By Nick Chhoeun.
“Beauty in Cambodia is often seen as untanned skin / Mine keeps getting darker every summer / My grandparents and I started to talk more / They’ve started to tan too”
Artwork by Kathy Loev Putnam.
My grandparents don’t like kamow people.
Their upbringing didn’t trust them.
They didn’t hate them, but
they stayed as far as they could at all times.
They lived in New Hampshire.
My molars were born soft.
Some covered in silver—
imprisoned, protected like knights
armor on display.
Others were ripped out prematurely,
forcedly replaced by their adult selves
all hardened from the heat of my breath
rarely cooled by vanilla ice cream.
I had 22 cavities on my baby teeth.
Marry Cambodian or white
I’d hear them tell my parents
who did not let me have a girlfriend
until I turned sixteen.
Perhaps they wanted me to figure out the world
before they taught me how to translate it.
I had three wisdom teeth,
one on each side at the top of my mouth,
one in the middle of my mouth behind my front teeth.
The dentist said these all needed to be removed.
I still have them because I learned if something
didn’t cause a problem, leave it be.
What is she?
The first thing my grandmother would ask on the phone
with my mother when my brother and I started dating.
My mother stepped out of the room depending on her background.
My teeth taught my lips to spread apart,
push slightly backward until my cheeks
looked full like the gold plump cheeks
of the Buddha in our foyer.
They taught my eyes to rise like window blinds
offering a sprinkle of sunshine to the main show
of teeth perfectly positioned for staged happiness
to a camera unknowing of the darkness behind bristles and blood.
If smiling is success,
I never needed braces.
Maybe it’s wrong that I’ve never spoken up
to my grandparents about race
and maybe it’s still wrong that I don’t
because they keep asking those questions,
they still walk away or tense up around kamow people.
Both retired and weak, all they do is listen to Khmer politics
on the radio, call their children, and check their blood sugar.
When is it wise to let people be?
Beauty in Cambodia is often seen as untanned skin.
Mine keeps getting darker every summer.
My grandparents and I started to talk more.
They’ve started to tan too.
I don’t have a sweet tooth.
I don’t crave the taste.
I have to brush my teeth twice a day.
If I pass out after a night out
my first instinct is to nauseously brush them.
I’ve never had a kamow girlfriend,
how did that happen.
The Blood Pudding – April 28, 2021
Nick Chhoeun is a graduate from American University’s MFA program. He is an English instructor at colleges in Connecticut. His work seeks to explore culture and identity from an Asian American perspective.
Artwork: Kathy Loev Putnam’s paintings are typically inspired by an image or memory of one of her daughters, which evolves organically into a vivid internal consciousness, and at times a sense of social disconnection. Changeable and often ambiguous narratives emerge, inviting the viewer to consider questions about femininity, identity, transition, and awakenings. You can find her here.