The Drawing Man

07/14/2020
My grandparents, mom, aunt, and uncle in Cambodia; date unknown.
My grandparents, mom, aunt, and uncle in Cambodia; date unknown.

My mother had a habit of kissing a strange man each night before bed. She would pull back the covers, get onto her hands and her knees, then press her palms together. When she lifted her head, their eyes would meet. This black and white pencil sketch of someone I never knew would be blessed with three kisses: from her lips to her fingertips, to him, and back. She would continue her goodnight kisses every day while I quietly followed her. Like a small mammal hiding under its mother for protection, I crawled under her. Three kisses turned to six. It wasn't until I was nine when I finally asked my mother who this god was that she was worshipping. She sat me down and casually said, "That's your Tha."

Although I was young, I was old enough to realize that the Drawing Man looked nothing like the grandfather I had in real life. Instead of waiting for further explanation that likely wouldn't have arrived, I simply replied "No, it's not." I'm not sure how those words hurt my mother at the time, but it prompted a response.

"Yes, it is. Your grandpa now isn't really your Tha. Ma Yay married him when we got to the United States. This is your real grandpa. He died in the war."

I don't remember answering her. The closest thing there was to an answer was how I walked around for the next week referring to my Tha only as my "step-grandpa" until my uncle angrily corrected me. To be fair, I had been introduced to a lot of things at once. I had a new Tha (the strange Drawing Man), but there was, apparently, a war in which he died before my family came to the United States. Why did I never once hear about him? Was my family planning on letting me live my entire life without knowing? If he was worth kissing every night, I knew there was more to the story. So, I began searching for answers.

I only knew a few things for certain: Cambodia was a place in Asia, my family spoke a language I didn't understand, and that these things made me different from my friends at school. The disparity was clearest when New Years rolled around in April. I always knew to hold pressed palms for elders and kindly say "chum reap suaa." My mispronounced greeting was received with a wrinkled smile, then I would be free to dance. I copied the people around me, watching our fingers pluck invisible flowers and leaves while our feet pressed them into the ground. This was my favorite part; I did not need to pronounce words or have past knowledge to celebrate my culture with others.

My uncle, John, was the first to teach me. Not only did he scare me into believing that using the title "step-grandpa" towards the only grandfather I had ever known would bring me bad luck, but he also made me his personal karaoke partner. John would pick the Reymeas DVD of the day, and we would get to work. The foreign script on the screen was more for timing than for reading, but we drilled songs until the syllables rolled off our tongues. That home was the seed of Cambodian culture. It was my introduction to pronunciation, stinky (but delicious) foods, and the power of Khmer women. Everyone in the family knew not to upset Ma Yay, though it hardly ever got to that. My grandmother cooked with both fire and love, a delicate but dangerous balance, and made dinner to the sounds of my little voice singing words she understood.

Unlike my friends, I didn't grow up with Bath & Body Works candles and family portraits from Lifetouch in my home. My nose was stuck battling the scents of frying fish and burning incense. We bought twice as much fruit because half of it would be used for the family shrine. I wasn't supposed to touch them, but I enjoyed drawing a line in the dust on the apples and banana bunches. It's not like the Drawing Man would be able to eat them anyway. Really, it was like I was cleaning them up for him. In addition to my real Tha, we had photos of other old men around the house. They were either more family members or monks that we knew. And on the main wall in the living room hung a large painting of Angkor Wat, the world's most beloved temple.

Although I had been introduced to phrases of war and distant, deceased, family members, I still thought these were things that every other child went through. Americans talked about their grandfathers as war heroes and this seemed to be no different. It wasn't until I was in eighth grade that I questioned my identity. My friend jokingly told me, "You're the whitest Asian I've ever met," and I, in all seriousness, replied, "Because I am White." She looked at me strangely and told me I was wrong, but I reminded her with full confidence that "I was born in America, so I'm White. Asian, Mexican, and White."

In short, that was the day I learned how to actually identify myself on standardized tests and school surveys. Up until that point, I had always checked three boxes when asked for my race. I'll always wonder if that mistake paved the way for more opportunities for me. Either way, that blunder ignited curiosity about my roots and was a blatant reminder that my history would always impact my present. It was clear to everyone except myself that I would never fully be a part of European-American society, so I stopped trying to assimilate and started learning.

Like every internet and cable advertisement of the time suggested, I did a free Ancestry.com trial. It seemed easy enough, but my first roadblock came when it asked me to fill out my grandfather's name. I had never asked the name of the strange Drawing Man and hadn't brought him up in years. The website also called for the birthplace of my parents and grandparents. I asked my mother, and she didn't seem to know. "I don't think your Ma Yay remembers... somewhere in Cambodia." I unsubscribed from the Ancestry emails. Rather than seeking knowledge of my own family, I thought about my culture as a whole. Although there weren't many well-known articles or books, I found a movie entitled "The Killing Fields" and several news articles about genocide leaders.

