up down up down up down
over and over again

fifteen minutes of quiet
hesitation wearing that first step
while listening to stories
of his dad at the same age
standing astride yoked water buffalo
while walking them to pasture and
racing up mango trees
with neighborhood children

fifteen minutes of the same tired
footwork and tales before finally
gathering enough courage to
climb the remaining rungs to
sigh and smile in
pride and relief at the
panoramic view of rooftops in
neighborhoods miles away

up down up down up down
over and over again

fifteen more minutes and counting
of increasingly confident feet
clomping up and down
that wooden ladder as
conversation and eyes
and the chance of me
napping in peace
slip away

unfair to ask

they still say
you were easy
never a picky child
a bowl of rice
a piece of fish
was all you needed
you did not crave
complicated dishes
did not care
for vegetables
managed to be
satisfied on less
than everyone else
but when the meat
was scarce and
the rice replaced
by bobor
when they started
adding banana stalk
or morning glory
to make the porridge
more filling
you sat there
ignoring their pleas
to just eat
and picked out
everything but
the meager bits
of swollen and
disintegrated rice

if you had been
even less picky
could we have
known each other?


he must have been five
too old to have accidentally
wet the floor

but we’d never have known
if not for the half a roll
wadded in the bowl
daring to be flushed

when asked about the paper
he pointed to the dry floor

when asked about the floor
he pointed to the spider

that had crawled its way
along the wall from
toilet to tub


i always lose money
when we play this
one dollar a hand
cambodian six card suited
strategy war game with
three players minimum
seven maximum going
four elimination rounds
before one final chance
to win by luck or
best educated guess
during the holidays
and whenever enough
siblings are around
but i play anyway
because it’s not
about the money
but rather the time
spent laughing loudly
teasing and taunting
and arguing in broken khmer
and because it’s always fun
to sabotage other people’s hands
when i already know
i’m not going to win


it is in these more frequent
than before moments
when they doze off
on the sofas
with the tv running
and i can observe them

free from tension

age showing in the lines
above relaxed brows
around closed eyes
and slightly open mouths
in the silhouette
of downward angled heads
and slumped shoulders

that i see
how much older
they have become
in the years i have
not been paying attention

keeping my distance

i wonder
how much longer
i can continue
to pull away
to willfully ignore
the frailty evident
in these quiet moments


he would have followed
her anywhere
even to the strange shores
of a new country
even if it meant leaving his wife
and children behind
but he died months before
the khmer rouge fell
a year before she decided
to emigrate from their homeland
so when she departed
she took only
his memory in her heart

it was only that
but that was
she had left
of her father

the measure of wealth

my family has always used
fourteen-ounce tins
emptied and cleaned of
their condensed milk contents
as the measuring device of choice
when scooping grains of rice
to be cooked for family meals

I grew up never questioning this
learned how much water to add
based on the number of cans
and not cups being prepared
assumed we recycled from the need
for an immigrant family to be frugal

but this practice started before we arrived
when a recovering country’s economy
was based on fourteen-ounce tins
of jasmine rice that could be bartered
for other goods and services
or traded in large quantities for gold

need has long since turned to habit
but tin usage continues as a reminder
of our past and current fortunes
and is a tradition I will maintain
explaining to any who ask, why I
do not measure my rice in cups

child’s play

the only times my
six-year-old nephew
needs to search for food
is when he is playing a game
and his character’s hp is low
the rest of the time
he has but to say a word
and a plate is prepared
and this is as it should be
children should not
have to worry
about whether or not
there is enough to eat
the way my brother did
at his son’s age
spending many a day
in rice paddies
catching little frogs
two fingers thick
to help supplement
the family meals
of watery rice porridge


she used to say
that we were in america
because of me
she knew the children would not
follow him without her
she knew he could never
abandon them
so for a time she ignored
his suggestions to leave
her homeland
her mother

but as news of the refugee camp closing
began to spread
and the time to deliver her baby
grew closer
she thought of the opportunities
they would have
of the life her unborn child
could lead
so really
we are here
thanks to her

another chance

years before she became a christian
and embraced the concept of heaven
she hoped her daughters would be reborn
into better lives in less tragic times
into whole families with more capable mothers

a month before she left her homeland
the elder of the two came to her in a dream
there was no resentment, no words of blame
just expressions of grief and longing
a request to come back home

three weeks into their stay at the refugee camp
on the thai side of the khmer-thai border
she birthed a baby girl with two whorls on her head
who grew up with everything she wanted
for her other daughters