My grandmother, Yoeum Preng, passed away recently at the age of eighty-six. At the funeral our family came together, along with saffron-robed monks from temples in Revere, MA, and Utica, NY. Also present were white-clad nuns from the local community, to help mourn our beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Earlier in the week my uncle, the oldest child, and his cousin went to the temple in Revere, had their heads shaved by a monk, knelt in front of a row of monks, and were given robes and instructions in Pali. They were becoming honorary monks following our Cambodian Buddhist custom.
I wondered what my uncle was thinking when he knelt and listened to Buddhist chanting. He was becoming a monk to honor and pay respect to his mother, whom he had been taking care of twenty-four seven for the past five years. Eyes closed, face focused, determined, he was handed a bright orange-yellow robe. The next day, the seventh and last day of our funeral rites, when, according to our belief, my grandmother’s spirit woke to discover that she was no longer of this world and needed us to guide her to her proper place, my uncle was asked by the head monk to speak. He rose slowly and deliberately. One hand clutching the microphone, he thanked the community of monks, nuns, and friends for their show of support and for their kindness. But when it came to speak about Lok-Yiey (i.e. “ grandmother” in Khmer), all he could muster was, “I have no more words.”
My crying came hard. I was inconsolable. Like a possession, my shoulders shook, chest heaved, body convulsed. The world became bleary. After my uncle said what he could say, which meant that the suffering he was experiencing was beyond language, the head monk asked if anyone else would like to speak. I felt the silence hang heavily in the air and my family turning to me, the most educated in the family, a college professor whose job was to speak clearly and intelligently in front of people. When my aunt looked at me and saw what I was going through, she said, “Leave him alone. He’s in no shape to give a speech.” I walked backwards until my back was against the wall, found a seat, and sat down, head in hands, sobbing uncontrollably.
I am a writer. I use words to tell stories. And I love writing. It’s my way to control the chaos of life, make sense of it, and share my thoughts and feelings with the world. But when it comes to real-life events, when I come face-to-face with another human being or surrounded by people, I fumble, mumble, and falter.
Writing is a private activity through which my inner world connects with the external world of family, friends, and strangers. But on that seventh day of our mourning, words failed me and, by extension, I felt I had failed my family when they needed me the most. I couldn’t find the words, any words, to encapsulate the hurt, loss, and suffering I felt that day. All I did was sob like a child. On that day I understood the limits of language and felt utterly helpless and alone. I lost my faith in the power of words, as I couldn’t console my family, who turned to me for words to comfort, guide, and heal. They also looked to me because I had a special relationship with Lok-Yiey, with whom I shared a common loss: the death of my mother.
My family wanted me to express what she stood for, what she meant to all of us, what we should tell the younger generation about her—in short, how we should remember and honor her.
When I was in graduate school, I began collecting my family’s stories. I was in my late twenties and didn’t know the story of my life; I had never sat down with my aunts, uncles, and grandmother to ask them about my deceased mother and father. So, one year, I returned home during the holidays, armed with a list of questions and a tape recorder. Naturally, I started with the story of my birth.
According to family’s legend, my birth brought everyone together. To celebrate the birth of the eldest son of the family, my father’s family came from Khmer Krom, now in Southern Viet Nam, crossing the Mekong by boat and riding the train from Phnom Penh to Battambang in Western Cambodia, where my mother’s family had lived for many generations. But this family celebration was marred by my constant crying. I cried and cried so much that even my parents didn’t want to hold me. It was Lok-Yiey who held me, fed and cared for me, while everyone else slept through the night. It was Lok-Yiey who took me to see lok-gru (i.e. a village elder), who explained that my spirit mother missed me and wanted me back with her in the spirit world. His solution was to trick this spirit mother into not recognizing me by changing my name. After my name was changed to Bunkong, which means “endurance” and “longevity,” I stopped crying.