These resources taught me about schools that had been transformed into torture prisons, trees against which babies were slammed, and fields where people dug their own graves. My grandfather wasn't the patriotic war hero that every White child got to proclaim, but rather a victim of Asia's own Holocaust. Only, this genocide was never in any textbook I had read. It was hidden away in rotting trees and abandoned schools of a land I never had the pleasure of hearing about. We were in America, so this became our land and our culture.

However, I experienced a moment where curiosity about my culture manifested into my purpose. I realized that my grandmother's English and my understanding of the Khmer language were both fading away, quickly. I wanted to ask her about my real Tha and about their life; I wanted to hear stories that couldn't be translated. But as I grew older and got busy with work, a thirty-minute drive to my grandmother's house seemed like crossing an ocean. I strived relentlessly to learn everything I could about my culture and my language so I would be prepared to learn about my family. There were conversations and memories I needed to hear from my Ma Yay while I still had the opportunity.

Going to college in a predominately White town sparked my desire to be loud about being Khmer. Rather than blending in, as I had tried to do for years, I wanted everyone to know that I came from a history worth representing... even if I wasn't quite sure what that history was. Working at the university library and having access to hundreds of books and articles about Cambodia was much better than the few news articles I had found in my high school years. I read old folk tales and legends, turning them into poems and dramatic monologues for my Crafting of Poetry course. I found memoirs with experiences that were consistent with Khmer women of my mother's age. Their stories answered all of the questions I never had the courage to ask. It started to make sense why my family never spoke about the genocide.

Although I studied English, I drifted from American and British literature. Instead of writing my thesis about one of the many Victorian novels I read, I ordered a copy of every Cambodian memoir I could find. The goal of the paper was to highlight the resiliency of Khmer women, a fire I had noticed in each of my family members. I only used academic journals written by Khmer or Asian scholars, despite my advisor rudely stating that it would make my paper "less credible." Those perspectives filled in all of the gaps in my family's history. I learned why I had never once seen my mother or Ma Yay cry and why we don't talk about emotions. It wasn't for a lack of words, but for survival. The Khmer Rouge soldiers killed people for their intelligence (a symbol of power), for their emotions (a sign of weakness), and for their loyalty to their family (something many of us would still proudly die for).

These books featured black and white photos, often faded and ripped from being secretly carried through the country. Many also had short dedications to lost family members, both known and unknown, thanking them for their wisdom and promising to bring voice to their experiences. My thesis needed a dedication as well. I finally asked my mother what happened to my grandfather. This violated the unspoken rule of not asking about the past, but unlike those memoirists, I had no memories of my own. It was time to start chipping the wall of generational silence and give my mother an opportunity to release the truth she held onto all of her life. So, I asked the painful question and awaited her answer.

"During the war, he was taken by some men. They said they needed his help and that he would be back, but he never came back. They killed him." My mother said these words, emotionless, as though I had read it from one of my books. Instead of letting her words sink, I asked, "What was his name?" She dug up an old photo from an album and pointed to each one of her siblings who had died from starvation, then to herself, then finally to the Drawing Man and my Ma Yay. In full black and white, with shadows and company, was my family. Phaly Heng. He had the same face and all of the details matched. I printed the photo and hung it above my bed, giving it the overdue kisses. It was time to begin telling their story.

My thesis ended up being 26 pages; it was a culmination of knowledge from 27 articles and 15 Asian-American scholars. This had been the most exposure to my culture I ever had and it all came in the form of black and white text on faded pages. Although the stories mirrored the lives of many Khmer citizens of the time, it still wasn't the story of my family. The memoirists had the advantage of drawing from memories and experiences that were their own, despite it being an uncomfortable thing to surface. However, the only way for me to write my family's narrative was to keep asking questions. We took baby steps, watching videos of Cambodian markets and temples, filling the house with Khmer music as though we were in our old home. When my mother or Ma Yay pointed out the fruits that grew near their home or what houses looked like in Cambodia, I would make a small note.

I was twenty-two when my mother and Ma Yay sat down to watch a documentary about a young man who took his family back to Cambodia, and that was when I heard my family's story. The young man wanted to discover his roots and learn his history straight from original sources. So did I. We all sat on the couch, and I had a blank document pulled up on my laptop. As we went through the film, I asked my mom questions that she translated to my grandmother. The answers were delivered back to me. This exchange wasn't all I had hoped for, but I was happy it was happening. I wrote ferociously about the villages my grandmother passed through and the way her house looked at each stop. We didn't cry or reminisce; we just remembered and wrote. Ma Yay said she could tell me more if she went to visit Cambodia one day, something I thought she would never be willing to do. But now we had our roadmap.

Originally published in "I AM ASIAN: 50 People, 50 Voices"