The Girl in the Mirror

I can't breathe. Air is escaping my body no matter how hard I try to breathe it in. In. Out. In. Out. It's not helping. I sit down on the toilet seat cover and bring my face to my knees. I wrap my arms around my body trying to comfort myself.

There is no comfort to be gained. I am currently 40,000 miles above ground on an airplane headed to Taipei, Taiwan. I am not hyperventilating because I have a fear of heights or a fear of flying. I am terrified of what I will find on this trip. I will spend 12 hours and 39 minutes on this plane flying from San Francisco to Taipei. Then, I will hop onto another plane for another 3 hours and 30 minutes to reach my final destination in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I will finally be in the place where it all began. Both of my parents are survivors of the terrible atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. Two decades later I am still coming to terms with my parents' history because of the silence that I grew up in. I embarked on this trip in search of truth and reconciliation. That is the real reason behind why I am locked in an airplane restroom gasping for breath. This trip could backfire in my face and be a complete waste of time. I don't even know how to begin my search for truth and reconciliation. Will there be signposts or guided tours that lead the lost and confused to truth and reconciliation? I think not.

I've been in the restroom for about twenty minutes. People will start to get suspicious of what I am doing in here. I uncurl my body and get up from the toilet seat cover. It only takes one step forward to be in front of the washing station. I push the button to release the water from the faucet and cup my hands underneath it. Splashing the cold water onto my face helps me calm down a bit. As I open my eyes, my vision is a bit hazy. And I remember another time that I was standing in front of a mirror. I easily slip into that long forgotten memory.

I hate her. That girl with the black untameable hair and the black soulless eyes haunted me everywhere. She has mud colored skin that stretches over her body. Her big nose and her big lips pop out of her face. She is not blond haired and blue eyed with a cute button nose and kissable lips. She is un-American. She is Cambodian. She is me.

The haziness has disappeared, but that girl still haunts me. She is a demon sent to destroy me and take my soul. She whispers hateful things into my ears that destroy my self-confidence and taint the goodness in me. She is filling me with hate, bitterness, and anger. I cannot look at myself sometimes. When I think she is gone, she returns with a vengeance to remind me of my own bitterness and anger. She feeds on these negative feelings. The angrier and bitterer I am, the stronger she is. She alone is the cause of my self-loathing.

The flight attendant's cheerful announcement woke me up from my drug-induced sleep: "We will be landing in Phnom Penh in a few short minutes. Please turn off all electronics, place your trays in an upright position, and put your seatbelts on. Thank you for flying Eva Airlines." After the restroom incident, I took two Dramamine pills and thankfully drifted off into a dreamless nap. Luckily, my layover in Taipei was short and sweet. I was able to continue my nap on the short flight to Phnom Penh.

Stepping off the airplane, I fully understood the reality of traveling alone. I had one carry-on luggage filled with clothes and the bare essentials. I had my passport and five hundred dollars for travel expenses. I had no one in the country that knew me or cared that I was there. I was feeling two conflicting emotions all at once. I was scared to be embarking on this journey alone and terrified that something bad could happen. And I was also excited to see where this journey will take me and how it will end. Despite my excitement, I wonder how this trip would have been different if my family had accompanied me.

"Mom. Dad. I want to go visit Cambodia," I said.

"Oh, that is a great idea. We have not taken a family vacation in a long time. We should probably go during December because that is when the weather is great in Cambodia…" my mom continued her spiel.

I took a deep breath and interrupted her, "Mom. I want to go to Cambodia…alone."

My mother immediately stopped what she was doing and in a high-pitched voice shouted "What? That's crazy! No. My answer is no. Do you know the dangers of traveling alone in a foreign country like Cambodia? You could be raped, killed, taken for ransom…"

I turned to face my father in middle of her rant. He was the man of the house and the head of the family. His opinion would be the deal-breaker. He took his time considering the idea and answered, "I don't think it is a good idea."

I was not discouraged because dealing with my parents is a form of art. Any major discussions or decisions are dealt with in stages. The first stage is the light-hearted introduction of the topic to get a feel for their opinions and reactions. The second stage is the real discussion of the issue and where the major persuasion takes place.

A few days later I broached the topic again ready to negotiate a solution that would allow me to travel alone. Many hours later, my parents reluctantly agreed to my request. I could go under the conditions that I would check in twice a day and limit my trip to one week. And now here I am in the Phnom Penh airport with my hopes and dreams finally within my grasp.

