Anthony Veasna So
I want to give you, everyone in my audience, some words of advice. Never eat twenty dollars worth of fast food at 4 P.M. and then immediately take a nap when it is 104 degrees outside, because I when I did that, I had an absolutely fucked up dream. I woke up in a panic and sweaty all over, even in the most obscure places of my body, from a dream where my dead grandparents came to me and screamed, “We did not die in a genocide so that you could pass out in the middle of the day after eating 20 tacos from Jack in the Box!”
Manchester was a neighborhood that consisted of one apartment complex and resided three blocks south of two shopping malls. In the 1980s, the American government granted citizenship to Cambodian refugees, opening the Central Valley’s floodgates for families to pour into the California Delta land and be corralled into cockroach-infested apartments in Manchester. Back then, the street resembled a primordial province of Cambodia more than an apartment complex in America. Its decaying concrete infrastructure seemed mere minutes away from collapsing, tired mothers stood outside washing heaps of laundry by hand, and every window was connected to the next by a bundle of wires that split one cable subscription 20 separate ways. Even Manchester’s surrounding streets retained a look of another more primitive world, encircling the neighborhood with fields of dead yellow grass growing wildly on plots of land that were, for some reason, cursed barren. But cockroaches be damned, this was the American Dream and Manchester was still only three blocks away from two shopping malls.
My family, by which I mean my father’s mother, his siblings, and all subsequent spouses tethered down to my patriarchal bloodline, lived in Manchester before my birth. By the time I was born in 1992, they had clawed their way out of poverty and for the first decade of my life, we lived in humble middle class homes, away from Manchester. Here, my parents, aunts, and uncles all prioritized English over Khmer, their native language, in an effort to ensure the academic futures of my cousins and me, buying us hoards of books, including already outdated paper encyclopedias, and putting on sophisticated television shows like Frasier.
We were also enrolled in a magnet school, the best our city had to offer. The daily routine of six kids of three different families all using the same fake address to qualify as in-district became a 30 minute drive to a bus stop, a 60 minute bus ride to school, five hours of instruction, a 60 minute bus ride back to the same bus stop, a 45 minute walk to the public library, and a three hour wait for someone to finally pick us up. At home, our parents stressed over their finances, figuring out more ways to shatter ceilings and prevent plateaus, accumulating more equity and more property to support their children who stressed over performance in classwork, instructions for homework, avoidance of late work, complete reading comprehension, standardized testing deviation, long division of multiplication, pristine penmanship when writing calligraphic cursive, colored coated project boards for oral presentations, perfect utilization of the creative right-sided brain, brilliant maximization of precocious logical inducements, hypochondriac tendencies from attendance paranoia, and anything else that proved everything was fucking worth it. All to cultivate our potential genius, our potential success, our future life of ease.
All our parents could do was push us. Their never-ending states of anxiety and Associate’s Degrees ill-equipped them to help us with things such as Geometry or five-paragraph essays, leaving us alone to blindly navigate the American school system. We were left with lights that only lit up to the grade level of our oldest cousin. Luckily, we found refuge at the public library, a cheap daycare stocked with books to pave the way to an education higher than our parents’ alma mater, Delta Community College, which so many other Manchester Cambodians started and never finished, even if it was their only option. The library let us lose ourselves in the fantasy of Narnia, Uriel, and Hogwarts, reach for hope hidden in giant peaches and glass elevators by Roald Dahl, and then spout along to the witticisms of Holden Caulfield. We spent afternoons flipping pages until one of our parents reached the maximum amount of paid hours their jobs allowed.
