Stirring Emotions in Cambodia: A Daughter’s Story

I was raised by a revolutionary. I actually hesitate to the use the word “raised.” My dad did more of the raising, as did my grandparents and my aunts — I took a village. But the influence my mother, The Revolutionary, had on me was so profound it continues to affect me even now, 17 years after her death and as I travel a world she never got to see.

As a child I was dragged from demonstration to demonstration to protest the war in Vietnam, the U.S. bombings in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia, the unjust incarceration of fellow activists… my mother fought for human rights, racial equality, women’s rights, and for economic justice. She didn’t care much for rich people or Republicans; it was the Socialist in her. This was the early 1970’s.

In today’s world I admire such passion, but it was tough to be the child of it. My mother claimed that I was once tear-gassed in my stroller (“Those pigs!”). The stickers I played with weren’t of rainbows or princesses, instead they read in bold letters: IMPEACH NIXON. I decorated our entire TV table with those stickers. I thought they were fun.

Unfortunately, my mother’s passion for politics drove me to apathy, or it could be that I was just desperately holding on to the idea that I was a kid unready for the onslaught of the cruel world. She wanted me to watch the evening news so I would understand what horrors children in Vietnam and Cambodia were going through because of the U.S. government. I wanted to watch Benji or Cinderella (one of the few Disney movies I was allowed to see; other classics like The Jungle Book were, of course, too racist).

I’m sharing this context not only because it’s time for me to start talking publicly about my mother, but because when, as an adult, I had the chance to go to Cambodia — a country she never visited but cared so much about — it stirred a great deal of emotional baggage in me I didn’t realize I still have.

November, 2016

The first week in Phnom Penh is challenging. It all feels like a massive hustle… busy, loud, chaotic, and hard to get around. I’ve never felt unsafe as a traveler before, but I do now. Maybe it’s because two women in our group had their purses stolen within 24 hours of arriving (one of them right outside our apartment building). Maybe it’s the fact that I haven’t been able to walk a full block without having at least two men ask me if I want a ride… Can I take you somewhere? Where are you going? Can I come with you? Or, the worst thing to say to a woman walking alone: I’m watching you.

For the most part I suspect these inquiries are harmless and merely the result of someone looking for work as a tuk tuk driver or guide. They don’t know how menacing they sound. But they freak me out because no matter how many times I smile and say, “no, thank you” in the little bit of Khmer I’ve learned, it doesn’t stop. I change my approach to “no, thank you” without a smile.

When one of these guys actually follows me for about half a block trying to book a ride, I have to say, “Get the fuck away from me.” I don’t want to be rude. I don’t want to offend anyone. But I am scared. One of the tuk tuk drivers later tells me I’m better off taking a tuk tuk than walking, safer. But I’m a New Yorker. I walk. The minute I can’t walk because I don’t feel safe, then maybe this isn’t the place for me.

I’m further challenged by the emotional devastation of the U.S. election. I was so confident that Hillary would win (thanks, polls and common sense) and incredibly proud to vote for our first woman president; it never occurred to me that it could turn so disastrously the other way. I go from elation and hope to being paralyzed by depression, disbelief, and fear for my country.

Beyond the safety and emotional issues I’m grappling with, I can’t find my rhythm here. There are moments of sanctuary and a cafe or two that I like, but otherwise I’m overwhelmed. I have to settle down.

And that’s the amazing thing about knowing you’ll be somewhere for a month: you have no choice but to find your rhythm and settle down.

It helps when Athena comes. Having a friend from home visiting — someone who has essentially known me my whole life — allows me to finally relax. She’s so excited to explore that I catch her enthusiasm. Also, if you’ve ever been in a taxi with Athena, you know that if there is any kind of conflict with a driver, Athena will set him straight. My protector.

With her here, it all starts to feel like normal life. We spend lovely (and hot) days shopping. I do some work. She takes a cooking lesson. We eat at local joints and places I read about in The New York Times. But the real settling in begins when we start to go beneath the surface and acknowledge the history that has in many ways changed normal life here forever.

