Monday, January 7, 2013

"Awkwardness, Joy, Sadness": a trip to Cambodia

History matters, chronology less so.  That's what a trip like ours to Cambodia (and three days in Vietnam) teaches, if only because its intensity so outstrips sequence. No events on the trip proved banal, but none were as powerful as the few hours we spent in Prey Phkoam Village, Angkor Borei District, Takeo Province, Cambodia, where our son Sangha was born. There we found many of his blood relatives and their entire village waiting to meet us. 

But let me start with Hongly Khuy.  We've known Hongly since 1999 or 2000, when we were in the process of adopting our son from Cambodia.  He was the go-to guy for translations of paper work, so much paper work. He also wrote me large note cards to let restaurant workers know of my allergy to peanuts, an important part of many Cambodian dishes. Hongly has visited several of my classes over the years to talk about his experiences during the Khmer Rouge genocide. His first visit was the most raw; many of the students had a hard time dealing with the fact that he laughed after telling the story of a woman who asked for more food and was killed on the spot. (Such laughter, I've come to learn, is culturally determined, although I also read into it a response to horror's absurdity.) In later classes, he moderated the tale until it lost much of its bite. Nonetheless, students had met a man who nearly starved to death, and who is now at the center of Oahu's Cambodian community of two or three hundred people. 

Outside Battambong, we made a mysterious stop. This was not unusual; those of us who hadn't traveled with Hongly before (this was his 13th mission under the auspices of the University Baptist Church, whose Cambodian congregation he heads) rarely knew what would happen next. The written itinerary was wrong as often as it was accurate, and left many such stops off. I and several others scampered behind Hongly, who was carrying a small bouquet of flowers, past the Buddhist temple on the left, past the monks' housing on the right, to a small cemetery beside a rice paddy. There were several large, engraved stones. Off to the side was a smaller stone, unmarked, on which Hongly put his flowers before he ducked behind some bushes to do other, more secular, business. This was the marker for his father's grave, one of thousands in the area, who'd starved to death in the late 1970s. Hongly found the site at the time and left a brick or stone; he came back later and had the body moved to his village near Phnom Penh. But the stone remains, as does his pilgrimage.

As we walked back to the bus we paused to look at a building next to the parking lot. A dour blue building, it appeared unpopulated. That had been a hospital where many died, including Hongly's nieces and nephews. His sister had seen light flowing out of the building at night when they died.

We got on the bus and went to a restaurant to eat. Such was our trip and, in some ways, a notion of Cambodian history that emerged from it. Memories, often without memorials. A haunted landscape on which was little evidence of what haunted it--after all, the country is full of young people, and is changing rapidly, its cities full of new construction, its roads cluttered with pony carts, buses, motor bikes, and Lexuses (evidence of new ostentation, along with the large gated houses going up in cities and rural areas). Memories like those of James Chan, who grew up so poor he didn't have a shirt for school and got thrown out. Who needed a bicycle tire and was given the money for it by a friend of his brother, who then couldn't afford lunch. Who escaped Cambodia in the late 70s, like so many, spending two years in Thailand's refugee camps, who is still married to the woman (Yun) his parents chose for him 45 years ago. Who played the mandolin non-stop in and out of the bus. Memories like Hongly's, who saved two Khmer Rouge soldiers (they wondered why) and who cannot but forgive those caught up in that net of history. And rituals like eating, whether under a school or house, in a road-side restaurant, or in the bus. Those added a layer of myth, a happier circularity, to the history.

We traveled to Angkor Wat. For Bryant and me it was a second visit. For Sangha and Radhika a first. Sangha, who was given a permanent visa on entry (I could here the immigration men say "Khmer" as they set eyes on him) got in free, the rest of us paid $20. Twelve years ago the place was teeming less with tourists than with landmine victims resting on a crutch, begging, and children begging. There was no security then; you could scramble over the temples as you wished. This time the place was crowded with tourists--local, European, Asian--and we didn't see a single landmine victim. Sellers were the new beggars, urging you into their shops, plying you with cheap teeshirts and books and other trinkets. (The relation between souvenirs and memorials troubles my writing.) The temples here are too magnificent to be mere memorials, but of course they are, to a time in Khmer history when invaders and locals alike built long walls that they covered with carvings of Hindu battle scenes, then long walls they didn't get around to carving because another edifice needed to be constructed. It's an amazing place, resting in a heavy humidity, and hot. As in a mall in Phnom Penh, Hongly ran into someone he knew here, this time a man who lived in Hawai`i for a while, and now works for months at a time with a telecom company in Cambodia.

