Fleeing Cambodia: How I Was Finally Able to Tell My Own Origin Story
Putsata Reang on Telling a Tale Passed Down By Her Mother
Cambodian Naval Ship P111 was built for a crew of 28 men, with officers’ quarters, a galley canteen, and two heads belowdecks. But on April 20, 1975, the landing craft rode low and slow, weighed down by more than three hundred people and everything they had hoisted on board. One woman dragged a mattress on deck, which she flopped down near our family, and piled her children, husband, and other relatives on top. The family stayed like that, marooned on their own private island in the middle of all of us.
Three days earlier, Cambodia had fallen to the Communist Khmer Rouge regime, and my family hurried to the dock at Ream Naval Base to board one of four Cambodian navy vessels reserved for military personnel and their families.
There were kids and pigs and no space for either to run around. Up on deck, the sun burned so hot, Ma was certain her family would shrivel up and die. My family cordoned off a spot under one of the two fifty-millimeter mounted machine guns at the front of the ship, marking a perimeter with flipflops and kramas.
“Think about it, all of us, for almost a month, in that one spot,” Ma said. She was in the living room, her head turned toward the TV, where the local news was on. She spoke to the screen rather than to me. Easier that way, to transmit old pain into the impersonal glow of polarized light than watch her youngest daughter’s face break with emotion.
It wasn’t easy to sleep, there wasn’t room. So we mostly just sat, and then we squeezed in together like a row of grilled catfish on a stick and slept.
I cradled you in my sarong, Put. You didn’t move, like you had nothing left in you, no energy, no spirit. You had diarrhea for days. When you pooped, nothing came out except clear sticky liquid. I stood up and rotated my sarong and sat down again so you would have a clean place to sleep. I just kept doing this until there were no more clean sections, then I changed into my silk sampot, the one my mother made me in her loom, and I washed my sarong with a bucket of seawater.
The captain was walking around, checking on his passengers. He wore a uniform that was so white it was gleaming. I don’t know how he kept his uniform so clean. We had been on the boat for several days already. When he saw me and he saw my baby wasn’t moving, he told me, “Miss, do you see, we are so crowded here. If your baby dies, you have to throw your baby in the water or else the corpse will spread disease to everyone else.” When he said this, my spirit left my body.Ma had made a myth out of me, spinning so many stories about my travels and adventures that some of her friends did not believe I was real.
I explained to the captain that you were just sick. I begged him. “Let me keep my baby. We are Buddhist. Please let me bury her when we reach land.” I looked him right in the eyes. You don’t do that in Cambodia. It’s disrespectful. I was desperate. I didn’t know what to do. The captain agreed to let me keep you. I was so sad, so I passed you to my stepmother. I went belowdecks to the storage room where they kept all the bags of rice. I collapsed against them and cried.
That was so difficult. I don’t want to remember anymore, Put. How many times were you close to dying? Out of all my kids, you were the weakest. You were the smallest of all. You were the hardest to take care of.
Over the years, people have asked me, “Do you have any memories of that time?”
“No memories,” I will say, “only feelings. Things my body knows.”
Like hunger. Like leaving. My first feeling was flight. Running away became my enduring lesson in surviving.
And over the years, as my mother retold this story, she smoothed out the corners but kept the core the same. Every now and then, she would abide my curiosity for more details. “Ma, did you think I was dead?”
“I had hope, just a little, you were still alive,” she said.
According to my mother, I had survived on drips of water she drew to my lips, and a stubborn, unsinkable hope, the kind that only mothers have, that she whispered into my ears.
In another telling of the story, years later, Ma said that I was heavy. “What do you mean I was heavy?” I asked, feeling a little bit sad and more than a little guilty—I didn’t want to think that I had burdened her. How could a malnourished one-year-old baby be heavy?
“You were not light,” she said. “My arms ached so much from holding you.”
So she passed me to my aunt Pech, my cousin Piseth’s mom. Who passed me over to my Grandma Thoen, my mother’s stepmother, who eventually passed me back to Ma. In this way, the mothers took turns, cycling sorrow between them.
Now that I am older and have seen so many photographs of refugee mothers from Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, gripping their babies like buoys on overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean Sea, I think I know what my mother meant. Heavy, as in My daughter might not make it on this journey I decided for her. Heavy, as in How did I fail? Heavy is the feel of death.
