On a recent evening, about three dozen Cambodians gathered in an auditorium at Long Beach City College for an event called, “Courage to Remember.” Through a translator, Vishsnanh Cragn told her story of how she survived the genocide.
“After that they took my husband and killed him, and then they came and arrested me, they tied me up and took me to the place that they planned to kill me,” she said.
This story about Cambodians killing other Cambodians is one that was experienced first hand by about half the people in the audience. The other half, people in their 20s, only know bits and pieces. They learned more from Cragn, including how she had to resort to stealing food, and how many victims of the Khmer Rouge feel shame, even today. Cal State Long Beach student Brenda Man says when she heard Cragn use the word for shame in Khmer — as the language and culture are known — that really made an impression.
“When she said that, it really struck me because she said she was so proud of being Khmer, being Khmer doesn’t mean that we steal and lie and I had to do it and for once I felt so ashamed of myself,” she said.
Southern California is home to the largest Cambodian community in the U.S., many of them in Long Beach. They are either survivors, or the children and grandchildren of survivors, of the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.
Unlike the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, there is little discussion among Cambodians about that chapter in their history.
Man says she first learned about the genocide when she was a teenager. “I first read about it in textbook. My parents never brought it up to me and so I confronted them about it and my grandparents and eventually my senior year of high school, I was in AP government, an extra credit was to do an interview and I decided to do Khmer Rouge as the topic and I interviewed my grandma,” she said.
Her grandmother asked why she wanted to know about such a terrible time in Cambodian history, although eventually she opened up. That needs to happen more, says Chad Sammet, who helped organize the Courage to Remember event.
“The Cambodian community overall, it’s a very insular community, it’s very closed, they keep things to themselves. Culturally we’re not very outspoken to begin with. Because we’re now in our third generation, you know, we really need to make an effort to understand our heritage, where we came from, and so forth,” he said.
That includes the richness of the Southeast Asian culture, and this tragic chapter.
Psychologist Sam Keo spoke at the event about how Cambodian genocide survivors are passing on symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder to their children. These include aggression, impulsiveness, and hypervigilance. Keo lost many relatives in the genocide. He calls the silence that still prevails among many survivors a “mute tree” planted by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodians’ collective psyche.
“It’s inside you, if you don’t talk you survive, that’s how the Khmer Rouge taught us to survive,” he said.
Event organizer Nancy Lee says she’s seen a growth in Long Beach of Buddhist temples in recent years. It’s the predominant religion of Cambodians, and the growth, she says, is from people looking for healing from the genocide.
“The first generation will go to that to get the healing but it’s not enough spiritually anymore because people lack the understanding, the purpose, that the here, to survive, and let alone coming to a country where they have that cultural shock, ‘What am I going to do now.’” she said.
There are words in Hebrew and Armenian used to refer to the Jewish and Armenian genocides. Cambodia-Americans say they don’t have a word yet. The elders talk about the genocide as “the time of Pol Pot,” the communist leader who ordered mass extermination.
Some young Cambodians use the most common English reference to the Cambodian genocide, the title of the 1984 film “The Killing Fields.”
After the “Courage to Remember” event in Long Beach, several women chatted with Vishsnah Cragn about her experience surviving the genocide. One of them said she was now encouraged to talk more to her kids. That would be one step in the Cambodian communities’ effort to uproot the mute tree.