How Do I Tell Him?
a personal narrative by Eric Nhem
How do I tell him?
He’s perched on the other end, waiting for me to answer. I see his curly hair twisting into shadows, his ears that are a little too big for his face. The square glasses framing the questions and innocence in his eyes. The brown of his skin that will cause him so much pain when he gets older.
“Why are they mad at us?” my eight-year-old self asks again.
How do I tell him?
The hate, the violence, the death. The world turned upside down.
We’re in our room at our parents’ house, sitting on our bed. I lean against the rich mahogany wood of the frame that resembles an ornate sleigh. My fingers glide on the blue-striped comforter that I insisted my mom get for me. Dinosaur skeletons hang from the ceiling, covered in dust and memories of assembling them with my dad. They turn their heads toward me, waiting to see how I’ll respond. Books line the top of the dresser, their spines wrinkled with use and love. They hop and shake where they stand, no doubt picking up on my nervous energy.
I turn back to him. Thinking. Stalling. Pulling at a loose thread in the comforter, watching it unravel.
I pluck some words out of the air, hoping they’ll provide a sufficient enough explanation. “A lot of people around the world are sick. Some other people blame Asians for it. They think it’s our fault.”
He tilts his head. His nose scrunches up as his mind tries to work through the info, a habit I still do to this day. “But we didn’t do anything.”
I laugh, a dry and brittle sound coated with resignation. “You’re right. But these people don’t believe us. They’re angry. They want someone to blame. They’re hurting other people like us.”
“What are they doing?”
I bite my lip. Do I tell him? Do I share every excruciating story of the Asians who have been beaten, burned, and slashed? His only concern should be which Pokémon to catch next. Which is worse: preparing him for what’s to come and shattering his youth in the process, or lying to him so he can enjoy his childhood until he learns the truth about the world for himself?
Me being me—someone who tries to find compromise in conflict—I do a little of both.
“They’re doing very bad things to old people like Grandma and Grandpa.” I struggle to simplify my vocabulary for him. Words like “crimes” and “victims” would go over his head. The T-rex skeleton nods in approval, and it gives me some validation.
“But old people can’t protect themselves! We’re supposed to respect our elders!” His lips tremble. He clenches the comforter in his fists, the only thing grounding him to what I told him. Picturing my grandparents being hurt in any way constricts my chest. I can only imagine how gruesome it must be for him.
Tears prick the corners of my eyes, but I hold them back. It’s not to show him that we should hide our emotions; if I start crying now, his questions won’t be answered, and answers—be they half-truths or white lies—are what he needs right now.
“You’re right,” I reply. “It’s not fair. None of it is. But when people are afraid, sometimes they do terrible things.”
“I thought you said they were angry,” he says.
“They’re angry because they’re scared. They’re scared because they don’t have all of the information.” I pause. After some consideration, I take a breath and push on. “At school, do some of your classmates slant their eyes when they’re around you?” I perform the gesture, and for the two seconds I do, I feel the wrongness of it seeping into my pores.
He nods and mimics the gesture, making me flinch. “Yeah, they said it’s a joke.”
“Have you heard of the word ‘racism’ before?”
He shakes his head.
“Racism is when people treat other people differently because they don’t have white skin.”
He looks at his hands and arms, turning them over. Confusion is written on his face as he tries to make sense of my words.
“What those kids do with their eyes—that’s one example of racism.” It comes out more harshly than I intend.
He opens his mouth to speak. Closes it. Opens it again. “They said it’s a joke,” he repeats in a softer tone. My insides twist. He thinks I’m mad at him. He doesn’t want his classmates to get in trouble.
“I know they did, but they’re wrong,” I say as gently as possible. “It’s not their fault. They haven’t learned how wrong it is yet. There are a bunch of other things people do that are racist.” I wasn’t going to make him suffer by giving him more examples. Just the one was a good place to start.
He falls back on the bed and stares at the ceiling, arms splayed from his sides. I wait for him to respond. It can’t be easy for an eight-year-old to learn about the injustices that infect our world in one conversation.
I rest my head against the frame of the bed and close my eyes. For a few quiet moments, I ignore the pain in my chest from everything that has happened to my community. I imagine holding my heart in my hands to witness the extent of the damage, rubbed raw to the point that even a slight breeze makes touching it sting. It’s heavy and rough and almost depleted of love. There are days when I want to drop it. To let go of the pain that has only gotten worse.
“What can I do?”
I don’t mean to speak my thoughts out loud.
Then I realize I didn’t say anything at all.
I open my eyes. He’s back to a seated position and his gaze bears into me with a conviction beyond his years. It must be the resilience of his ancestors coursing through his blood.
“You don’t have to do anything right now,” I answer. “You’re too young.”
