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My adopted grandmother passed away on Saturday. In the 70s, my father had sponsored her family, facilitating their arrival in the US. They took his surname, but maintained variations of their old one in their forenames, a clever preservation of their family history. Our families came from the same ancestral village in Cambodia and, further back, a village in Hainan, China. I always knew her as Grandma. We visited often when I was a child, and I remember eating fried plaintain with vanilla ice cream in their living room while Grandma joked and laughed as she played cards with friends, a glass of cognac beside her.

Auntie Limly posted a photo of her mother on FB: she’s surrounded by her children, a small, smiling woman projecting strength and gravity. The photo was taken in a Thai refugee camp, where they lived in small wooden apartments raised above the ground, bordered by gardens full of vincas and gomphrenas and, beyond those small realms of paradise, barbed wire—to protect or confine, Auntie wasn’t sure.

Personal histories of the Cambodian diaspora follow a particular trajectory: dislocation by war, dispersal to refugee camps, arrival elsewhere, and a slow and uneven acclimatisation to a new language, culture, and environment, replete with a sense of longing for a faraway homeland that was unrecognisable by the time my generation became adults. We are a people dispersed by extraordinary circumstances; Grandma’s story was my parents’ story, too, of sorrow and struggle and survival and, yes, love. Our shared history was a thread running through our lives, binding everyone in the diaspora altogether, beyond biological family, linking heartbeat to heartbeat.


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