In 1975 through 1979, approximately 2 million Cambodians died from malnutrition, labor, and/or torture by the Khmer Rouge, a communist group. They murdered men, women, the elderly, babies, people with glasses, artists, musicians, teachers; and anybody they thought were intelligent. They brainwashed and trained children how to be murderous soldiers. All of this occurred during a 4-year time-span; to put into perspective, while you completed high school or were going to college. What shocks me most is that the leader was Cambodian himself. He and his army had no regard for human life and no words could describe what these poor souls went through. Their goal was to wipe out the entire Cambodian culture. Today, the Khmer people prevail, they are still a developing country but it’s a safe and affordable destination for many tourists. The country is flourishing despite its painful past.
If you met a Cambodian (aka Khmer) person, they will tell you that they or their families were affected in some way by this genocide. In honor of the approximately 2 million people that perished, here is a piece of my story told to me by my family members who survived and from a first generation Cambodian American outlook. Check out why I started blogging here.
My maternal grandma took five out of her six children and walked to the Thailand border; from Battambang, Cambodia to Khao-I-Dang, Thailand, that was roughly a total of 81 miles. My aunt, who was 6 years old was suffering from Kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition which causes a swollen stomach but skinny elsewhere. My grandma lost touch with her eldest son for a few years because he was in the military; thankfully he is alive and well. My father was a child when he saw his own father murdered right in front of him by one of the Khmer Rouge soldiers. My father said that he was going blind and couldn’t see anything during this time; a farmer gave him cooked beef liver and he regained his eye sight. He escaped alone to the Thai refugee camp. The conditions were not good even once the refugees got to the camp; it was cramp, dirty, with limited supplies. However, the Khmer people were safer in these refugee camps than in their own Country. After a while, the Cambodian population were brought to different countries to live out a new life. The most popular countries were the United States, France, and Canada.
My family arrived in America in the early 1980’s. They always taught me to be grateful growing up because they came to American as war refugees with nothing. They were poor, didn’t speak English, and didn’t know anything about American culture. My parents were teenagers but they had to start high school and learn English at the same time. They worked in factories making very minimum wages. My mom used to tell me that they got clothes and food from local churches. They saved up as much as they could and stayed with local relatives that were already in the country. They rented apartments in the not-so-nice areas in town and eventually saved up enough to purchase their own house and live the American dream.
I was lucky enough not to experience such misfortunes and horrors that my family and many other people went through. I was born in Rhode Island and learned from the values that my parents, grandma, aunt, and uncles instilled in me. Not a day goes by that I take living in a developed country for granted. I’ve taken advantage of the opportunities that surround me such as:
- Education-my parents never had a proper education because they were pretty much forced into slave labor. I took the opportunity to go to college and become the first to graduate college with a Bachelor’s degree in my family.
- Career– My parents had to work right away to survive so they took whatever odd and end job. My dad worked as a machine operator and my mom worked as jewelry maker at a factory; both with minimal wages just to provide food and a roof over their heads. So I am appreciative to have steady employment that provides me immense benefits with the freedom to travel and have the necessities to survive and thrive in life.
- Healthcare- Most of the doctors were executed so if you got ill, you would most likely perish in those conditions at the time. I’m immensely grateful to have access to healthcare today, to prevent and treat any health issues I may have.
In the end, when life seems rough at the moment, I reflect back on what my parents went through. I look at the grand scheme of things and remind myself that no matter how hard life could be or how imperfect it may be, situations can be worse.
Cambodian Culture Essentials:
Kim C. Vig. aka Kimbodian Speaks
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