“Let us then live happily, not hating those who hate us. In the midst of those who hate us, let us dwell free from hatred.”
― Dhammapada, The Essence of Buddhism
We are organisms in the environment. Our environment can either destroy or shape us, depending on what we learn and how we respond to it. In “Khmer Girl,” Peuo Tuy did not respond well. Like many of us who are first generation Khmer-Americans, she and her family survived the killing fields of Cambodia, the refugee camps (carrying undiagnosed trauma) and then only to be thrown into a whole new and paradoxical world of rich and poor, liberty and constraint, diversity and homogeneity, and open-mindedness (love) and racism (hate). Their lives turned into a monumental challenge: having to interact with different people who looked at them like strange beings and having to deal with a new language, history, culture, and religion. Her parents were overwhelmed, especially with their lack of English—the language of money and social status. Peuo, too, felt overwhelmed. Not being taught to appreciate and embrace her uniqueness, she allowed others to define her. As a result, consumed by self-hatred and negativities, it drove her to attempt suicide. Thankfully, like a phoenix, she rose from the ashes to live to tell her coming of age and grown up stories through poetry.
Learning to love and appreciate who we are as Khmer take time, courage, and understanding. Being Khmer means to accept our dark complexion and our features of curly hair, flat nose, and big lips. Peuo had a hard time understanding and accepting herself, because in her world, as expressed in “No Sex in Our Constitution” in these four lines:
Asian men said I was too dark to have sex with
they’d rather the Khmer-Chinese girls
or the Koreans
or the Chinese. (57)
In “Reminiscing Elementary,” Peuo expressed how much she wanted to fit in the white world.
And then there were the white boys
I had a HUGE crush on one
his name was Martin
He was brunette, blue-eyed, and handsome
That was what I was told to fall in love with
I flirted with him and tried to convince him
That a dark-skinned asian girl like me
was better than those white skinny girls
I changed the pronunciation of my name
so all my white teachers and white classmates
wouldn’t have a hard time saying it
Everyday when woke up I made sure
I had the
latest kicks on brand name jeans
I wanted all the white kids to know
I ain’t po’
I wanted to be like them
I would go home
bleach my skin
scrub it with hot water
rub excess darkness away
so that I would be lighter
Peuo hated her physical appearance so much that she committed vicious assaults on her mind and body, as appeared on the passage of this poem called “Bleaching my Skin”:
I hate her even in my sleep
dream I sharply slice her off
new fresh layers of white skin grow
I am forced to live with her
the sight of her makes me vomit
I consistently tell her she is too dark to be on me
but she insists it is not her fault
this color-haterism thing is biological inherent
whiten her off of my face
praying it will dry her out
shedding off layers after layers after layers
I turn the dial to boiling hot
in order to burn her to death
from my face to my neckarmscheststomachbackbuttocksthighslegsfeet
I harshly scrub her off with a coarse cloth
dipped in sodium lauryl sulfate
burning her fiery red
I hate her!
I hate her!
I hate her!
Bitch! You deserve it! (54)
Being Khmer means we have to accept our dark history, learn from it, and move on. We must recreate ourselves and rebuild our society and community. Be kinder to ourselves and be kinder to our fellow human beings, regardless, if they don’t see the humanity in us. Our Khmer ancestors once built and ran a great empire and they did not let their dark skin, curly hair, flat nose, and big lips get in the way of their thinking and conquering the world. Peuo has shown that, in order to gain respect from others we must first respect ourselves. Otherwise, just like during the Vietnam War, we were seen as collateral damages as we were bombed into smithereens. The violent deaths of our fellow Khmers are recorded in history as the Operation Menu: Breakfast, Lunch, and Supper. After all, as Joel Brinkley cited in Cambodia’s Curse, “like every American official then, Rostow regarded Cambodia as an irrelevant little country…as representative Tip O’Neill said during the floor debate, ‘Cambodia is not worth the life of one American flier.’ Therefore, if we don’t find love within ourselves, be confident in ourselves and use our God-given brains to change our environment for the betterment of all human beings, then no one will love or respect us. Peuo has reminded us all of that in her poems, as she fought with her own demons and came out victoriously.
Finally, forgiveness and gratitude play a huge part in her healing process, whether Peuo knows it or not, especially gratitude for her parents who dodged bombs, bullets, landmines, and human predators to bring her, her siblings and other relatives to safety, put a roof over their heads, and food on their table. It’s touching how, at the end, she pays homage to her mother and especially her father.
In spite of what Peuo went through, time, experience and education changed her mentality and habit. Her story reveals how beautiful and truly amazing she has grown up to be as a person. She is an inspiration and I find within her a kindred spirit.
Although I am inexperienced in poetry (e.g. the structure, the meter, and the metric in writing poems), but Peuo’s words are powerful and engrossing. I highly recommend “Khmer Girl”!