Downsizing bDownsizing in old age can be painful. You have to make choices about keeping or discarding precious items. These things have clung to you, following you through a succession of moves to new places, finding their way into different boxes or onto other shelves. Each time you have touched them, you’ve asked yourself, “Why do you hang on to these? You don’t need them anymore.”

Sitting on my shelf was a set of fifteen DVDs that I had purchased through the Internet in 2004 to use as resource material for the book that I was writing with Chhalith Ou. Chhalith was one of more than a hundred Cambodian refugees that I had helped to sponsor in the early 1980’s, bringing them out of the Khao-I-Dang border camp in Thailand and into the United States before this camp closed shutting out any hope for a better life. I had been the administrator of a program that had worked with the former Travelers Aid Society of Metropolitan Chicago to find housing, food, health services, education, jobs, and much more for the refugees that we agreed to sponsor. We were one of the few groups that were willing to work with larger families and hence the sizable number of individuals that came in through us. In time, many of them became my close friends.

One evening in 2003, I sat next to Chhalith at a wedding reception for a Cambodian couple, and as we chatted, I said to him, “You should tell your story.”

“Maybe I should,” he said, and we said no more about it as we became immersed in the chitchat of the group at the table.

A few weeks later, Chhalith called me and said, “I would like to tell my story. Would you help?” I was surprised, but agreed, having no idea of what I was getting into. Thus began one of those ventures that is truly life-changing, for me certainly, and I believe for Chhalith and his extended family. For the next seven years, (yes, SEVEN YEARS) he and I met together on Wednesdays for up to six hours at a time to recall his time as a child, age twelve to sixteen, separated from his parents, surviving life under the Khmer Rouge.  I was retired and a widow, so I had the time to do this. Chhalith, after working the night shift at a bank in downtown Chicago would drive north to Evanston to talk with me.

SE Asia map

Our methodology was that I would encourage him to recall whatever was on his mind on that particular day, while I listened and probed for details such as what did something look like (size, color, composition, etc.), smell like, feel like to the touch, sound like, and so on. Chhalith has a brilliant engineer’s mind and could recall and analyze how things were built, how organizations function, and so on, but expressing his feelings came with great difficulty. On the days that we were not meeting, I spent hours transcribing the tapes of our interviews and studying whatever literature and information that I could find about the war that preceded the Communist takeover of Cambodia and the years following when the Khmer Rouge were in power.

Tonle Sap poster
It was on my trip to Southeast Asia in 2005 that I learned how very different life in Cambodia was from that to which the refugees had to adjust in America.
Click HERE to see photos.

I am a Caucasian American woman whose only experience of war was as a child during World War II living on a dairy farm in Wisconsin watching relatives being drafted and coming home from Europe, Asia, and German prison camps. With Chhalith, I was interviewing a man from a totally different race and culture, who was attempting to remember his experiences as a teenager from twenty years before, during the time of a war that I barely understood. It seemed important to get everything right, so I checked and re-checked the information that Chhalith gave me, read numerous books, and went to Cambodia in 2005 to see the terrain for myself. His recollections were consistently accurate as far as I could determine.

At some point, when I was searching the Internet for additional material I came across a website that was offering for sale, fifteen DVDs about the Khmer Rouge war (A sixteenth DVD was filled with Cambodian music). I bought them immediately, and they turned out to be the most important resource of all. The DVDs are an accumulation of video clips in English, French, and in the Khmer language. Chhalith and I watched them together, pausing them whenever he wanted to explain something that I might not understand. I could not believe my good fortune in having found these DVDs. I have since looked for the Internet site from which they came, and have not found it. It seemed to have vanished as soon as I bought and received the DVDs.

