“A Love Without Fear: The Association of Love and Fear, Entwined in Cambodian Culture”
By Melinda Kuoch
I have always been confused about the concept of love, especially in light of my Cambodian culture. The concept of love in Cambodian culture is one hidden in fear, a concept that is not easily approached. This thought came to me one day while playing a game called “Walk the Line.”
May 2011: present day.
He steps from one end of the room to the other, signifying a division. A silent, invisible division. “A wall of trust,” he says. “This is the game of Walk the Line.”
He pulls out a single sheet of paper, numbered with statements. “I will read out a list of statements. If it applies to you, please cross the line. If you dare. If you have trust.”
Unsure of what to expect, I stand there, hesitantly.
He starts off simply. “Please cross the line if you have any sisters.” Being the only girl in my family, I remain fixated in my position.
“Please cross the line if you come from a single-parent household.” I remain still.
“Please cross the line if you have ever been afraid to tell your family you loved someone.”
My heart drops, and I stare at the game facilitator. Love? Fear? I scoff. I hesitate. Fear and love. The story of my life, I think. And with that, I slowly, sluggishly, cross the line.
I walk that line, into territory I had never ventured. Fear and love. This day marks the moment when I began thinking about this concept: Of fear and love, and how it affects the Cambodian culture. Even to this day, I’m still thinking, still wondering, still trying to figure out this association between fear and love.
November 2006: The death of love.
I hear a vibration next to my ear and reach for my phone groggily. The time on my phone display reads 4 AM. The name flashing underneath it? Mother. Mother? Aren’t you in the room right next to me? Confused, I answer the call, pressing the phone close to my face.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Melinda…” my mother starts. Her voice, uneasy. Slightly shaky. “Melinda… your cousin got into a car accident… he’s not going to make it. Do you want to say your last words?”
My heart drops. I scream. My dad rushes over to my room, with a tap, tap to my door.
“Melinda… don’t cry,” he says. He already knew. He already knew the story, the situation, the pain in my heart.
I reach the hospital with my uncle, seeing nothing but white space and bright lights. In my heart, I feel nothing. I want to feel nothing. I draw close to my cousin, lying on the hospital bed. White space, bright lights. I stare at him, and I feel everything. My whole family is there, sobbing in unity. The only time I have seen them in unity. Sobbing, uniting in their pain.
All I can hear, however, is the bump, bump of my cousin’s heart. The bump, bump of his artificial heart.
“Life support,” the doctor says. “Your cousin is on life support. We have tried to revive him for hours. His heart is tired, and he is not going to make it. Even if he does, there won’t be much of him left. The damage is too great.”
My heart drops. I rush out of the room, rush out of the space, rush towards the light. I press my face against the wall, my breath heavy in my chest. Bump, bump, I hear. And then silence. The artificial heart stops; the silence real.
My legs push to move. I’m ready to run, ready to hide. My mom stops me. She grabs my hand, a touch I’ve hardly ever felt.
“Melinda…” she says. I turn around to face her. Her eyes unsteady, her voice wet with pain and fear. “Melinda… I’m sorry. I love you.”
Three words, hardly ever spoken. I realized that night, that those three words have only been spoken in the presence of fear. A conditional relationship entwined through the hurt and pain of my family. This realization launches me back three decades, to the story of my grandmother and her acquired hatred toward mango trees.
June 1976: The second year of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Outside my grandmother’s home was a mango tree. Actually, two trees connected by a single trunk. My grandmother swears that this mango tree bore the sweetest fruit. However, in this tree lived a memory, a story, of love, pain, and fear.
My grandmother wakes up to the sound of a tap, tap on the door. She peers out from the darkness of her living room, fear heavy in her heart. These are hard times, with the Khmer Rouge regime recently taking over Cambodia. She sees her father sitting at the dining room table. He had been waiting there all night, for this very moment. He slowly gets up and opens the door, greeting two men dressed in military clothing. They ask for him to step outside. As he begins to walk out, he turns around to find my grandmother staring at him in agony.
“I love you,” he says. “Don’t look. Don’t be afraid.”
And with that, the two men take him away. They lay him beneath the mango tree and tear away his soul, planting the seeds of his body into the rich Cambodian soil. What these two men didn’t know, however, is that they had also planted a seed in my grandmother’s mind, in my grandmother’s soul. A seed of love and fear, a pain felt by millions.
I zoom back to the present, to my spot, to the position of my body, across this invisible line. Love and fear, you say? Yes, I am afraid of love, afraid to love, but I know that I can’t live with this association forever. I know that my family, my culture, and my overall Cambodian nation can’t live this way forever. Because a love grown in fear is a dishonest love. Love, true love, knows no fear, knows no barriers. Love, true love, is fearless. This is the love that I wish to give you all today. A true love. A genuine love. A fearless love.
Melinda Kuoch is president of the Cambodian Awareness Organization at the University of California, Irvine. She wrote this piece based on her original performance on stage.