While in Cambodia, our class has been learning of the tragic past of the Khmer Rouge and how it nearly destroyed the country. Over 40 years later, we venture through the country and see evidence of its past. However, we see that the manner in which people of Cambodia act is unexpected.
To prepare for our trip, our class had to read a book written by Loung Ung. First They Killed My Father is a powerful memoir where Ung recounted her life in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came into power. The details that were included in the text made it all the more powerful. From the age of five when the Khmer Rouge first entered Phnom Penh to the age of 8 when Ung and her brother, Meng, sought refuge in Thailand with Meng's wife before coming to America, Ung wrote out the path to survival. She discussed the details of how her sisters and parents lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge. The suffering was put into great detail and many of our students cried while reading the book. But many have reflected on how writing such a memoir and its sequel, Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites With The Sister She Left Behind, has affected the author. The writing process itself is quite lengthy and the author would be left with these dark memories for a long time. But there is also a sense of pride in letting others know what her experiences were like. To us, it would seem like a daunting task, but for Ung, it seems that she is sharing her strength with all of her readers.
While in Phnom Penh, our class took a trip to the S-21 prison where students had the opportunity to meet a man who survived in one of the cells. We had walked through the building and seen how prisoners were forced to live. We were taught about what kinds of torture methods were applied in order for the Khmer Rouge to obtain information of justifications for killing the prisoners. Mr. Chum Mey, a survivor from the Khmer Rouge time, walked us to his cell and was able to reenact how he lived. He placed the shackles that kept him bound in his cell on his ankle and showed us how he managed to survive. Some of the things he had to do to survive were things we could never imagine ourselves doing, but when it comes to survival, one has to do what one has to do. What surprised most of us was the fact that even as Mr. Chum Mey was telling us all of the graphic details, he was able to do so with a smile. He seemed lighthearted and answered all of our questions. There didn't seem to be any tears from him, only the sharing of memories.
The students have been discussing how people in Cambodia have been recovering from the devastation left by the Khmer Rouge. At the same time, students have been keeping in mind how people in America deal with tragic events. Many of us have discussed how we would have to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and seek counseling for what was experienced. Others said that we would have to avoid triggers that would take us back to such tragic events. But we have seen how these individuals have shown a special kind of strength. They remember history and share it with others. They do so to remind us to learn from history. Many of our students are baffled by how these people who have undergone absolutely horrible events are still able to remind themselves of the Khmer Rouge daily. Some students are also taking some time to reflect on how we ourselves deal with such struggles. We now see how even our methods for coping with tragic events are taught to us by society. Our norms tell us how to handle these situations. And with different societies that have different norms, there are different ways of dealing with grief. When faced with difficulties in our lives, sometimes it takes a quite strength to accept what has happened and educate the future of what it takes to endure.