Chh SpareThem cover blogI titled our book Spare Them? No Profit. Remove Them? No Loss., a long title, yes, but it was one of the many sayings of Pol Pot the architect of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia that seemed to sum up the theme of Khmer Rouge behavior through that dark period of time. During my trip through Southeast Asia in 2005, I had found a red-covered paperback book in a Saigon bookstore called Pol Pot’s Little Red Book, The Sayings of Angkor by Henri’ Locard. The term Angkor was used to refer to a mysterious and hidden organization that controlled the people within the closed borders of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. This book didn’t seem to be available in the United States then, so I considered it to be one of my resource treasures. Now, one can order it from Amazon.com.

In my effort to downsize, I knew that I had to let go of the background materials that I had gathered for my 2010 book, and that would have to include my DVDs:

  • Here was a documentary narrated by Bill Kurtis giving a compelling and compassionate summary of what happened to the Cambodian people.
  • Here was a  clip of the United States ambassador to Viet Nam saying how he had stood on a hill inside Viet Nam and “saw it happen.” He saw the smoke of fires scattered throughout the countryside in Cambodia as villages were all being burned at the same time.
  • Here were many clips from Khmer Rouge films that they themselves had taken  of the horrors that they had inflicted upon the people. We see thousands of people going back and forth digging and carrying dirt to build a huge dam using little equipment but their hands. Chhalith was there. He was one of those people.
  • Here was the story of the life of Norodom Sihanhouk, some of it in his own words. He tells of the Buddhist prediction of Black People coming to Cambodia and emptying the streets and buildings of the cities and villages. The Khmer Rouge came, he says, and they wore black pajamas. They were the “black people” that had been predicted. The prediction was true. “It was astrology!”

You just can’t find resource material better than this. Someone, somewhere, at sometime, brought all these videos together, and by chance, it landed in my hands. How could I let go of it now, just because I was getting old. Well, that is exactly why I am letting go; someone will find them as amazing as I did, and they may need the information just as I did. These DVDs should not have sat on my shelf for so long. They must be shared with those who are studying genocide and war and the nature of human behavior. Apparently Rutgers University has a department that purportedly does just this, but their website is out-of-date, and the contact person is no longer there. Coincidentally, just a few weeks ago, Chicago’s National Cambodian Heritage Museum was screening a new film at a local theater: Angkor Awaken: A Portrait of Cambodia with a Q&A by Director Robert H. Lieberman, so I attended and, that’s where I met Vany Wells.

Vany is the currant president of the National Cambodian Heritage Museum. Because of Vany’s enthusiasm for the work of the Heritage Center in preserving the music, dance, art, and other aspects of traditional Cambodian life, I felt that this would be a good place to leave my DVDs and other materials for future use. I invited Vany and her husband Bruce to come to my home to pick up the background materials that I had gathered for writing Spare Them? No Profit. Remove Them? No Loss. The cardboard box and the shopping bag that they carried away seemed so small.

I suppose “Letting Go of Cambodia” may be the wrong way to think about this particular downsizing. I will never let go of the admiration that I feel for the people who survived one of the worst genocides of our time and who are still struggling to recover as they raise children who only want to live their own lives in their own way in the land that they call home. I am so grateful for the friendships that I made that continue to this day.  As long as I live, I will remember….

I kept copies of these precious DVDs and, although it will be a big project in itself, I hope soon to convert them into a form that can be loaded onto YouTube and viewed by anyone who wants or needs to see them.  In the meantime, you can view the 12-minute video that I created from the DVDs HERE.  

2 thoughts on “Downsizing: Letting Go of Cambodia

  1. Thank you. I am very interested in watching your video. My husband and I sponsored a Chinese Cambodian family in 1979. We also live in Evanston. I have written a book based on my friend’s experience as a Vietnamese boat person entitled Out of the Dragon’s Mouth. I have read your book and appreciated it very much. Miriam Kelm is also a friend of mine.

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    1. Thanks so much for responding. One of the largest families that we sponsored was Chinese Cambodian. One of them continues as the owner of the Van Phat Chinese Restaurant in Chicago. Vany Wells tells me that the Chicago community of Cambodians is only about 5,000 people, so our sponsorees may be acquainted with one another.

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