Cambodians don’t hide this history. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is in the middle of Phnom Penh, and the Killing Fields are a short tuk tuk ride away. We visit both places to better understand the shocking and horrific auto-genocide that not only took place within a mere four years (1974-1979) and during our lifetime, but that wiped out approximately one quarter of the population. One quarter of the population. Recognizing that — or at least being more educated about it — will, I soon realize, totally change the way I experience Cambodia.

The Tuol Seng Genocide Museum was originally a high school. In 1976 it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge, and it became the S21 Security Prison — one of 150 torture, interrogation, and execution centers in the country and where an estimated 20,000 prisoners were killed — killed for being educated, seemingly too Western, wearing glasses… the list of reasons for detainment is terrifying.

While the high school students were displaced to create this horrifying place, among the photographs lining the walls and exhibits now, I can’t help but wonder if many of those students found themselves here again under much different circumstances.

The nightmare still permeates the air. Blood remains on the walls and floors. The small cells close us in. Images of Pol Pot and stories of his rise to power demonstrate how easily fear can be used against people. The rooms go on and on.

Athena and I spend hours wandering here among the other tourists… breathing deeply, crying. It’s hard to know what to say. What I’d learned about the war before didn’t feel tangible. Now I’m having a physical response. Disgust. Shock. Now I understand what my mother was fighting for and against. She knew it was wrong. So many people did. But that wasn’t enough to stop it.

We go from S21 to The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. This is where prisoners from S21 and other torture and interrogation facilities were brought for execution. As the placards that tell the story of the site indicate, even though thousands of bodies have already been found here, teeth and bones still emerge from the ground after heavy rains.

Trees are described as being the scene of child beatings or where loud speakers were hung so living prisoners could here the torture of those who were dying. There are body counts listed at different parts of the fields. And there is a glass display case with more than 5,000 skulls and a color tag system that indicates how each of these people was likely killed. I feel sick.

As we’re making our way to the exit in silence, the sound of children’s laughter is everywhere. It’s discombobulating. A nearby school must have just let out.

Between what we’re looking at and what we’re hearing, there is an extraordinary dichotomy: the pain of the past and the promise of the future.

We will soon see these spirited, thoughtful children on their way home, and I wonder how many family members did they lose, do they feel the weight of it all yet, will they? As a country that lost so much and so many, approximately 70% of the population today is under 30. That youth can hold such incredible energy, vitality, ingenuity… and generational memory.

Maybe it’s compassion or respect or acknowledgement, but I no longer feel like a prickly New Yorker eager to exert my independence by walking. I feel like an asshole for having done so before. I realize that even as a seasoned traveler, I was trying to exist too much in my own bubble — that hasn’t happened to me elsewhere, why here? Now I want to take tuk tuks. I want to chat with the drivers when they want to chat with me. When we got to Phnom Penh, my mind was racing. Now it’s calm, reverent. I want to take a backseat to the experience and let the unique nature of this country guide me. I have to.

I imagine telling my mother about my time in Phnom Penh and how she would respond. She’d likely rant about the American government’s role in all that happened here. She liked to rant. She’d say I was being too passive… that we all are. That Trump should have never been elected. That women aren’t safe traveling alone…. that she should have grandchildren by now…. that the neighbors have been messing with her car (she knows it!)… she’d go off-topic a lot, but that wouldn’t really be her fault.

I haven’t thought about my mother this much or this regularly in a while, and it’s been years since I’ve imagined a conversation between us.

I wonder if she’s suddenly so present to me because she fought desperately for the people I’m now getting to meet. Or because I feel more open, vulnerable, exposed here — my hard outer shell has started to crack under the weight of it all. Or because maybe, just maybe, by letting myself feel this country’s profound pain and loss  —  however different in scale, distance, and circumstance  —  I realize I’m finally ready to talk about losing her.