The heat was unbearable and made it difficult to breathe. I knew it was time to keep moving, so I walked out further and then saw all the dark faces looking at me. The people here were so different than people in America. Their eyes were hardened, their faces were grim, and they looked beaten down by life. One person in particular was unforgettable. A young girl with matted hair and dirty clothes was kneeling with both legs shifted to one side. She had her hands together and looked like she was praying. For a moment, our gazes met and I was not reminded of the girl in the mirror. I felt sorry for this young Cambodian girl and had no hatred or ill will towards her. I saddened me that she was on the streets begging for money, so I gave her a couple of U.S. dollars.

I quickly kept moving because the other panhandlers were gathering around me. They smelt fresh blood and were closing in. Luckily, I hailed the first available rickshaw driver to take me to the Dara Hotel. Seated in the open rickshaw I could see the city past me by. A hovering red dust cloud that covered the city and its people overshadowed the scenery.

The red dust was everywhere. I had spent one day walking around Phnom Penh and seeing the sites from a moving rickshaw. Even after I took a shower, I found that I couldn't escape the red dust. There was a thin sheen on my clothes that I wore earlier and my shoes were covered in it. It had invaded my room. While sightseeing, I saw people in the streets wearing surgical masks or facemasks made from cloths. I soon found out that the people had a good reason to protect their face because the red dust had invaded my body. By the end of the day, I was having difficulty breathing through my nose. I blew my nose and found the tissue filled with red colored mucous. I was suffocating on Cambodia's red earth.

One of my main reasons for visiting Cambodia was to confront the legacy of genocide and how it has affected me. While planning for the trip I asked my parents about places I should visit to learn more about what happened to them. They told me about this place called Tuol Sleng, which used to be the Khmer Rouge regime's torture center. Any one who was brought to Tuol Sleng was tortured and killed.

I showed a gross fascination towards seeing these places that were locations of the Cambodian people's pain and suffering. It was my morbid curiosity that sparked my mother's following comment.

"In a way, I am glad that you are going on this trip alone. Even if we had gone with you to Cambodia, we would not go with you to visit Tuol Sleng or the killing fields," said my mom. She elaborated, "There is nothing in those places for us. There is only pain and suffering and memories of the worst period of our lives. Why would I want to remember those things out of all the memories of Cambodia that I could chose from?"

Silence. The schoolyard was eerily silent and the walls and the hallways were covered with barbed wire. The rooms were barren except for steel bed frames and chains. One room still had blood on the floor. As I walked through the former school, I could hear the faint laughter turn into screams of pain and agony. My arms were covered with goosebumps. I expected to encounter Khmer Rouge soldiers and prisoners at every turn because the torture center was so well intact. Time had stopped at this school and trapped its horrors in these empty classrooms.

Deeper into the school were rooms that showcased the torture devices. There were murals and written explanations to further sear horrific images into our minds. I walked through rooms that had been converted into prisoner cells that were only big enough for a person to stand and sit down with their legs stretched in front of them. It was difficult to look at the piles of belongings that were stripped from the prisoners before they were killed. The worst had yet to come.

The first thing I saw was pictures of women, men, and children of all ages. I was overwhelmed and fearful because I saw my face reflected in each and every one of those photos. I quickly exited the room and gasped because there were a dozen of rooms filled with hundreds of photos. I learned that these photographs recorded every person admitted and killed at Tuol Sleng. These photographs represent people who had families, had dreams, and died much too early.

As I walked out of Tuol Sleng, I looked back for one more memory to take with me. I wondered if there was any truth and reconciliation that could be found in place like this. I think it is still too early to know. And I don't think my journey ends with my trip to Cambodia.

The girl in the mirror was walking toward me. The red dust swirled in the air and I looked around and saw that we were in the courtyard of Tuol Sleng. My gaze quickly returned to her just as she stopped in front of me. For the first time, I really looked at her. I critically looked at her trying to find her flaws and imperfections. I could still see the Cambodian features, but I could also see those same features in the Tuol Sleng photographs. My mind was split about what I felt for this girl. I looked for the anger and bitterness and found it simmering waiting for a chance to be released. I have been loathing her for so long that those feelings have not disappeared overnight. But, how is the girl in the mirror different from the young beggar girl or the people in the Tuol Sleng photographs?

We stared at each other for a couple more moments. She continued to walk past me and disappeared into the red dust swirling in the air and I continued to walk out the gates of Tuol Sleng. This time I did not look back.

Author's Note

Thank you for reading my attempt at a creative writing piece. I realized early on that writing this story was much harder than I had imagined. I had trouble finding words to describe the story I had in mind and at times I felt like English was a foreign language to me. For all the people who choose to write as a profession, kudos to you!

I'd appreciate any feedback and comments.