As project assistant to the Cambodian Oral History Project, I have had the opportunity to listen to many of the interviews on this website. I have thoroughly enjoyed hearing the stories. Having served two years in Cambodia as a volunteer missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the voices and stories I have listened to bring back many memories of my time there. I have chosen to share a few brief thoughts that I have had while listening.
One of the first things that I noticed in the interviews was a theme of remembrance. They recall things like the name of their primary schools, but often not the age of their parents, or even the names of their grandparents. I have wondered why the difference.
I think that Cambodians don’t remember birthdays because culturally it isn’t very important to know exactly what day they were born. Many, if not most, Cambodians still count age according to the Khmer New Year–––on New Year’s Day, they are one year older–––simple as that. I think that because of this way of reckoning birthdays, many people–––especially the older generations–––don’t remember exactly when they were born.
With respect to the names of their grandparents and other relatives, I think that a good number of them might not have ever known their grandparents’ names because Cambodian culture requires that you call everyone, and especially kin, by their title—whether that’s brother, sister, older aunt, grandma, or grandpa. I believe that this practice of using kinship terms affects whether they remembered family names or not.
What fascinated me was that most people seemed to be able to recall the name of their first school, but not granddad’s name. As to why they, almost unanimously, remember the name of their primary school, my thoughts tend to wax a little more abstract. I believe that as children, we do not really know what worrying is like. We do not yet understand true anxiety. Most of us haven’t been introduced to real evil as little children. I think that the interviewees are no exception to these general statements. But for many of the interviewees their childhood was interrupted or cut short by the events of the Khmer Rouge period. During that time, they all came to know what worrying was. They all came to understand true anxiety, and they all came in very close contact with true evil. Because of these experiences, I tend to believe that those seemingly carefree days as youth became even more vividly burned into their memories. Having seen both sides now, they are quick to recall those memories from the days of light before the darkest of times came.
While all the interviews have essentially the same set of questions, the responses vary greatly in both subject matter and detail. Some interviews include funny snippets of their lives, like But Lumang, who tells the story of how he first met his wife because he dialed the wrong telephone number. Others include sentiments of true love, like Nou Vary’s, who tells of her husband stealing shoes from a Khmer Rouge guard on their wedding day so that his wife could get married in shoes. While many went through terrible ordeals during the Khmer Rouge era, Chea Raet’s story stood out to me as particularly horrific. She was told that her children were being taken away “to learn”, but after seeing their clothing and belongings on other children, she knew they had been killed. She cried out that she didn’t want to live if her kids died, and the guards told her that her day was coming. The day they planned to kill her was the very day that the Vietnamese troops came in and freed the Cambodian people. The Khmer Rouge guards had already taken and tried to kill her and toss her into a hole of other victims, but she regained consciousness in the hole and cried out until some Vietnamese soldiers heard and pulled her out.
Stories like these are not easy to forget.
Despite, and maybe because of, the many terrible things that these people went through, a common theme in the interviews, and in my experience with the Cambodian people in general is that of a longing for peace. Because of their war-torn history, their greatest desire, both nationally and personally, is simply to be sokh and sabbay—‘healthy’ and ‘happy.’ I find this desire both simple and admirable. The “essentials” can indeed be the luxuries.