The face I wear is a porcelain mask, fitted every morning, painted with a soft, loving smile, glitter added to my eyes to make them shine, and dried overnight to make sure there is no water staining the surface. Each night, I put the final touches to the skin, ensuring each angle is flawless, so that the mask will endure until the day ends.
The mask slides over my face and when I open my eyes, they are no longer mine, encased in the shells of the porcelain. I walk down the hall to the dining hall where my mother has set the breakfast table. She gives me a tired smile behind the counter, and I feel the stiff edges of my mouth curve up, reassuring her that everything is fine. The motions of breakfast are structured—rice porridge served in china, the rhythmic tap of our spoons as we scrape the last of the porridge up, a last embrace to feel connected before I drift off to school, my porcelain mask already cracking at the edges.
Every morning is a dance that I repeat, the smile on my face telling my mother that I will never frown again, the dryness of my eyes admitting that it is the only thing left after my waterfall of tears in bed. The happiness I expel soaks into my mother’s worn face, lighting up a smile that I wouldn’t have seen on her in years past. Her white teeth are reflected in my eyes, and with every expression of joy I receive from her, I am convinced that the porcelain mask I wear will one day become my true face.
One day, I will become glass, smooth and utterly transparent, but today I am the porcelain doll played to be my mother’s daughter, so that I may keep her tethered here on Earth, and not in Heaven with my brother and father.
The ocean is my reprieve. I am mesmerized by the lull of the waves as they lap along the beach. In the distance, I see the light of a ship as it makes way into the nearest harbor. I wonder if any of these ships dock in the Port of Long Beach; I have often seen ships lined up there, but none of them seem like the cargo ships I see far in the ocean when I stand here on the shore. The night breeze is cool, drying the sweat that coats my arms from the hot temperatures of the summer. The last month of junior year has arrived, and the thought of endless days at home fills me with more dread than I can ever imagine.
I move my feet and walk along the beach shore, keeping an eye on the shimmering water. In the reflection, I see a hazy half moon, and I think about swimming out into the depths and dipping my fingers there, wondering if I will pick up any moon dust. I tilt my head back to look at the inky sky, seeing it dotted with stars, though I know there are far more hidden that I cannot see. I feel like the hidden stars, clouded by pollution, unable to shine bright enough to reach the humans here on Earth.
In the night, when I wander on the streets of Long Beach, or when I stay awake drawing at my desk by moonlight, I feel a sense of peace I have never felt under the rays of the sun. When the moon shines, my porcelain mask rests in my room, and I am free to melt into my own feelings, to scream into the ocean, to dance on the beach, to cry in the sheets of my bed. I am allowed to be: the rebellious daughter, the mischievous student, the mysterious stranger. Every night I don someone new, someone who can’t be seen in the face of my mother, lest I shatter the careful fragments she’s pieced together over the last year.
At night, I am no longer Champei San, daughter of Bopha San, Cambodian refugee, survivor of the Khmer Rouge. I am just a girl, free to run wild, to be whoever she wants to be.
“Champei, come eat breakfast.” My mother calls to me as I finish tugging on my leggings. I check that I have everything in my backpack for school before heading out, dropping my bag near the entrance and joining my mother at the breakfast table. She has already placed my porridge at my place, and I clasp my hands together and bow my head as my mother murmurs a Buddhist prayer. The clink of our spoons against the edges of the china fills the air with music, and I manage to give my mother a gentle smile, so she won’t worry about the lack of sleep I had.
“Did you do all your homework last night?” My mother prompts, fishing for words to fill the silence.
I bob my head as I swallow, giving my mother a practiced look of content. “Finished early, right after dinner.” We lapse back into silence, and I struggle to patch the emptiness of the house. “Rachel is coming over after school today so that we can work on a school project.” At that, my mother’s face lights up, and I can see she is relieved that I have school companions to talk to. “Don’t worry, we’ll be done before dinner.” I add.
“It would be no bother if she stayed.” My mother tells me, and I give her another smile. Rachel is my only friend at school, and though she is my safe space, the only person who seems to see me, I don’t like to let her linger long in my house. At school, the porcelain mask is still strapped on, and while Rachel is used to my shyness at school, I don’t want her to see the awkward silences and quiet dance my mother and I perform together here at home.
Talk to her, I can almost imagine Rachel telling me. Be open about how you feel. If only talking to my mother was that easy. If I told her I was unhappy, she would tell me I was being ungrateful about all my opportunities in America. If I told her I wanted to talk about my father and brother, my mother would avoid the topic and ask how school was going. Every step I try to take forward only ends up to be three steps back. It makes her happy to see me happy, and that’s easier than trying to stir bad memories.
