“First They Killed My Father”

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Haley Kemper
Book Response Two
11/24/2011

I have just finished reading ‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung and tears are streaming down my face. I set out into Cambodia exactly one week ago in the hopes of experiencing the vast Angkor Temple complex and to get a small taste of Cambodia and its people. In the taxi ride from the border of Poi Pet I read a little bit of history out of my Lonely Planet guide, not only about the temples but of the country itself. Exactly one week ago was when I first learned about the civil war in Cambodia. I am deeply ashamed of this fact and at the first opportunity I bought a book that would help teach me about it. I was never even taught about the Vietnam war in school, let alone the Cambodian civil war. I had heard the words Khmer Rouge and The Killing Fields but had no idea who they were or what they meant.

My first day at the Angkor Temples I asked my tuk-tuk driver to stop after the third small temple so that I might buy some water. I was immediately hounded by about eight young girls and young women all trying to get me to buy their “cold drink” and coconuts. One of the young women stood out to me. She was standing a bit farther back from the rest of the girls and clutched in her arms were a great stack of books. Knowing myself well, and the future librarian that I will be, I immediately pushed my way through to her and asked to see her books. The first book she handed to me was, “First They Killed My Father.” I opened the cover and read:

“From 1975-1979–through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor–the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population. This is a story of survival; my own and my family’s. Though these events constitute my experience, my story mirrors that of millions of Cambodians, if you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too.”

As I re-type that section I am overcome with all that I have read, and especially the last line of that excerpt. This is a story of a young girl’s survival. Her story of losing two of her sisters, her mother, and her father, and of enduring unimaginable hardships and losses. This is a story where Loung Ung, at the time a child of five years, transports you to the battlefields of Cambodia, to the labor camps, child soldier camps, and makes you see, smell, and feel all that she saw, smelled, and felt. It could have been any of us, is what Ung tells me.

While I went on a physical journey through the temples at Angkor, I simultaneously went on a mental and emotional journey with Luong Ung and all the other millions that suffered and died nearly forty years ago at the hands of their own people. In the temples I sought out any kind of connection from the Hinduism and Buddhism of the past to the Cambodian people of the present. In Siem Reap I saw no temples-no wats- and I never experienced a Cambodian praying or practicing Buddhism. For a country so steeped in religious history I was immensely surprised to find a current country and people almost without any religion at all. Why was this? I kept asking myself.

Now that I have finished the book and completed my short time in Cambodia, I perhaps know why. Throughout the memoir Luong Ung shares with us her journey, but more importantly she shares with us her confusion, anger, sadness, hurt, and hatred [for the Khmer Rouge]. Many times she says that she wants to “kill every soldier” and “make them suffer” like they made her suffer when she lost her Pa, Ma, Keav, and Geak. Buddhists, and Buddhism, as a rule, do not practice anger, hatred, revenge or anything of the sort. They practice understanding, compassion, nonviolence, and forgiveness. With all that the Cambodians faced during these four years, it seems to me Buddhism wasn’t enough to keep them going, to keep them fighting for life, to keep their hope. If you, like Luong, had experienced the death of four of your family members, seen soldiers beat, torture, and kill neighbors and other fellow people like yourself, I bet you, too, would find it hard to keep your compassion for them. What got Luong, and I’m sure many other Cambodians through the war was their passion: their anger and most importantly, their will to live. Buddhism was mentioned once in the book, near the very end when Luong and her brother Meng are at a refugee camp in Thailand. Meng has just willingly been baptized and Luong says, “but I thought we were Buddhist.” Meng tells her that it is easier to get sponsored in the U.S. if you are Christian. One single mention out of an entire book.

Not only in the book but even now in present day Cambodia you don’t see much evidence of Buddhism. Perhaps a large part of this is because religion was outlawed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (among other things such as dancing, singing, music, etc) and perhaps it never really made a comeback. Another reason could be that so much of Cambodia is farmland with very small villages rather than larger towns and cities where temples would have a chance at being maintained and built. I didn’t spend enough time in Cambodia to find out, but it was strange feeling the absence of religion while I was visiting the largest religious site in the world.