Our trip was a mission by the Cambodian congregation and friends from the University Baptist Church in Honolulu. There were many sermons, short and long, including one by a Cambodian pastor named Barnabas Mam; his sermon was in Khmer, but those of us stuck in English sensed that it was a stem-winder. This was the 13th iteration of the mission, which stops at small villages, many of them those from which team members came, and at churches (those with buildings and those without). We stopped at many schools to give bicycles, toothpaste and toothbrushes, over-the-counter medications (to the elders), balloons and toys, and to sing and speak. My family is not Christian and at one point I said so, adding that the Buddhist principles I try to live by include compassion, a cornerstone of this trip. We felt awkwardness about the emphasis on Christ and God, but not an aversion. Never did I get the sense that we were putting a dent in the poverty we encountered in these villages, but I also did not feel that our visits were trivial, especially those that involved family.

The least successful of these visits was to the Center of Peace Orphanage in Phnom Penh, where what was often an act of sharing--we brought gifts and songs, and got food and dance in return--seemed more a dog and pony show. Hongly, usually so funny and vibrant, began talking about "obedience and commitment," rather than joy. I felt a horrible weight as we entered the compound, encased in wire fencing, and saw the children seated across from the chairs we came to sit in. (The weight was mostly one of my memories of other orphanages.) They were older kids--the younger ones were on a trip, we were told--and the making of balloons thus seemed odd (though I never tire of seeing my husband making dogs and swords out of balloons). A middle-aged white man sat next to me in the back row. He let drop that these events happen often, that the kids have to sit through lots of singing and dancing, that the well-meaning purveyors of the entertainment never ask the kids about themselves. This was Brian Maher, a Christian minister, as it turned out engaged to the orphanage director Bophal Yos, Obama supporter, and one of the more incisive analysts of Cambodia that we met on the trip. He came to Cambodia in the early 1990s, stayed 15 years, and now moves back and forth between Phnom Penh and Seattle. From him we learned that the human rights violations of the Hun Sen government are mainly land grabs (later, with Sreang Heng of PEN Cambodia, we saw where parks had been taken for large buildings, where people had been kicked out of their homes and mansions built in their place, where a large Korean-financed building had been half-built, then abandoned in the face of the bad business outlook caused in large part by so much corruption). Brian told us that Cambodia has very few orphanages now; many were simply cash cows (we know about that first-hand) and how many were used to manufacture Christians--my words here. The government has closed most of them down. He said most of the children in Center of Peace were abused by family members. The grandmother of one child tried to bury her alive. When he asked them to chart their own journeys, one boy burst into tears. No one had asked him before.  But Brian added that he can't prod too much, because he has no idea how to put the pieces back together. To talk about trauma only sometimes alleviates it, as any reader of Holocaust or genocide literature knows. To talk about trauma can crack, break the nutshell that shields it.

Much of the rest of the trip seems an intense blur of events, children, games and songs, heat, roaming dogs and cats (in villages, restaurants, hotels), the sounds of dog fights at night and restaurant workers by day, calling out orders to the kitchen, long long dusty rides on the bumpy roads in a bus, and three days in Vietnam, where we were tourists and not relief workers or family. As these memories settle, doubtless some will come to the surface, earning their significance with time. But for now, one day and one day only stands out, comes back at all hours, and will. That was the day (December 24) when we visited our son's birth village in Takeo Province.

Several years ago a friend who adopted three Cambodian children with her husband told me that our former Phnom Penh driver was doing research for families who wanted to know their children's origins, that he had done work for her and her husband, that it was good work. Thinking we had nothing to lose, fearing that the corruption that ended all adoptions from Cambodia had touched ours, we asked him to do research for us. Not too long after I sent the first email to him, he sent back a long and very detailed report of his work, beginning with a bribe paid to the orphanage (which had told us nothing more than that our son was from Takeo Province, which is poor), and including two trips. He sent us a long story, a brief genealogy, and photographs.  A couple years later, Hongly's wife's relative Phally went to visit the village we learned about and sent more photographs. We went on this trip because Hongly said he would include the village on the itinerary if we came.

As the time drew near for the long ride to the village in Takeo Province, Sangha grew more and more anxious. He seemed angry that we'd taken him on the trip. He never much likes to travel, but is rarely hostile. There were a couple of evenings when I worried that the trip might implode for us over his unhappiness. I grew anxious that the story we had was not true (amazing how someone who doesn't believe in the truth in her own work suddenly becomes obsessed with it). Phally had made arrangements: there was to be a gift of rice, of lunch, of bicycles, and of the usual supplies. So we went.

As we drove through the arch that marks entry to the temple, an arch that reads Sambo Sakoa (or Ocean of Plenty) in Khmer, I saw a woman out the window to the left waiting for the bus. She was dressed in bright blue blouse and pants. I recognized her, but was unsure why. We got off the bus, stepping into a large public area near a huge gathering of children in white school shirts and many more villagers. An enormous sow walked around. But before I saw any of those clearly, she walked firmly up to Sangha and hugged him. She had tears in her eyes. She'd been in the photographs, was his aunt. Then, while certain moments stand out in my mind, others blur; there is no cause and effect any more, just feeling, confusion, sensation, confusion. The mission team did their bit for the gathered school children, including Sangha, who was called to say something by way of a Khmer translator. But we were drawn back into another crowd, one that contained two of Sangha's siblings, another aunt, a cousin (with orange hair and a cell phone), and dozens of curious onlookers. Photographs show Sangha and his birth family members in a tight circle inside another circle of people looking on.