How many mothers have had to wonder where to bury their babies?
In that moment when my mother fought to keep me, the terms of my life were set: Ma was the savior and I was the saved. After hearing the story so many times, I made a promise to myself: I would do my best to make her happy. I would strive to be worthy of her rescue.
For a long time, I believed I owed Ma my life: whatever she wanted me to be, I would be; whatever she wanted me to do, I would do.
I tried to live an immaculate existence, tucking my flaws behind a façade of perfection. I graduated high school and then college with honors, pressing awards into my mother’s hands. I turned the storytelling skills that she passed on to me into a full-time career, scrambling for scoops and front-page stories at newspapers up and down the West Coast. Eventually, I had a home, a high-paying job, money in the bank. I sent my parents on vacations and put several of my cousins through school. I filled my parents’ home with treasures from my travels—statues, paintings, rugs.In my mother’s world—the one before now, the one she exported to America—reputation was everything.
And Ma had made a myth out of me, spinning so many stories about my travels and adventures that some of her friends did not believe I was real.
“Is this the one?” one of them said as I sat in Ma’s kitchen, tucking into a bowl of noodles. I was on leave from a journalism job in Cambodia, always choosing to go home when I had time off, rather than on holiday.
Ma’s friend smiled and squeezed my arm as if to confirm I was not a ghost. “Is this your baby girl with the big job and all the money? The one who almost died on the boat?”
Ma smiled and nodded. Her friend turned to me.
“Your mother talks about you all the time,” she said, still holding my arm. “She says you are special.”
I worked to maintain that reputation, for her. My mother guarded our family’s reputation with ironclad diligence. Reputation was the tall shadow that tipped into the room before you entered the door. Reputation let you walk with a straight spine in the world, your armor against all the ways the world judged. Reputation made you marketable for marriage. In my mother’s world—the one before now, the one she exported to America—reputation was everything.
“I won’t let anyone look down on me,” she said, a regular refrain, by which she meant, “Don’t do anything stupid,” because a mark on any one of us was also a mark on her.
So, I tried harder. I worked toward repaying my debt to Ma by trying to achieve a single vision I had of myself, the image my mother carefully, methodically crafted of me: that of the dutiful Cambodian daughter, devoted to her family. The youngest of the brood, who would fulfill her parents’ wishes.
Without knowing it, for a long time unable to detect my mother’s sleight of hand in holding and molding me, I would become the keeper of our culture, the vessel for her secrets and sadness, the captive audience for all her stories.
But the image of the good Cambodian daughter was only that, a fiction Ma created to keep her own and our family’s status elevated in the eyes of our Khmer community. A story of the finest weave, like the silk her own mother spun to clothe and cover up her family’s imperfections when she was young. A myth that unraveled around the truth of who I am.
When I told Ma, in my twenties, that I was gay, she said she still loved me, but she clearly hoped it was just a phase. When I told her, in my thirties, I might never get married, she brushed me off with a wave of her hand. When I told her, at forty-two, I planned to marry my partner—a woman—the scaffolding of our bond collapsed, spewing splinters too deep to tweeze out.
We fought for days.
Which turned into months.
Which have now become years.By my own math, it comes out close to twenty years that I have been trying to tell this story, or some version of it. It kept getting away from me, shifting and trying to be what it was not.
Our fighting left us stuck on either side of a broken bridge, my father and siblings ensnared in the battlefield between us. I could choose not to marry my partner and let Ma preserve her reputation and an important piece of her Khmer identity, or I could live free.
One time when we were ribbing each other, not so long ago, Chan asked me with a wry smile: “How do you know Ma didn’t want to throw you in the water, Put?”
Ma herself had joked along these very same lines. When I made her mad, she would tell me, “I nearly dropped you in the water, gohn.” But I never let myself believe it. No child wants to know she was so easily disposable.
How do you know Ma didn’t want to throw you in the water?
I had no answer, no way to know that in the end, that is what she would do.
By my own math, it comes out close to twenty years that I have been trying to tell this story, or some version of it. It kept getting away from me, shifting and trying to be what it was not. A sort of identity crisis, the same as mine. We don’t always know who or what we’re meant to be. But if I have learned anything along the way, it is this: a story is going to go its own way, and sometimes you just have to sit back and let it.
Excerpted from Ma and Me © 2022 by Putsata Reang. Reprinted by permission of MCD.