Why do we always end up here?
We drove along, cramped in the car, but together. Family finally in the same city. The Christmas lights twinkled. The carols played. The holiday spirit in the air.
But those invisible wounds, the painful memories buried deep beneath the chest, began to resurface. We were discussing tensions between neighboring countries in Asia, and the consequences that result when those countries go to war.
“My aunt hid inside a closet, in fear of invading soldiers,” my husband shared. It was a small glimpse of his family’s history during World War II.
I paused, a bit startled. Previously, I knew very little about Hong Kong’s history. My knowledge consisted of half a day’s visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History, and reading Lee’s The Piano Teacher, a fiction novel based during the Battle of Hong Kong and the Japanese Occupation. I never truly grasped war’s impact on our family.
Did Ee Ma tremble in that closet? Did she go out or was she afraid of being kidnapped and raped? Did she have friends who had been victimized by the soldiers? Did the family go into hiding during the entire occupation?
~ ~ ~
Ba listened. He has always been eager to listen, slow to speak, and wise in his response.
He replied, “When humans go to war, this is how they become. It doesn’t matter if you are neighbors who become enemies. There is no regard to race or ethnicity. All humans, in those circumstances…they are competent of committing the most horrible things.”
As Ba said these words, suddenly, I was catapulted into his world. “There is no regard to race or ethnicity.” Of course.. Ba knew this from his own harrowing, horrific experience. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge killed their own people- Khmer hating on Khmer.
Did Ba’s heart pound in fear, hearing the other prisoner being interrogated behind the wall? Did he jump to the sound of gun shots at night? Did he panic after hearing the soldier’s talk about the stench in the killing fields? Did he surrender the will to live, thinking he was next?
~ ~ ~
My mind rewinded to several years ago, on our first trip to Cambodia as a family.
When we visited Tuol Sleng, we walked by the torture cells from the outside of the school building. Ba’s words echoed in my mind. “If I had been imprisoned here [at Tuol Sleng], in this type of cell, with these types of bars on the windows… I would not have escaped like I did. I would not have survived.”
In those haunted hallways, my stomach churned in disgust. I wanted to vomit all the terror I had witnessed walking through Tuol Sleng. I wanted to purge all the images of Ba barely escaping the prison he was in, a prison in the countryside. I wanted to erase those thoughts and deny that they were real.
But it was all real. And there was no way to escape this reality.
~ ~ ~
The next day, Mak waited with me at the aiport before I boarded my flight.
A few chairs over, an Asian woman, with black and silver streaked hair, overheard our conversation in Khmer. There aren’t many Cambodians in my hometown, so hearing someone speak her native language, she introduced herself.
Meng (*Aunt) explained that she was flying out to see one of her daughters. “On my time off from work, I travel and visit each of my kids, in 3 different cities. My husband died during Pol Pot (the Cambodian genocide from 1975-1979), so I’m widowed….”
“So you survived the war, kept your 3 children alive, and brought them to the States…all by yourself? Looking back, you must feel such sadness,” Mak commented, probably reflecting upon her own loss during the war.
“Jaah, sra nos, sra nouk” she answered, in Khmer.
“What does that phrase mean, sra nos, sra nouk?” I asked. It was a phrase I had never heard of before.
“It means: to look back at your past with regret, with sorrow.”
There I stood, carry-on luggage in hand, backpack on my shoulders, ready to fly back, to resume my daily life.
Wherever I go, whether it’s back home, on the road, or on a plane… the past continues to confront me. Despite being born and raised in America, the horror my family experienced and the effects of genocide… I still grapple and wrestle with those effects, everyday. Trauma and tragedy were sewn into my family’s roots, woven into my life history. The wounds remain invisible, but they are still there.
I don’t quite understand… but yet I do.
~ ~ ~
(*in Khmer, familial titles are used out of politeness, even for strangers)
Currently listening: Lily and Madeleine, Back to the River