From Khmer to Krispy Kreme: How a Donut Shop Brought My Family Together

By Selina Kaing

Growing up, I never questioned my parents’ silence about their past or how our family came to America. I never asked them what it was like to work under the hot sun in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge or to fear for their lives as they made the long, arduous trek through the Cambodian jungle to the Thai refugee border camp where I was eventually born. Not once did I ever utter the words that would give shape to the profound hurts and nameless fears rooted deep in my parents’ hearts that I suspect, even to this day, time cannot really ever mend. How could I, brought up in the relative ease of a middle class American lifestyle, understand something as horrible as the Cambodian genocide? After all, I grew up in a city surrounded by beaches and palm trees, and my world was eons away from the horrors of a small country halfway around the world.

But for my parents, those memories, those experiences, formed the cornerstone of their lives here in America and served to fuel their ongoing determination to own their own business and earn a living from the fledgling Cambodian donut shop industry in California. They worked hard to succeed, and their struggle only made me that much more conscious of what I had to live up to.

It should come as no surprise then that I felt keenly the weight of my parents’ expectations growing up, a tangible, living thing that permeated my childhood and wound its sticky arms around my psyche in a bewildering mixture of love, disappointment and fear. Even the weekends and after school hours I spent working alongside my parents, in the donut shop they had toiled so long to build, reminded me daily of their sacrifice. Between homework and apple fritters, I told myself that I had to be better, stronger and smarter because my parents demanded – no, deserved a daughter who was worthy of them. I learned to quickly operate a cash register and up sell just about any customer who walked in the door, knowing that one extra pastry or an upgrade to a larger sized coffee meant that maybe my parents wouldn’t have to worry so much at the end of the month. I boxed donuts, mopped floors and even gritted my teeth and smiled when someone would complain that I burned their bagel. After all, it was a small price to pay for the youth I was privileged to have.

I’m older now and no longer spend my time behind racks full of donuts, but those growing up years are still printed indelibly in my mind, the obligation to embody everything my parents had hoped for still firmly embedded in my consciousness. But life has a way of sneaking up on a person, the quiet moments often more poignant because they’re so easy to overlook. After several years of studying and working away from home, I found myself back in the city of my youth making that familiar trip to the donut shop to see my parents.

As I pulled up in front of the store, I thought to myself how strange it felt to see the same neon sign and bright, yellow counters. Yet when I got out of my car and looked around the parking lot, the same parking lot my mother once had to chase a customer across for trying to pay her with a counterfeit bill, I felt much more relaxed than I had in years. I could smell the deep frying of the donuts as my father prepared for the next day’s rush, the unforgettable scent of hot oil and proofing dough assailing my senses and carrying with them memories of other nights much like this. I felt the past and the present blur together, the scene a little surreal as I ran my fingers across the Formica table I used to do my homework on in between helping customers. I heard the door open and as I turned to watch my mother rush to fill another order, I too found myself automatically picking up another pair of metal tongs to help the next person in line. There was comfort in the usual rituals, bagging donuts, getting coffee, ringing up the cash register. Oddly enough, nothing had really changed and everything was where I remembered it. The conversation was lively, a lilting mixture of Cambodian, English and Teo Chew, as I checked prices with my mother and asked my dad if he had any extra jelly donuts in the back. As the last of the customers picked up their purchases and walked out, I felt my mother reach over and give my arm a quick squeeze. No words, just that one light, surprising touch. But to me it spoke volumes. My family had never been particularly demonstrative, and I realized at that moment that my parents were just happy that I was there – and surprisingly, so was I.

It’s been several years since then, and I never did find that grand gesture to thank my parents for all they’ve done. But I know now that my parents neither desired it nor needed it. They gave me the gift of the choices they didn’t have themselves, and the debt I thought I would never repay I had already done so a thousand times over by simply living my life for better or worse.

Sometimes when I find myself home, I still walk into the donut shop that my family used to own. However, I do so now with awe and pride for what my parents accomplished rather than thinking of it as an embodiment of my shortcomings and misplaced sense of obligation. The donut shop currently belongs to another Cambodian family, and while I do miss it, I hope the shop gives a new generation of daughters the same chances I had – burned bagels and all.

About this writer

  • Selina Kaing Selina Kaing is a closet writer who squeezes in a fencing bout or two in between her day job in the tech sector. She currently lives in Northern California.

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