On one of my visits home, I heard a story about how Lok-Yiey risked her life to keep me alive. It was late afternoon, after a family barbecue to celebrate a niece’s birthday, and the guests had already left. My uncle, his friend, and I were cleaning up. I was sweeping the driveway; my uncle and his friend were picking up the numerous soda cans and beer bottles that had been strewn about after the party. For some reason, the subject of survival came up. Maybe it had to do with the flies swarming around the grilled chicken wings, skewered beef, and papaya salad left on the table, the wastefulness of American wealth that made them quiet, and got them thinking about hunger under the Khmer Rouge regime. During those times people ate whatever they could find to stave off death: leaves that resembled the light-green vegetable they used to eat, larva worms for protein, and crickets, bugs, and insects that jumped and crawled about while they dug irrigation ditches and carried mud on their shoulders. Like two million other people, my mother fell victim of the Khmer Rouge regime when she died from sickness and hunger. It was at this point that Lok-Yiey became my mother. As before, she cared for me, made sure I was fed. But unlike before, her love for me battled against the Khmer Rouge law. She stole a few grains of rice from sahak-gor, the collective kitchen of Angkar, so that she could make rice gruel, barbor, for me to eat.
My uncle’s friend said, “She risked her life to feed you. If the Khmer Rouge had found out, she would have been ‘disappeared.’ That’s how much she loves you.”
“I didn’t know any of this.” I then asked, “Do you remember what I said about the gruel?”
My uncle answered, “You say, ‘What’s this? It’s better than chicken curry.’”
Even to this day, I have no memory of hunger and starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime, despite the fact that more people died from hunger and sickness during that time than from execution. I only remember my grandmother’s love.
During the couple of years before her passing, Lok-Yiey was in and out of the hospital. When she was first taken to Mass General Hospital, in Boston, my uncle, the one who took care of her, didn’t call to tell me what had happened. Whenever I called home, my uncle only said, “She’s doing fine. Everything’s fine. How’s your job? Are the students and professors treating you well? Are you done with your book yet?” He didn’t want me to be distracted, knowing that I was going up for tenure the following year, so he kept asking me questions about my job to keep me focused on achieving my American dream. It was a cousin who texted me, “Grandma is in the hospital. Liquid in her heart. Come home if you can take time off.” At one point, this cousin confronted this uncle, “He’s an adult. Treat him like one. He needs to know the truth about his own grandmother.” My cousin said to me afterward, “I know the old generation wants to protect you from the truth. But they need to trust us. We know about America more than them. They have to learn to rely on us, especially when they are getting old and will need to be cared for.” Caught between my uncles’ and aunts’ way of dealing with difficult subject matters in our lives and my cousin’s American way, I called my uncle and told him what I needed: “I have to know what’s going on with Lok-Yiey, so that I can decide what I need to do with work and my classes. My department is extremely understanding and supportive. Knowing myself, not knowing the truth will drive me crazy. Do you understand what I mean?”
There was a long silence on the other end. Then he said, “Okay, boy.”
Somehow Lok-Yiey was able to pull through and survive these harrowing experiences. I remember one time the family was given an ultimatum: either she was to have surgery or she would live out her last few days at the hospital. My uncles and aunts drove home, sat down in the kitchen, and discussed their plan. “She can’t have surgery at her age. It’s too much for her body to handle,” an aunt said. “But without surgery,” an uncle countered, “she doesn’t have long to live. At least with surgery, there is hope.” So they decided on the surgery. However, when the nurses were prepping grandmother, they discovered her blood pressure and heartbeat had returned to normal. They kept her overnight for observation and let her leave the next day without any other explanation except to say that she was “a medical miracle.” When I got home a few days later, Lok-Yiey was resting in her room. My uncle heard my voice, said to Lok-Yiey, “Your medicine is here.” Lok-Yiey turned her head, asked, “Who?” “He’s here, standing at the door, your grandson,” my uncle pointed at me and laughed. Lok-Yiey smiled, called out to me, and asked if I had eaten anything.
What forces in the universe drew us together and made us the kind of grandmother and grandson we were to each other? Was it fate? Was it history? Was it a combination of the two? I don’t know. An uncle who usually refused to talk about his experience under the Khmer Rouge regime told me this story during one of my holiday visits. “Before we left for the refugee camps in Thailand in 1979, Lok-Yiey went up to your father and told him she was going to take you with her.” He spoke while cutting the red and green peppers for the stir-fried steak he was making.
