Peuo Tuy is a 1.5 generation Khmer-American spoken word poet and educator from Lowell, Massachusetts and New York, New York. Her poetry collection, Khmer Girl (2014), is inspired by the traumas of her life, including her family escaping the killing fields of their native Cambodia and enduring the inequities of life as refugees in the United States of America. Peuo is a recipient of a Long Beach Arts Council grant, the Pushcart Prize Nominee for her poem Hasbro Neon Light Brights, and is a founding member of the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association located in Lowell, Massachusetts. Peuo was also selected for the Florida Literary Arts Coalition Writers’ Circuit 2018-2019 book tour, and awarded the Critical Refugees Studies Collective grant (2019). Her work has appeared in several online publications, anthologies and magazines. She has also appeared at Harvard Law School, Massachusetts State House, The Big Read/Miami Book Fair, the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival, New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as various junior high schools and high schools in the east coast. She received her Master of Arts degree in Education and is currently an English Language Learner teacher at an elementary school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. During her free time she loves to swim, do HIIT workouts, travel, watch movies and television shows, and devour dark chocolate cakes.
Tha Prayed to Be on Earth
In thanh-sor, we try to push the white-gray clouds aside
to find each other.
I never once knew of him in thanh-dey;
he died before I was conceived.
Mak told me his calloused hands
worked tirelessly to put grains of rice on our beat-up kitchen table
I kept pushing the white-gray clouds to see his face,
finally! found him
Threi pamar he ate with me
my favorite fish omelet sided
with fresh wild cukes, French haricot vert, Spanish cilantro, and sweet jasmine rice.
I examine his jaw and the way he chews his food.
I imitate I imitate I imitate,
his jaw is uniquely aligned.
He tells me to eat in silence, so that we can concentrate.
Tha breaks our lull with a smile and expresses,
your Mak is a soft-spoken delicate woman like pka rhomduls,
but I tell him rhomduls gives off a powerful radiant energy when kept hydrated—
petals white and yellow, magnificently gorgeous
(that’s Mak to me).
I say, Tha please eat.
I see his hands are sticky.
I get a bowl of spiritual water to have him wash his hands.
Tha, why are we in thanh-sor?
I want you to come to earth with me,
have you be with Mak, Pbouk,
and all of your grandchildren
He pra-thana to live on earth after death,
but Theravada summoned him to thanh-sor.
He eats his fish omelet
and sees his granddaughter’s tears.
Note on the preceding poem: In the poem Tha Prayed to be on Earth, Peuo tells a story of an afterlife about her great grandfather, whom she has never met in real life. In real life, Peuo’s family practices Theravada Buddhism, and in the Buddhist religion, Khmers do not view death as the end of life but rather an end of a life cycle. The succession of life is a cycle of life that begins with birth, old age, sickness, death, rebirth /reincarnation (afterlife). It is believed that if a person practices good deeds in real life, when they die, they will receive karma and be reincarnated into an animal or another person/thing. If a person did not perform good deeds in real life, they will also receive karma, and will not be reincarnated into an animal or another person/thing, therefore will not move on to the afterlife. They will stay in hell. In Tha Prayed to be on Earth, Peuo paints an image of finally finding her great grandfather in heaven and wanting him to be reincarnated to a person and come back to live on earth (thanh-deiy) with his family, but because Theravada summoned him to heaven he is obliged to do so, so that he can await reincarnation.
On Our Living Room Floor
Spreading our embroidered bayon straw mat
on our living room floor
like a quilted blanket on my mattress,
we sit in semi-lotus pose with our bare hands,
nutmeg-colored fingers, licking with our pink tongues,
sucking juices out of sweet jasmine rice,
savoring every bite of stir-fry oyster, marinated
cubed pork’s blood with fresh bean sprouts and chives.
Sitting next to it—
sach mon num gnouw salty-sour soup, garnished with cilantro.
We all dig in . . .
I hear Mak speaking underneath her breath—
She left her first-born son behind after the genocide.
Pbouk tells Mak that he has filed paperwork for Mak’s son
and his two children to come to the U.S.
