For first generation Cambodian Americans who have been through the Cambodian Genocide, the memories can be the toughest thing to talk about, even after 40 years. Yet, to move past those traumatic times, a bridge is needed between generations in the community.
Organized by 16 Cambodian organizations across Washington state, “Remembering the Past & Welcoming the Future: 40 Years Since the Killing Fields” at North Seattle College on August 29 aimed to spark conversations that reflect on the roots of the Cambodian Americans.
“It is a bittersweet thing. You are gathering as a community but it is such a tragic history,” said one of event planners Sonnora Meas. “You are opening old wounds. But by doing this, it helps the community heal. The elders gets to heal the pain, it gave them a closure.”
While planning the commemorative event, many community leaders witnessed a major problem faced in their community—the lack of communication between the older and younger generations about what caused Cambodians to flee from their home country to the United States.
“There is a big gap between Cambodian elders [who went through the turmoil] and the youngers because they do not communicate,” said Bill Ong, the head planner of the event. “The first group of elders cannot communicate in English well enough for the youngsters to understand what they have been through.”
During the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodian leader Pol Pot killed two millions people between 1975 and 1979, burying a quarter of Cambodia’s total population of eight million at the time.
Nonetheless, the mass gravesites that are known as the Killing Fields are something that Cambodian parents hardly talk about to their children.
“It is a really sensitive topic depending on the person,” Meas said. “Some people still can’t talk about it. It is too hard for them to go back and seeing people got killed in front of you.”
Remembering the past
But the ones who are willing to share their stories always send a strong message about the history of Cambodia, especially to the younger generations who were born and raised in the United States.
“Whenever I talk to my parents about their lives in Cambodia, I see the sadness that overwhelms them,” said Laura Vong who is currently the president of the Khmer Student Associates of University of Washington.
Like many Cambodians who went through the Khmer Rouge regime, Vong’s parents were separated from their immediate families and were forced to live in the countryside where they worked in the fields with barely anything to eat.
But the physical hardship was incomparable to their emotional pain. The Khmer Rouge regime took everything away from Vong’s parents—their homes, education, loved ones, and hope.
“My mom and dad both lost their parents during the war so I’ve never had real grandparents,” Vong said. “Not only did my mom lose her parents, but she also lost two of her seven siblings.”
According to what Vong learned from her parents, the only way for Cambodians to get out of the suffering was to escape to Thailand.
“They lived in the refugee camps in Thailand temporarily and then got sponsored by families in the U.S.,” she said.
However, arriving to the United States as refugees was just the beginning of another long journey. For many Cambodian refugees, they were not aware of the American Dream until they achieved it. Most of them just wanted to start a new life in the foreign country.
“Once my mom arrived, she worked in the agriculture fields, restaurants, and attended school,” Vong said. “The adjustment was very hard but my mom was strong and determined. She went on to attend community college in Yakima and went to school for dental hygiene.”
Welcoming the future
Stories like Vong’s parents are the ones that are often lost in translation, and community leaders want to help pass down the memories through stronger community interaction so that the younger generations can reflect on what it means to be Cambodian-Americans.
“To me, being Cambodian is such a big part of my identity,” Vong said. “It’s what makes me different than being just an American. I’m a Cambodian American.”
Vong thinks the best way for Cambodian-Americans to learn about their culture is to engage in it. She said that she learns about the Khmer culture “by speaking the language, learning how to cook common Khmer dishes, and learning classical or folk dances with other Khmer students at UW.”
To Connie Mom-Chhing, the previous CEO of Southwest Washington Behavioral Health, understanding the root of her culture means taking action of her civil duty in the American society.
“I came from a culture where people sacrifice their life to vote,” Chhing said during her speech. “So when I turned 18, I registered to vote and I am very proud.”
Meas said this event planted seeds for the community to bridge between generations and move forward together.
“This event is not an end point,” he said.
Actively involved in the Cambodian organization Seattle-Sihanoukville Sister City Association, Mes has been involved with crafting a City of Seattle proclamation to recognize Cambodian Genocide Memorial Week. The final version of the proclamation was read by Seattle City Councilman Tom Rasmussen at the event.
Such recognition is particularly important to Cambodian Americans who struggled with their cultural identity while growing up in America.
“I was ashamed to speak Cambodian as a kid because people would make fun of me,” said Sokheng Cheng during his speech. “But I am proud of my culture. I want my kid, kid’s kid to speak Cambodian.”
The first step is to talk about the past, and then to learn about the culture, and finally—the most importantly—to preserve the roots.
“Our parents had to fight to get here,” Cheng said. “We have to fight to preserve our culture.”
Among all the community events he has planned within the Cambodian community, Ong viewed this event as “magnificent and unprecedented in the state of Washington for Cambodian Americans.”
“In my life time I have done many work, this one is for all age groups to raise awareness,” he said. “I want people to come out of the conversations today and have a vision to make the Cambodian community more visible in the American society.”
Ong said the key is to stay positive.
“It’s good to learn from the past but we don’t want to be in a loophole of the past. We’ve got to move on,”Ong said.
And the success lies among the future of the Cambodian-Americans, Ong explained.
“The younger generations don’t have the language and cultural barrier,” Ong said. “They don’t have the pain. They are going to make the Cambodian community stronger and louder.”