Horrified, I asked: “What did my father say?”
“I don’t know. I know that a week later in the camp, we met someone from the village who told us that your father came to our old home looking for you.”
My heart sank when I heard this story. I wonder what compelled Lok-Yiey to walk up to my father and tell him she wanted me to be with her? Was it because my father had taken another wife? Did she sense that my father would have children with this woman? Was she then afraid that I might be abused by my stepmother and neglected by my father? And what did my father say to her? What was he thinking when he was told that I was leaving him? Why didn’t he come after me sooner? Why didn’t he come with me and leave Cambodia? Did he talk to his new wife about it? What did she tell him?
Or did the reason Lok-Yiey took me with her have something to do with my mother? Did I remind her of her oldest daughter? Was it my round face and almond-shaped eyes? By this time, Lok-Yiey had lost so much already. Her youngest brother, who worked as an interpreter and tour guide in Siem Reap, had disappeared when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. Her oldest child, who went to study in Phnom Penh, had also disappeared. No one heard from him after the great purging of the capital. Still, Lok-Yiey held onto hope, believing that he was still alive somewhere, since no one had seen him taken away by soldiers and his body was never found. Then, in 1978, a year before Viet Nam invaded Cambodia and liberated it from the Khmer Rouge, Lok-Yiey watched my mother, her oldest daughter, wither away, her body shriveled and dried, as she was slowly dying from starvation and sickness. She saw pus oozing from her open wounds. Was Lok-Yiey determined to keep me, what was left of her daughter, to replace what was taken from her?
I held no resentment towards Lok-Yiey. Without her decision to take me with her, I wouldn’t be here, in the United States, teaching American students about the Cambodian Genocide. It was the working of life’s great mysteries, a kind of poetic, cosmic justice, where Cambodia was shrouded in mystery under the regime, kept in silence, until survivors broke their silence and told the world about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. It was Lok-Yiey’s quick and heart-felt decision on that day that allowed me to talk to today’s students about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and share it with the world in my poetry and prose. But still, somewhere in my mind, a thought flashed to my father: that moment when he came to Lok-Yiey’s thatch-roofed house and found it empty. No trace of me, his son, to be found. In my throat, I ached a little.
I carry the following memory with me: It was in 1979, and we were crossing the Cambodian jungles for what seemed like at least a week to my undiscerning consciousness. Too young to walk on my own, I was carried on Lok-Yiey’s back. We walked in single file. My uncles and aunts were ahead of us. Trailing behind was Vanna, the surviving daughter of Lok-Yiey’s youngest sibling, the one who disappeared as soon as the Khmer Rouge captured Siem Reap, guilty of the crime of being educated. I remember the rain falling hard over our heads, making our path muddy and slippery. A few years older than me, Vanna walked behind us until, too tired to see the puddle in front of her, she slipped and fell. When she got up, her face was covered with dark, earthy mud. All I could see were the whites of her eyes. From my perch on grandmother’s back, I pointed and laughed. Vanna was fuming, angry at me. Thus began years of childhood bickering between the two of us. But I relate this incident to illustrate how I was shielded from suffering, protected from life’s horrors, both large and small, by the love of my Lok-Yeay. People in my family, especially Vanna, say I’m lucky that I had a grandmother so loving, so kind, and gentle. I think they are right.
In America my uncles and aunts got married, had children, and took jobs. After a few years of working, they pooled their savings to purchase a three-story Victorian house in Malden, Massachusetts. Over twenty of us lived in that house, but Lok-Yiey wouldn’t want it any other way. While my uncles and aunts were busy working, Lok-Yeay took care of us all, her grandchildren. She cooked and cleaned; she bathed and fed us. She woke us up for school. In her bell-bottom pants and puffy winter coat she took from the clothes bin at our sponsor’s church, she walked my little cousins to school. I have no idea how she found her way home. Did she ask other parents for directions? But how was that possible? She spoke very little English. All she could do was point and smile. And when we got home from school, fried fish or Chinese sausages appeared, like magic, on the table, with cooked jasmine rice in a pot on the stove, just in case we couldn’t eat American food or we got hungry after a day of studying. That was her magic: No matter how poor we were, none of us ever felt hungry under Lok-Yiey’s watchful eye.
