(This is the first part of a two-part story. I will post the second part next week.)
I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania when the Cambodian Holocaust took place, from 1975 to 1979, and the nightmare in that country filled me with an impotent outrage. I can’t explain why, even now. I’m not Cambodian myself; I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and two more distant cultures are difficult to imagine. I didn’t know any Cambodians. I scarcely knew what a Cambodian was. All I knew was what I had read: that the Khmer Rouge insurgents who had seized control of that country in April of 1975 had turned the entire nation into a huge concentration camp. They allowed no foreigner to enter the country, no Cambodian to leave. They’d emptied the cities, forcing everyone into subsistence agriculture in the countryside. Cambodia had no motor vehicles, no post office, no television or radio, no schools, no doctors or hospitals. Just endless days of backbreaking labor in the fields under the burning sun and the watchful eye of the Khmer Rouge soldiers with their AK-47 rifles.
If you were too weak to work, they killed you. If you complained, they killed you. If you tried to eat anything more than the starvation rations they allotted, they killed you. If you had worked for the former government, they killed you. If you had an education, they killed you. If you knew how to read and write, or wore glasses, or knew how to drive a car, they killed you. And many more who weren’t killed starved to death.
Estimates of the number of victims were in the millions. All this information was available in the U.S. in the 1970s, if you knew where to look for it. I felt outrage at what was surely the worst crime since the Allies had shut down the Nazi death camps. And I felt impotence because no one around me seemed to care. In the late 1970s, the last thing Americans wanted to think about was Indochina. We spent far more time and attention debating whether disco was the best thing that had ever happened to popular music or the worst. Whether Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind had overshadowed George Lucas’s Star Wars, or vice versa.
Meanwhile, then Senator George McGovern, noted for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, called for a United Nations force to invade Cambodia and oust the Khmer Rouge. Everyone laughed. “Now George McGovern wants to go to war in Indochina.” I thought he had a good idea.
In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. I remember trying to explain to one of my friends at Penn that this was a good thing. “But now the communists will be running the country,” she said.
The horror subsided. In one of the most remarkable acts of charity in history, the Carter administration allowed hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees to resettle in the United States. A thousand or more ended up in the West Philadelphia neighborhood where I lived.
I wanted to do something to help. My own maternal grandparents had been Polish immigrants who had struggled to learn English and win acceptance in a country that was often inhospitable. So in November 1980, the same month that Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election, I went to a local church that was sponsoring Cambodian immigrants and asked for the name and address of a family of recent arrivals.
They referred me to a Cambodian family. They were a complete nuclear family with a mother, a father, and six children. Only later did I learn how rare that was. Hardly any Cambodian family survived the Holocaust intact. What does it do to people, I wondered, to live through an experience like that?
They were living in a shabby Victorian row home, the sort of place that must have been elegant once, but not for some decades now. They were warm and welcoming to me. I’ve met Vietnamese immigrants and Chinese immigrants, and have found them friendly enough, yet aloof. There’s a cultural divide that takes some effort to overcome. With Cambodians, I sense something fundamentally more compatible between their culture and ours. A lack of pretentiousness, perhaps. Certainly their wicked sense of humor fits right in with Americans.
The parents spoke next to no English, but the children were all working hard at their adopted language. The oldest was a son named Vanna. He was 23, the same age as me, soft-spoken, with a charming smile. The second child was also a son, Vantha, loud and assertive, handsome and long haired. Long hair had been forbidden in Cambodia, and it was his way of asserting his freedom.
The third was the eldest daughter, Vanny, obviously long practiced at teasing her older brothers and not slow to turn her talents on me. Fourth was another son, Vanthy, whose freckles I found startling on an Asian face. Vanthy was so shy and reserved that I hardly noticed him at first. Then there were two more daughters, Sreyneang and Vannary. I remember struggling to write down everyone’s name and age. I’m not very good with names even when they’re familiar Western ones, let alone a set that sound like Latin conjugations. Vantha was careful to point out that although his name was spelled V-A-N-T-H-A, the second syllable was pronounced “ta,” not “tha,” as Americans were wont to say it. Vantha had a special antipathy for the T-H sound, which does not exist in Cambodian, or, to be fair, in most languages apart from English.
Vanna, Vantha, Vanny, Vanthy, Sreyneang? Cambodians like to give their children homophonic names, but I couldn’t resist asking the obvious question: what was the deal with Sreyneang, a name that roughly translates into English as “Little Miss” or perhaps “Missy?” Vanna explained that his parents had been hoping for a boy, whom they planned to name “Vannara.” They felt let down when she turned out to be a girl, and had given her this name as an expression of their disappointment. Only much later did I realize that my leg was being pulled.
Vanna and Vantha were attending community college; the other children were in high school. They accepted with enthusiasm my offer to tutor them, so I visited them when I could and helped them with whatever questions they had, which were usually about the English language. They got lessons; I got a warm, family environment. And a cup of tea or a glass of Tang. You know, the stuff astronauts drink? Only these folks added sugar to it. They didn’t think it was sweet enough.
I asked them about their experience during the Cambodian Holocaust. They didn’t like talking about it much; most of my questions met with answers like, “We worked very hard,” or “We were hungry all the time.”
