The twists and turns of life don’t often lead to where you expect, nor does it give you a plan when you get there. If you had asked me when I was 13 years old if I was Khmer or American, I would have said "American." If you would have asked me at 18 if I would I like to visit Cambodia, I would have said "No." I had no interest back then, let alone expect I would live here 20 years later.
Conventional wisdom suggests that my parents must have not taught me how to value my culture, reaffirmed my identity, nor ingrained in me Khmer values. That must explain the absence of interest or the rejection of my identity when I was younger. On the contrary, my parents did everything they could to teach me Khmer values, Khmer culture, and what it means to be Khmer, perhaps to the point where it was suffocating. Everything I did, especially as a female, was a direct reflection of those values.
If I had grown up in a society where 90 percent of the population had the same cultural values, where they looked like me (brown skin and dark hair), and where they spoke the same language, I most likely would have conformed without question, without hesitation. Instead, I resisted. When I spoke the language outside of the house, I received perplexed looks. When my name was called on the first day at school, I held my breath hoping the teacher wouldn’t butcher it. When I wanted the same freedoms as my friends I was scolded by my parents. I was living in conflicting worlds. The values and reflections I came across on a daily basis were completely contradictory.
Reconciling these differences was difficult. People outside the walls of my home didn’t look like me, didn’t speak like me. They didn’t have the same mannerisms or understood my culture. They couldn’t relate to my family’s struggles as an immigrant in a new country. They didn’t understand the restrictions of my freedom and individuality. On the other side of the wall, my parents didn't understand how hard it was to fit in, nor could they relate to the type of peer pressure one faces as an 'American teenager.' They were too busy making sure we had enough food to eat, and obtained a good education. As I grew older I questioned where I belonged. Was I Cambodian or was I American? It seemed I couldn’t be both. Between these two worlds, I was an outsider looking in, never being able to fully claim either.
The First Visit
With time and maturity, I understood that taking interest in my heritage, our family history, didn’t make me less American, or more Cambodian, but enriched my life. I realized that by learning about the customs and culture of my country gave me a different, richer way of looking at things. I was lucky to receive the blessings of being a third culture kid. These were stories, traditions, and values I could pass down to my children. Having come to this epiphany, I was ready for the trip back to Cambodia.
My first trip to Cambodia (since I left when I was five years old in 1980) was with my parents in 2004. It opened my eyes to the country I never knew. This life changing experience awakened a dormant part of me that I shut out. I made a vow that at some point in my life I would come back to live to make up for lost time.
Still an Outsider Looking In
Two years ago I moved back to Cambodia, keeping my vow. It was a gift, however not without a price. The price was a familiar sense of feeling out of place. Even though the person staring back at me had a similar reflection, everything about us was different. Our experiences, the way we spoke the same language, our mannerisms, and our world views. It was the complete opposite of what I had experienced growing up. Now everyone outside of my home looked like me, but we couldn’t relate to each other because our thoughts, values, and experiences were so different. Even though I was in my “homeland”, I was once again an outsider looking in.
As a tourist who visited years ago, I only saw snippets of the country, minimal exposures of day-to-day life and fleeting experiences overshadowed by my desire to see the positive aspects of the country with rose-colored glasses. Everything about these short-lived visits, while powerful, was surface deep. Feeling a sense of belonging was an afterthought because my interactions were brief. I could brush off feeling out of place because soon, I would be on the airplane going back to home.
Living here was another story. Being embedded in the daily life where I am forced to fall into a routine interaction proved to be a challenge. As soon as words escaped my mouth, it was an immediate give away that I was different, even though we looked the same. It was difficult being critiqued on a daily basis. Either my Khmer was good enough for my circumstance, or not good at all. Going through this was a constant and sobering reminder that I was an outsider. It wasn't so much anything that anyone did to make me feel that way. More often than not, people here appreciate it when repatriates like me come back to reconnect with our country, and understand that we, especially my generation, didn't leave here by choice. I couldn’t blame them, I would think the same way. The power to change that was up to me, and whether or not I would make an attempt to cross that invisible line that divides us.
Everyday that I have been here I am trying to make a conscience effort to bridge that divide through my writing, through my work, through learning how to read and write Khmer, and through my daily interactions. However, I can’t help but often think, “Am I integrating myself enough?", “Am I learning as much as I can about Cambodia and what it means to be Khmer?” “Am I bridging that divide?” And more often than not, the answer is “No!” because there will always be more that I can do, more that I can know, and deeper relationships that I can have.
I’ve accepted that I will never feel fully American or fully Cambodian, though more often than not here, I feel more American because it's where I've spent most of my life and through the lens in which I view the world. It’s ironic that 30+ years earlier my parents probably felt the same sense, of feeling like an outsider in a different land. But I’m come to accept that sense of non-acceptance, as I’m sure they did. I’ve realized it’s a blessing in disguise when I speak Khmer with my American accent and then get perplexing looks and immediate questions. It is a window of opportunity, however brief, to tell my story. That for those that may ask, “Why my Khmer is not so clear?”, I can share my life story. That I am the product of the country’s historical circumstance. That my family suffered and loss during the Khmer Rouge. That when we left the country as refugees to a foreign land, as much as my parents taught me Khmer culture and the language as best as they could, it was difficult to maintain because we were heavily influenced by another culture. That after a while you have to adapt and integrate. Though as much as we have tried to assimilate into a culture that is not ours, we've come back home to reconnect and find what we have lost.
The fabric of our existence is woven into a series of moments sewn together to form our life story. Each moment, each experience, each person brought into our world is a patchwork that shapes our future, and propels us one step closer to where we are supposed to be. It is only when we are able to step back and see the bigger picture that are we able to appreciate and understand these moments for what they are. Every day that I’m here, whether it is a good day or a bad one, I am lucky to have this constant struggle. While I am still on the outside looking in, whichever world is before me —whether in the U.S. or Cambodia—I am fortunate to have two windows to look through.