But it wasn’t really magic. Whenever I think of Lok-Yiey, I always see her in our kitchen preparing food. She is in her red-and-orange sarong and light blue shirt, hair dark and curly, wearing large round orange-rimmed glasses. She is either sitting on the floor with a huge meat cleaver in hand mincing pork for the prahouk, crushing garlic, red and green chilies, ginger and galangal in a mortar and pestle for sralauw, or standing in front of the stove stirring a hot pot full of boiled potatoes, onion, and beef curry. Lok-Yiey was five feet tall, sturdy, with broad shoulders and powerful forearms, a frame strong enough to bear the tough life she led. I remember one evening in Revere. I held her hand while she slept, studied it, turned it over, traced the grease surrounding her life line and touched the calloused bulbs at the beginning of each finger. Then I looked at my own hand, soft and tender, a baby’s hand. I remember her snoring. I reached out to touch her shoulder, shaking it. She opened her eyes, told me to go to sleep, and resumed her snoring. I lay there in her arms, feeling her breath on me, and tried to breathe in synchronicity with her.
At the funeral, Vanna, who took a red-eye flight from Arizona, whispered to me, “She was so strict with me. I couldn’t go out at night. No boys whatsoever. We butt heads, of course; I was a teenager, after all.”
I didn’t say anything. I sat watching Lok-Yiey lying peacefully in the coffin.
Vanna continued, “You know what? Looking back at it now, I realize she was doing the right thing, teaching me to be good. Without her, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. She was like a mother to me.” Then she sobbed.
Lok-Yiey was a mother to all of us. While my uncles and aunts worked at lumber companies and factories in cities and towns throughout the Greater Boston area, she became our Great Mother.
When my aunt, grandmother’s youngest child, bought a house in Wakefield, a twenty-minute drive from our family’s home in Malden, Lok-Yiey was worried that her family, which she had built and nurtured throughout the years, would spread out and be like other American families whose members only see each other during the holidays. She knew that, if we were to survive in America, we had to stick together. That was her lesson for all of us. But our family never became distant, and my aunt learned well the lesson of her mother. She continued visiting Lok-Yiey every day. When Lok-Yiey passed on, my aunt shaved her head, donned a white robe, and became an honorary nun. For a week she attended services at the temple in Revere each morning and evening. She didn’t shed her material possessions (hair, clothes, makeup, etc.) out of blind obligation. She did it out of love for her mother—the mother who continued to care for her even after she got married. When my aunt and her husband decided to pursue the Cambodian-American dream by leaving Massachusetts for Southern California to buy a donut shop, Lok-Yiey went with them. She cooked and cleaned while my aunt sold donuts in her store in Bell, California, and my uncle slept in the upstairs room, exhausted after a night of making donuts.
Looking back through the years, I have no memory of Lok-Yiey saying to me, “I love you.” But not once in my life did I ever doubt her love for me. Like the old generation in my family, who came from a culture of polite modesty, she expressed her feelings through actions rather than words. Her love was in the food she made food for me, such as prahouk with minced pork or salor srae or tirk kreoung. Whenever I came home from college, she would prepare Khmer dishes she had known all her life, peasant food for farmers. I don’t know what it was, but the flavor she created seemed magical. When I came home one day from college armed with pen and paper to document these recipes, she laughed and told me I was foolish. Like others from the old country, she didn’t use measuring spoons and cups, had no book of famous recipes, and didn’t consider her cooking worth preserving. Lok-Yiey learned to cook from her mother who learned it from her own mother, and so on. Everything related to food was passed down through memories of loved ones. And when Lok-Yiey couldn’t cook anymore, she had my aunts make food for me. I’m sure Vanna would say I was “spoiled.” But I would say simply that I was lucky to be loved by my grandmother.
