Upset Skies

photo courtesy of

“Do you know what we call this sky?” Mak asked, glancing up. Her hands clasped the steering wheel.

I peered through the windshield. Low lying storm clouds hovered above us, against a dark gray sky.

“During the Khmer Rouge, we called it, Maig Bee Bak Jet. Upset skies…”

“Why, Mak?” I turned towards the driver seat to look at my mom.

She bit her lip, paused for a moment. Then, her eyes began to water.

“Because during the Khmer Rouge, only when the sky looked like this- with dark clouds like it’s going to rain, that is the only time when I was free to cry.”

Her grief unleashed quiet, painful tears from the corner of her eyes.

“If I was hungry or sick,
Or my sister was starving,
Or my mom was dying,
I could not cry.
If I cried, I would be killed.

Only in Maig bee bak jet, were my tears masked by the rainfall.”

A lump grew thick inside my throat.

In the Khmer language, the word jet, means heart. Not the physical form (as a cardiac muscle) but heart, as an emotional state of being.

To describe different emotions in Khmer, you simply change the adjective associated with jet, your heart.

For example, in English, the word “angry” could be described as kdauv jet, a hot heart. Or “happy” could be described as ping jet, a full heart.

So when Mak describes the sky as Maig bee bak jet, it translates to:
Skies with a difficult heart.
Broken hearted skies. Upset skies.

On a seemingly normal day, I was unraveling small pieces of Mak’s tragic past, and learning what it means to be a daughter of genocide, one heartbreaking story at a time…

my head swarms; my heart is about to burst at its seams.

Maig bee bak jet…

I understand now, Mak.


16 thoughts on “Upset Skies

  1. Oh, what a powerful story. To be prohibited from expressing feelings, under penalty of death – a cruel torture. Wonderful that she survived to share that story, and to connect the past with the very sky.

  2. The Thai language has many “heart” words like you describe, too. “jai” being heart, and “jai rawn” being hot heart or bad tempered. “jai dee” is to have a good heart.

    One day I’d like to go to Cambodia, possibly to even live, but I don’t know how well I can handle the dark side of it. These days I hear how much Cambodia is growing and booming. I hope it can turn a tragic past into a beautiful future.


    • I’m not surprised that there’s a similar context for “heart” in Thai, there are so many similarities between the 2 languages especially since they’re both based on Sanskrit.

      If you get the chance to go to Cambodia one day, you should totally visit, it’s your neighbor 🙂 by yes, facing trauma and suffering is difficult no matter where you are. I think there is hope that arises from suffering though; we have to have the eyes to envision it and embrace it. At least, that’s one of my goals here through writing and this blog.

      Thanks for all your encouraging comments!

  3. heartbreaking. BIG hugs to your family. especially to your mum. who knew a nice scenic view with such overcast sky could trigger tears. thank you for sharing.

  4. It’s a scary world we live in. I did some research on Khmer Rouge the last time I’d read your post about the escape or something like that. I had no knowledge about such tragedy until then. I’m sorry that your mother had to go through that heartbreaking experience.

    It’s a beautiful picture attached to this post, by the way.

    • Yeah, it’s really mortifying that genocide happens over and over again. After the holocaust, it happened in Cambodia, then Bosnia, then Rwanda… History repeats itself. I write to bring light to these stories that haven’t been told.

      And the photo is courtesy of Ethan Crowley, you can visit his blog in the link above.

  5. Oh, speaking of the usage of “heart”, having a cool heart in our language means relaxed. If you’re not having a cool heart, then you’re anxious or worried about something.
    Strangely, I was just thinking about this this morning that most of the terms of endearment are said in our language with the word, “liver” instead of “heart”. Of course, we would say “I love you with all my heart”, but when you call someone you love, you’d say “a the` (sounds like thair) lay” which means “little liver”. We commonly call their loved ones as “my love” or “my liver” and rarely, “my heart”. It does sound kinda cute in Burmese but doesn’t sound so romantic anymore when you translate it into English, huh? Just a thought that came into my mind. 😀

    • Oh that’s so interesting! Yes language is so intriguing to me- I love all the nuances that come with a language and it’s culture, it’s context. It’s really cool. I didn’t know that in Burmese you’d say “little liver” with affection or adoration… That is cute!

      I am so encouraged and appreciate all your comments, thanks for putting so much heart… Or liver… Into them 🙂

      • Haha. Some friends of mine told me that “a the`” in our language also indicates the heart. It has the same pronunciation as the liver but has different spelling, according to them. For example, when we say “heart-shaped”, we used the same word, “a the` pone”. Not the word “heart” (hna lone) directly. Okay, never mind. Our language is pretty confusing even for the native speakers. 😛
        I’m not going to give you headaches anymore.
        Hope you have a nice day!

      • Lol, no, it’s not giving me a headache! I love learning new languages (I think I have an affinity for picking them up quickly) so this is really cool! There are several Burmese families in this area but I think they speak Karen which is a different dialect from Burmese, is that right?

      • Yes, it’s true. There are several hundreds of dialects spoken in the country, and I don’t know how to speak any of them except for the official Burmese language.

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