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Adopted as a baby, I knew little about my Khmer heritage. I’m now trying to fill in those gaps

Montreal·First Person

I did not always know how to navigate being a transracial adoptee, and it will likely always be a work in progress, writes Greg Santos.

Greg was adopted by Spanish and Portuguese immigrants after his birth mother landed in Canada, fleeing genocide in Cambodia.(Submitted by Greg Santos)

In elementary school, I never understood why my teachers would confuse me with the two South Asian boys in my class. My name was Gregory. I am not from India. My parents were Canadian — well, European immigrants to Canada from Spain and Portugal. I enjoyed regular outings to the St-Hubert restaurant chain for rotisserie chicken, fries, gravy and tarte au sucre. But I also spoke Spanish with my grandparents and my comfort food growing up included chorizo, paella, a soup called and , egg custard tarts.

I was a Montrealer with Iberian heritage. Wasn't I? For much of my life, I did not identify as Asian, even if I looked the part.

I knew that my birth family was Cambodian. They had escaped the Khmer Rouge genocide, and had moved to Montreal, where I was born.

As the story goes, my parents had always wanted children but were unable to have any. A family acquaintance who worked with immigrants and refugees knew my birth mother, a teenager who was unable to raise me. My birth mother was steadfast about finding me a loving family to live with. I was adopted as an infant, and grew up in a supportive and loving environment. I was always made to feel cherished.

What I did not always know, however, was how to navigate being a transracial adoptee. While my adoption was something I felt comfortable openly discussing with others, I was raised to be "colour blind." My family would tell me I would be loved and appreciated, no matter my colour. While this worked in my family bubble, out in the world my Asian appearance seemed perfectly visible to everyone else.

'I feel like I am returning to my adoption, taking literal baby steps toward reclaiming my Cambodian-ness.'(Submitted by Greg Santos)

The recent surge of anti-Asian discrimination brings back painful memories: a bully in high school calling me Sulu based on the character, being continually asked on the playground why I did not look like my parents. At a doctor's appointment, a kid in the waiting room pulling his eyes into slants and singing "ching chong chow" at me while his parents did nothing.

I was always the artsy type, but for some reason, people assumed I was a math or science whiz. One Halloween, I dressed up as cowboy "Wild Bill" Hickok, sporting a fake moustache and goatee, but everyone asked me whether I was supposed to be David Suzuki or Mr. Miyagi from .

When I told people I was from Montreal, that was never enough of an explanation. Where was I from?

For many years, I did not acknowledge my Khmer ancestry. How could I? I was not raised learning the language or culture. At times, it felt like being recognized as Asian was a negative trait and something I tried to downplay or hide.

When I had two children of my own, however, and watched them try to field questions about ethnicity, I realized that the time had come for me to dig deeper into my roots in order to help them understand the diversity and beauty of their heritage.

Greg Santos lives in Montreal, where he teaches, edits and writes poetry.(Submitted by Greg Santos)

I have since made it a priority to connect with Khmer members of my community and fellow diaspora writers. With my wife and children, I am learning how to celebrate Khmer New Year and am exploring Cambodian cuisine. I hope to fill in some gaps from my childhood. But there will always be gaps, and that's OK.

I feel like I am returning to my adoption, taking literal baby steps toward reclaiming my Cambodian-ness. It has taken me years to reconcile my Asian appearance with my upbringing, and it will likely always be a work in progress. Through a growing awareness of intersectionality, I am learning to embrace the full spectrum of my Canadian, Portuguese, Spanish and Khmer heritage.

To the universe, I say thank you. Merci. .


Greg Santos is the author of Ghost Face (DC Books, 2020) and several other books. He regularly teaches creative writing through different organizations and at-risk communities. He is the editor-in-chief of the Quebec Writers' Federation's carte blanche magazine. He is an adoptee of Cambodian, Portuguese and Spanish heritage and lives in Montreal with his wife and two children.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca


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