I was selfish this weekend. It was a 3-day holiday weekend and while everyone else was making plans to travel or embark on a new adventure, I was secretly planning to stay behind. Alone.
I wanted some time to myself, some time to relax, some time to read, some time to do whatever I wanted without having to ask “what do you want to do?” So that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s been three blissful days of sleeping in, going to the pool, riding my bike, shopping in the markets, and reading.
All year I’ve been wanting to read When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge, by Chanrity Him in preparation for my arrival to Cambodia, but I was unable to find a copy during my travels. On one of my first days in Siem Reap, a street kid approached me selling books. He was about 10 years old and held a copy of First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, by Loung Ung. Figuring it would be a good substitute for my original desire, I bought it. This weekend, I devoured it.
I knew about the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that had occurred in this country, but I had never read a personal account of what it felt like to live through it. It’s not often, we – the privileged few who have never known true hardship – allow ourselves to see the realities of what it is like to watch your possessions burn, to feel the pains of starvation, to work until your skin cracks and bleeds, to fight for survival only to have your father, mother, sister, brother killed before your eyes. And for what? For nothing….
Loung Ung was lucky. She was saved through a series of risky events that eventually brought her to America – to Vermont (not surprisingly) – in 1980 when she was ten. She went to Essex High School and then to St. Michael’s College. In her book, she thanks our amazing Senator Patrick Leahy, and the Costello family for sponsoring her and her brother to come to Vermont, the ultimate reason for her survival.
Before Jeremy and I left our beloved home state of Vermont, we had become quite familiar with Vermont’s extensive efforts to resettle and integrate refugees, but reading Loung’s story while living in her native country, really drove the message home (so to speak). I am so sad by what happened, so appalled that it’s still happening elsewhere, and so grateful to the nations and individuals who help those who have been displaced. It’s difficult to comprehend that right now, as I write, people are running for their lives and being forced to live in refugee camps. How has our world allowed this to happen? What can I do to help it stop?
In Cambodia, hidden landmines still contaminate the soil, claiming limbs and lives every day. Scars from the Khmer Rouge are visible everywhere, yet the people here are recovering. Slowly. This weekend, as I mucked around on my bike or by the pool, playing the typical Western tourist part, my mind and heart was full of muddled feelings and thoughts. I felt guilty and sad. Loung’s story made me miss my family, miss my husband, miss my home.
Cambodians are strong. Stronger than I am. Cambodians are so strong, in fact, that they were able to pull me out of my sad reflection on the past just by being here living their lives. This weekend, I observed the people differently than I had before. I noticed their smiles, their kindness, their generosity, their care for one another, their work and their country. I was fortunate this weekend to be here for one of the biggest children’s celebration of the year, the Giant Puppet Parade. A day where children’s educational groups (mostly sponsored through a non-profit or non-governmental organization) march larger-than-life paper puppets that they’ve spent the year building through the streets of Siem Reap. It’s was a night of beauty, excitement and fundraising for the children. You would have never suspected that a flicker of pain ever existed in these people’s lives.
Tonight, I am the lucky one because my husband returned home to me, just as he said he would. Tonight I am lucky because we are here in this beautiful country, with all its beautiful people. Tonight I am lucky to fill my stomach with anything I desire (all the fish curry, spring rolls and steamed buns I can eat!). And I will drink, ever-so-thankfully, to that.
***Loung Ung’s second book, Lucky Child, continues her story with her first day in Vermont, giving voice to her older sister who was left behind in Cambodia. I hope to read this soon.***