“Traveling, to me, isn’t an adventure...I want to stay still, sink my roots deep into a place I want to live for decades to come, and finally get a geographically and emotionally aligned sense of what home could be.
That’s partly why I’ve always wanted to visit Cambodia, the motherland. Growing up, it was just some faraway, imaginary place in my mind, however Orientalist and fucked up that sounds. I wanted to see where my mother came from. Where I came from. Maybe going there would help me understand my mother. Myself. Everything between us…
My mother hadn’t gone back to her native country since she fled from it as a refugee thirty years ago, and I had never been there. This detail titillated my white coworkers. Powerful and profound were the words they used. Everyone was excited for me. And I was excited too, but as the date of my departure drew nearer, that initial excitement collapsed into a deep-seated anxiety. I felt like I was about to jump off a cliff with nothing to keep me afloat. I had no idea what to expect. I knew that our roles would be reversed in Cambodia–my mother the expert, and me the fumbling outsider–but to what extent? Would I have a good time with my mother? The last time I spent that much time with her was when I was a kid. I was scared of what was going to happen, but also knew that regardless of how things played out, this was an experience I had been waiting almost all my life for.”
The following poems are taken from “Srey Srok Na: A Diasporic Khmer Girl’s Navigation Of The Mother/Land,” a hybrid collection of short prose, poems, and photographs documenting Learkana’s experience visiting Cambodia for the first time with her mother. You can see the entire collection here: https://lampshadeonherhead.com/2018/01/26/srey-srok-na-a-diasporic-khmer-girls-navigation-of-the-mother-land/
We also talked to Learkana and got some insight into her poem “Disappearing.” See our conversation at the end of the post.
You thought she would welcome you with open arms.
Push your face into her brown bosom.
Sing nourishment into your heart and soul,
awaken the blood in your veins,
breathe home inside your lungs.
Instead, she gives you a blank stare.
Permits you to gaze upon her beauty–
nothing less, nothing more.
She speaks a language you had forgotten,
smiling bemusedly as you start to cry,
and with a laugh that breaks you,
– that painful moment
when a mother cannot recognize
a child who was taken from her womb by diaspora
We climb up hills and mountains
with the sun riding on our backs,
searching for blessings
in gilded temples and painted statues.
I sit down with lit incense pressed between my palms,
wincing as gray ash falls
from glowing orange tips to burn me.
I close my eyes.
Sampeah three times.
I try to speak with my ancestors,
but my mind is sluggish
under the weight of my mother’s tongue.
down the back of my neck,
between my breasts,
forms pools in the niches behind my knees.
I think about how ungodly I am,
how I want to pray like my cousin.
She bows her head
and presses her whole body to the ground,
gets back up
and cups the incense close to her face.
Like she believes with every fiber of her being.
Like she’s been burned before and will never burn again.
Like the entire world is bearing down on her
and she has learned
the sacred art
of letting go
We are headed somewhere I do not know.
I have spent most of my trip
caught in this strange state of the unknown.
The rented van ambles along dirt roads,
crammed with people from my mother’s village
whom I am only vaguely familiar with.
I am exhausted.
I wake up a little past 6am everyday
and am scolded by my mother
for sleeping in and reading books.
I nod off, my head falling back
until I jerk awake and catch myself
before starting all over again.
Ming Huin notices.
She grabs my head
and rests it firmly against her.
Sleep, she commands me.
She rubs my back
like I am a lost child
and her shoulder is a refuge
ushering me home to my body
Oh, she’s pretty, the village women tell my mother.
Her skin is so fair. She looks like a Korean girl.
I stretch my lips upwards
even as my heart plummets down.
They might as well have spit on my mother
and tell me to be grateful it was not me,
break mirrors and demand
I stab them with the shards.
I want to correct them with grace
but the words are lost
somewhere in my throat
somewhere between my mother’s legs
and my English degree
somewhere between respect your elders
and you’re so whitewashed
somewhere between privilege and shame
I never learned to translate resistance
I only learned to swallow it
So instead I sit in silence
as they gossip on unbothered,
hating the cruel way
in which colorism
can cut across barriers
with its jagged edges
even as my tongue
This struggle is old and boring.
My ethnic studies college professor
would roll her eyes.
This doesn’t erase
the palpable ache
in my chest
of my thoughts
the sinking realization
that the gap in my identity
is sometimes a deep chasm
I can only fall into
is beloved here.
She glows. She beams. She shines.
She is in full bloom.
This is her land,
is lost here.
I hide. I whisper. I shrink.
I am disappearing.
I am her daughter,
She rises like the sun
as I become a ghost,
her laughter loud enough
to bury my silence.
I sink into the floor
until I am only a pair of eyes
watching my mother
become the person
she was meant to be
Before the war.
Before she carried
the weight of pain
in her back
and in her soul
Can you tell us a little bit about your decision to use both prose and poetry in this collection?
I went into the trip with the intention of documenting it, and while the majority of the prose at the beginning of the collection was written about a month after I came back, the rest of the pieces were not written until a year later. At the time I was feeling a bit fearful and hesitant because I am a perfectionist and I was afraid of fucking it up. I wanted to perfectly capture the nuances of my experience as a second generation diasporic Cambodian going to the Motherland for the first time with her mother who hasn’t been there since she left as a refugee. There was a lot of pressure I put on myself because I didn’t want to articulate it in a way that made my mom seem one-dimensional, or have this whole experience come off as Orientalist and catering to the White gaze. I was struggling so much with prose that I decided to switch to poetry, and that’s when everything just came pouring out. Expressing myself through poetry allowed room for ambiguity and more freedom with structure, which really helped with showcasing the messiness and complexity and the in-between emotions I was feeling while I was in Cambodia. This trip was profound to me, but probably not in the ways that everyone else or even I expected.
One of your poems, “Disappearing,” explores the recurring feeling of helplessness that you had on this trip, not only in terms of being in a country you had never been to before, but also in relationship to your mom: “She rises like the sun / as I become a ghost….” Can you discuss the inspiration and significance of “Disappearing”?
Throughout this trip, we visited the homes of people my mom grew up with and elders who had raised her, and each time I would watch as she became this very chatty and bubbly social butterfly, a side of her that was rare back in America. For me on the other hand, my role was to be seen but not heard. My mom would introduce me as her second daughter who isn’t married yet, and then I would just sit there quietly as my mom commanded the room and told the same stories over and over.
It was this role reversal where I was suddenly no longer the cultural navigator, and instead was reverting back to being a child. And then I realized that I was getting just a small taste of how my mom must feel back in the States as someone who doesn’t have a strong understanding of American culture and the English language.
When I’m writing poetry, I try to use very visceral language and elevated metaphors to capture the essence of things in my poems. I thought a lot about how my mom was just glowing on this trip, and it reminded me of the sun and its significance as a source of brightness and life and happiness. She got to be the truest version of herself there, but I became just a shell of myself, a ghost. I had to rely on my mom for everything, and this sense of helplessness really stayed with me because it was something I had not felt in years.