Anthony Veasna So is originally from Stockton, CA, and grew up in a close-knit Cambodian-American community that thinks the ultimate dream is to become a pharmacist. He recently graduated with a double major in English Literature and Art Practice from Stanford University, where his
fiction and art won several awards and grants.
Something was unraveling. A pocket, an island, a coordinate point of his neurological map, or whatever you want to call it, of order had formed only for some disorder, some chaos of thought, to emerge. It’s simple entropy—did you actually think your mind could escape the second law of thermodynamics? Unfortunately, he did.
I don’t mean to be harsh. It wasn’t our protagonist’s fault. His world in particular was full of contradiction. That’s not to say the entirety of life isn’t some paradoxical farce. But seriously, it’s hard out there for an ethnic man, almost as hard as it can be for an ethnic woman. (His mom was really down in the dumps, always muttering to herself at the broken copy machine of her workplace, years after the war finally ended, “I keep finding myself in regimes.”)
He grew up with the whole gamut of problems that persons of color often face: generational trauma for absurdly horrific things that occurred before his existence (“Never trust anyone. During the war, your cousins killed your grandfather and ate his liver for good omens!”), parents that dished out criticisms across cultural barriers like it was their calling in life (“You’re so chubby. Do you want your liver cut out and eaten like your grandfather!”), the desire to have alabaster skin but still retain his culture of food with actual flavor (“That’s colonialism for you!”), extreme weariness from a life of constant code-switching between the cutthroat studiousness of his white-collar aspirations and the provincial twang of his garage-party roots (“Stop reading that shit. Your second cousin’s pregnant, or whatever, and we have got to celebrate!”), and definitely a quarantine-status dosage of Du Bois’s old double-consciousness bug (He used to drown his face in a beanie and those dumb, transitional eyeglasses to obscure his dumb, grotesquely ethnic features). It was all very tiring. Thus, the second he arrived at the college of his new, bright and promising future, his ambition led a successful coup of his soul. He zeroed in on the MBA program he was supposed to attend, the Wall Street executive he was supposed to be, and decided to never look back at the multicultural disaster of his upbringing, wasn’t going to commit the same, foolish miscalculation of Lot’s wife—getting all sentimental. For his still-developing brain, the socioeconomic ladder could only be climbed without the weight of his culture, so he left the baggage behind as collateral damage.
And of course, his decision would recoil on him, returning to bite him in the ass, its teeth clenched, his cheeks gripped. Every item on his checklist was eventually achieved: multiple prestigious degrees, a job that required a suit, a hot wife (she wasn’t necessarily beautiful, but she was Caucasian), kids that spoke perfect English, a speedboat he never used, a timeshare he used only once... You get the point. His life had blossomed into the normative flower of his dreams. Still, something was eating away at his satisfaction, his hard-earned happiness. Something was unraveling.
He tried everything to fix, or at least pinpoint, the growing chaos within himself, and after thousands of wasted dollars on Bikram yoga and gluten-free bread, he finally located the source of his unraveling. This source—his cultural baggage—was obvious the entire time, but one
shouldn’t underestimate the tunnel vision of the motivated. Even with all he had accomplished, his problems still boiled down to his distinct culture, his skin color, and the fact that, like a true mama’s boy, he had never stopped loving his mother’s cooking.
The next few years involved many trips to his hometown, an effort to feel grounded in his culture again. He went to many neighborhood potlucks where his white-washed kids spat out their food and his wife pretended to have fun. He made many attempts at conversation and reconciliation with his old friends and relatives, his people. (His bourgeois lifestyle ill-equipped him for talking to anyone that didn’t own ten different suits of ten different shades of charcoal). And these conversations, those excruciating bits of forced banter, always amounted to the same basic, linguistic pattern, as if our protagonist and all the homies talking across from him had been preprogrammed with set phrases and reactions that could never align. It was some hardcore Darwinian shit, a huge advocation for the idea of habitual behavior, predispositions that are only open to adaptation and evolution, to change, when looking at the big picture, at generations of fools running around in chaotic circles, at centuries of disorder. This is all to say, these potluck conversations were uncomfortable to behold.
