What does it take to heal?
My father pruned our trees in a sarong with a kitchen cleaver. My mother stored stinky fermented fish under the sink. My parents made us go to Buddhist temple on Saturdays and Bible study on Sundays. In some ways, they never left Cambodia though we lived in Dallas, Texas. While I thought everything about my parents was "old country," they wre desperately trying to forget their past. They are survivors of teh Khmer Rouge genocide. In fact my whole family is, and it's something they almost never talk about.
They call me "the lucky one." Though conceived in Cambodia, I was born on New Year Day in a refugee camp in Thailand after the horror was over.
When I became an adult, I knew I would move on and move out. After Smith College and studies in Oxford, I moved to New York City, got a job in network news, started to build my career and pay my dues. I sure wanted my life to be different from my parents', even though I didn't know the first thing about theirs.
One Christmas Day, my parents called a family meeting. They sat down my brother, two older sisters, and me - to reveal secrets after 25 years. My mother told us that my two sisters aren't actually my sister. They are the children of my mother's sister, orphaned when their parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. We learned my older brother isn't actually my full brother. He is my half brother - the surviving child from her first family. My mother's first husband and daughter died in the genocide. This was the first I'd heard of them. It was the first for my brother too. In that room of shocked and tearful children, my father got up and in his character, locked himself in the bathroom.
My parent's revelation raised more questions than it answered, so I became determined to document the full story. Last year, my parents took both my brother and me back to their homeland. Neither of us had ever been to Cambodia, save for my conception and my brother's harrowing escape.
In Cambodia, my brother met many of the family he never knew he had - his father's brother, nieces, nephews, etc. "This is the first relative of my dad's the I've met and I can't talk to her," he said of his new cousin. Seeing his true father's picture for the fist time, he held it to his own face: "He smirks just like me."
I also met my father's family for the first time ever. They took a look at my dark skin and immediately accepted me as their own. They are all poor rice farmers, barely getting by. They are much lower on Cambodia's social class scale than my mother's educated and light-skinned Chinese family.
I learned when my father first approached my mother in a Khmer Rouge camp, she thought, "he was too old, uneducated and too dark." In Cambodia, dark skin almost certainly meant you were a poor laborer unlike bourgeoisie ethnic Chinese. The Khmer Rouge aimed to dissolve class differences so they arranged (i.e. forced) my parents' marriage.
Though my parents had the worst possible matchmakers, they stayed together when the Khmer Rouge fell. Ma knew she would need help if hse was to leave her country. Her first husband and daughter died in the early years of the regime. She was certain her toddler son Bros would die of malnutrition like others. When her beloved sister died, she vowed to adopt her two orphaned nieces as well. My mother needed help finding the two girls in a distant children's camp and then smuggling the family across the Thai border.
My parents struck a deal. Pa agreed to find her adopted daughters and smuggle the whole family to safety. Ma agreed to be Pa's wfie and provide him, a man orphaned as a teenager, a family.
Cambodia devolved into anarchy when the Khmer Rouge retreated to the jungle. My parents searched for months, village to village for my "sisters."
My sisters, Mala and Leakhena, were wrenched from their family at different times and relocated to children's camps. After years of captivity, they were spontaneously led into the jungle by a Khmer Rouge leader. They were unsure if they were walking to their own execution. Instead they were taken to a stilted house filled with rice and freed. Mala's eyes still glow with the memory. "Here I am starving and there's a room full of rice." Tying the ends of pants and shirts bulging with rice, they bounded out and waited by a roadside hoping to eye someone they knew. The girls, 10 and 13, slept on the side of a road until a passing aunt found them.
My father found them months later by chance in a field picking potatoes. In the darknesscambodia_2005_38 over three nights, he smuggled them and an aunt across landmines, around gunmen and over bodies, eventually to the safety of a Thai refugee camp. Then he made the trip three more times: a second to carry sick Bros and lead my mother, pregnant with me, a third trip for a sewing machine for a source of income and a fourth longer trip for more family. My father led eight people across the border to Thailand, nine if you count me in my mother's womb.
When we immigrated to America, my parents instilled in us all the values the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy, including the value of education and family. My father became a JC Penny janitor. My mother worked the line at an electronics manufaturing plant. In following years all three of their daughters earned college degrees.
When I asked my father about the worst he faced during those years in the labor camps, he told me it was that the Khmer Rouge controlled his speech and even his thoughts.
This documentary gives voice to his story and that of my family on their way to becoming Americans.