That was the wrong thing to say. I was talking to myself, after all. That meant wanting to do something even more after being told I couldn’t.
“I’m not too young,” he counters. “I don’t want anything to happen to our family.”
Now it’s my turn to tilt my head. I underestimated my younger self. I wasn’t expecting him to want to do anything. How do I tell him what to do when I’m still figuring that out myself? There’s no guidebook on what to do when your community is under attack.
“Dad said we can pray to Buddha if we don’t know what to do,” he says. “Will that help?”
I picture the monks of our local temple, robed in orange and immaterialism. For the older generation, the monks’ chants offer hope and comfort in the form of blessings, reinforced by time and tradition. For the rest of us, they’re a lullaby rocking us to sleep. I made the decision to pull away from my religious upbringing. However, he is still a long way from deciding that for himself.
I don’t want to lie to him, but he won’t understand what I believe to be the truth, either. Again, I find the middle ground. “Praying is one thing you can do but not the only thing.”
In the kitchen downstairs, I hear my mom humming a Khmer song as she prepares dinner. The smells of freshly cooked rice and seasoned meat waft through the house. I hear my little sister emptying a box of crayons to use for her coloring book. My dad is on the phone with one of his siblings, laughing at an inside joke shared between them.
The sounds shift. My mom is using her sewing machine to create masks for her immediate and extended family. There’s a faint humming and grinding of gears as my dad runs on the elliptical machine. And my sister is on Zoom for one of her college classes.
And then it hits me.
I may not know what I’m doing right now, but I know who I’m doing it for. He wants to protect his family. The bonds he has with them drives him. Drive us. I think of all the families who are hurting right now. The victims who have been targeted for simply existing.
The loose thread on the comforter is longer than it was before I started pulling it. If I keep at it, the whole thing will come apart. However, if I cut the string—the part that I’m fixated on and is no longer needed—I can still preserve the rest of the blanket.
I see the spark in him, waiting to grow beyond a few embers. Maybe he can stoke the flames instead of suffocating them as I did.
“What can I do?” he asks again.
The dinosaurs rear their heads. The books bounce on the dresser. They urge me to give him an answer.
For the first time during our conversation, I smile. It’s a ghost of a grin, but it’s there. And it’s real. A reminder of what life used to be—what it could be.
I know exactly how to tell him.
“Be yourself. Speak up when you see something you don’t like. Take up space. There are going to be people who don’t like you because of your skin, and it’s going to hurt. You’ll want to scream and cry, so do it. Scream and cry and be angry because you have every right to be. And when you’re done, keep taking up space because you deserve to be here just as much as everyone else. You aren’t perfect and you don’t have to be. What matters is that you are enough.”
The words rush out of me with the force of a raging fire. Yet it feels more like a controlled burning—ridding myself of the rot and waste that have built up from within by telling myself what I wish someone had told me a long time ago.
“Ignore the kids who say your lunch smells weird or ask you to say something in Cambodian like you’re a dog doing tricks,” I continue. “Show everyone else you’re more than a stereotype or a token. Embrace your culture and heritage. Tell them the right way to say your last name, not the way that’s easier for them. Show them where Cambodia is on the map, so they don’t have to keep guessing where you’re ‘really from.’
“Listen to Mom and Dad and learn how to speak Khmer because you will regret it later if you don’t. Spend time with them when you can. If you fail, it’s because you’re human, not because you’re a ‘bad Asian.’ Find what you love and do it with everything you have.
“And you won’t be alone. You’ll have your parents, your sister, and all of your cousins. You’ll have so many friends who will stand with you. They’ll be part of your family, too. Hold them close and ask for help when you need it. Never forget how much they all love you.”
I tell him all the things he can do, both now and when he gets older. He listens with rapt attention, absorbing every word. I don’t know how much he understands, but he has time to learn, to grow and have his voice develop into a formidable weapon. But I hope he also finds time to still be the child who collects dragon figurines and uses a flashlight to read his books under the covers when he should be sleeping. Those are the memories he will cherish when he feels lost and alone.
My heart is still weighed down with grief and fury. It threatens to break into jagged shards that will only slice into me if I try to pick them up. When he looks at me, I wonder if he sees the pain. Does he see the gray in my hair or the exhaustion in my eyes?
Or—whether it’s because of those things or in spite of them—does he see the blossoming hope that took root thanks to him?
When I look at him, I see where I came from. I see the sacrifices made for us to be here in this moment. His heart is brimming with possibility. That alone makes it stronger than I believed it to be.
I reach out my hand, and he grabs it.
I don’t have to worry about how to tell him what I’m thinking now.
We will hold our heart together.
- Eric Nhem
Cover Photo Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/13/learning/what-students-are-saying-about-experiencing-racism-becoming-an-adult-and-bonding-over-food.html