Somewhere On a Road Called ‘Willow’’ – A Memoir
By Robert Kerr
They call it Little Phnom Penh, because over 50,000 Cambodians populate this area of Long Beach, CA. It is the largest settlement of Cambodians in the U.S.A., with almost every family having the same reason for starting over a new life in America.
* * *
I arrived in Long Beach and checked into my hotel around 10:30 pm. Jet lag was kicking in, and adding to my despair were the endless news reports surrounding the death of American President Ronald Reagan. I looked out my window; the road stretched so far that its ending was way out of my view. It was also a road that I never took the opportunity to walk down because no one here seems to walk anywhere -- everyone drives to wherever they are going!
As I looked across to the street signs, trying my best to root myself with some sort of familiarity in such a vast country, I noticed that my hotel was situated somewhere on a road called ‘Willow’.
Lucy had a car, a Honda SUV, and it became my second home along with my hotel room. I rarely walked anywhere, which was a slight culture shock considering I was so used to walking a lot back home in Scotland. After the bouts of cabin fever, though, I eventually got used to being alienated from the fresh air of the outside world.
During the car journeys I often looked at Lucy, noticing after a time that she had a common feature which I had seen in other Cambodians: her upper lip arched every time she smiled or laughed, exposing her gums like a horse does when it neighs. Of course, when I tried to explain this to Lucy, she wasn’t pleased.
‘I don’t look like a freakin’ horse!’ she said, in an all- American accent.
‘No, I don’t mean you are ugly, on the contrary, but I’m just saying…’
‘You’re saying that all Cambodians look like…horses!’
‘No, not at all,’ I said trying to calm her down, ‘I didn’t mean it that way, ok? I’m just trying to say that that look is a familiar appearance with a lot of Cambodians I see.’
Lucy laughed, letting me know she was just teasing me, and then she sighed, ‘Yeah, but…a horse?’
On the surface I viewed Lucy as a Westerner, self-conscious and so concerned about what the world thinks about them, just like myself. After all, she was born and raised primarily with Western values. She even received her education from the American system. However, something was different about the way Lucy looked when she drove through the streets of Long Beach, something that changed her from the rest of the Western mainstream. It was also something that I could not fully explain. She often looked distant, sad, close to tears, as if she was in another world, somewhere that was not of her time. I remember constantly nagging at her, complaining about her distant look. I would ask her what was wrong and she would suddenly snap out of the past and turn towards me with a smile that arched her lip, and then she would tell me everything was just fine.
* * *
It was around a week or so into my trip to Long Beach that Lucy’s mother and grandmother invited me out for an Asian lunch. I accepted the invite graciously, but underneath I was very nervous - what would they think of me? My Western mentality was kicking in, how could I make myself look good?
I arrived at Lucy’s home to find two smiling ladies standing at the door. They were a little shy, but I noticed they smiled a lot every time they spoke. Lucy introduced us all, and then she nudged me to look at her. She was clasping her hands together and bowing slightly, ‘go on, do it,’ she said.
‘Do what?’ I said, confused.
Everyone laughed as my face grew more bewildered by the second. What Lucy was trying to teach me was the sompeah, a Cambodian greeting, like saying hello, and also a sign of respect. I didn’t quite make the attempt. I was too conscious of losing coordination and making myself look a fool, which I was doing a good job of already. After the initial introductions, Lucy went to freshen up, leaving the mother, grandmother, and myself to figure out a way of breaking the language barrier, and we did, by staying relatively silent.
As we were heading to the restaurant, Lucy acted as an interpreter as well as being the driver. Eventually I was being asked questions at such a rapid rate I couldn’t keep up.
‘How is California?’
‘How long are you staying?’
‘Where are you staying?’
‘Are you sunburned?’
‘Do you like Long Beach?’
And then suddenly that was it. The formalities were once again over and the car fell silent, I felt a slight awkwardness. Lucy began to look sad again, but the smiles never faded from the mother and grandmother’s face. What made them so happy?
We got to the restaurant, where I felt further unease at being one of the only few Caucasian people in the place. I suddenly felt inferior, not in a big way, but enough to realise how other races must feel when they come to the West. However, I was welcomed with a warm smile, and no one turned their heads towards me, they just continued to eat as normal. We sat at our table and soon the tray of food came round and we were to select anything we wanted. I hadn’t a clue what to get, it all looked so strange. Eventually I investigated some fork like battered objects that looked like funny shapes of meat. I picked one up and attempted to chew it. It felt hard and bony. ‘What is this?’ I said, spitting the batter out of my mouth.
Everyone was laughing, ‘chickens feet,’ Lucy said.
I was then handed a prawn that was dressed with some noodle; it tasted very nice, and from then on I decided I would ask before eating anything unfamiliar. It was strange, I felt an obligation to try everything once, I don’t know why, and it was then I remembered a story Lucy told me about how her grandmother used to tease her about eating rats during the years of the Khmer Rouge regime. Lucy told me how on the outside she would look respectfully at her grandmother, appreciating what she was trying to emphasise, but on the inside she would be thinking, ‘I ain’t eatin’ no rat, this is America, dude!’
Of course, Lucy’s thoughts were not of disrespect to what her grandmother was saying, she simply knew that she could never comprehend what it would be like to live in such inhumane conditions.
There was another period of silence as we all ate our food and then out of nowhere Lucy’s mother said something to me that I never quite heard the first time. ‘Pardon?’ I said.
‘Pol Pot,’ she said, still smiling, ‘Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia.’
‘Have you heard of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot?’ Lucy said, interpreting the question.
‘Oh…yes‘, I said, in realisation, without smiling, finding that it would be inappropriate.
Lucy’s mother smiled nervously at my concerned face. The grandmother appeared oblivious to the conversation. I didn’t know what else to say. It was a subject I knew would crop up, but I had no idea how to react to it. I could only nod in acknowledgment that I knew something bad happened. The subject eventually faded. I decided to lighten the atmosphere by mocking myself, and I started to chew on the chicken’s feet. Everyone laughed, and it was then I realised I only had to suck on it.
After we finished our food, Lucy taught me a word, akun, which means thank you in Khmer. ‘Akun,’ I said to mother and grandmother, offering some money to help pay for the bill. It was not accepted. I found that every time I tried to buy anything or offer financial assistance it was not welcome, I couldn’t figure out why they were so adamant at not allowing me to put in my share. Was it that they wanted to keep some sort of dignity? I didn’t know. And also, why did they smile so much? What made them so happy, and more to the point, what really lay behind this common, Southeast Asian smile? I dared not to think; I began to doubt if it would be anything worth smiling about.
After we paid the bill we got back to Lucy’s home where we relaxed. When I was eventually alone with Lucy, she talked to me more about Cambodia and enlightened me about a film called The Killing Fields (which I vaguely remembered seeing something about earlier in my life). Lucy said many Cambodians found the film to be a timid view of what really went on in Cambodia during the holocaust years. Even Dr. Haing Ngor, star of the movie, said so himself in an autobiography. Dr. Ngor, like many other Cambodians, tried to find peace in America, but he was later murdered outside his home in Los Angeles. Later, a memorial was held in Long Beach in respect of his tragic life. The service was held in a Buddhist temple that was situated somewhere on a road called ‘Willow’.
*Lucy is a fictitious name used to protect the identity, and respect the privacy of the person portrayed within the text.
Copyright © Robert W. Kerr. 2004.