Here’s how the conversations would go down:
He overzealously says hello, accentuating the “o” like he doesn’t want to finish the word and continue the interaction, and then the old friend’s name.
The friend comments on our protagonist’s beleaguered accent when saying the traditional name, that the years of college really did a number on his native tongue.
After a pause, someone goes in for a hug. If the pause lasts only a beat, the friend is probably the instigator. If longer, it is our protagonist who, under the pressure of silence, caves into the hug. Regardless, the hug results in spilt food or liquid and the friend, wary of wasting because of a deep-rooted instinct for survival that stems from the previous generation’s experience in the war, laments the spillage.
They update one another on their respective lives. Our protagonist unintentionally makes the friend feel like crap for never finishing an associates degree at the community college behind the Walmart. He tries to change the subject by introducing the friend to his kids, but he can’t get them to make eye contact without looking like they are about to spit in the friend’s face.
Then, the friend’s buddy appears and starts talking up a storm, spewing out gossip about the pregnant second-cousin that’s filing for a divorce and how that one family hates that other family. Our protagonist watches the friend and the friend’s buddy talk, have a grand old time, for about five minutes before giving both of them his business card and saying, “E-mail me sometime.”
He walks away and never realizes how obnoxious it is to hand out business cards at a neighborhood potluck.
And this basic conversational structure occurred over and over again, more or less, without even a trace of progress.
In the end, he started to feel that it was too late to retrieve his multicultural identity. Our protagonist felt that, despite God’s judgment, maybe Lot’s wife was right to immediately look back at Sodom, to acknowledge and accept her origins from the beginning. Maybe her fatal action was a decision to end her suffering quickly, rather than prolong it for a lifetime.
Naturally, he was wrong in this thought too. He came to this realization one day while driving his father to the hardware store. (If there was one constant aspect of our protagonist’s life, it was his parents’ uncanny ability to always ask more of him.) They were in his father’s truck and a song started playing. The song was bursting with exuberant energy, the psychedelic overtones blending with the indigenous instruments of his supposed culture, the singer’s intonations resonating with his soul. Its harmony, somehow, sounded both haunting and peaceful. This, he thought, was the key to his deeply felt longing. He just needed to know what the song meant.
The song ended. He pushed the replay button.
“Can you tell me what she is singing about?”
“There’s too much static.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, why wouldn’t I be? This tape is a worthless reproduction. I got it at the flea market and paid five dollars for it—garbage, ripoff piece of shit!”
“Can’t we find a better version?”
“I wouldn’t bet on it. Nearly all the relics of our culture—books, music recordings, art, entire temples—were destroyed in the war.”
His hands squeezed the steering wheel while his father stared out the window.
“You know, I used to think that all of these lost relics were, what’s the phrase, oh yeah, collateral damage. But the older I get, the more I realize that we, all of us, are just that—sacrificed pawns in some game. Of course our culture is mostly lost.” His father paused. “It was destroyed when millions of us died, in the regime, in the bombings, not when our stuff burned in the flames.”
The words rocked the truck into silence.
They permeated his consciousness—id, ego, superego, the mushy core of his dumb brain, every goddamn layer.
An epiphany had just slapped our protagonist across the face.
This was his epiphany: His decisions had never really mattered. His attempts at order and inner peace had blown up in his face. Essentially, he had been born into this world missing a fundamental part of his being, and it only got worse from there.
Like I said, systems always progress in the direction of increasing disorder, increasing chaos, fucking entropy. It’s as simple as that.
Our protagonist regained his composure. “That’s really depressing.”
His father looked at him, eyes tired from not only the traumatic past, but also the dull pain in his back, the migraine gnawing at his face, and the burning paper-cut on his finger. “Just enjoy the music and stop complaining.”