I have a confession. I have a hard time speaking my native language, Khmer. I can speak it but my proficiency is not where I would like it to be. I sometimes struggle to have in depth conversations with my Khmer friends and family members in Cambodia. I cannot read or write it and don’t understand Khmer humor which involves a lot of parables and proverbs.
This language barrier has made me feel more like an outsider than I expected. I have lived here for almost a year and sometimes I feel more like a tourist rather than a Khmer born citizen. Most Khmers will speak to me in English first, then be surprised when I respond back in my choppy Khmer with an American accent. I tell them I am Khmer, born in Battambang. Then they look confused and ask, “Why don’t you speak better Khmer?” To which I say, “I’ve lived in the U.S. since I was five years old.”
People may wonder why my parents didn’t teach me how to speak Khmer properly in the U.S., especially because my father was a Khmer-French literature professor. The fact is, it’s not my parents’ fault. It is my fault. It’s a story that may be familiar to many Khmers in the diaspora.