By PUTSATA REANG
This past December, after not talking to me for several months, my mother called from her rural Oregon home. I listened from Seattle as she offered updates on cousins in Cambodia, inventoried her latest aches and pains, and noted my father’s failing memory.
Her talk was sprinkled with the Khmer word “gohn,” meaning darling, an endearment she had stopped using with me months before.
When, at the end of our call, she summoned me home, a knot tightened in my gut. “Come alone,” she said.
We had been sparring over broken hope. I’m gay, or a version of it. I came out to my mother in my 20s as gay because there is no word in our Khmer language for bisexual.
And if there is, I don’t know it. I was living and working then in the Bay Area. She flew in for the weekend. I wasn’t sure she knew what gay meant, so I drove her to the Castro.
From my Honda Civic, she pressed a chubby cheek to the window and pointed at two men in leather chaps, holding hands, their bare behinds hanging out.
“That the gay?” she asked.
“Yes, Mom,” I said, embarrassment flaring at the back of my neck. “Stop pointing. Yes, that’s the gay.”
On the drive back to my apartment, she told me she loved me. I thought she understood this essential thing about me: that one day I may walk down the street holding hands with a woman (minus the nudity), and it would be totally normal.
I miscalculated the moment, completely.
Twenty years later, after learning I had left a career in international media to move to Seattle to be with my partner, a woman, my mother let loose a verbal squall: “You’re crazy. You’re being disrespectful, dishonorable, disloyal. You’re not normal.”
I spent weeks slumped on the sofa, mentally scanning my insides for injuries.
When she cornered my siblings to sway them to her side, I called her to lob a shot back. “What kind of mother are you?” I hissed, and we each retreated, for the next six months, into our own hurts.
I resolved to keep my distance from her, but when she called last December and asked me to visit, I agreed to make the four-hour drive.
A week later, my parents were in the kitchen eating rice and salted fish when I arrived. My mother wedged two scoops of steaming jasmine rice into a bowl and nudged it toward me.
I brought oranges from their favorite Asian market in Portland and holiday cookies that my partner had made and arranged in a tin tied with red ribbons. My father pinched a piece of fudge from the tin and told me to thank my partner, while my mother just stared deeper into her rice bowl.
Then she started talking, bits and pieces of news. As an hour stretched into two, we moved into the family room, where my mother eased into her rocking chair, waving me over with a flick of her wrist and clamping her arms around my waist. “What do you want for Christmas?” she asked. “Money? Clothes?”
“I want you to be happy for me,” I said.
I was the happiest I had ever been. I was finally with a partner who loved me for who I was, who laughed with me until we were stumbling around the house, drunk on raw joy. Who inspired a better version of me through her grace, generosity and loyalty.
My mother started sobbing, her head pressed into my belly.
“I’m not happy,” she blurted out. “Ma wants you to get married. Be normal, like your brother and sisters, and find a good man to marry before Ma and Pa die.”
I froze and flipped the switch in my heart to “closed.”
Her sobbing soon escalated into the kind of wild crying I saw her do when someone died. I did not console her.
Instead, I peeled her fingers from my waist and stepped back, angry at her ambush, and then felt ashamed for not being more compassionate. “Maybe she could use a hug,” I thought. “Maybe that would save us.”
I was too enraged. Not only was my mother genuinely not happy for me, but she insisted she would never be happy as long as I was gay.
I had always been so proud of my mother, using adjectives like courageous and resilient whenever I spoke of her. She raised my siblings and me to be solid citizens, grounded in morals and mission. She taught us how to grow gardens, stack wood, pickle plums, patch anything with holes and be proud of who we were, refugees who had come to America with almost nothing.
Forty years ago, as genocide gripped Cambodia, my family fled on a Cambodian navy vessel built for a crew of 30 with some 300 people crammed on board. For three weeks, the ship plied the waters of the Gulf of Thailand, turned away by countries unwilling to grant us asylum.
Halfway into the journey, a baby with a swollen head and shriveled legs went sallow inside my mother’s sarong. The baby hadn’t cried or moved in days.
The captain of the ship, surely smelling rot, eventually came around.
“Your baby is dead,” he said. “Throw it in the water. The corpse will contaminate the others.”
“We’re Buddhist,” my mother pleaded. “Please let me bury my baby in the earth.”
The captain relented, allowing my mother to cradle her listless baby for another week or so.
That baby was me.
I had heard this story dozens of times before it occurred to me one day to ask her, “Did you think I was dead?”
She paused and glanced past my shoulder to some other place. “I had hope,” she said. “Just a little hope that you were still alive.”
I had survived on my mother’s hope, on the dreams she breathed into me and on the drops of water she put on my unmoving lips. I had spent my life with this story as my albatross, trying my best to repay her by being a good daughter and not disrupting the bond between us.
Over the years, my mother bragged to her friends about how I had bought my own home, sent her and my father on vacations, and traveled the globe as a journalist, even when she protested certain dangerous destinations like Afghanistan. (“I brought you safely from war,” she told me. “Why do you want to go back?”) After I went against her wishes that time, she didn’t talk to me for nearly a year.
I was a good daughter. But out of my parents’ sight, I rebelled, dating people I knew they would find inappropriate. Yet I had plenty of conventional boyfriends, too, and these I brought home. I also brought home an occasional girlfriend, but my mother didn’t take any of them seriously.
I hadn’t considered, until way too late, that tacking between genders could be confusing to my mother.
Since visiting my mother last December, I stumbled into a newer understanding of her while watching a documentary film set in Cambodia.
In one scene, as a young Khmer bride gets her face drawn up with mascara before her wedding, the camera pans to the bride’s beaming mother, who announces how happy she is that her daughter is fulfilling her duty.
Duty. As I considered that word, I finally understood the depth of my mother’s disappointment. It was tied up in an ancient pain left over from when she was corralled into an arranged marriage after being badly beaten by her father with a steel rod for shaming the family when, instead of marrying someone chosen for her, she tried to flee.
To my mother, my being gay was worse than running away. It meant not fulfilling my ultimate duty as a daughter: to marry a man.
It also robbed her of her birthright in blessing me on my wedding day, in symbolically clipping a lock of my hair and tying red string around my wrist for an auspicious new future.
We’re left wedged inside too tight a space, Ma and me. If I am to be a good Cambodian daughter, I must sacrifice an essential part of who I am and lose my partner, who loves me with her full nurturing force. If I am true to myself, I cause Ma to lose a fundamental part of who she is as a Cambodian mother.
I see no middle ground, no safe harbor for us to come ashore together. But I know who I am, and how I am like her. I know that same impulse of hope in Ma is alive in me, beating beneath my ribs, something she breathed into my soul on a wayward ship so long ago.
It’s a hope that she will one day come to a better understanding of me, a hope that we will survive this journey, too.
There’s always hope, even if it’s just a little.