I scrape off the last of my porridge and bring my bowl to the sink, placing it on the counter before turning to give my mother a quick embrace in her seat. “I have to go to school,” I murmur into her hair, wishing things between us are as simple as these gestures: a tight hug, a small smile. “I’ll be home after three.”
“Be studious,” she reminds me, “learn well.”
There are times when Rachel walks with me down the beach at night, our toes buried in the cool sand, our shoes and socks dangling from our hands. She dances up and down the stretch, laughing as she twirls, stretching a hand out towards me as if beckoning me to spin with her. She is a snapshot of what my life could have been like had I turned out just like her: carefree, beautiful, and certain of who I want to be.
“Come on, Champei!” She grins. “Loosen up a little.”
It’s a term foreign to me in the confines of my own house, but here, under the dazzling night sky dotted with sky, I can feel the tension go out of my muscles. Here, I can be the best friend she knows, not the quiet, introverted Champei from school, but the cheerful, untroubled Champei of the night.
“I can’t dance without music!” I call out to Rachel.
She rolls her eyes but begins to belt out an off-tune rendition of “Call Me Maybe.” “That’s not a dance tune,” I grumble, but I start swaying a little, feeling loose but also embarrassed, even though my friend is the only witness. Rachel’s the one person who could make me do things I’d never do at school or when I’m at home.
“Shake your hips more!” She shouts, throwing her shoes to the side and raising both arms above her head to get into the music. She prances in a circle, moving her hips enough to demonstrate exactly how she wants me to be dancing. I laugh at the way she moves, wishing I was confident enough to throw myself out there like she does, but also grateful that Rachel is here to push me along. “Race you to the ocean!” She cries out, abandoning the dance to rush at the sea. I throw my shoes to where hers lay discarded and take off after her, the sand spraying behind me, covering our shoes and my discarded worries.
Sometimes at night, I lay awake in my bed, thinking about my brother and father. They both died when I was just a child, my father in Cambodia, my brother in a refugee camp. I only know their faces from an old picture book, where my father smiles happily at my mother in their marriage attire, and my brother clings to my mother’s hand, looking grubby and small. Sometimes I stand in the bathroom, staring at the lines of my face, wondering if my brother would have grown up to be just like me, round in the cheeks, small bump of a nose crowded by unmemorable brown eyes. Or if he would have looked more like my father, dark brown skin with a mop of black hair covering his dark brown eyes.
When I was younger, my mother used to scream at me, throw plastic bottles at me, drag me under the table when the fireworks went off during Independence Day. She would cover my ears and rock us back and forth. “Everything is going to be okay,” she would murmur, “Mommy is here to protect you.”
Sometimes when the fireworks got particularly loud, my mother would start to cry, begging them to stop shooting, praying to Buddha for mercy. “We just have to get to the next site,” she’d tell me, “when the guns stop, we have to run.”
“Run where?” I remember asking once.
“To Heaven,” said my mother.
If I was lucky, my mother would tell me about Cambodia, about the colorful silks everyone wore during Cambodian New Year, about the festivals that lit up the streets, spanning several blocks. She would spend the day cooking Cambodian sweets and treats, wrapping them so that I could bring them to my friends. These were the days I never had to feign my happiness. I loved it when my mother talked about Cambodia, like how she had met my father one day in the market, when she had tripped, nearly upending her basket, and he had caught her, rescuing both her and the precious contents within her basket.
“Love at first sight,” my mother declared, making me giggle. There was always something softer about my mother when she talked about the past, or at least, the past that had existed prior to the Khmer Rouge, before my birth in the refugee camps where my brother died. I never bring up the war, or the desperate flight my parents had taken in order to bring my brother and me to the States. There are too many things that trigger my mother’s memories of those, so I do my best to help her forget them. She teaches me how to bake kralan, a rice cake treat popular during the New Year. We stuff them with red bean paste, and every time I bite into one, the soft texture of the rice along with the sweetness of the red bean, brings a rush of fresh tears to my eyes.
Tonight, I lay awake in my bed, too tired to slip outside to go to the beach, but my insomnia is acting up again. I lay on my side, staring at the wall where I have printed copies of the pictures of my father and brother. I reach out with a hand, tracing the lines of my father’s face. I have his eyes, slightly thin and stretched out, but the brown coloring is from my mother. My skin is lighter than my father’s, a shade darker than the light brown of my mother’s skin. I wonder if every time my mother lays her eyes on mine, she sees my father. Perhaps that’s why she avoids my gaze.
I close my eyes, almost drifting off to sleep when I hear a hiccup of sound. An ache builds in my chest and the ghost of tears build behind my eyes, yet the sound didn’t come from me. My eyes slowly crack open, and I rub at my chest, confused by the sob. It isn’t unusual for me to lay here crying, soaking my pillow with tears, sorrow building from the loss of my family without any chance of getting to know them, grief for my mother because sometimes I feel like I’ve lost her too. But today, none of that comes.
