My grandmother, Yey Tem, had recently suffered a hard fall from a run-in with a stray ox, rendering her immobile.
Now, the 96 year-old woman was fixed to her village hut in the Cambodian countryside, sitting still as countless children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren made the rounds to check on her. I wondered if at this stage of life, she wished she could relax in peace without the constant parade of family streaming in and out.
I had never met my grandmother before. Growing up, my mom’s stories of her painted the portrait of a rebellious woman who didn’t care much for rules — nothing at all like my own mother. My mom would tell of how she would get frustrated as a young girl to come home from school and find that the pages of her lesson books had been torn out by her mother, who rolled them up to make cigarettes. Yey Tem had been a lifelong chronic smoker and was approaching 100 with no problems until this accident. I wish I’d had a chance to know her old self.
* * *
I was 14-years-old, and it was 2005, the summer before I would start high school and my first time visiting Cambodia. Both of my grandmothers were nearing their final years, and my parents wanted to be sure that their two youngest children, myself and my sister Khemara, would have a chance to meet them at least one time.
My parents said their farewells to Cambodia in 1983 when they fled to the United States with three young children in tow, escaping the repercussions of the Khmer Rouge in search of a safer life. After a brief stint in Seattle, they relocated to Long Beach, California, where I was born in 1990. (Long Beach is home to the largest diaspora of Cambodian refugees and immigrants in the United States.) While I knew that my parents and my two eldest siblings came from somewhere so vastly different from my hometown, it was hard to imagine at times. Until that summer, I could only rely on my parents’ stories to fill in a picture of their home country.
My parents’ stories of their youth in Cambodia always seemed so idyllic and carefree — almost otherworldly. But perhaps it was only because these stories so distinctly contrasted the dark histories of Cambodia that would come later.
As a girl, my mom wanted nothing more than to get out of the house. I could relate. Temple excursions to Angkor Wat, treks to the city, and visits to relatives were all welcome opportunities to see new places. She wistfully told me about when a favorite uncle would come visit her family’s village. He was better off than most of the family and lived in the city. Most importantly, he owned a car — a classic French Citroën with large, curved wheel wells and a leather interior
that was a rare sight in the rural landscape. She watched with fascination as the men went through the intricacies of starting up the car. I cherished these retellings from my mom — I could see her fill with excitement as she traveled back to that place of youthful awe, and was grateful that she had these memories to recall and share with us.
* * *
Yey Tem looked exactly like she did in all the photographs I had seen. The photo album pages depicted a cast of recurring characters of my extended family in various stages of life over the years, while Yey Tem, stooped in her chair, always in the portrait’s center, remained unchanged. Meeting her at last, she seemed so small. Her face was so finely wrinkled that it almost seemed smooth again, and her skin had sagged so much that you could barely see her eyes — she couldn’t see out of them herself because of cataracts.
She had a slow, matter-of-fact way of speaking as if narrating, addressing everyone and no one at the same time.
“I could have come out to Phnom Penh to see everyone if it weren’t for that ox,” she said in slow Khmer.
She sat on a mat on the thatched floor of the hut, surrounded by her daughters, their daughters, respective spouses, grand and great-grandchildren, and the occasional cat. Some of the younger girls — my cousins and second cousins — sat close to her, caressing her back and fanning her face. She was clearly adored. Khemara and I sat further away, half-hidden behind the safety of our mom, trying our hardest to look respectful.
“These are your other grandchildren,” my mom said to her, as everyone else watched. “You only knew Socheata and Khem, these girls came later.”
“Go say hi to grandma,” she urged us.
I can’t speak for my sister, but I was filled with dread.
If there was one discomfort Khemara and I shared on that trip, it was the awkwardness we felt around our extended family — this feeling that we were constantly on display, and consequently, being judged. Though she was four years older than me, Khemara was deeply concerned that her imperfect grasp of Khmer would be her downfall when meeting relatives. I thought I spoke Khmer proficiently, but I ended up speaking even less than she did. Having so many eyes and ears directed at the “American daughters” for a full two weeks seemed to mute my adolescent self. As awkward as small talk can be, it’s infinitely worse in a foreign language with family you don’t know. But looking back, perhaps my relatives felt just as strange trying to get to know girls with whom they had seemingly little in common.
We crept our way to where she sat, as the other girls made room for us. “Chum-reap-sour Yey,” we each said in greeting, giving the customary bow made to elders. It felt so formal and hollow to me. We each offered a meek embrace.
Her skin was like soft leather, and her frame was so small I shudder to think what internal damage the fall had caused. She ran her hands over our own limbs, so much larger and fuller in comparison.
Yey’s fingers paused on my earlobes. “Is this a boy?”
My mom laughed, explaining that no, I was indeed a girl.
“Girls have pierced ears. You should get her ears pierced.”
I laughed weakly. My embarrassment was heightened by the fact that she hadn’t actually addressed me directly.
But here she was, that same bold, slightly careless woman who smoked pages from lesson books — my mother’s mother.
* * *
This is the only encounter I’ve had with my grandmother. Even now, I’m not sure there was anything for her to gain in meeting us — she had so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren already, what difference did two more make now?
