Invisible Wounds

the horror that haunts us. (Tuol Sleng, Cambodia, 2006).

history that haunts us. (Tuol Sleng, Cambodia)

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.”

I nodded.

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


7 thoughts on “Invisible Wounds

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your families experiences….I can’t even begin to imagine how it must of being for your family but you are right, there are invisible wounds….I got no answers or solutions but I just want to thank you for sharing…..God bless

  2. I really like the way you’ve written this, Sophia. The way you tell us a story while showing us where your mind is going. What happened in WWII, and in Cambodia during Pol Pot and all the rest… is unspeakable. Horrendous. Awful. Unimaginable. And I think you bring up a good point that, while it’s easy to shrug off genocide with words such as the ones I just used when it isn’t your family, when it *is* your family you’re referring to… things become a little bit different. It’s terrible what people can do to each other during difficult times. I guess we just have to cling to hope, and to the little things that make life beautiful — a smile, a child’s laugh, an act of kindness. These are the things that make life worthwhile.

  3. Gosh, your posts sometimes bring tears to my eyes. It’s not always easy to talk to my parents about their past in Cambodia during the genocide, but sometimes I feel there is a disconnect between us. I think it’s because it is very difficult for them to peel back the layers, and just lay out in the open with the truths of how they truly felt when all of that was going on. I pray that our ancestors find a way to let go, and let the Universe in.

    • indeed, as you comment elaine, i feel the same way too. there is a disconnect. many survivors instantly classify people in their minds. like “war survivor” and “non war survivor.” or “suffered much” and “didn’t suffer at all.” you are either a victim of the genocide, or not. and when you’re in the category of survivors, you instantly can identify with the suffering of others- and likewise, feel set apart from anyone who didn’t experience such trauma. it’s really sad, but it is reality.

      some survivors are ready to share their stories, some aren’t. over time i hope and pray our parents/elders are able to do that, to openly share with their children so that we can learn, grow, and understand the things that happened to them. i have observed though, that as i get older, there is a little more openness because with age, i can handle the truth. because the truth hurts, and when i was younger, my parents knew i couldn’t handle it.

      hope that this post (and my other writing as well) encourages you to dive deeper and ask questions, seek answers, and learn more about your family and history. =)

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