Where is home?

I sit across the table from Asa at Nando’s in Dupont Circle and said, “I can’t believe I am back. Three weeks at home feels like a dream.” The word “home” referred to my homeland, Cambodia. I visited “home for the first time after living in America for 3 years and 1 month. To be exact I stayed in my motherland for 21 days and visited 4 different cities. I remembered feeling almost nothing at Dulles airport while waiting to board the first plane out from the States to Dubai. Except, I felt as if I was going to San Francisco for a summer break-weekend. At the time, I did not know what to expect when I finally got “home.” I spent a total of 25 hours travelling from Washington DC to Phnom Penh.

My plane landed at 9:45pm, Phnom Penh local time. I should have felt excited to be back “home” by then, but I didn’t. “Wow, why I don’t feel anything?” I asked my inner self. Outside at the arrival hall, I saw my sister, her husband and my 5-year-old nephew who were excitedly waiting to finally see me again after all these years. I picked my nephew up and gave him kisses. I felt his tiny and skinny body against my skin. I think he is too small for his age. Then, I hugged my sister who looked tired and seemed to be fatigued all the time from working long hours and carrying her third child.

The next day, we spent 6 hours riding in a taxi from the capital to my hometown, Battambang. Morally speaking, I saw little change in Cambodia. On the road, I experienced the impolite driving behaviors from moto cycle, car, and truck drivers. Passengers threw their water bottles and plastic bags from the van’s windows on to the street. A driver tossed his cigarette and spat as if he owned the world. “Oh! Cambodia, you are the same to me!” The bad parts of this society remained the same as I remembered growing up.

Then, I got “home,” the place where my 10 family members live. My heart started to race. My mother was a lot skinnier than I remembered. “What is going on? Didn’t she eat enough? The virus must be disturbing her.” All kind of questions and answers came to my mind. That night, as I laid awake in a mosquito net with a tiny fan to help cool down the temperature in the house, I wanted to cry then, but I couldn’t. My sisters are still working long hours just to put enough food on the table and raise their children. My mom’s health condition is not getting any better. I feel guilty as if I failed to strive for better and more. I feel guilty that I left home for so long and could not be there to help taking care of my mom. I feel as if I have failed to achieve great things in America because I am still not rich enough to help my family.

I worried about my nephews and nieces’ future, knowing that their mothers can’t afford to send them to a good school, at least not now or any time soon. I visited my village, our old home where good and bad memories were created, some intentionally but most by force and violence. At the village, I was told that my childhood friend had left her daughter behind to seek work in Thailand. The sister of a high school friend shared with me her concern about her 15-year-old niece who wanted to drop out of school, asking permission to be engaged to her 16-year-old boyfriend. I visited Om Yourn, a village elderly who rescued me several times from my abusive father when I was a child. He told me about his health issues and his experience at a private clinic when he was treated unprofessionally by doctors and nurses. I could read the frustration and hopelessness on his face as he gazed away towards a group of women playing cards at a home across the street.

On the local TV, I watched news reports on the drug problems which have become a major social issue for many parents and teachers. Then, I listened to the current Prime Minister giving a long speech about the Chinese investment in Cambodia, emphasizing “all the benefits” that the Cambodian people will get from it.

At “home” I spent most of my day listening to my sisters’ concerns about problems in the country including chemically tainted imported food from neighboring countries, climate change, the lack of security in the village, high electricity bills, and their dreams of sending their children to a better school.

But let me put this straight and don’t get me wrong. Cambodia’s economy has been steadily developing. “The GDP growth rate6.8% annual change (2017),” reported by the World Bank. My family owns a fridge, a washing machine, a TV, and three moto bikes. My family members now each have their own bedroom with a fan. This is the milestone progress that I witnessed. They are not extremely poor any more. But they are still poor and working very hard just to make end meet. It seems like Cambodia’s impressive overall economic growth yields little benefit to my family and the people in my village. 

I am still not satisfied with the progress of changes in my country no matter how great Cambodia’s economic growth has been because I have had a taste of America, not the best comparison to my motherland. And I am not trying to point this out. What I wish to share here is my confusion and disappointment when I failed to feel what I was supposed to feel at “home” in my motherland. I witnessed the on-going problems of poverty and the lack of basic education in my very own family and among the people in my village. Fortunately, thanks to my “I don’t know what to expect at home” I wasn’t emotionally burned out. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sad. I cried several times. I cried alone, I cried when I journaled how my day went with my mother at a hospital. I cried when I couldn’t sleep at night, and I cried so hard on a video call with my host family in DC. Most of the time in Cambodia, I did not feel that I still belong in the society. I was told many times that “you are fatter,” and sometimes I was told “you look darker than before.” A lady at the market noticed my skin and pointed out that I wasn’t a local. She said that my skin was dark but shiny which is not the case for most Cambodians, so I must be from somewhere else. I was overcharged at a non-profit eye clinic where I took my mom for an eye examination because I read a book in the waiting room and my $15 sneakers from Marshalls’ looked expensive. I couldn’t even go with my mom and my sister inside the Battambang hospital because my secondhand outfit made me look like a rich person. My sister asked me to wait outside so the staff wouldn’t question my mom’s low-income family card. All of these things made me isolated and very upset. I didn’t feel like I was home and I still feel the same in America, except people don’t judge me as a person or question the choices I make.

That day sitting with Asa, I ate my food and rode my bike “home.” I told him that I don’t know any more what and where home is. I don’t feel like I am home in Cambodia, and I am still not certain about America, but I feel more comfortable and adjusted into the American way of live.

Here are some photos from my trip and on a bike ride with my friend, Asa the weekend I returned back in the U.S. 

4 thoughts on “Where is home?

  1. Hi Phounam,
    Always great to read your stories told from the heart. I know it’s strange to go home and feel like it’s not where you ‘feel at home’.
    My life story hasn’t seen the highs (circus star! got to study in the US!!) or the lows (family problems/virus) like yours. However, I grew up in England, lived in Germany, moved back to England and another city, travelled to 50 countries etc etc and now have been living 7.5 years in Cambodia. So nowhere ‘feels like home’ for me. Even if I was to learn fluent Khmer (perhaps need to live until I am 800yrs old!) the culture would never make my think for a second it’s a home…
    I don’t let it worry about feeling ‘at home’ somewhere. It’s never going to happen. The main thing is to be happy doing what you do and living in peace with the people you want to be with….
    Steve.

    1. Steve, thanks for your thoughtful comment and taking time reading my story. I like this, “The main thing is to be happy doing what you do and living in peace with the people you want to be with….”

  2. I read the whole things!
    Wowowo. Thank you for sharing this Phounam. I could really sense your uncertainty with each word but I’m glad you are not ashamed about shearing your family background and problems at home. I’m impressed that you journaled this experience. Most people like me don’t. But I think is great because a life worth of living is a life worth or recording. You are doing great things even if you don’t see the harvest right now. Keep sowing the seed and it it will ripe.
    Much love.
    Vero

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