Arom – Capturing Cambodia


Kimberly Lieu


Born in California but with shallow family roots in Phnom Penh, I had always wanted to uncover the city and country that I’d only ever heard about during my childhood. My parents escaped Cambodia in 1975, just before the Khmer Rouge took over and evacuated the capital of all of its inhabitants. They fled to Vietnam and took refuge there for four or five years while Pol Pot and his dictatorship controlled the country. After those tumultuous years they returned to Phnom Penh in hopes that they could re-root, but the instability and poverty of the time didn’t allow them to stay in their home country. After my brother was born, my parents crossed the jungle by foot in the cover of night babes in arms into Thailand and there, were fortunate enough to have the means and connections to start the process of immigrating to the United States. They stayed in several refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines over the course of three years and finally arrived in Orange County in 1984 to start their new lives.

Amongst a plethora of things, life in the United States consisted of having to navigate their old and new cultures. Growing up, I spoke a medley of languages: Hakka Chinese with my grandparents, Cantonese with my cousin’s family, English with my father and Khmer with my mother. My sister had been born in Vietnam right after my parents arrived in Saigon and my brother in Phnom Penh when they had returned to Cambodia, so we were an international, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual family as many Southeast Asians are. Although my father was ethnically mixed, he deeply identified with being Cambodian and since that was the common language of my parents and grandparents, that became our family’s. We had the blessing of growing up eating a melting pot of cuisines— my mom made somlar-machoo at home and cooked stuffed bitter melon as well as bun xeo any day she wasn’t working at the donuts shop.


As a young girl, my parents told me fragmented stories about their lives in Cambodia— my salty paternal grandmother and how poorly she treated my mother; my maternal grandfather’s poppin’ noodle stand and how my mother used to work there alongside him; and about my mother’s short, but privileged education in the city. An air of Cambodia resonated between the walls of my childhood apartment, but was too distant for me to really grasp at such a young age.


My childhood felt like a culmination of cultures past and present: my Southeast Asian side came through in the form of language and ritual and the American influence subsequently followed with a formal education in English, Saturday morning cartoons on our boxy TV, and gorging on Kentucky Fried Chicken every once in a while. Although I grew up in a largely Vietnamese and Latino community, I never really questioned where I fit in. It was never an issue. I loved my friends and they loved me, but I knew that I wasn’t quite “the same” as them. I never really had to construct my ethnic identity as a kid (it’s not something nine-year-old ask each other to do) until high school, which was the beginning of more than a few identity crises.  


Although I can’t remember the first instance of having to face my ethnic identity, I do remember visiting my father for the first time in years when I was just shy of 16. He’d remarried a Cambodian woman (ethnically Cambodian), and I was confronted with having to speak to her in a language that, for years, I thought was a secret language between my mother and I (we had one of our own: a jumbled-up dialect consisting of Khmer, Hakka and English) and unfortunately, I wasn’t really fluent in anything other than English. So when faced with a real Cambodian speaker, I choked. My father explained to her that I couldn’t speak fluent Khmer, because he chose to speak English with us growing up believing that my siblings would assimilate better. It worked but a little too much, because we lost our mother tongue. From then on, my stepmother spoke to me in broken-English. Feeling ashamed, I didn’t stop her. But on that trip, I remembered that I felt some kind of way about not quite knowing where I fit in the scheme of things— was I Hakka, or was I equally Cambodian? Or was I just American having been born in the States?


The next few years were confusing to say the least— I was a punk rock girl who loved to go to the beach and get a tan. I was about 16 or so when my mother told me that I wasn’t white. Well, no shit, I thought. But hearing that made me pause— what did she mean by that? My teens and early-20s had me questioning the legitimacy of my Cambodian identity. Hakka, I knew I was by blood, but I had this one-drop rule thing going on with being Khmer. I didn’t know if I could claim it just by way of language and food and being just 1/8 by blood. I’d had real confusing moments about “what” I was, and where and how I fit in both my community and beyond, which had a huge emotional impact on me. My studies at university had lit up my mind, getting me to read and think a lot about identity politics and how identifiers such as ethnicity and race affect our sense of self. I started thinking more deeply about ways in which my family’s race and culture were accepted or rejected by the larger culture—American culture—and the ways that it had affected my youth, because I had to a degree experienced prejudice by white people throughout my childhood and even beyond. So for me, my life’s journey to figure out “who I was” was, in part, to find a way to feel grounded within myself separate from the dominant white, American culture that I happened to be born into.


That quest to know my origins began in China in 2015, which took me to my grandfather’s birth home and village in Guangdong. While it was mind-blowing to discover that there existed a family book tracing his family line back 400 generations, I felt somewhat removed because both of my parents were born and raised in Cambodia. And since 3 out of 4 of my grandparents were also born and raised in Cambodia, I wanted to take it much closer to home.


I had visited Angkor Wat in 2010, but didn’t spend any time in the capital where my family was from. So in the summer of 2016, I returned with a very different experience in mind— it was the one-year anniversary of my father’s death and the first time I was going to meet some of his surviving family members. I had hoped to learn more about where he and my mother came from and was open to any insights into the lives they might’ve led 40+ years ago. My mother hadn’t been back since (too terrified) and my father wasn’t there anymore to lead the way, so I went on my journey to Cambodia with only fragmented stories and a 35mm film camera to capture it.