Bryant and I left for a while to take photographs of the lake, what we could see of the village from its banks, the boats and large pigs strolling on the shore, rolling in the mud, stood in the quiet away from the central event. 

When we returned, we were told that there was a gathering at the one aunt's house, and we should  walk back out through the arch and into the village.  As we started down a small lane between houses (the village was very cramped for being in such a large landscape), a smiling woman stopped her motorbike and invited me on the back. I got on and off we went, down the lane, past people, past dogs, past pigs, past thatched and wooden houses, bouncing on the dirt road. She then led me to the gathering--more hundreds of people under a bright tarp--and Bryant and I were asked to sit on chairs that faced the crowd. Someone brought two glasses and a metal container of tea. Sangha sat in a small group in the front row of the large group. He was next to an old woman who turned out to be his grandmother; she looked stricken throughout the ceremony. She reached out and put her hand on his leg, then pulled it back. He also sat with siblings, a sister who had also been adopted out into Takeo Province at age four and had not returned until the day before this one, and a brother (another brother had left and has not been heard from). His aunt handed him a framed photograph (the photo only awkwardly nestles into the frame) of his birth mother, which he held on his lap. The town entertainer/MC took the mic and sang a song. Hongly was surprised that the song was so sad. But it was a song about losing someone you love and having that person return and so it made sense, even down to the moment he either forgot or claimed to forget the lyrics. Hongly called him to task for that, and the crowd laughed.

There were songs, and there was speaking by Hongly. At least a hundred people stared back, each adorned with a ticket pinned to their shirts and blouses indicating they'd had lunch sponsored by our group. Sangha began to look glassy-eyed, exhausted. Members of his birth family faded into their faces, showing little. And then we had to go. Sangha's orange-haired cousin took me by the arm and we tried to talk as we walked to the bus with the other aunty, more round-faced than the first, wearing a green blouse. We lingered at the bus, as others caught up to us. We got on the bus, Sangha near the back beside a the window, which he opened. Someone thrust a small school photo of Sangha from years ago at him. He pushed it back, wondering how the photograph had gotten there in the first place. Someone else stuck a piece of paper at him, pointing to his sister. It had on it a cell phone number and some names. And then we were gone.

When asked about the event the next day, Sangha said with great economy and wisdom that he'd felt "awkward, joyful because they are family, and sad when we left." He's given me permission to write this. I'm sure I have not done the day justice, but there will be many more days in which to meditate on what it means to find history, family, and then to see the moment close off again. To consider what it means to find family with whom one does not share language or culture. To meet family that's extremely poor and lives thousands of miles away. To acknowledge their grief, while permitting oneself joy in the presence of a son.

On the plane trip from Taipei to Japan's Narita Airport, I read an article in the International Herald Tribune about George Saunders, a writer whose work I know nothing about. It was one of those articles you read because you have time, not because you want to. Saunders came across as singularly wise, a man attuned to the teaching of writing as a spiritual rather than a professional activity. At one point in the interview, he talks about what it means to experience days when you observe everything: “For three or four days after that,” he said of the aftermath of a near plane crash, “it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.” These are days when a parent dies, a child is born or adopted, or the day we found Sangha's village and birth family. To be a writer means to cultivate these days, to try to have as many of them as you can. But they are necessarily rare. The universe opens a louver, then it closes. To have seen that shaft of light is what makes these days beautiful. To refuse the darkness that follows is a lesson at once spiritual and historical.

It was an honor traveling with Hongly and his team. I've known for a long time that Hongly is a remarkable man--Khmer Rouge survivor, community leader, husband, father--but what I learned on this trip is that he is also an ordinary person. There were over half a dozen other people like him on the trip, some older and less mobile than he is. Sambath Neuov, who was wheeled through every airport in a chair, submitted to all the rigors of the trip. Her lovely husband, Tan, to whom the TSA pays foolish attention. Muy Teck Chan, who sells aloha shirts in Waikiki and checks his stocks whenever wifi is up, bought ice cream and Cambodian malasadas and sugar cane juicers at every school stop, making both the vendors (their entire days' supply suddenly sold) and the children happy. Renee Keo, who said only that Thailand's refugee camps were awful places--she volunteered for the Red Cross so that she had something to eat--loved having her hair done by my daughter, and by hers. Her husband also came to Hawai`i in 1981. James and Yun Chan, Hongly and Chana, all of them ordinary beautiful people.

Relevant Tinfish publication, Corpse Watching, by Sarith Peou, can be found here (free pdf).


sandrapark said...

Thanks, a big story told with tact.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a big story told with grace, awe and deep wisdom as to the nature of history and identity. Aside from the depth of observation and place and an intimacy of seeing that which only a mother such as you can see, i loved how you wrote about Cambodia, your sleek sentences, your masterful art of description. Your love is big!