Yey Tem passed away at the end of that year, just months after meeting Khemara and me. When she died, I didn’t know how to comfort my mom. I can’t imagine what it’s like to spend so much time away from your mother, and my grandfather had been killed when my mom was very young, so in a way she was her strongest anchor to family and home. But maybe I read the moment wrong at the time. In that visit, my mom proved to her mother that she had achieved the success she sought for herself. It was my mom’s idea to flee Cambodia with my dad and their small children, and it was a huge gamble to make. But she had done it, and done it well enough to be able to come back and say hello to her mother one last time, with even more to show for it — us.
* * *
After a whirlwind week of family visits, I finally got a chance to play tourist. Meeting so many different people had been overwhelming; it was a relief to have some time just to ourselves. I wanted to see more of the rice fields, and Khemara was all about chasing thrills, so we soon found ourselves holding on for dear life on the back of a motorbike as we zoomed through the landscape. I have never seen a green as vibrant and glowing as that of the Khmer rice crop in
August. Watching the fields pass by, there was so much land around that it was staggering but somehow calming at the same time. Earlier that trip, a chatty cousin had asked me in earnest if I could see the sky in the States or if the skyscrapers were so tall that they blocked the view. I had replied that of course, I could see the sky. But finding myself out in that endless pastoral expanse was something else — I couldn’t say with certainty which view was more preferable.
We sped on the motorbike, so that the wind cut a refreshing breeze through the otherwise sweltering air. I imagined that these simple thrills could be found in our parents’ own childhoods, and it was gratifying to think that they, too, enjoyed their time in this country before history took a turn for the worse.
Eventually we made our way to Angkor Wat. Cambodia has hundreds of grey sandstone temple structures that draw millions of tourists every year, but Angkor Wat is its main attraction, the emblem on its flag. Visitors crawl over the crumbling steps of this vast temple city searching for some connection in its recesses, taking it all in. Occupying 200 acres of land and intricately designed, this monolithic temple looks out-of-this-world, with conical spires reaching upwards to the skies from a maze-like foundation of grey corridors dotted with sculptures. Some stones are so large that it is still a mystery how ancient people moved them without modern technology.
I walked up the long, pool-lined walkway of the Angkor entrance. The temple offers countless corners and cloisters for those seeking solitude, and it was in one of these that I wandered until I found myself in an open stone courtyard.
I looked up and stared at the massive, stone-head sculptures, solemn faces carved on the tops of the walls. The stone faces of these demi-gods are everywhere in Angkor, etched with expressive, curved eyebrows and a knowing smile predating Mona Lisa’s by centuries. Behind the pillars surrounding the court were bas-relief friezes of apsaras, mythical female dancers of Hindu and Buddhist mythology, frozen in curved poses on the walls. In their past lives, the temples functioned as royal palaces, and spaces like this courtyard would serve as the stage for theatrical performances.
When I was younger, my parents enrolled me in Cambodian classical dance classes to encourage an early cultural interest. I took to the artform naturally somehow, discovering a knack for dance and performance that I still try to hold onto today. Tracing the broken stone tiles of the floor with my feet, I tried to picture what the space looked like before it had been designated a ruin, before decades of war and vandalism had taken its toll, and before the tourists came to flock. I could have been here in an ancient past life, performing the traditional Chun Por welcoming dance for an audience of royalty, ringing in the Cambodian New Year during the harvest season.
* * *
It’s amusing to browse through the photo album from that trip. On the day that we went to Angkor Wat, I’m wearing a ridiculous red and blue tie-dyed shirt, perhaps unconsciously affirming my American identity. Against the dark greys of the temple backdrop, though, the shirt’s colors stand out in such contrast that there’s no way I would have ever blended in with my surroundings.
I had felt an unease during the visit about wanting to find my place, with family members I had never known and in a country I had never seen before. Blame it on adolescent naiveté that I thought this was something even attainable in two weeks. There were moments and interactions that certainly made an impression on me, but in the end, the visit was so much more about my parents than anything else. I got to see my mother reunite with her mother, in the place that she knew as home, which I would never have known had we not gone when we did. I think it’s important to be able to see your parents as children. It startles you but grounds you at the same time in a reassuring way — a reminder that life is cyclical.
One of the photos from the album is a wide shot of the pathway leading up to the entrance of Angkor Wat. My mom is in the foreground, facing the photographer. Further back behind her, already halfway down the walkway and unaware that the moment was even being captured, are me and my sister. For my mom, this temple was one of the very places that she loved to go see as a girl, perhaps on a spur-of-the-moment outing in her uncle’s Citroën. She would excitedly skip up the steps, while Yey Tem walked yards behind, never in a rush. Taking us to see it now, decades after her own childhood visits, must have been like déjà vu for her. But Yey Tem couldn’t walk now and wasn’t in this version of the picture, and the stairs of the temple had more people on them than she ever remembered.
About Veasna Has
Veasna Has is an arts communications professional, passionate about storytelling in all its formats, with a special fondness for written, cinematic, and choreographic mediums. She is currently the Communications Manager at the Brooklyn Arts Council and also serves as the Chair of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy’s Movies With a View Film Committee. She lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn (by way of southern California).