This book left me gasping for breath in many sections, crying in others, and bewilderment at the Khmer Rouge in most chapters. Luong Ung taught me about her people. She taught me about the horrible things Cambodia had to endure in the late seventies and she made me question my lack of knowledge. If I didn’t know about this, how many other similar things have gone on in this world even in the past 50 years that I don’t know about? Through her writing Ung encouraged me, and encourages others, to not close their eyes to the violence and mistreatment of people on this earth. She shares her story so that silently, other stories can be shared as well. She gives a voice to all those people murdered during the genocide and will continue to give a voice to those who wish to share their own stories but, for their own reasons, cannot.

This book has opened up a curiosity within me, not only about the Cambodian civil war, but about Buddhism as well. Buddhism preaches (in its own sense of the word) compassion, nonviolence, and the understanding and accepting of suffering so as to move through it. You then have three countries who are undergoing and underwent some of the toughest oppressions on earth: Tibet, Burma, and Cambodia, all three countries of Buddhism.

At the end of my trip to Cambodia I bought two other books detailing aspects of the civil war: “S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison” but David Chandler, the author of “Brother Number One” and “When Broken Glass Floats” by Chanrithy Him, a memoir about the “killing fields” and the Khmer Rouge regime. My learning about this time in history will continue for many years to come, and I look forward to sharing my experiences with the world and my new knowledge with others.

The temples and their people (style 2: sestina)

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The scarred, carved stone walls crumble
Before my eyes, much like the tears
That run down the faces of the people. How
Have they survived under this beating sun
The harsh and cruel world of death?
Strength, of both the people and the temples

Courses through the veins of the earth, where the temples
Stand and the men and women work away at the crumbling
Earth with hoe and scythe, fighting death
With rice and water beneath the scorching sun,
Each day a testament to their will to live. How

Is it that the Khmer Rouge killed so many? How
Is it that these ancient temples
Stand under the watchful eye of the sun?
This country has survived the crumbling
Of its very heart, the tears
Of its people filling the fields of death.

S-21 and its ghosts of torture and death
Was unknown for far too long, how
Did those men ignore the tears
So many shed that filled each temple
To the brim? The children watched their parents crumble
Under the heavy hammer of the Khmer Rouge sun.

And yet as I walk these corridors of Angkor, the sun
Beating upon my back, for a moment I am immune to the death
Around me, until I see a hungry child and my heart crumbles
For what that child must endure and how
These men and women managed to survive. These temples
Stand for them. For their strength, power, loss and tears.

Flowing from my soul, my tears
Are quickly dried from the heat of the noonday sun
As I wander the mossy temples
And think about Loung Ung and the death
Of her mother, father, and sister. And how
She never allowed her spirit to crumble.

An entire generation is absent from this country, where temples crumble
Beneath the sun. But its people greet me with smiles and are proud and full of love. How
Would you, or I, have stood to the horrors they faced, the loss, the hunger, and the death?

1. ABCDEF
2. FAEBDC
3. CFDABE
4. ECBFAD
5. DEACFB
6. BDFECA
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

A- crumble
B- tears
C- how
D- sun
E- death
F- temple

Hunched shoulders, strong hearts

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The old couple hobble down the street,
The hunched woman in her yellow and grey
Shirt clutching at her husband’s striped shirt, his eyes
Clouded over with blindness, and her skin
Laying upon her bones in countless brown wrinkles.
He, carrying a bamboo cane, leads the way,
Blue plastic cup grasped tightly in his right hand and
His wife quietly barking orders at him to turn
Left, turn right. They quietly and unobtrusively
Step down the street, one small brick at a time,
Her eyes never leaving his feet, always there
To pull back if danger crosses their path.
They warm my heart and sadden my soul.