By my prepubescence, it was clear that we had great academic futures, so our parents’ didn’t need to worry. Nevertheless, satisfaction is foreign to their nature and our parents soon recalibrated their concern to scrutinize our ignorance towards the Khmer words and Cambodian customs we were forced to turn our backs to while studying at the school desk of American education. Instead of analyzing children’s literature, we listened to tales of the olden days in Cambodia. Instead of memorizing mathematical algorithms, we counted spoonfuls of whatever Cambodian dish flavored with fermented fish paste our parents tried acclimating us to that day. For all our academic promise, we still fell short, berated for what couldn’t have been our fault. It was impossible to satisfy our parents and this sentiment recycled itself over and over again into the present, where our parents criticize us for being nowhere close to marriage after forbidding relationships all throughout our education. They condemn dating while condoning marriage, setting us up for failure, again. All our parents do is push us. Pushing towards America, pushing for advancement. Pushing against America, pushing for preservation. Going this way and that way, finding faults with everything, because nothing’s right and nothing fits. We need to constantly push to find some satisfaction in this society. But survival is all we can do, perpetually pushing on, afraid to stop, because what the hell would we do then?
I’m going to teach you some of the only Khmer words I know. It is “amuy nou.” It literally means “that guy.” It is the only thing I’ve ever heard my parents use to refer to my sister’s white boyfriend. They’ve been dating for five years.
The premonition that our native language would cease to exist in future generations haunted our parents the most. Thence, they enrolled us in the Khmer School held at Manchester. Every Saturday morning, six kids were dropped off at the gates of the ghetto for school that wasn’t really school. Classes were held inside an abandoned daycare stuck in a barely used courtyard. Our Khmer teachers weren’t really teachers, but rather translators hired by the school districts and promoted to teachers by prideful relatives. Here in Manchester, translators were teachers, Hondas were Mustangs, Olive Gardens were fine dining, all colleges outside the Central Valley were U.C. Berkeley, and being babysat by bilingual Cambodian-Americans in their thirties was Khmer School.
We began classes and immediately realized that the other students were already fluent, a skill that couldn’t be attributed to our teachers, whose philosophies of education consisted mostly of worksheets that tested how well we used the process of elimination. Our classmates learned Khmer simply by growing up in Manchester, a place filled with Cambodians—parents who didn’t bother climbing the socioeconomic pyramid that requires proficient English, grandmothers whose jobs consisted of convincing social workers of their ongoing disabilities, men that only made enough money to book flights to Cambodia and impress their poorer relatives while wooing their pregnant mistresses, girls that never took advantage of the free pills from Planned Parenthood, boys that flowed into gangs like rain down a sewer drain, and kids that gave up their dreams before they learned about student loans— all with their own culture inside those iron bar gates.
We had never felt less Cambodian in our lives and learning Khmer wouldn’t have changed the fact that we had almost nothing in common with the inhabitants of Manchester. Even our blood was less Cambodian, the one Chinese ancestor we had made our complexions lighter and marked us as different at first glance. Our classmates called us “Chinese” instead of “Cambodian.” To them, our “Chinese” blood was the reason for our difference in intelligence and socioeconomic class. And we made no effort to step past these differences. We rushed through our handouts and never talked, letting our teachers think we were painfully shy rather than unable to answer back in Khmer. We sat amongst ourselves, whispering about the lack of basic necessities like air conditioning and scented hand-soaps. We stole glances at the clock, waiting for the inevitable return to our comfortable middle-class existence. We stayed on our side of the room and our classmates stayed on theirs.
After a couple of months, my cousins and I were reenrolled for the more intensive summer program. By now, our parents didn’t expect us to become fluent in Khmer, as our excellent grades combined with our inability to understand the language proved that the school wasn’t the most legitimate institution, but at ten dollars a month, the school replaced the library as the cheapest babysitter around. Saturdays turned into all week and mornings turned into eight hours a day, which is a fucking long time for kids to sit in near silence. There was literally nothing to do but let the seemingly endless amount of time together corrode the cultural barrier between our classmates and us. So we all fell into friendship, like kids so easily do in the summer.
