Feel Better

What Does It Mean To Be Khmer, Anyway?

Sothy finished arranging the donuts in the display case, then glanced at the man and said, “Of course he is Khmer.” And that of course compelled Tevy to raise her head from her book. Of course, her mother’s condescending voice echoed, the words ping-ponging through Tevy’s head, as she stared at the man. Of course, of course. Throughout her sixteen years of life, her parents’ ability to intuit all aspects of being Khmer, or emphatically not being Khmer, has always amazed and frustrated Tevy. She’d do something as simple as drink a glass of ice water, and her father, from across the room, would bellow, “There were no ice cubes in the genocide!” Then he’d lament, “How did my kids become so not Khmer?” before bursting into rueful laughter. Other times, she’d eat a piece of dried fish or scratch her scalp or walk with a certain gait, and her father would smile and say, “Now I know you are Khmer.” What does it mean to be Khmer, anyway? How does one know what is and is not Khmer? Have most Khmer people always known, deep down, that they’re Khmer? Are there feelings Khmer people experience that others don’t? Variations of these questions used to flash through Tevy’s mind whenever her father visited them at Chuck’s Donuts, back before the divorce. Carrying a container of papaya salad, he’d step into the middle of the room, and, ignoring any customers, he’d sniff his papaya salad and shout, “Nothing makes me feel more Khmer than the smell of fish sauce and fried dough!” Being Khmer, as far as Tevy can tell, can’t be reduced to the brown skin, black hair, and prominent cheekbones that she shares with her mother and sister. Khmer-ness can manifest as anything, from the color of your cuticles to the particular way your butt goes numb when you sit in a chair too long, and even so, Tevy has recognized nothing she has ever done as being notably Khmer. And now that she’s old enough to disavow her lying cheater of a father, Tevy feels completely detached from what she was apparently born as. Unable to imagine what her father felt as he stood in Chuck’s Donuts sniffing fish sauce, she can only laugh. Even now, when she can no longer stomach seeing him, she laughs when she thinks about her father. Tevy carries little guilt about her detachment from her culture. At times, though, she feels overwhelmed, as if her thoughts are coiling through her brain, as if her head will explode. This is what drives her to join Kayley in the pursuit of discovering all there is to know about the man.