It’s July, and I can feel the sun hitting my face, and the wet surface beneath my feet. I watch my older sister gliding through the pool, and the scent of chlorine fills my lungs. I am focused on the ripples in the water that are left in my sister’s wake, watching as she moves fluidly through the pool. My train of thought is interrupted when my mother lifts me from behind and flings my small body into the water in an attempt to teach me how to swim. Water floods my senses and burns in my nose. I try to grasp for anything stable, but it feels like the more I flail, the more I seem to sink to the bottom. I try to mirror my sister’s previous motions, kicking my feet and reaching my arms, and I can feel my body begin to propel through the water and rise to the surface, finally able to breathe in the sweet, sweet air.
My mother argued that it was time for me to learn, and in retrospect I understand her logic. I would have clinged to my mother for dear life had I been given the chance, and the “Just do it” attitude was never something I adopted voluntarily. I was put into a situation that was quite literally sink or swim and it required my survival instincts to kick in. The immersion forced me to learn how to swim, and my desire to reach the surface drove me to do it. Once I realized I could swim, the process was easy flowing and cohesive. However I always found comfort in the fact that I could find solace at the side of the pool.
Growing up, I was unaware that I was different from other kids. It never resonated with me that the other kids didn’t eat rice with most of their meals, or that they didn’t go to the temple every week, or that they didn’t bow when greeting their elders, I just assumed that all of the other kids were just like me. This idea was quickly disproved once I entered first grade and sat down in the cafeteria with my panda lunch box. The entire day I looked forward to the salaw machu that sat in the box, remembering how long my mother had stood over the stove making the vegetable and pork sour soap and remembering the savory smell that permeated throughout the house. At lunch time, I proudly opened the box, took out the tupperware and my chopsticks, and peeled back the lid. Immediately, all the kids turned to me with faces of disgust all yelling, “What is THAT?” I sat there confused until I looked around at the meals of my peers, seeing lunchables and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, rather than sour soups or rice dishes. I shamefully shrugged my shoulders and picked at the lunch that I had previously been so excited over, and I went hungry that day.
Suddenly being thrown into white culture like that was comparable to being thrown into the deep end of that pool. I abruptly became completely immersed in a different element, unaware of my new surrounding and unaware of how to address the situation with panic somehow always finding its way into my body. I flounder and I struggle in the environment until I learn the motions, and eventually I learned to assimilate and I learned to blend in with the crowd. I learned to bring the PB&Js and I learned to wear the name brands, but I also eventually earned a newfound hatred towards my culture. I began to despise this aspect that made me different and I despised how I had to change a part of me in order to appease others. I recall the sound of my mom’s heart breaking when I told her that I didn’t like the Asian food she put in my lunch, and I remember refusing to go outside because I didn’t want to get any tanner. I tried so hard to distance myself from the culture that I used to hold so dear, and I often pretended as if I wasn’t even Asian. Like the process of swimming, once I was able to assimilate, it became easy to me and became more of an automatic response, however I quickly became lost in the motions, forgetting where I originally came from. It wasn’t until my family reached into the water and pulled me to the surface when I became aware of the comfort of my culture and the comfort of not having to compromise an aspect of my being for the sake of others. It was like I was finally able to take in the fresh air.
It wasn’t until recently that my family dove into the deep end to save me from the tides of western society, however I wish that they had done it earlier. I feel like I wasted valuable years of my youth loathing a major part of myself, but those years ended up providing me with an even larger appreciation for my culture and the people associated with it. As a child, the most important thing to you is fitting in and making friends, and the lack of diversity within schools often hinders a child’s ability to both make friends and be themselves. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if there was another Khmer kid in the class with their own bowl of salaw machu. I imagine that I would have probably lingered towards the edge of the water a little bit longer, and I’m not quite sure if that would’ve been good or bad because on one hand, the onslaught of a different element temporarily made me forget about my previous one, however it also taught me to adapt and provided me with a newfound appreciation for the culture that I once despised. Sometimes you need to sink a little to be able to float back to the surface.