By Sobrina Tung Pies
My mom is nearly bald. Her hair started falling out in her late twenties, getting thinner and thinner, until what remained fell away after the round of chemotherapy she got for breast cancer treatment. The hospital gave her a wig, a short straight bob. Around the time strangers started confusing her for my dad, I tried to get her to wear it. She didn’t though. She hardly ever wore it, putting it on only for the rare special occasion.
I asked her once why she’d snipped a jagged hole in the bangs of her wig at my cousin’s wedding. She’d said, “It’s too hot.” I didn’t want to admit it then, but, as the sweat pooled in the strapless bra I wore under my pale green bridesmaid’s dress, I understood what she meant. Sometimes it’s just too much trouble to look the part.
Living life with a well-ventilated scalp, my mom doesn’t look like anyone else’s mom. And it’s not the only thing different about her either.
“I’d like to visit my friends when we’re in Hawaii,” she told me over the phone in Khmer. Our family vacation to Oahu was coming up.
“Okay,” I said. Nothing peculiar about that. I had no idea she knew people in Hawaii, but she was always making new friends at her Buddhist temple. Her words bounced off the back of my skull and landed in a soft pile where they remained to be thought about later.
“My friends have a farm. They raise crops and sell the produce at the flea market,” my mom said, intrigued, a few weeks before our departure date. “They live in a little house on the land.”
My mom’s friends weren’t rich, but they weren’t poor either. After all, they were getting by with that warm blue ocean in their backyard. It reminded me of a Kinfolk article. I pictured my mom’s new friends wearing stylish overalls in a refurbished Airstream.
“How’d you meet them?” I asked.
“YouTube,” she said.
“YouTube?” I asked. “You met them on YouTube?”
“Yeah, they had a video of their farm,” she said matter-of-factly.
The video came up in her search for Cambodian Buddhist temples in Hawaii. It ended with a phone number on the screen that my mom promptly dialed. We were invited to come visit; everyone was invited. (It was the “everyone” bit that struck me as most creepy.)
The scene in my head changed from Kinfolk to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This sounded not unlike that time a man lured people to his ranch by advertising a cheap car for sale on Craig’s List, only to shoot them all execution-style once they got there. Neither of my parents shared my concerns. Cambodian people wouldn’t do that, my dad said. “I guess” was the only clever response I could think of.
When we got to Oahu, we spent half of our time exploring the island and the other half bobbing in the water at the beach in front of our hotel. My mom asked when we’d go see her friends. Soon, I said. I was the only one properly insured to drive the rental van, and the rule-follower in me insisted I drive.
Three days before the end of our vacation, after we’d seen Mermaid’s Cave and eaten our fill of shaved ice, I decided the trip wouldn’t be ruined if we were to all die then. It was time. As I drove the van to the farm, I thought about the two sea turtles I’d swum with and the five rainbows that arched in the sky that day. I’d be going out on a high note for sure.
To my surprise, I didn’t turn the van around, delivering us all back to the safety of our Waikiki high-rise hotel. I followed my mom’s lead: She had a way of knowing things. Like that time she knew she had a tumor growing inside her and insisted the doctor cut it out. Her mammogram results had come back negative just one month prior. Only after she kept insisting something was wrong did they send her back for more testing and confirm her suspicions of cancer. If something was up, she would be the first one to know.
As I followed Google Map’s directions, the cramped city streets of Honolulu gave way to neighborhoods with more breathing room. I wondered where the farms were. I took a few turns before the map showed we were fast approaching our destination. Did we have the address right? These homes had tennis courts. These homes were mansions.
My dad called the phone number from the YouTube video and spoke with a man. We were in the right place. As we climbed out of the van, my sister Sophie and I laughed nervously the way you do when you’re pretty certain you’ll be okay but a small part of you still wonders if you might get shot. We walked down a long driveway to the house at the bottom.
My mind struggled to make sense of what was happening. Three younger men moved about, preparing a charcoal barbecue next to an open garage, while an older man stood holding a cell phone. A young boy splashed in the swimming pool in the middle of the grassless front yard. There was no lawn, just concrete and a shabby L-shaped mansion serving as the backdrop. A tall white spiral staircase from the eighties connected the two sides of the “L.” Whoever designed it must have thought it lent the property a grand air, but the effect reminded me of the motels we stayed in on our family vacations as a kid.
