I was twenty when I first met a Khmer Rouge soldier. He looked like my grandpa. I travelled to Cambodia in the summer of 2007, without my parents – they said it was still “too soon”. They took thirty years to return because what is time, when memories continue to splinter your psyche?
I had just arrived in Battambang City, a province in northwestern Cambodia and my father’s birthplace. Almost immediately after I checked into a guesthouse with Nicole, my friend and travelling companion, the skies opened up and it started to rain. Softly at first, but after a few minutes the deluge became much heavier. It was increasingly apparent we would have to wait it out before continuing our adventures. I remember sitting on a wooden bench by the entrance of the guesthouse, watching the rain.
An old man, probably in his eighties, sat down next to me and lit up a cigarette. The conversation began in the usual and ordinary way. He asked me what I was doing in Cambodia, where I was born, and what part of Cambodia my parents came from. He was interested to know how I felt about “coming home”. This was not unlike other conversations I’d been having at the time.
In my childlike Khmer, I asked where he grew up and what he used to do for work. He replied, “I was a Khmer Rouge soldier. Do you know about the Khmer Rouge?”
A lump formed in my throat, and my heart started beating rapidly. All I could bring myself to say was “ja” (yes). I was not used to talking about the Khmer Rouge with anyone really, much less an elder. All I knew about the Khmer Rouge at the time was what I had read in books and seen in documentaries: that it was brutal and violent. But this man was nice, and he seemed like all the other Cambodian elders I had met. Because of his gentle and friendly nature, it was harrowing yet confusing to imagine that he could have perpetrated such horrific acts. I realised there was so much that I didn’t know. The ghosts of the past were a lot more complex than I understood them to be.
The story of how I got here is not an uncommon one. I am the daughter of survivors of the Killing Fields. The place I was born does not exist anymore. My parents lived in a refugee camp for almost a decade before migrating to Australia, after fleeing the Cambodian genocide.
I grew up in a predominately white, middle-class area, full of nuclear families and backyard swimming pools. But my life was different to the lives of my friends. I lived with my grandmother and uncles. We ate meals together on the kitchen floor. My sisters and I slept in the living room on a foam mattress that we would drag from our parents’ room every night. We worked after school and on weekends, assembling different car parts like oil filter caps and door panel clips that my dad brought home from the factory where he worked.
On Saturday mornings, we tried really hard to get out of going to Cambodian school. I spoke English with my friends and Khmer with my family. I hated speaking Khmer in front of my friends. While I felt loved and infinitely cared for, I also felt anxious and tense. I don’t remember when I discovered that the Cambodian genocide was a part of my history. I don’t think there was a single defining moment.
Over time, I learnt other things too. I learnt that some family members – uncles, aunts and grandparents – had died during the Khmer Rouge years. I learnt that my mum and dad were assigned to the same labour camp and that was where they met and got married. I learnt to notice when my mum described it as an “arranged marriage”, while my dad called it a “love marriage”. I learnt there was never enough food. I learnt that my sisters and I were all born in refugee camps. I learnt that I was born two months premature, that I weighed less than 500 grams and that I am lucky to be alive. I learnt that my dad doesn’t like to talk about the Khmer Rouge times and that my mum does, but only to an extent. I learnt not to ask questions.
When my mum felt compelled, she would sometimes tell me stories about Cambodia: “We slept among dead bodies,” or, “Your uncle sucked blood right from the ox! You know like in that bit in the Killing Fields?” Or that one time when I was twelve and she said, “I only married your dad because he wasn’t missing any limbs.” She looked at me, laughed, and continued chopping the heads off dead fish on the kitchen floor. But because her words mostly fell in fragments and pieces, I spent a lot of time looking; looking for anything that would help fill the gaps in my understanding, anything that could shine a light on the ghosts of the past.
Some days it felt like there were too many stories, and too many thoughts. But mostly, I got used to silence. I don’t remember a time when I was not aware of the presence of the Cambodian genocide in my life. Through the illuminating process of writing and reflection, what was an inchoate and abstract feeling slowly became a powerful and affective force in my life. But, as Cambodian-American performer Jolie Chea writes, “Stories do not only come in the form of words.” While there was a linguistic wall that separated my parents and myself, the wall was not strong enough to block out all the stories. Images, behaviours, feelings, grief, silence: all of these things tell stories. All of these things leave their mark.
We all carry broken things. Because of my family’s history, I’ve often wondered what kinds of memories manifest from wounds and ruptures, from layers of pain and assault so great there are no words. In Alice Pung’s Her Father’s Daughter, a memoir about her father’s experiences during the Cambodian genocide, she writes how, “There should be a word for a memory that you had deliberately forgotten to remember: a Dismemory.”
Some days it felt like there were too many stories, and too many thoughts. But mostly, I got used to silence.
Like Alice’s father, my parents tried to seal away their dismemories – their too-painful-to-remember memories – but through deafening silence, fragmented recollections, emotional distance, and at times, unbearable protectiveness, the ghosts of the past took up residence in my life. My parents’ dismemories found a way to seep out of the vessels that contained them. When these ineffable memories travel across time and space, they can take on different forms – they’re incubated, transmitted and embodied by subsequent generations.