They’d set up a blackboard in their dining room, which they invited me to use to teach them English. My 1970s idea of teaching English had little to do with blackboards, leaning instead toward more creative pedagogic techniques, like Peter, Paul and Mary songs; they greeted my teaching innovations with something less than unbridled enthusiasm. Soon I found myself falling back on the traditional, blackboard approach to English grammar. “I go, you go, he, she, or it goes…”
The questions began. Why does an “s” on the end of a verb signify singular, while an “s” at the end of a noun signifies plural? Why does English have singular and plural, anyway? And what’s the deal with articles? Why does a language even need articles, let alone two of them: “a” and “the?”
Vantha was particularly caustic: “I think this is a very cruel language to teach to children,” he declared to me. “It probably gives them lots of headaches. And then there’s that T-H sound. You have to stick your tongue between your teeth to make that sound. That’s dangerous. I bet a lot of American children bite their tongues while they’re learning it. Headaches and sore tongues. I think you Americans are very cruel to your children.”
All I could think to say was to suggest lamely that if they thought English was complex and rigid, they ought to try studying German.
On another occasion, during one of my lessons, Vanna and Vantha began playfully punching each other on the arm, as brothers do. “Boys will be boys,” I remarked.
Everyone stopped and stared at me. “What was that?”
“Boys will be boys,” I repeated.
“What does that mean?”
“What did you expect, that boys would be girls?”
It took the better part of an hour straightening that one out.
Months passed. We grew close. I tried to keep my relationship with the girls formal and distant. Asian families are very protective of their young women, and I didn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea. But the guys and I did some fun things together. I’d take them to the movies; we went on hikes. The first time I suggested a hike, Vanna asked me what that meant.
“A hike is a long walk through the woods.”
Vanna laughed and said, “The last time I went on a long walk through the woods, there was someone behind me with a gun, making sure I didn’t try to escape.”
It was in that way, through tiny, chilling details that emerged at unexpected times, that their experiences began to come out. Not as stories, but rather as thoughts and images, and most of those were about long hours of hard work and ever-present hunger. The hunger had gnawed not only at their bellies, but also at their minds, dominating every thought. Vantha confided to me a fantasy from that time. He said he used to dream an American would come to Cambodia and rescue him, taking him back to this country to be his slave. Vantha said he would have gladly agreed to be the slave of an American; all he would have asked for in return was enough food to eat. He concluded, as long as you have enough food to eat, what else really matters?
Vanna and Vantha were pretty outgoing, and as college students, they quickly developed their own circle of friends. Vanthy, on the other hand, attended the neighborhood high school, where racism against the new Asian immigrants quickly became a problem. I remember coming over to the house one day and finding Vanthy with a prominent black eye. I asked him what happened and he said, “I bumped my head.” Only some time later did I hear from another Cambodian that he had been beaten up in school.
I tried to get Vanthy to open up to me. I began taking him places, just the two of us. and soon we drew very close. I remember taking him to the Penn pool for an afternoon swim. As we left the locker room, I remarked that, were Vanthy an American, I might touch his hair to see if it was dry, but I wouldn’t do that to a Cambodian. I said this because I had been reading about Cambodian culture, and had learned the basic fact that Cambodians consider the touching of another person’s head to be extraordinarily rude. I was eager to show off this knowledge. Vanthy replied in his typical, soft-spoken manner, “No, that would be okay, as long as it was you.” Soon after that, I was hospitalized for a month because of back surgery that went badly, and Vanthy visited me almost every day.
He also began to talk to me about his life in Cambodia, just simple, matter-of-fact tales of day-to-day horrors. He was just a kid at the time, he said, so he helped herd the water buffalo, which wasn’t too bad. The adults, laboring in the rice paddies, had it much worse. They were worked like draft animals, the only difference being that most farmers give their draft animals enough food to keep them going.
Everyone was always hungry. And that seems to be the most enduring memory that Cambodians retain from that time: years on end of incessant, gnawing hunger. How did your family escape? I asked. He answered, simply, “We couldn’t have done it without God’s help.”
It was after this that I began to have the dream. It came to me, from time to time, over the next twenty years. In the dream, Vanthy and I are on a dusty road through the jungle, near a border crossing. The border between Cambodia and Thailand, I guess. I’m just myself; Vanthy is dressed in rags. We have to get across the border. This is no problem for me, as an American; I can just walk through. But Vanthy can’t. We make a plan: he will bushwhack through the jungle, around the checkpoint and across the border, while I walk through, and we will meet on the other side. We embrace; then I watch him disappear into the emerald foliage, wondering if I will ever see him again. Then I go through the border crossing. As the guards there are checking my passport, there’s a commotion. We all turn to look, while I struggle not to appear too interested. Is it something minor, maybe a wild animal? Or did they find Vanthy?
I always wake up at this point, and never learn the answer.
Soon after I got out of the hospital, and less than a year after I first met the family, their father decided to relocate to Seattle. He felt that business opportunities were better there. I marvel at this today, how he, an immigrant, could see that back in 1981. I sure couldn’t. If I’d had half a brain, I would have moved out there with them.
We said tearful goodbyes at the bus station in Philadelphia, and I watched their bus pull away. I figured I’d never see them again.