicine—his remedy for reduced swelling and pain. Her body stunk badly but I didn’t mind sharing the bed with her, neither did Tha. I remember the odor was very strong, it came from the green medicated oil that my grandma rubbed on her bruises, and from the herb medications that grandfather put on her eyes. It smelled like one of those Chinese medicines that my grandma made me drink whenever I got sick.
“What happened this time?” Tha whispered in Khmer to Ka Leap. We kept our voices down fearing Mrs.Ba might spy on Ka Leap and grandma would yell at us if she knew we were not sleeping. In very low soft voice Ka Leap told us that she was cooking *trey kho kreoung* (Khmer Krom caramelized fish with lemon grass) for dinner, she didn’t pay attention and accidentally poured on gasoline instead of fish sauce. When she realized what she had done, she washed and rinsed the fish many times trying get rid of the gasoline smell. To re-cook that fish, she tried adding more lemon grass and lots of black pepper to get rid of the smell but it didn’t work. When Mrs.Ba took a bite of *trey kho kreoung* she went into a rage, she picked up the bowl and threw at Ka Leap; it missed and that made her mad. She got up, pulled Ka Leap by the hair, slapped and punched Ka Leap's face. Ka Leap said when it hit one of her eye she dropped to the floor like a leaf and she stayed on the floor in the fetal position with both hands covering her face. Mrs.Ba told her to get up but before she could, Mrs. Ba grabbed the broomstick and started hitting her on the back with the handle.
“You shouldn’t talk back to her if it was your fault,” I told Ka Leap.
“I didn’t, but she still punched me,” Ka Leap said. “When she hits me, it hurt,” her voice cracked. “But I keep making mistakes, is my all fault, I am stupid! ” Ka Leap continued. “I wish things would go back to normal,” she cried.
“ Jam anh bonn oiy tek banh ket ngop.” (I’ll pray she (Mrs.Ba) would die by the lighting.” Tha said.
“Nooooooooo,” I whispered. “That’s not praying—that’s cursing. My dad said cursing at someone is bad, cursing is not in Buddhist teaching.”
“I never curse at my step mother, I only pray for her to stop hitting me.” Ka Leap sobbed.
“Your prayers didn’t work. Next time when you cook, put rat poison in her food it will stop her for good.” Tha snapped.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhh, the wall has ears.” I whispered. I reminded Tha that Mrs.Ba could be listening and we could be in big trouble, and that my dad said, “If we have evil thoughts we may be tempted to do evil things. Evil minds go to hell and good minds get reincarnated.”
“I want to be reincarnated as a strong good man with a lot of power like King Yayavarman. The monk said he was a good King, and was a great warrior. If King Yayavarman were alive Khmer people would be happy living in one rich, powerful country.” Tha said.
“You want to be a man?” Ka Leap asked.
“Yes.” Tha’s answer amused us. Ka Leap and I started to giggle.
“I want to be reincarnated as a beautiful girl in a rich family with maids and loving parents.” Ka Leap said.
“I want to be reincarnated to the same family but I want my brother with me not thousands miles away.” I said.
That night the three of us had our hands on our chests as we prayed for Mrs.Ba to stopped gambling and hitting Ka Leap. I remember praying for Mrs. Ba sufferings to end, for her to have more compassion and forgiveness to Ka Leap, and for no more evil thoughts from any of us. I remember Lok Ta(an old Buddhist monk) said,"no one is perfect!"
Most people at my village said is OK for the parents to spank or hit their kids, and it is OK for any elder to spank or hit any "misbehaving child" in our village. They also said is OK for the teachers to physically abuse their students, and none of these poor students would dare to report to their parents, because they would end up with more beatings at home. “If I don’t care about you I’ll never hit you, I’ll let you be wild and do whatever you wanted” was a very popular quote with child abusers. I heard the quote repeated every time they beat the heck out of their kids. Don’t bother to call the police because there were no child protection laws. If there was such a law, not many adults cared enough to follow any so-called child protection laws anyway. Maybe these elders either forgot or they just ignored the laws. Besides, the police are not going to interfere because the Vietnamese police don't care if any Khmer Krom get hurt or get kill. Most people said it was normal to use physical abuse on children to teach them a lesson. I always thought the one that needed a lesson the most is the adult who loses control with children.