It was hard growing up Cambodian-American. I think it was because Cambodian kids don’t have anyone to look up to except their parents. If you look at the media now, other races have great role models. Look at Barrack Obama, he’s fun, he’s cool. Cambodian people, we only have Angelina Jolie’s Cambodian adopted son Maddox. Maddox Jolie Pitt. And sometimes he really is my role model, because I’m still waiting for a rich white person to adopt me.
Mondays were the only days our teachers tried teaching, renewed with false hope they somehow cultivated over the weekend. By Tuesdays, our teachers gave up on their delusions of academic grandeur. We were given the rest of the week to explore, allowed to ramble around the Manchester with no one to supervise where we went and who we met.
Every apartment contained a pop-up business managed by entrepreneurial parents, making Manchester not unlike a Sunday flea market or canopied bazaar. Some apartments sold Doritos, Snickers, and Marlboros bought on wholesale at Costco. Others offered cosmetic services without the proper credentials and competence. Entire bedrooms were dedicated to assembly lines of older matrons that manufactured commissioned Cambodian novelties, like Buddhist prayer mats and wooden dancing Apsaras. Living rooms were antique stores. Closets were pawn shops. Anything was on sale for the right price. We blew cash on knockoff Pokemon cards and other collectibles, rummaging through the belongings of children with unsympathetic parents, choosing between handmade action-figures symbolizing Cambodian iconography to show our Caucasian friends and further confuse them about our heritage. We dined at the makeshift noodle shop in Apartment 23C because it had the fewest number of kitchen cockroaches. My cousins and I relished the freedom to satisfy any junk food cravings or buy any useless toys, while our classmates kept their hands in their empty pockets. They only introduced us to each vendor, unknowingly playing their part in that marketplace instilled by their parents. But for all the illegitimate practices and inconsiderable profits, these enterprises still maintained an infinite longevity, a full-proof business plan. No amount of auditing would ever uncover any untaxed profits as the paper trail left by any questionable merchandizing merely consisted of the welfare checks that were stuffed into every mailbox each month. Government money flew into Manchester and never came out, like half of the Cambodians living there.
Every week was the same—the same junk foods, the same lesson plans, the same people. We played with the same great-grandchildren crawling around, unable to distinguish between baby noises and Khmer words. The teenage boys always leaned on the northward wall while smoking their fathers’ Marlboros, spending all day cultivating lung cancer and planning various crimes to commit after the sunset. The same cranky dads tried to sleep before their graveyard shifts. The same irritable moms with too many generations to feed snapped at their rigid mother-in-laws, grandmothers who made the smell of incense a permanent fixture throughout Manchester. They spent all day chanting along to chain-smoking monks that visited from the Buddhist temple. If you weren’t careful, you could be locked in a room of elderly Cambodian women who banned any movement except to participate in a synchronized bow. The mats they sat on for hours at a time imprinted your bare legs with throbbing lashes. The pain of diligent praying and the loss of hope for the present was the price for a better, reincarnated life.
At the end of every week, our cravings waned. The junk food we had relished earlier in the week became unappetizing. The sugar rush faded. We dropped down to our reality where we felt the burden of claustrophobic apartments without air conditioning. We started to look forward to the weekend, planning out what video games we would play and what cartoons we would watch, while our classmates discussed their own weekend plans doing who knows what. On Fridays, we compulsively checked the time until our parents came driving down the street. We would never leave right away though. Our parents always started their weekends by walking deep into the apartment complex to chat with their old friends, reminiscing about exotic fruits found only in Cambodian memories. These conversations always felt like an eternity. And we were always impatient, even if we knew our visit to Manchester always ended.
Anthony Veasna So is a gay “man,” a Cambodian-American “son,” and a recent graduate of Stanford University. He was raised on stories of the Khmer Rouge Regime that would often, somehow, end on a joke. His prose and comics have appeared or are forthcoming in decomP, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. He currently teaches high school English, dabbles in stand up comedy, and serves as a Prose Reader for The Adroit Journal.