The cell-phone-holding man, impressively tanned, walked toward us.
“Don’t forget to greet him,” my mom said under her breath, pressing her palms together in the customary Cambodian salute.
The rest of my family immediately followed suit. A group of praying mantis sharing a hive mind.
“Welcome,” Tan Man said. “Do you want something to eat or drink?”
“No, we’re fine,” my mom said, answering for all of us. “We just wanted to come see your life on the farm.”
“Oh, right,” Tan Man said. “Well, this is where we live now.” He gave an apologetic shrug. Turning to face the other men, he said, “These are my sons and that’s their friend.”
The sons pulled up chairs for us around the folding table where they sat.
After a few more minutes of small talk, my mom said, “You guys hang out.” I shot wide eyes at her, willing her to say she’d just be a few minutes. She didn’t notice and slipped away into the mansion with my dad and Tan Man. The hive mind was broken.
“I’m Rithy,” the shorter son said. “This is my brother Magnus and my friend Toshi.”
We introduced ourselves. Toshi, the friend, was the only one wearing a shirt. It was his son in the swimming pool.
“Where are you guys from?” Rithy asked.
“California,” Sophie said.
“Oh yeah? Which part?” Rithy asked.
“San Jose,” Sophie said. “How about you?”
“Born and raised on the island,” Rithy responded. “Magnus lives in Washington now. He’s just here visiting.”
“Must be nice growing up in a place like this,” my sister’s boyfriend Jordan chimed in.
“Don’t be fooled by those pretty pictures in the travel brochures,” Toshi said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It’s hard making it here,” Toshi said. “Finding work, paying the bills. A one-bedroom apartment goes for a thousand dollars a month. A month. Can you believe it?”
I thought about the one-bedroom I rented for under two thousand in San Jose and how everyone I knew thought that was a steal.
“That is crazy,” I said.
Wrapped in a towel, Toshi’s son joined us at the table. He opened a container of poke and split apart a pair of wooden chopsticks. By the way he ate, I doubted all that fish would put a dent in his appetite.
“What do the locals like to do?” I asked.
“Party,” Toshi said. “Party and make babies.” He looked over at his son.
Rithy nodded in agreement. No one said anything; I took the moment to listen for anything unusual. A muffled scream or a crash from inside. Only the sound of the wind filled my ears.
I changed the subject. “How’d you guys end up here?” I asked, referring to the motel mansion.
“Oh, that’s a story,” Magnus said. “There was this Swedish couple watching the news one day. All of a sudden they decided to adopt a baby. The woman at the church they called said, ‘Well, I don’t have a baby, but I do have an entire family.’ We were in Cambodia at the time when stuff was starting to get bad. My mom was pregnant with me and there was also my dad and two brothers. Whatever the couple was watching on TV that day must have been crazy because they decided to do it. They sponsored our family to come to the States. That’s why I have a Swedish name.”
I might have asked why they didn’t all live in Sweden, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the logistics of adopting an entire family. A light, unseasonable rain fell, covering everything in a soft mist. A tropical storm was passing through the islands.
“Is this their house?” Sophie asked.
“This?” Magnus asked, surprised. “No, this belongs to this Japanese couple. They had it built quickly, so the floor plan is all fucked up. No one wants to buy it at $4.7 million.”
Must be the Magnum, P.I. staircase, I thought.
Magnus got up to check on the grill. When he came back, he sat down and resumed drinking his beer. It was dark out now, and there was nothing to look at except each other and the empty garage we sat in. I fought the urge to look at my phone. I could tell Magnus had finished answering the question, but I’d never stepped foot on a $4.7 million property before and wanted to know how one comes to barbecue in such a place.
“Do you guys live here?” I asked.
“My parents do,” Magnus said.
“But not the Japanese people?”
“Right. They built this place and left it.”
“So how’d your family get connected?”
