In honor of Father’s Day, a conversation with Ba.
Sept. 13, 2006
~ ~ ~
Deep, navy sky surrounded us. Only the reflection of the moon and a peep of light gleamed from inside the house.
“Ba, do you want the light on?” I asked. To keep the house smelling new (and less likewhat we’re eating), we always grilled and fried all our food outdoors.
“It’s okay,” he replied. Blue flames danced underneath the wok. He poured in the oil to coat the bottom of the pan.
How can you see what you’re cooking? I wondered. But I didn’t say anything, just watched my dad as he worked his magic. His wrist moved the spatula around like a magician’s wand, evenly browning each piece of garlic.
“During the Khmer Rouge… it was just like this. Every night, you do what you can, by the light of the moon. No other light. That’s it,” Ba began.
I envisioned my dad fleeing through the black night of Cambodia, escaping death. No compass. No map. No directions. Only the sun, the moon, and a heart destined for freedom. How did he survive? How on earth did he make it here, alive?
“Ba? What did you eat? When you were running from the Khmer Rouge?” I asked, realizing that I had never asked before.
“Oh? Ba?” he asked, a bit surprised. He tipped a plate over, sliced red beef falling into the wok. “We ate whatever we could find,” he answered simply. “The first night we escaped from the prison, we found a crab in the river. We ate it chauv (raw). That’s all we ate in an entire day. One crab for the three of us.” Sizzling in the wok, the fumes from the beef began to rise; he doused them with soy sauce. “The next day….
…we had nothing to eat. Nothing.. we couldn’t find anything. But the day after, we were lucky. There was an abandoned house, with banana trees around it. We pulled them off in bundles. You know how many bananas are in a bundle? Like 9 or 10! We carried those bananas for as long as we could. It was maybe 10 or 20 lbs! They were heavy!”
He tossed the Chinese broccoli into the wok. “The next few days, we ate what we could find. We found some vegetables. Not ripe enough to eat yet, but we ate them. And insects too.” The juices from the broccoli started to blend with the juices from the beef as my dad stirred everything all together.
I looked around. My backyard had begun to lose its appeal. The swing we once were excited to buy, now had a hole in it. The colors of the patio furniture that complimented our porch had faded. Even the flowers- the roses, the jasmine flowers, the pink Khmer flowers blooming in pots all around me- their smell was no longer fragrant.
Why are we here, again?
Tasting the stir-fry sauce, Ba grimaced. “Too salty. I couldn’t see how much soy sauce I put in. It’s needs to be sweeter…”
I dashed inside. What were my parents chasing after?
Twenty something years later, they now have a new life here in America. Gone are the days of starvation and hardship. For what? THIS?! For big lonely houses and empty yards? To have kids growing up in a foreign culture where they don’t know how to honor their parents? Kids that can’t recognize the blood and sacrifice their parents gave to come here. To live here. To BE here…
And twenty something years later, my parents are still cooking in the dark.
(Maybe there is no light in the pursuit of the American dream.
Maybe, not even -I – am light to them.)
But heck, I’ll die trying, giving what I can.
“Ba? Here’s the sugar…”