Far below, the water stretches out as far as the eye can see. It’s grey and yellow and perfectly still, like a piece of thin silk held taught beneath the sun. I see fishing villages floating on the water, red blue and brown wooden roofs, boats like toys abandoned in the distance. It takes me a while to realise the bushes dotted across the water are actually trees, half submerged by the rising waters of the rainy season. From here the Tonlé Sap looks peaceful, and gargantuan.
We’ve landed. Through the window I can see the string of visitors making their way down the stairs and the smiles breaking on their faces. Siem Reap is a perfect little airport, with red tiled roofs in a classical Cambodian style, its immaculate white walls standing against a backdrop of luxuriant countryside dotted with sugar palms. Everyone stops to take a picture. Singapore girls coyly doing a V sign, students with heavy backpacks, solemn looking Chinese men in comfortable windbreakers.
While everyone fills out their visa forms I walk on towards the immigration counters, bracing myself for the conversation I am about to have. It’s the same conversation I will have every day for the next 10 days, with every waitress, shop keeper, hotel receptionist we encounter. Here though it feels more like a test, designed to break through the 5 broken sentences of Khmer I know, to challenge the very heart of who and what I am.
Immigration officer: *after a long time spent flicking through the pages of my French passport, unsmilingly* Oh. Khmer, huh?
Me: Yes. *awkward smile*.
Immigration officer: *keeps flicking*
Me: *nervous glance at the random officer leaning casually against the counter, listening to the conversation*. My mother is Cambodian.
Immigration Officer: Oh, your mother is Cambodian?
Me: Yes. My mother is Cambodian. She lives in Siem Reap.
Immigration officer Oh, she lives in Siem Reap huh?
Me: Yes, that’s right, she lives in Siem Reap.
Immigration Officer: Your mother is cambodian. And the dad? French?
Me: Yes, The dad is French.
Immigration Officer: Oooooh. Ha ha ha. Your mother is Cambodian, and your dad is French.
Me: Yes! Ha ha ha. My mother is Cambodian, my dad is French.
Immigration Officer: Aaaaah. Ha ha ha. You’re a child of mixed race, huh?
Me: Yes, ha ha ha. That’s right. I’m a child of mixed race.
Immigration Officer: *stamps the passport* OK thank you!
Outside it takes me a while to find my mother, who’s waiting beyond the line of touts and tuk tuk drivers waiting for their allocated tourists. Every time I see her, her hair looks greyer, the lines on her face more pronounced, her body smaller and less substantial somehow.
We climb into the beaten up Lexus, its wheels caked with the red mud of the dirt roads. “Hungry?”, mum asks. She reaches into a plastic bag at her feet, and pulls out an ear of corn, fat and juicy and still warm.
I take it gratefully and bite into the sweet crunchy kernels, and for a brief, peaceful moment, I am home.
- singaporenoodle posted this