“My parents have a cleaning business and one of their clients is the owners’ daughter. She told her parents about my parents and they fell in love with my mom. Asked her to look after the place.”
I nodded. The guys drank their beer. A lull in conversation settled over us like a fishing net trapping random sea creatures together. We weren’t sure how any of us came to be there.
After a long while, Rithy asked Toshi and Magnus about an upcoming wedding. They talked about the friend who didn’t get an invite and laughed. I fiddled with my hands and half smiled like I understood the joke. They started talking about who was coming over with the meat skewers, who was bringing drinks. It clicked then that the reason for the barbecue was Magnus’s visit home. We were intruding on their party.
“Mohammed’s here,” Toshi announced as a car pulled into the driveway. Looking at me, he said, “This is the only Cambodian Muslim you’ll ever meet on the island. Converted. Even changed his name.”
“I’ve never met a Cambodian Muslim,” I said.
“There’s lots in prison,” Toshi said.
Somehow I knew better than to ask how he knew.
With Mohammed there, the conversation turned a corner, quickly moving past us to inside jokes and gossip about people we didn’t know. The guys tended to grilling the meat and disappeared around the corner to smoke pot. We sat with Toshi’s son who had moved on to an octopus poke. The longer we sat there, the more I felt how I did in high school when my best friend and I crashed parties we weren’t invited to. We weren’t privy to those conversations either.
When I couldn’t sit with my half-smile plastered on any longer, I went to the house to find the bathroom and did a double take as I stepped inside. There was no blood. No one on the ground having the life choked out of them. All four parents sat at the kitchen table, talking and laughing. Perhaps I would have been more patient had I stepped into a stickier situation, but I was annoyed that they were having the time of their lives. Meanwhile, sitting in the garage, the awkwardness pulled at my skin until I’d wanted to tear it all off. I caught my mom’s eye and silently tried to convey how much we wanted to leave. No luck. I used the bathroom (Magnus was right about this place: Even the bathroom in the apartment I rented back home was nicer than this) and then walked back to the kitchen.
“Can we go?” I whispered intently.
“Don’t you want to wait for the barbecue?” my mom asked.
“No,” I emphasized. “We were going to get that sushi for dinner, remember?”
“Oh, okay then,” my mom said.
She apologized to her friends about her kids’ picky tastes, but surprisingly, she and my dad wrapped up their conversation, got up, and followed me outside. As we walked back to the driveway, my mom told me her friends had invited her and my dad to come back and stay in one of the empty rooms. I turned and studied her friends’ faces one last time. Just in case. We went in a circle doing the praying-mantis, said goodbye to the group of guys steadily forming in the garage, and got back into our rental van.
Before the van door had even swung shut, we unleashed on my mom. Sophie and I took turns, telling her how awkward it was, reprimanding her for leaving us like that. My mom didn’t say anything, letting us get it all out of our systems. She was in her own world anyway, one where people cleaned houses, lived in mansions, and went to the beach on their lunch break. Without getting the reaction out of her we wanted, we quickly lost steam. We moved on to swapping stories from inside and outside the house.
“So what’d you guys talk about?” I asked.
“Not much. Cambodian politics. The story of how they came here. We didn’t have a lot of time together,” my mom said.
I rolled my eyes at the last part.
“Japanese people own that house; my friends just look after it,” she informed us.
“Uh huh, the sons told us,” Sophie said.
We bumped along in silence until I thought of something they wouldn’t know.
“We met a Cambodian Muslim,” I said.
“Muslim? You sure?” my dad asked. Clearly they had never met one either.
“Yeah, there are lots in prison,” I said.
When no one questioned me, I relished in my newfound street cred.
As the lights of the Waikiki strip came into view, I asked, “So, was there a farm?”
“Oh, we didn’t get a chance to talk about any of that,” my mom said, looking out the window. “I’ll have to ask when I see them next time.”
Next time. I looked at her in the rearview, beaming in her seat and dreaming about all the possibilities. I shook my head and smiled. I didn’t doubt her for a second.
SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley. In addition to contributing to Full Grown People, she sometimes writes on her blog at www.quietlikehorses.com.