As Grace Cho poetically argues: “Transgenerational haunting creates a scattering of memory that is material and affective, even if not fully articulated. This memory lives in the bodily matter of the survivors and in the earth from which ghost flames arise, and it stretches across time and space.” Without the vocabulary, this “scattering” can feel like a haunting. In my case, it takes the form of unanswered questions, the black-and-white photographs of deceased relatives silently looking on, casual references to “the war”, the hoarding of rice and canisters of fresh water, stories of the dead visiting in dreams, the faded blue ink on my dad’s shoulder and chest. These “haunting legacies” are nowhere and everywhere, occurring outside but experienced within.
I have been haunted by ghosts my whole life: the figurative, the immaterial and the literal. In her final days, on her deathbed, in her small room in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne, my maternal grandmother, depleted from years and years of sadness, chronic illness, and pain, told me that her husband and children who had died during “samay a-Pot” (the “Pol Pot times”) had come back to this world, that they were standing at the foot of her bed, waiting for her. A few hours later, I overhead some relatives talking. They said my grandma had to dig her son’s grave and bury him. I still don’t know if this is true, but the image of my grandma slumped over her son’s lifeless body has stayed with me. I wish I’d never heard it.
It’s been over a decade since my grandma passed away. She died in March, but the heat was so strong I didn’t notice the end of summer. I visited her every day after uni, covered in sweat from the forty-minute drive in my beat-up unairconditioned car. My grandma was living with my aunt at the time, and we thought that because a nurse came around once a week there was still hope. We thought she might get better. The nurse was kind and gentle, and after few weeks, she gave us brochures about palliative care. But because they were written in English, none of the adults in my family could read them. After a long and hard battle with illness, my grandma finally departed this world, leaving behind a suitcase full of unanswered questions and the promise she wasn’t going far.
The ghosts drove me to study a masters in international development and move to Cambodia, out of guilt perhaps, to work with those who were left behind. Guilt born out of privilege is a very interesting thing. The ghosts compelled me to come back to Australia, to work with immigrant and refugee women. Women, who like my mum, carry the scars of trauma and dislocation. And now, they are with me while I study my PhD, walking the halls of academia, pushing me to explore bigger questions about trauma, memory and identity.
In grappling with her own experiences of inherited trauma, Grace Cho asks: “How does one work through this paradox of telling a story about loss that is unnameable and trauma that is dislocated and materialises in the forms far removed from the traumatic event itself?” In other words, how do I describe a sensation that feels scattered, incomplete and probably not even mine to begin with?
“Why are you worrying yourself with that nonsense?” I can imagine my parents saying. I have not told them the topic of my PhD is the legacies of the Cambodian genocide, because I know they did not come to Australia just so I could fixate on the past, as if the act of invoking the past is what sustains it. I know their children’s wellbeing was what gave them the strength to continue, that our lives began as soon as we landed in Australia, and that what happened in Cambodia should stay there. “We came to Australia so you could have a better life.”
I try to embody “better life” every day, but in bearing witness to my parents’ pain, I have grown up with the legacies of trauma; I carry them with me everywhere I go. Despite my parents’ greatest efforts to protect me, traces of historical trauma have crucially informed my biography. They are a part of me; they have left their imprints on me, inscribed my body and manifested themselves in the way I move through the world.
Toni Morrison points out how “invisible things are not necessarily not there”. I have been obsessed with this question of “invisible things” for a long time: what do we miss if we devote our attention only to what we can see? To what we can touch, or to what is tangible? What gets lost if we ignore the murmurs and the impulses, the feelings that are too hard to express, but are nonetheless unshakable?
My whole life I have been haunted by the “things not there”, and my whole life I have tried to ignore them. Only at thirty-one am I beginning to understand the weight of the past. But it can be challenging at times. In welcoming the “things” head on, I find myself mourning for things I’ve never had: absent family members, photographs destroyed by the regime, the ability to speak the same language as my parents, a sense of unashamed Cambodian-ness and belonging that comes from not being ‘othered’. Like a lot of children of migrants and refugees, the knowledge that my ‘good life’ in Australia has come at a huge expense is overwhelming and something I continue to negotiate. Over the years I have learnt that guilt can be productive, or it can suffocate. Often, the line is very fine.
I reflect on the stories I have read by writers like Alice Pung, Eva Hoffman and Grace Cho – women with traces of historical trauma in their blood. In the beginning I looked for clues, answers maybe, to the questions I have about my own life. It’s only now, in all of my uncertainty, that I’m beginning to understand the ghosts. For while I still describe the ‘hauntings’ as visceral, painful sometimes, I don’t dismiss the feelings like I used to. My small attempts at tracing the past have already revealed so much about how I am in the present.
I now have a language for the strange sensation I feel under my skin, the sense of loss and heaviness that lived in me as a child, and that continues to linger as an adult, and the shadows that hide in the corners of the everyday. They don’t frighten me as much as they used to. Yes, trauma is a part of my parent’s story, but perhaps it’s not the only part of their story that matters.
While my parents experienced horror, loss and human brutality on an unimaginable scale, I must always remember that they survived. They’re survivors. And that too, has left its mark.
Maria Hach is PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on the affectivity of historical trauma among Cambodian-Australia women. Maria has a background working in immigrant and refugee women’s health, cross-cultural education, advocacy and community development.