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  • Writer's pictureVichet Ou

Growing up Cambodian-American in Philly - Part One of however many parts this eventually takes

I'm bad at taking photographs.

I'm rarely in a headspace where I think a photo is the right move. I kind of rely on friends and family to do all of that in any given moment.

And yet, I love looking at photos.

And so, one of my favorite things to do anytime I'm at my parents' or my aunts' and uncles' houses is to open up their big old albums from the 80s and 90s, and just go through them. Every picture had a story. I didn't know exactly what was going on in the older ones, having been younger than five or six, and probably not in the frame, and if I was I probably wasn't paying attention (Nintendo, tryna get that high score and avoid push-ups, because losers do push-ups, and I did a LOT of push-ups), but they're usually family gatherings, with my older relatives in their gloriously 80s/early 90s hair and attire.

These are all happy photos. My memory and early childhood wasn't so monochromatic.

Much of my early childhood exists in kind of an impressionist mental space. I don't remember many visual details, what four year-old would? Probably some. Not ones named Vichet Ou who are writing this blog post, though.

I remember feelings, and maybe colors palettes. Often smells.

None of these memories have a connecting narrative arc between them that I'm actively aware of. Maybe you can project one onto them. But, these are the undocumented moments floating in my head, and I'll try to relay them to you in the sensations they bring back to me. You know, if you're into that.

Here's one: we're in Olney, 149 West Chew Avenue. I can remember my address because it rhymes. Everything there is as grey as the asphalt, except the little patch of lawn, raised above street level from the corner, where the shave-ice man would stop - rainbow ices for a quarter each. The flavor is sugar.

Of course, it isn't and wasn't always gray in Olney. Nor would I say that my memories in Olney were unhappy. I still drive through there now and again, and the weather doesn't give a shit about how I remember things. And the neighborhood is a lot cleaner than I remember it.

When I picture 149 West Chew Avenue, I remember shards of broken glass on the side of our house from where the window was broken. We weren't robbed, as far as I remember. We were just in a neighborhood where you could expect a broken window.

That one probably stayed with me. To this day, I keep my shades drawn, regardless of where I'm at. People don't need to see inside my house without an invitation.

Here's a happier one: I'm outside with my mom turning over rocks, because I like worms and roly-polies, what I used to call pillbugs, because it rhymed and I could remember it. You can tell where the bugs live because they trace out little trenches in the dirt. Seeing a grasshopper or a praying mantis is a lucky day. Seeing a roach is just every day. Green and brown are the colors here. The smell is nickel and dirt.

Green-bug-supremacy still has me feeling a certain way about roaches that I really shouldn't, considering that the only reason they are "filthy" is because we make the places that they live filthy.

Here's another: we purchase our first microwave. Our mom knows we like pizza, so the closest approximation she can manage with our metaphorically shiny new appliance, which was literally finished with a faux-wood laminate (remember when all appliances were painted or finished like they were supposedly made of wood?) was to slap some jarred spaghetti sauce on a slice of white bread and top it with American cheese. It was a welcome break from the macaroni, spaghetti sauce, and American cheese casserole that my brother and I used to eat at room temperature, because we didn't have a microwave.

I'm realizing in my adulthood that those two meals were basically the same.

That memory is closely linked with another one in that dim, tiny kitchen. My brother and I are made aware that we have a mouse problem, so our mom humors us and lets us make a cardboard box trap that was way larger than it needed to be. The glue trap she set out instead worked faster, if horribly. I still remember seeing the dead mouse. It gnawed its legs off.

I still eat meat, but only use live-catch traps for mice. It's a conundrum. We weren't poor by the time I was born, but we had little enough money that when my dad was laid off, I remember worrying, because my mom was worried. Having meat during these times meant something, and usually centered around a party or celebration.

I have another memory that I haven't asked my mom about because I don't know whether she'd even remember what I'm talking about, and if she does it might bring back difficulty that I try not to put her through. I probably should, just to make sure I didn't make it up and fill in the blanks with trauma that never happened. That would be a trip.

We're at my uncle's house and everyone is crying. I'm used to seeing the aunts and uncles unhappy. My oldest uncle is still smoking at this time, this was before he quit. I don't know why everyone is crying, but the one lamp in the living room is on, it smells like smoke, and adult me looks back on it, and if I had to guess, it has to do with someone or someones dying in Cambodia.

I don't remember when I learned what a landmine was. I learned about them around the time I was learning the names of colors. My mom told me stories about what they had to do to survive in Cambodia. Eating grass because they were delirious. Tying kramas (large, broad scarves, the national garment) around their stomachs hoping that would stave off the hunger. Lying about who they were because if they were found out to have been wealthy - and they were not NOT wealthy - that'd have been enough for the Khmer Rouge to kill them all.

The tone of this post is pretty dire, but this is what I'm remembering and feeling today. Some stories don't have any other space to be told, and I'd rather they not sit in my head unexamined, a photo album that no one can open or ask about.

I am grateful and afraid today. The events of this week will be a gray memory.

So here's a happy one to take the edge off because I hate leaving tension in a room. Probably because of memories like that nameless one where everyone is crying.

I'm four. Vuthy is seven. We find out that we have an older brother, who grew up in Cambodia. He was coming to live with us. This, I find out as an adult, was a big deal, and a whole other story that I honestly don't know everything about, not because of any drama necessarily, but because it was never made important to me by my brother or parents. Young me just took it matter of fact. My oldest brother Vireak, thirteen years older than me, is fun as hell. We spend the first night that he arrived with him playing tag with us in the basement, chasing us around my dad's ping-pong table. I'm laughing the whole time.

Every day he'd walk me to kindergarten. Every day he'd pick me up, right at the start of naptime, which I was always a little bit annoyed that I never got to experience, but walking home with my brother was always fun because we'd take the long way and walk by all the shops in Olney Plaza like the Caldor and Shop-Rite.

He plays Nintendo with us. He's way better at video games, because he's, you know, not a toddler. He does all the hard parts in Super Mario Bros 3, a game we played into the ground because, like the bulk popcorn my mom would buy that we popped ourselves in that monolithically useful and useless corn popping machine we had, it was essentially free and endless in supply.

Those memories are butter, laughter, bright Nintendo colors, and tinny music.

I wish a photo could capture it. And, even though it can't, I wish I had a photo.

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