Almost every home in my poor village has a bottle of gasoline in their kitchen. The gasoline was used for starting a fire on the wood or charcoal stove because most people use rice shells, wood, or charcoal to cook foods. Very few people had portable gas stoves. It is very easy to make mistakes with gasoline and fish sauce; they both have almost the same color. I remember before our family got the gas stove we used to cook with charcoal too, and my grandma used to keep a gasoline bottle in the kitchen to started charcoal fire. One time my grandma mistook gasoline for fish sauce. We ended up ate steamed *mam* (pickle mudfish) with rice for dinner, while my pigs devoured the smelly gasoline fish. The monk was right, no one is perfect, even my grandma made mistakes.
At my village very few people have money to buy costly bottled fish sauce. The poor usually bought cheaper fish sauce with a darker color, and stronger odor that was stored in a large clay jar or plastic container from the local stores. When the poor ran out of fish sauce, they would bring the empty bottle from home to the store to get a refill. They would buy fish sauce by whatever amount that they could afford, either a cup or half-cup of fish sauce. If they didn’t have the bottle with them, the store would pour the fish sauce in a plastic bag for them to take home. I remember Ah Ngoy, who got sent out to buy some fish sauce and accidentally dropped the bag on the ground from tripping in a pothole. Ah Ngoy cried on his way home because he knew he’d get a whipping from his mother. Luckily for Ah Ngoy, my grandfather happened to lie on the hammock at our front porch when he went by our house. When my grandfather learned what happened to Ah Ngoy, my grandfather told me to find an empty jar and poured some fish sauce for Ah Ngoy to take home.
I was always sad and scared when any of my friends or any little kids got beaten. Some times it was so scary to hear Ka leap cry, but sometimes it was a relief to hear her crying because at least I knew that she was still alive. I was lucky with my family. None of my family members ever laid a hand on me, not even my parents. Like most children, I was not a perfect angel. Many times I got in trouble with my family and they would threaten me, especially my grandma, but they never hit me. I remember I used to cry and cry when they gave me time-out. I hated it when they made me stand or kneel by the wall with arms crossed. The worst punishment I've ever gotten from them was when they sent me to bed without dinner for misbehaving, but the next day they cooked my favorite breakfast for me. I’ve never even been coined because my mom said when I was small, I was nothing but thin skins and bones, and my mom was afraid my skin would peel from coining. Mom said she didn’t wanted to leave bruises on my body or add any more pain when I was sick, but they made me drink Chinese liquid herbs medicines that smelled and tasted awful.
A month later, one-day after dinner, my grandfather asked Tha to read a story from one of my schoolbooks to him. As everyone in my family sat and listened, I heard Ka Leap scream again, but this time followed with laughter.
“My Buddha, my Buddha.” Ka Leap screamed louder.Tha stopped reading, I asked for permission to go to see what were going on but Ka Leap came dashing in our house screaming and waving a letter in her hand.
“My mother is alive. She is looking for me.” Ka Leap cried.My grandfather told her to calm down and asked to read her letter that someone from Khleang (Soc Trang) had just brought to her. It was addressed to her father. According to the letter, her mother had escaped the country by boat, and was now living in America. Her mother has been looking for her father and Ka Leap for a long time. Her mother lost contact with Ka Leap’s father because his family moved to Khleang(Soc Trang). But after Ka Leap father married Mrs.Ba, they moved again to Karmourn Sor(Rach Gia)because Mrs.Ba wanted to live near her family. In the letter, Ka Leap’s mother said she wanted to bring Ka Leap to America to give her a better life, and to make up the lost time with Ka Leap.
“My mother loves me, she wanted me." Ka Leap sounded very exciting and happy."I am going to America to be with my birth mother.” Ka Leap cried, holding on to my hands she jumped up and down like a ping-pong ball.
“Finally Buddha answered my prayers.” Ka Leap continued bouncing and grinning at Tha and I.
“ Prayer really works!” She said.
Cheerfully my dad agreed. “Sathoot!”(A Buddhist verse in Khmer that has same meaning with Amen for Christians).