From all the accounts we have been given, Lea’s life in rural Cambodia had not been a privileged one. For nine years, she lived on a farm planting rice and tending skinny cows. “Little food, little water,” she tells us in her beginner English. “Little food okay. Little water no good.”
We first adopted Lea’s younger brother, Shane, from an orphanage. It wasn’t until later that same year that a Cambodian friend of ours told us about Lea. Our friend told us that Lea was struggling to survive and that she wanted to come to the United States and be reunited with her brother. My husband and I talked about it and discussed what adopting an older child might mean for our family, not to mention our finances. Throwing common sense to the wind, my husband and I took a leap of faith and started the process.
It was a process that took over a year. United States Immigration and Naturalization Services had issued a moratorium on Cambodian adoptions due to alleged baby trafficking. Although Lea was clearly not a baby, had a sibling already in the United States, and was given permission by her extended family to be adopted, it was still a struggle to get an approval from INS to grant her a visa.
But grant one they did, and two years later in November, we were finally able to bring Lea home to Long Island, New York. It took three plane rides and twenty-four hours of traveling—enough time for her to begin the transformation to western culture.
When we were in the Frankfort airport, one of several layovers, I handed Lea the free socks we received from the airline. The plane had been chilly and I suggested that she wear the socks. In Cambodia, being that it is a hot, tropical climate, there was never any reason for her to wear socks. She had spent most of her time barefoot or wearing flip flops. When I gave her the socks, she looked at them tentatively, not understanding their purpose, and then promptly wiped her face with them.
Once we arrived in New York, it was incredible to watch her confront the force of day-to-day American culture. And although there are many “fish out of water” anecdotes, what I find most fascinating is how well she has adapted.
Lea is a child who embraces American consumerism with a passion. She is in love with malls and can out-shop anyone I know. One of the first English sentences she would say every Friday is “Tomorrow no school. Tomorrow shopping mall.”
Television commercials, according to Lea, are all true. She would be the perfect study in the power of persuasion. She is attracted to any product on television that requires you to “call now!” It doesn’t really matter if it is a mop, a weight training apparatus, a juicer, or a space bag combo—if she wants it, she will hand me the phone and instruct me to dial the 1-800 number. “Puh-leeeeeze,” she’ll beg. I am so proud that in just a short few months, my daughter has become the direct response marketer’s dream and the number one fan of the Swiffer mop and liquid leather kit.
We are thrilled at how well she has adapted. She is doing excellent in school. In fact, her teachers get a real kick out of her exuberance for things that are so, well, foreign, from where she came from. When she needs to write sentences in school using new spelling words, she usually chooses to write about a mall excursion, the Oprah Winfrey Show, or TLC’s Trading Spaces.
Overall, Lea appears to be happy, but sometimes I think her assimilation has come with a price.
During the first months after her arrival, she would freely translate English to Khmer, the national language of Cambodia. I’d ask her, “How do you say cat?” and she would tell me. She loved to share “her” Khmer words, laughing when we butchered the pronunciations and cheering when we got it right. Now if I ask her for a Khmer translation, she will tell me she doesn’t know. I wonder if she is already forgetting her native language, or if she just wants to leave her past behind. She told us that she wants us to all go back to Cambodia as a family when she is fifteen. Lea says that she will speak to her relatives in English, “No Khmer,” she stresses.
One time we were in a store and something reminded me of a krama, a Cambodian scarf, and I said to her, “Oh, this looks like a Cambodian krama.” I was hushed quickly. “Shhh, mommy,” Lea snapped “don’t say that.” I obviously said something that had embarrassed her.
Lea has a friend who was in foster care with her in Cambodia. Her friend was adopted and also lives in the United States. They love to speak to each other on the phone. The first time Lea called her from New York, they only spoke in Khmer. Now, they only speak in English. And they do not talk about Cambodia; they discuss snow, Scooby Doo, and The PowerPuff Girls. Occasionally they will talk about the Cambodian karaoke music videos they both love, although in the same breath they will discuss the Michelle Branch album.
I know this is her new life and her new family. She is now Cambodian-American with influences of Italian, Puerto Rican, French, Hungarian, and Spanish all thrown in. We want Lea to enjoy all of who we are as a family, without discarding her Cambodian ancestry. She has a past that did not begin in New York. And while much of her early life was difficult, we don’t want her to forget that she came from a beautiful, albeit poverty-stricken country, filled with many wonderful people.
Food is another issue. Yes, she has been to Burger King and she likes getting her meal with a toy. She loves pizza, the ubiquitous food of birthday parties. If I remind her that she spit it out the first time she tried it, she laughs. She even eats the mystery meat sloppy joes at school. But if she could eat everything with chopsticks and have jasmine rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, she would. Her enthusiasm for delicious Thai food—the closest thing to Cambodian food we can get near our house—is contagious. We try to encourage this because food seems to be the one thing from her past that she has not yet rejected.
Maybe “rejected” is too strong of word. Maybe it’s merely her desire to fit in and be just like everyone else, but we want her to realize that being American doesn’t mean being either/or. One does not have to give up their roots.
The irony is that almost everyone loved to hear her talk about Cambodia. People are always asking her questions about what life is like in Cambodia. But now, Lea shuts the questions out. Even though people, including my husband and I, remain curious to learn more about the country of her origin.
Of course no one knows how this will all pan out. As she becomes more comfortable with her place in the United States, maybe she will be more at ease with her previous years in Cambodia. A past that already seems light years away. While we won’t shove Cambodian culture down her throat, we’ll continue to offer gentle reminders that we acknowledge her past and that it is important to us. And when she is ready, maybe she will reach a balance that will allow her to recognize both her past and her present.
Katherine Sanders is a copywriter and freelance writer. She lives in Long Island, New York with her husband Sean, children Shane and Lea, and three cats. She is also editor and publisher of Narrations, the newsletter by and for kids who are touched by adoption.