The Story of Us
by M. Phoung
My origins are very similar to most Cambodian Americans I know. My parents were refugees of war, they came to America after the collapse of their county, carrying with them what hope they had left, along with their children, and surviving family members. Like my parents, most came here with nothing, with no prior knowledge of the country, no understanding of the language, with nothing but the will to survive. I write now, not as a woman, not as an American, not as a Cambodian, but as a human being who has learned what it essentially means to be human.
Like most children that are products of this, I struggled with my identity. Answering the questions, who am I, how do I fit in here, took years of struggle to answer. Growing up Cambodian in American culture is challenging, because like any kid, I just wanted to fit in. I happened to grow up in the one part of America that had very few Cambodians around, as a matter of fact, Hispanics dominated that small town in California, and the small number of Cambodians that did live there, eventually migrated elsewhere. This only made the question of identity that much harder to answer, and life at home, was no walk in the park.
I’m not going to bother with the back story, or the origin, and I will definitely spare everyone the details, so, here are the facts. As I struggled to fit into my social environment, I had a different struggle to face at home. My stepfather had been sexually abusing me since I could remember. Even though this is a key part of my journey, this is not about the abuse. It is about the relationships that suffered as a result of it.
It’s natural to assume that I would hate my stepfather, after all, he is the perpetrator, the one responsible for the crime. But I actually learned to forgive him before I learned to forgive my mother. I hated my mother deeply for years. I hated her for her silence, for her blindness, for her inability to defend me, her own daughter, allowing her husband to rule over every part of me. To be fair to her, she was not aware of the sexual abuse. But there was the physical abuse, the verbal abuse, and the obvious hatred my stepfather spewed on me that she never protected me from. I labeled her lack of aid as weakness, and cowardice, and my heart turned cold towards her.
The abuse ended when I was 13. By then I had mustered up enough courage to stop my stepfather, and take matters into my own hands. I told a teacher the very next day, and I’ve been free of that abuse ever since. The details of what happened to me between then and now is inconsequential, what does matter is, somewhere along the way, I learned to live with and face the abuse. I thought I had conquered it, mastered it, and I foolishly thought I was free of it, that is, until I had my heart broken.
Now, I know you’re wondering, what does all of this have to do with being from a Cambodian refugee family? Well, it has everything to do with it actually. Remember the part about me having my heart broken? As I fought to put myself back together, I simultaneously learned to feel for my mother again.
I learned that my mother was married in Cambodia before she met my father. I don’t know how long she was married for or whether she loved him or not, but I do know that her husband was executed during the reign of the Pol Pot regime. Having lost a few people in my life, I can only imagine what she must have felt. I’m not sure how much time went by between the death of her husband and when she met my father. Judging from her reaction to him now, I’d say she fell heads over heals for him. My father was married, and the two of them had an affair, in which I am the product of. I’m not sure about how or why, but my father left both, my stepmother and my mother, and came to America. I can only assume that they were both devastated. This is when my mother met my stepfather, broken hearted, in a refugee camp, in the Philippines. She’s lost her country, she is separated from her family, and she is on her way to a world she knows nothing about. The man she loved had recently abandoned her and their child. I cannot blame her for seeking solace and comfort in another human being during such a trying time. How can I expect one human being to endure that much alone?
My mother and my stepfather didn’t come to America together but they eventually reunited when I was 3, and that is how I ended up with the childhood that I had. When I graduated from college was the first time I’ve ever seen my mother and my father in the same room together. Even then, I didn’t truly understand. I remember seeing how my mother’s body language would just shift when my father entered the room. I remember how her voice was slightly different when she spoke to him. Even now, hundreds of miles away, over the phone, I can sense the shift in her when I mention my father. We all deserve love, but not all of us get the love we desire.
My dysfunctional relationships with men and my relationship with my mother were that last remaining remnants of the abuse. By some miraculous force, the two issues resolved themselves simultaneously. As I sunk deep into a depression over my broken heart, I couldn’t help think about my mother. I placed myself in her shoes, imagining what it must have been like to be responsible for a small child, to have everything that was familiar ripped away, to suffer the tragedies brought on by the Khmer Rouge, and to deal with a broken heart, all at the same time. My heart which was once cold and filled with hate, is now filled with an endless amount of empathy and compassion for her. For the tragedies that she once endured, pales in comparison to my own.
This is what my mother carried with her to America, a small child, and the weight of all those losses. Aside from the sexual abuse, I learned over time that my story is not very different from many other stories of Cambodian families. There are variations, and not all of my friend’s are products of affairs, but the loss and the pain of losing your home, your people, your former life, is the same. For me and my Cambodian American friends, America is our home. But for our parents, although I know they are thankful to be here, it cannot compare to the place where life started for them, a place that will always reside in their hearts.
I understand now that there was no way she could have possibly saved me when her own soul was in need of rescuing. My own internal journey has led me to her, and by understanding who she is, where she came from, and what she and millions of other Cambodians endured, I can answer the question, who am I? In every sense of the word, I am my mother’s daughter.