Slowly, I sit up and pad out of my bedroom, closing the door gently behind me and walking soundlessly into the hallway. My mother’s door is cracked open slightly, and I hear another soft sob emit from the room. For a few seconds, I am arrested by the sound. For a year now, my mother has been entirely changed, no longer one to scream or beat me as she loses herself to the war memories. Instead, she is a doting mother, attentive to my needs, always checking to see if I’m happy. When she sees that I am—the forced stretch of my lips and the shine of my teeth are enough to convince her on most days, even if none of the warmth reaches my eyes—she is content as well.
I hesitate in front of her door, unsure if I should intrude on her private moment. I think of all the nights I lay awake crying, wanting the comfort of my mother’s arms around me so that she can fill in the blanks and the emptiness I feel about my father and brother. With that thought, I knock lightly on the door before pushing it open, stepping inside to see my mother sitting hunched at the foot of her bed, her head buried in her hands.
She glances up when I enter, alarm flashing over her eyes. “Champei!” She exclaims, hastily wiping at her eyes. “You are supposed to be sleeping.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” I say, even though that much is obvious. “I heard…” My voice trails off. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes, yes,” my mother gives me a watery smile, waving a hand as if to ward me off. “Nothing is the matter; you should go back to bed. School tomorrow.”
“Mom,” I walk further into the room, even though I know it might upset her further. “You’re crying.” I hedge a guess. “Are you thinking of them?” I don’t have to clarify who I’m talking about. Their ghosts have haunted these walls for years.
For a moment, I think my mother won’t reply. Her head dips slightly, a quiet acknowledgement. “No worry,” my mother tries to tell me again. “Go back to bed, Champei.”
Suddenly, I see the mask on my mother’s face, the one that she wears every morning for me: soft eyes, ever present smile, eternal care and worry for the last of her family. I was naive to ever believe I was the only one wearing a mask. “Mom,” I rush forward into her arms, wrapping my own around her middle. I bury my face in the rough material of her shirt, feeling my own wave of tears pressing forward. “I thought you forgot about them forever.”
Even though I can’t see her face, I can feel the shock in the tension of my mother’s arms. “I have never forgotten them,” she whispers, a hand stroking my hair. I crane my head up to look at her, but she is staring off into the distance. “Every night, I dream of them in Heaven. I see them standing at the edge of the clouds, calling to me. But I cannot go.” She looks down at me, something unbearably soft in her gaze that makes two tears run swift down my cheeks. “I can’t leave you.”
I hug her a little tighter. “All this time,” I can hear my voice waver. “I thought if I could just put on a brave face for you, you’d be better. And I thought it was working, because you were always happy. Even though it felt like I was losing you, losing everything that connected us to Cambodia, I wanted you to be happy.”
“I am happy for you,” my mother insists, her hand still combing through the knots. “You are doing so well, and I didn’t want to make you worry.” I laugh a little at the absurdity of our statements. It should feel like a loss, that I haven’t cured my mother’s sadness, her eternal grief over the death of her husband and her son, but it doesn’t. I am relieved to know that I am not the only one clinging onto life by the frays, trying every day to be someone I am not. Turns out, I am more like my mother than I have ever thought.
“Will you tell me about them?” I ask, pulling away slightly so I can fully see her face. Old age has caught up with her, and I can see that in the harsh lines down her forehead, as well as the slight sag of her cheeks. Yet in this moment, as she gazes back at me with a mixture of tenderness and sorrow, she has never looked more alive. “I want to know everything. Cambodia, the war, my father, my brother…everything. Just until morning.” In the morning, we can don our masks to carry on, to forge past every mountain of tears we build at night, so that we can get through another day. But the night is ours to grieve freely, to remember the dead, to heal under the caress of the moonlight.
In the morning when I wake, my eyes are puffy from the night I spent at my mother’s side, crying as she talked about her favorite memories with my father before the war came and they were forced to abandon their belongings and lives to flee. She talked about how my brother had bravely run with her, even though he was just a child, and how she was so worried she would lose me before I could be born. There is so much more she still has to tell me, but I won’t rush her. There is still tonight and each night after that.
“Breakfast!” I hear her call, and I grab my backpack, pulling on my porcelain mask, even though there are cracks at the edges, and the red of my eyes aren’t quite erased. I fit it on despite these imperfections, knowing my mother’s mask might be shattered in some places too, but it will be enough to get through another day, just until night falls.
Cindy Chen is a second year student majoring in English. She spends her free time reading and writing, and hopes to one day become a published author. She can be found either frantically typing to hit writing deadlines or staring blankly into space hoping her stories will write themselves.