Not the Daughter She Wanted

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anna martin

From The New York Times, I’m Anna Martin. This is Modern Love. In this week’s essay, an immigrant daughter exceeds almost all expectations. But in this one big way, she’s a disappointment to the person she most wants to impress — her mom. The essay is written and read by Putsata Reang.

putsata reang

This past December, my mother called me in Seattle from her rural Oregon home. She hadn’t talked to me in months. Her talk was sprinkled with the Khmer word “gohn.” It means “darling.” She had stopped using that word with me months before.

At the end of our call, she summoned me home, and a knot tightened in my gut. “Come alone,” she said.

[light music]

I’m gay, or a version of it. I came out to my mother in my 20s as gay, because there is no word in our Khmer language for “bisexual.” And if there is, I don’t know it.

Back then, I was living and working in the Bay Area. She flew in for the weekend. I wasn’t sure she knew what “gay” meant.

So I drove her to the Castro. She pressed a chubby cheek to the window of my Honda Civic and pointed at two men in leather chaps holding hands, their bare behinds hanging out. “That the gay?” she asked. “Yes, Mom. Stop pointing. Yes, that’s the gay.”

On the way back to my apartment, she told me she loved me. I thought it meant she understood this essential thing about me, that one day I may walk down the street holding hands with a woman — minus the nudity — and it would be totally normal.

I misunderstood the moment completely.

20 years later, I left a career in international media to move to Seattle to be with my partner, a woman. When my mother found out, she let loose a verbal squall. You’re crazy. You’re being disrespectful, dishonorable, disloyal. You’re not normal.

“What kind of mother are you?” I hissed. And we each retreated into our own hurts.

But when she called last December and asked me to visit, I agreed to make the four-hour drive. A week later, my parents were in the kitchen eating rice and salted fish when I arrived. My mother wedged two scoops of steaming jasmine rice into a bowl and nudged it toward me. Then she started talking, bits and pieces of news.

As an hour stretched into two, we moved into the family room, where my mother eased into her rocking chair, clamping her arms around my waist. “What do you want for Christmas?” she asked. “Money? Clothes?”

“I want you to be happy for me,” I said. I was the happiest I had ever been. I was finally with a partner who loved me for who I was, who laughed with me until we were stumbling around the house drunk on raw joy.

My mother started sobbing, her head pressed into my belly. “I’m not happy,” she blurted out. “Ma wants you to get married, be normal like your brother and sisters, and find a good man to marry before Ma and Pa die.” I froze, and flipped the switch in my heart to closed.

I had always been so proud of my mother, using adjectives like “courageous” and “resilient” whenever I spoke of her. She raised my siblings and me to be solid citizens, grounded in morals and mission. She taught us how to grow gardens, stack wood, pickle plums, patch anything with holes and be proud of who we were — refugees who had come to America with almost nothing.

[pensive music]

40 years ago, as genocide gripped Cambodia, my family fled on a Navy vessel. It was built for a crew of 30, but there were some 300 people crammed on board. For three weeks, the ship plied the waters of the Gulf of Thailand, turned away by countries unwilling to grant us asylum.

Halfway into the journey, a baby with a swollen head and shriveled legs went sallow inside my mother’s sarong. The baby hadn’t cried or moved in days.

The captain of the ship eventually came to talk to her. Your baby is dead, he said. Throw it in the water.

We’re Buddhist, my mother pleaded. Please let me bury my baby in the earth. The captain relented, allowing my mother to cradle her listless baby for another week or so. That baby was me.

I had heard this story dozens of times before it occurred to me to ask her, did you think I was dead?

I had hope, she said, just a little hope that you were still alive.

I had survived on my mother’s hope, on the dreams she breathed into me and on the drops of water she put on my unmoving lips.

I had spent my life with this story as my albatross, trying my best to repay her by being a good daughter and not disrupting the bond between us. Over the years, my mother bragged to her friends about how I had bought my own home, sent her and my father on vacations, and traveled the globe as a journalist.

Since visiting my mother last December, I stumbled into a newer understanding of her while watching a documentary film set in Cambodia. In one scene, a young Khmer bride gets her face drawn up with mascara before her wedding. The camera pans to the bride’s beaming mother, who announces how happy she is that her daughter is fulfilling her duty.

“Duty.”

[ominous music]

As I considered that word, I finally understood the depth of my mother’s disappointment.

For her, it was tied up in an ancient pain. When her father tried to force her into an arranged marriage, she ran away.

When she returned, he beat her with a steel rod for shaming the family.

To my mother, my being gay was worse than running away. It meant not fulfilling my ultimate duty as a daughter — to marry a man. It also robbed her of her birthright in blessing me on my wedding day, in symbolically clipping a lock of my hair and tying red string around my wrist for an auspicious new future.

We’re left wedged inside too tight a space, Ma and me. If I am to be a good Cambodian daughter, I must sacrifice an essential part of who I am. If I am true to myself, I cause Ma to lose a fundamental part of who she is as a Cambodian mother.

I see no middle ground, no safe harbor for us to come ashore together.

But I know who I am, and how I am like her. I know that impulsive hope in Ma is alive in me, beating beneath my ribs, something she breathed into my soul on a wayward ship so long ago.

It’s a hope that she will one day come to a better understanding of me, a hope that we will survive this journey too. There’s always hope, even if it’s just a little.

[ethereal music]
anna martin

In the six years since Putsata wrote this essay, her relationship with her mom has changed. She tells us how after the break.