Tribute to Nhiem Chun (11/19/11). (style one: free verse)

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“But when I am gone, these stones will still be here. These temples are the symbols of our soul. We will not survive if we don’t look after our temples.”
Gray-green moss coats the
Stones like paint, speckling
The surface in spots and layers.
Roots and vines weave in and out
Of crevasses, poking their slow,
Lazy fingers through doors
And the mouths of Gods.
Tourists flow like ants
Through corridors and chambers,
Moving like a single entity
Up and over stone walls
And nimbly over roots that seep
Down from above. Piles of
Fallen, carved blocks lie
In heaps everywhere:
The collapsed ceiling of a
Tunnel, the pillars in a walled
Chamber. Sunlight streams
And trickles through the cracks
Above our heads, dust and particles
Dance in each individual ray,
And an overwhelming number
Of butterflies exercise their
Wings on alters and lingas.
Bent double, a ghostly figure
Wanders the passageways,
Broom in hand, at constant
Odds with the flow of nature.
You see him appear and disappear,
Always following the falling leaf,
A legend of Ta Prohm.
“If I don’t sweep, the leaves will cover the temple. I must sweep.”

Nhiem Chun (1922-2009)

Longneck Village 11/15/2011

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The longneck village wasn’t more than a sad tourist trap. Five different tribal communities were all placed in the same area north of Chiang Mai. A few new friends and I rented motorbikes for the day and stumbled upon the camp-like setting on accident. I was the only one who went in, paying close to $20 to see the tribe that I had first been introduced to in a National Geographic article as a young girl.

The beetle nut stained the woman’s
Mouth in a way I had not seen before,
Coating just the teeth dark black,
With hardly any redness on the gums.

As I made my way deeper in from the parking lot I soon came upon the first small hut where a young girl of two or three, already her neck encircled by golden bands, sat swinging her baby sister in a miniature hammock. Along the dirt path many open air palm and bamboo huts stood side by side. Hanging from each palm-frond roof were the same wall hangings and scarves, varying only in color. On each bamboo floor a young girl sat, ranging in age from eight to twenty one, each situated with a loom pulled down onto their lap, gold rings wound round their necks and/or earlobes stretched wide. The girls were all shy, knew only a little English and not a smile to be seen apart from the face of a young mother with her son. No young men wandered the village and no elderly. A few of the girls had cell phones but the place felt like a ghost town.

The longneck people are originally from Burma and I wonder what has drawn them here [Chiang Mai and Thailand]…tourism (or the prospect of?), unrest in Burma? No one looks happy, a sadness hangs over the village and I wonder if the people are ever allowed to leave…

Artisans Angkor

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My first afternoon in Siem Reap I took a modified motorbike (with an attached canopied trailer) “tuk tuk” to the Artisans Angkor establishment. As I jumped off the tuk tuk and stepped under a small gazebo in the sculpture-bedecked courtyard I was assigned a free tour guide and started toward the silk screen painting section. Artisans Angkor was first created to provide a place for disabled peoples (most deaf and/or mute) to learn a traditional craft and have a place to work and earn money.

There were all different kinds of crafts being practiced: silk screen painting, enamel work, metal-working, rock carving, and wood carving. In the silk screen building I learned how the women would first stretch out fine pieces of silk that they had woven from fresh silk grown on their silk farm 20km outside of Siem Reap. They would then trace scenes and images taken from old carvings at Angkor onto the silk and then begin the slow, laborious task of hand painting in all the aspects of the paintings. Upon the walls were large posters that depicted the Khmer alphabet in sign language as well as the English alphabet. On into the next room we went, where we saw a group of young women scrubbing away at enamel painted squares of wood with sandpaper and water, getting rid of excess paint. These women were very interested in talking with me and through the limited signs my guide knew, the women and I talked about where I was from, how old I was, how many siblings I had and the same of each of them. The third room held about six men hammering away with recycled motorcycle spokes at small circular pieces of discolored copper. These would soon become hollow boxes of all shapes and sizes and figurine elephants. The fourth and final rooms held the stone (sand and soapstone) and wood carvings. Both men and women did these carvings and they were also replicas of the carvings and statues found at the Angkor complex.

The large gallery at the end held every sort of art that I had seen along the tour as well as many different variations of silk products from the silk farm: bed covers, scarves, glasses cases, suits, dresses, pillows, and much more. When I went up to pay for the few small souvenirs I had picked out, I was given a brochure and was told that all the proceeds went to keeping Artisans Angkor up and running and employing the artists.

All in all, a very neat place to visit in Siem Reap to see the local artwork and art types.