chaah? chaah! chaah.
i have a problem with chaah,
not the idea, just the word
the feminine gendered “yes”
that i was taught to use
the way my brothers were
instructed to say bhaat

as many times as i’ve spoken it,
saying chaah never became
second nature, the way it
was supposed to tumble out
in response to questions and
statements and… everything else

instead, there is hesitation
a moment’s consideration
a weighing of its necessity
before i retreat to using less
traditional, formal, polite
english versions like “yes”
and “yea” and “yep” or the
universal “huh?” and “uh huh”

chaah reminds me too much
of a little two-year-old girl
her toddler’s voice imprinted
on a scratchy audio cassette
answering her proud father
each time he calls her name
T-… T-… T-…
chaah. chaah. chaah.

it is the verbal reminder
of promises unkept

next year

they’re planning a trip
for sometime next year
to the only place mom
ever wants to “vacation”
thought that might change after
ma died a few years ago
but i was wrong

i’ve been three times
every three years since ’03
it’s been almost four
since the last trip
when i made sure
to get lots of pictures
and videos of ma

i have a clip of her
saying “hello” and “okay”
in english and complaining
in khmer about how
her mouth isn’t used to
making such strange sounds

i don’t know if i want to
go this time and visit
the chedey i’ve only seen
in pictures to say goodbye

maybe i’d rather rewatch
the video of the two of us
exchanging “hello”s

background noise

every weekday around noon
in the livingroom

dad streams voice of america
in khmer through his laptop

while mom has foodnetwork
in english on the tv

both set at the same volume

we all watch the tv

but they only hear the khmer
until an ingredient or technique
needs to be clarified

and i hear the english
until a familiar word or phrase
catches my ear

and we finally spend
a few fleeting moments
in shared space
seeing and hearing
the same things


i wonder if the woman selling
the palm sugar caramel glazed
crunchy on the outside but
chewy on the inside
golden brown deep fried
rings of glutinous rice flour
at the khmer wat today
thought i was not khmer
or thought i did not speak khmer
or just wanted to practice her english
when she offered her
“cambodian donuts” to me
at “two for one dollar”

i would not be wondering if
i had just said
two dollars, please in khmer
instead of in english or if
i had just wished
her a happy new year or if
i had just asked
how are you?
during our terse exchange

instead, all i managed was a
thank you at the end
and received an amused laugh
in return

i wonder what she
thought then


no substitute

I have not been the biggest fan
of prahok
always complained about
how it looked and smelled
when spooned out raw
how it ran me out of the kitchen
when being prepared
how it managed to stink up
and put out of commission
every piece of luggage
ever used to import
the plastic bottles
filled to the neck
with the pungent paste

so imagine everyone’s surprise
when I passionately decried
my mother’s intention
to begin replacing
prahok with western anchovies
in her Khmer recipes

prahok was the heart
of those dishes, I argued
what made them uniquely Khmer
an integral flavoring agent
that could not be replicated
without the fish and salt
and sweat and dust and heat
of Cambodia

I think I would miss most
my own Khmer American ritual
of complaining about
the pervasive odor of prahok
right before sitting down
to a delicious meal
of salaw machu kreung
or prahok ktis
or nom pachok


I was being reckless
asking about everything
there was no story
I did not want to hear
no detail too insignificant

you were being cautious
uncertain of my intent
wary of where
the questions would lead

we spoke for hours
and I started asking
fewer and fewer questions
as you began adding
more and more details

a mere two days later
it took only one question
to begin a meandering tale
spanning many years and countries
that ended with us both sitting here
silent and in tears


I have never
been comfortable
hearing my name
spoken in my
native tongue

something about the way
the consonants are softened
the vowels drawn out
how it becomes
less of a statement
and more of a question
the kind I have
difficulty answering

but when I imagine
your sleep laced voice
whispering my name
in Khmer
I know
my answer
will always be