My friends (who I’ll call “Proh” and “Srey”) helped ease me into everything, because they too were going through a journey of their own but of a very different kind. Proh and Srey had immigrated to Texas when they were both 11 years old and at 17 and 22 (at the time), they were returning to their mothers and home countries for the first time in many years. It was incredible to witness their reunion and the resilience of their love for one another. Through their memories, I learned more about what growing up in Phnom Penh was like: how they rode motorcycles to get to school (which kids still do) and how they juggled housework with play. They didn’t have a lot then, but they were happy.


I stayed with Proh and Srey’s family, and the many hours of downtime in their homes and neighborhoods allowed me to get a better sense of Khmer culture and the nuances of how one should act and be. I learned how to properly greet my elders and how to use the terms of endearment and respect—like bong and oeurn—I now love so much. We spent many hours creeping in the heavy traffic of the city where I witnessed young children selling fragrant flower crowns and men carrying loads of anything and everything from coconuts to big rubber tires on their tiny motorbikes. I marveled at the incredible ingenuity of the people and the entrepreneurship happening right out of people’s homes and relished in the chaos of the markets—the endless stalls of Psar Tmey and Psar Dom Koh, the latter my favorite for its sea of multi-colored eggs and mouth-watering foods. I savored the moments Proh and I would explore the hot, sticky city on his old-school, cream-colored Vespa (or any one of his many motorbikes) and snuck out to eat boiling pots of boh boh and to drink tuk krolock, a smoothie made with fresh tropical fruit and condensed milk. I soaked in the people’s ancient history at the National Museum and took in the intricate architecture, textiles and art within its walls. 


Cambodia always had a special place in my heart, and I sought to capture a particular mood by shooting film there. My family’s photos—set all around Southeast Asia in the 70s and early 80s—instilled a desire to somehow re-live those moments and to recreate similar images of my own. I seemed to exist in in Cambodia’s past and present simultaneously while I was there, watching new developments go up right beside dim, little shops selling petrol in glass soda bottles. I wanted to catch those in-between.


Some of the photos I captured in this series vibe images I had seen in my family photos, so that one can’t necessarily tell which decade they were taken in— with his stunning, long hair and vintage aura, Proh looked like he could’ve lived in 1976 or in 2016. Snapping photos of people in that blur of time and space was really fascinating and fun for me to play with and is the reason I focused on shooting portraits.


In between photo sessions, I explored as much as I could during my month-long stay. I sauntered through the lamp-lit streets of Siem Riep and the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. I joined Proh and Srey’s families on picnics, once at a market outside of the city where we ate lunch in huts that seemed to float on high bamboo stilts over crystal clear water. We hiked up a trash-filled river in nothing but bathing suits and sandals until we found pristine water and land. I also bathed in the warm, gorgeous waters of Kampong Som where I experienced some self-healing while soaking in its magical waves. On long bus rides, Srey serenaded songs to me in her beautiful voice and made me fall in love with classic Khmer music.


Observing the women I stayed with in Phnom Penh carry out their domestic duties gave me a glimpse of the everyday lives of the people there—they took care of their homes and families with pride. They cooked delicious meals with the freshest of ingredients. In their faces, I saw my mother’s facial expressions and in their bodies, her mannerisms. The way the women spoke—from the rolling of their r’s to the intonations of their words—helped me realize something more than blood and soil could reveal: that my mother was Khmer. Through those seemingly obscure instances—in the particular shape their eyes made and the sounds of their exasperation—I recognized her. And in turn, I saw myself in a new way.


I also recognized my father’s face in other people. Meeting my father’s siblings and cousins gave me a peek into the other side of my bloodline, one that I had never really known. Seeing that they had survived that time and were still there surviving and thriving made me deeply appreciative of what I never had to go through. I was glad to hear how my father helped his family build better lives for themselves, and at the same time, I was grateful for all that he had done for me. Although he wasn’t there to witness my change, I hoped his family could see the effect of my growth. Or that I had finally arrived at that indescribable place within myself.

Most incredibly, this trip gave me the time and space to re-learn my mother tongue. Proh patiently sat with me countless times under the shade at the courtyard table of his house and on long, bumpy bus rides and taught me Khmer words that I had never known or had forgotten. Out of every amazing experience on this trip, this stands out to me most because it was a gift that is immeasurable. No words could express my gratitude for those lessons and for the encouragement to speak my language. There, I found a voice I didn’t realize I had lost. Relearning it helped me get a better sense of who I am, where I come from, and the ownership up of being a kaun Khmer: Cambodian child.

I left Cambodia with a notion of how history blends itself with the present to create our identities as children of Cambodian origin: that we can’t separate ourselves from our memories and experiences, but we can move through the world empowered by our roots as complicated as they may be. On this journey, my friends and I discovered ways in which we belong to a place that is no longer quite “home” but still possesses the feeling—arom—of it.