[dreamy music]

Putsata Reang, hello.

putsata reang

Hi, Anna.

anna martin

So my producer tells me that you have a nickname.

putsata reang

Yes. I go by Put.

anna martin

By Put.

putsata reang

I feel like I’ve only ever heard my name, Putsata, when my mom is super mad at me and I’ve done something to catch her ire. [LAUGHS] So.

anna martin

So you actually didn’t like when I said, “Hello, Putsata Reang.”

putsata reang

You know, it’s OK. I recognize and accept that’s my full name. “Put” sounds very, very nice to me. [LAUGHS]

anna martin

Mmm. Put, you wrote this essay in 2016. And I’m sure a lot has happened since. Are you and your partner still together?

putsata reang

Yes. We got married July 15, 2017.

anna martin

Wow. And what’s your partner’s name?

putsata reang

She’s April.

anna martin

In your essay, it’s so clear that marriage is such a big deal to your mom. Did you invite your mom to your and April’s wedding?

putsata reang

We did. We sent them an invitation, as we did 150 other guests. And for a long time, we waited and watched the mail. And I was especially nervous for weeks when we weren’t seeing their return invite. And after a while, you start to give up hope.

And the day of the wedding, it was truly bittersweet because I guess I continue to hold on to a little bit of hope up until the moment my wife and I were standing before our guests and glanced off to the side, and saw an empty space where my parents should have been and weren’t. So that was pretty tough.

anna martin

Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about what was going through your head at that moment.

putsata reang

What was going through my mind was absolute joy and happiness, because if I look back on all of the things I’ve done in my life, my proudest moment was finding love and getting married. And of course, you have this moment in your life, these absolutely pivotal moments, you want your parents to see that. And it was such a heartbreak that mine chose not to be there to see that.

anna martin

What role did April’s parents play in this day because your own parents weren’t there?

putsata reang

April’s father walked her down the aisle. What’s important to note about that moment is that he had been diagnosed with a bone marrow disease prior to us getting married. And all of us didn’t think that he was actually going to be there for the wedding. And he was.

anna martin

Oh, wow.

putsata reang

And I think about that. And I just think of the purity of love. And I understood that the first time I met my father-in-law, why April loved her father so much. And I loved him, too.

anna martin

Hmm.

After the wedding, did you talk to your parents? Did you talk to your mom?

putsata reang

No, I didn’t. My walls were up thick and high. I was so hurt. I actually — in that moment, I was prepared to never see my parents again, because I was so hurt.

anna martin

Hmm. I’m curious if there was a moment where you felt those walls breaking down.

putsata reang

Well, the next opening between us was in the fall of 2019. My father-in-law’s bone marrow disease devolved into leukemia. We knew the coming end. We could see it.

And so it was in January that he wanted to have a party. He said to April, what’s the point if I’m dead? I don’t get to hear all these great things people have to say about me. I mean, this guy is just funny. And we came up with an invite list.

anna martin

Did you invite your parents?

putsata reang

So that was the thing, is April said, well, do you want them there? So here’s something that I told April, and only her in private. I said, you know, April, I can forgive my mother for not coming to our wedding. But if your father dies before my parents ever get to meet him, I will not forgive that. I can’t.

So she emailed my mom, told my mom about this party.

And I was convinced that they weren’t going to show up because the restaurant was filling fast.

At one point, there was a commotion in the foyer of the restaurant. I thought, what’s going on? And suddenly I saw my father-in-law beeline to the door of the restaurant and followed by his wife, my mother-in-law.

And the next thing I knew, I saw my mother hugging my father-in-law. Oh, my gosh. I slunk back behind the bar of the restaurant and just sobbed.

anna martin

That must have been so beautiful and so surprising for you. How did that make you feel?

putsata reang

[VOICE BREAKING]: I can’t tell you the emotions, a lot of different emotions clanging around my heart. But what I can tell you is one of those emotions was relief, like, oh, my god. It’s like, oh, jeez, leave it to my mom to just slip in under the wire, not knowing that I was about to not forgive her. And she just slipped in right under the wire here.

They all embraced, my mother-in-law and father-in-law, my mother and my father. And everybody who was in that room was just in tears. Everybody understood the bigness of that moment.

My father-in-law died a month later. And my mom was the one that I contacted. I texted her three words. “He is gone.” She replied with three words in kind. “Ma sorry, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH].” And that’s when I knew we were going to be OK, my mom and I.

anna martin

Tell me what that “sorry” represents to you,

putsata reang

Oh, gosh, Anna. That “sorry” was everything. “Sorry” is an open door. For me, it meant we can begin a new relationship. The old one between my mother and I is gone.

anna martin

Hmm. It’s so clear that your mom has undergone this shift. Where do you feel like your mom has shifted to? Where is she now?

putsata reang

So I truly believe she has shifted to a place of openness. I don’t know if she will ever fully embrace having a gay daughter. But I’ll take acceptance. I don’t need to be embraced for being gay. I’ll settle for acceptance. I’m good with that.

[music]
anna martin

Put, thank you so much for talking to me today.

putsata reang

Oh, thank you. Wow. I don’t think I’ve cried this much in any interview.

anna martin

Well, I’m grateful. Thank you so much for your time.

putsata reang

Yeah. Thank you.

[music]
anna martin

Coming up next week on Modern Love, a conversation with Amy Pittman. Amy had a miscarriage, and then she had another child.

amy pittman

We had a beautiful baby boy. But he doesn’t replace the baby that’s lost. So I’m a mom to two babies, one I got to hold and one I never got to.

anna martin

That’s next week on Modern Love.

[music]

Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero, Christina Djossa, Elyssa Dudley and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Dan Powell. The Modern Love theme music is by Dan Powell. Original music in this episode by Dan Powell, Marion Lozano and Rowan Niemisto. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Nell Gallogly. And a special thanks to Anna Diamond at Audm.

The Modern Love column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.

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