We were all loved by Lok-Yiey. For her, nothing was more important than family. When her first husband died, Lok-Yiey was in her thirties, a single mother with six children, the oldest in his teens and the youngest, the aunt who would later shave her head, too young to remember her father’s funeral. She cared for them by getting up at dusk, putting wood in the stove, making fried rice and noodles to take to the train station in Battambang and sell to businessmen and travelers with her daughters’ help. She would run after the train when a customer forgot to return empty bowls and plates. After the morning rush hour, she would walk to the field and help her teenaged son farm the land. By afternoon, she would return home and cook food for businessmen arriving at the train station after work. When there wasn’t enough money to feed her children, she smuggled spices, eels, and fish across the Thailand-Cambodian border. One time, she was caught by the police at the train station in Poipet, but they took pity and let her go when she told them she did what she had to do for her hungry children.
Lok-Yiey put her children above everything. The truth is, my uncles, aunts, cousins, and their children wouldn’t be here without her love. In refugee camps, she continued to barter goods with Thai people through the fence surrounding our lives, risking beatings from the military police. In America, she sold fried rice and stir-fried beef at her daughter’s donut shop as a way of expanding the business. Lok-Yiey was a survivor, an entrepreneur, a fighter. And she did it all in the name of family.
Lok-Yiey didn’t receive a doctorate from Harvard or a business degree from one of the top universities in the States. She was the wife of a farmer; her children are the sons and daughters of farmers in a small village in Battambang. She didn’t use big words to impress people. But what she lacked in vocabulary, she made up for with a heart as big as the world. That is her lesson for all of us: family love.
It’s been three weeks now since Lok-Yiey left us. I am still sad. We have lost an era; a way of life where goodness comes from hard work, commitment to do the right thing, and love for family and friends; a worldview where the self is intricately connected to community, where a person’s actions are more valued than her words. She is gone now, and I don’t know how to fill that void, that emptiness, in my life. How do I keep Lok-Yiey with us and honor her memories?
I remember teaching In Revere, In Those Days by Roland Merullo at my college and asking the same question during class discussion. At the end of the novel, the protagonist loses his grandfather, the one who had given him emotional support and moral guidance ever since his parents lost their lives in a plane crash. “How do you honor the memory of such a loved one?” I asked my students. They were quiet for a moment, then one raised her hand, another followed, and so on. Of course, I had my own answer, which I shared with them. For me, it’s maintaining the values she stood for and the ideas she cherished. For Lok-Yiey, it could be as simple as cooking the food that she made for us when we were young, eating and sharing her favorite dishes with family and friends. More importantly, it is the symbolic value such culinary space represents: working hard, expressing love through actions, sharing what you have with others, and, ultimately, understanding the importance of family and friends. It is more important than ever for our family to uphold this value system. No matter what happens, we must not undo what Lok-Yiey had worked so hard to build. We must stick together as a family, forgive each other, care for and love one another, the same way that Lok-Yiey cared for and loved us.
To the younger generation in my family, it is now our turn to carry what Lok-Yiey and your parents have carried all their lives. We know the language and culture of the United States, as if they were our own, that’s because they are; we must therefore help the older generation navigate with dignity its social and political systems. We are, after all, Americans with a Cambodian accent. The first generation have carried us this far, and now we, the 1.5 and second generation, must carry them. It is the way of life, a cyclical pattern of the karmic order of things. It is Buddhist; it is Cambodian; it’s the human thing to do.
On that day when the head monk asked family members to speak their last words about Lok-Yiey, I wish I could have mustered self-control to speak from the heart. If I had, this is what I would have said: “Lok-Yiey, I know that in our Cambodian culture, we don’t speak directly and openly. But I’ve been in America for too long and have picked up some of its wayward customs. So let me speak from the heart. Thank you for all you have done for us, Lok-Yiey. We are gathered here to show our respect and deep love for you. Thank you for everything. I love you.”
Bunkong Tuon teaches writing and literature in the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, New York. His recent publications include Nerve Cowboy, Más Tequila Review, Chiron Review, and Patterson Literary Review. Gruel, his first full-length collection, is recently published by NYQ Books: http://books.nyq.org/title/gruel