Regimes, Refugees, and Rediscovery
Words and family photos courtesy of Denys Meak
The story of my family, and how they made their journey to the states, was almost like a storybook tale. My dad showed me photographs that he took for both a job and enjoyment. He often shared what seemed like fabricated stories to his friends but never really went into details. His photographs spoke a thousand words. My mother never talked about what she was like when she was younger. But you could see that glimmer in her eye when she'd ponder off. It was impossible to distinguish if it was hope for a better life in America or remorse for leaving her family behind. We never talked about it in school or in our textbooks. My teachers couldn't even point to Cambodia on the map. It was almost like it never even happened.
As a child, I was not sheltered from what happened. But flipping through endless photographs was the one way I was able to get my dad to open up. He'd point out portraits of friends he hoped were still alive and then a picture of his brother, and how he watched him die by the hands of Pol Pot. And then he'd stop talking.
The Cambodian genocide took place after the Vietnam War between 1975 to 1979. It was carried out by Pol Pot, a communist politician and his army of followers, the Khmer Rouge or what I would often hear as "Khmer Kahom." An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died, a third of the country's population. Anyone who was remotely influential or an opposition to his dictatorship were tortured and killed. Many others were forced to labor camps and some fled the country on foot. My father would escape and be recaptured over the years, and then finally made it to a refugee camp in Thailand. Fate would have it that after spending years there- my mom, dad and sister were going to America. They were sponsored by a generous family in Sandy Springs, Georgia and there they lived for a few years and started a new life in the states.
Although unfamiliar territory, my dad did not seem to have a hard time assimilating. He was a very charismatic man, he could navigate any difficult situation. Especially after what he had already gone through. After having my brother and later me, we settled in College Park, Georgia where my parents would be neighbors with familiar faces that also survived the regime.
Life as a first generation American was not easy. For a long time, my siblings and I struggled with our identities. We did not fit in with our Khmer peers as their families were traditional. We grew up in a household where we did not speak the Khmer language or practice traditional Buddhist values. We were very sheltered. Even more so sheltered from our roots. I want to say this was a way for my parents to cope with the trauma of being forced out of their own country by their own people. The hardest part of assimilating was giving up our cultural values to adapt to life in America.