Parenting is a Journey
An Adventure of Discovery Not Only of our Children But of Ourselves as Well
By Susan Solomon Yem
I met my ex-husband when I was assigned to supervise the translation of a film into Khmer, the language of Cambodia. It was 1979, and the United States had just begun to accept Cambodian refugees for resettlement. He was one of the first to arrive.
In the ignorance of my youthful self-absorption, all I knew about Cambodia was its location in Southeast Asia. Through my work on this project, I learned a lot, and I met many newly arrived refugees. My interest in the success of their resettlement and their desire to learn more about America changed my life. I began spending my weekends commuting 90 minutes from my home to Long Beach, California, the largest Cambodian community in the United States, to minister to these people. I truly believed this was my life’s calling.
My ex-husband was also helping the new arrivals. In fact, our weekends were usually spent together. We stayed in a house overflowing with men, women and children. We all shared meals, played games and taught each other our languages. This side-by-side work burgeoned into a romance, and 10 months after we met, we married.
I used to tease him that I thought East meets West meant a New Yorker (me) getting together with a Californian. I would never have imagined that my East meets West would have included marrying someone from halfway around the world.
My Cross-Cultural Education
Living with the Cambodian refugees was an education in a culture I was soon to adopt as my own. I learned some rudimentary language. (My first Khmer words translated to I like Cambodian food.) I learned how men and women relate to each other — women rule! And I discovered a lot about the horrendous experiences of living under the Khmer Rouge. I truly loved these people and this culture.
Shortly after our wedding, we moved from Southern California to Boston to help settle the latest wave of refugees. We rented a five-bedroom house in Revere. Soon every room was occupied by families fresh off the boat. English was a language seldom heard in our household. For me this was cultural immersion, even though I never left the country.
My oldest son was born during this time. Here were two other families in the house, and both had baby boys the same age as mine. One of the families included a grandfather who enjoyed keeping an eye on all three boys. We were living in community, and, even though my skin was a different color, I felt a kinship to these housemates.
Marrying a Culture
Cross-cultural marriage is challenging and often unsuccessful. It is not just that you have no common background. For some, like us, our cultures united because there had been a trauma that drew us together. War and upheaval forced my ex-husband to flee to the United States. I do not believe that our cultural differences caused our divorce, but they probably contributed to it.
With the end of the marriage came the end of my cultural connection. I no longer logically fit into a world populated by people who looked different from me. I could no longer go to the Cambodian grocery story and blend in with the other shoppers because my Cambodian husband was no longer by my side.
The year my daughter turned 16, I wanted to cater a Cambodian dinner for her friends. When I called to find out how much the meal would cost, the price I was quoted was exorbitant. Had I communicated in Khmer, I know the food would have been much cheaper.
With their father out of the house, my children had fewer and fewer Cambodian cultural experiences. Beside eating less of the food and attending fewer special events, they abandoned their Cambodian nicknames and what little vocabulary they knew as young children.
Losing Our Cultural Identity
When we were together, the Cambodian culture dominated our family life. I taught my kids little about my Jewish roots. Now they have no interest in learning. And, other than bagels and deli, they are not too keen on the food. When they are asked their nationality or cultural background, they are all reluctant to respond. They usually ask the questioner to guess. It is harder to find the connections we had previously.
Recently my daughter and I paid a visit to a few of my Cambodian friends from those early days in Long Beach. It was a delight to spend time with them and listen to them chatter in Khmer, picking up words here and there. The sights and scents in their homes drew me back to a time I greatly missed. My daughter enjoyed the visit, too, and has made a connection she continues to nurture.
The sadness I feel about my divorce is compounded because I have also lost a culture and maybe even a little of my identity.
Susan Solomon Yem is singleminded about raising her five children to adulthood. She’d like to hear your stories about single parenting. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org