My mind is scattered thinking about the boy I like—Oooooh, Youleang.
How I fell in love with an image of us while listening to songs by
Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson
And . . .
on Saturdays, I’d have my best friend Lin come over.
We would karaoke to the same songs,
wearing my sister’s red heels and punk-rock clothes
and, of course, stylin’ the Goody scrunchy-Topanga hair.
But Pbouk, Mak threw a slew of questions at him without waiting for answers,
How long will that take? Five, ten years? And how much?
If it’s in the thousands, we will need
to increase our five-cents-picking cans work hours.
Pbouk assures her we will get them here.
Their voices fade into our stuffy living room, I ignore them.
One day, Youleang and I skipped school.
He told me when two people like each other they hold hands like this.
He showed me how to interlock our lips and tongues.
And . . .
On one of our holidays off from school,
Lin and I would walk to Banana Records on Merrimack Street,
get samples of the latest new Freestyle Dance music mix (on cassette):
Lil Suzy: “Take Me in Your Arms,”
Rockell: “In a Dream,”
Stevie B: “Spring Time Love”
Koun, Koun! Mak raises her voice at me.
Why aren’t you sitting like a good Koun Khmer?
Sit semi-lotus and don’t wear your pants at home.
Sarong! She demands.
She doesn’t know that I feel more comfortable in my Jordache jeans.
We finished eating.
I’m the youngest female.
I am required to clear and clean all the dirty plates off the floor.
I hear Pbouk’s voice from the kitchen; his eyes glued to the TV.
Mak, look at the ox in the rice field. It’s just like Srok Khmer.
Remember when we use to work in the fields, and during our breaks,
we would sit under the Banyan tree and talk about how we would
raise our children?
Mak’s face sparkles and knows that only she and her husband
remember this intimacy before the Khmer Rouge took over.
I wash the dishes thinking about . . .
The day when Youleang will hand me my first red rose,
and take me to the park so we can make out again.
Or when Lin and I will get dressed up
in our pink mini-skirts, black fishnet stockings,
bangs teased (sprayed with a ton of Aquanet), wearing red lipstick,
and rockin’ our looks while galivanting to Banana Records.
So Step Into This World like KRS One
Beat boppin’ my head
Messy hair just out of bed
This Khmer girl ain’t your average poetess
Not submissive, not your Asian exotic
Hair looking like Topanga’s and wearing red lipstick
Beat hoppin’ in my kicks and baggy fits
Got on my oversized flannel
And hoops in my ears
Adjusting my mascara in front of the mirror
Tuned to 94 dot 5 with my parents giving the side eye
Dropped us off at school just my brother and I
At recess we talked hip-hop over hopscotch chalk
And ate crabapples with smelly shrimp paste as the white kids mocked
We half-hopped over jump ropes to rhythm and blues from ‘92
Chewing Bubblelicious while thinking of somlaw machu
In high school, woke up at 5 a.m. and studied like a nerd in ‘92
Ran track and played soccer right after 2
During break, took out my cd player and vibed to Janet Jackson’s rhythm and blues
And fell in love with Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You”
I then got so weak in the knees I can hardly speak while fixating on SWV
And I’ll never forget Lately by Jodeci too, it’s the evidence ya’ see . . .
In college, hung out with the late Malcolm X through his book
I wrote my words into verses and let his quotes be the hook
I became that Southeast Asian activist
Boppin’ my head to Nas’ I know I can, I know I can
Be what you wanna be, be what you wanna be
Be that community-driven, educated, writer, poet ‘ya see
Siftin’ through my library Mos Def, Talib Kwali,
Falling in love with Brown Skin Lady
Not a light skin only American Girl
My skin cinnamon brown and I love my black curls
Speaking truth through my mother’s eyes
I’ll hurl a brick at you if you ain’t listening to me
Like a cheetah I’ll be stoppin’ you in your tracks
Because you ain’t faster than me
I roar like the thouw, like that lioness queen with my mane poofed out
Chasing after you and making you all pooped out
So you betta listen up,
Imm’a make you bend to your knees and throw verses down your throat
My elixir is potent and acidic, it will make you choke!