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When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge


When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge Cover

ISBN13: 9780393322101
ISBN10: 0393322106
Condition: Standard
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Chapter One
A Heavenly Comet Foreshadows War

The New York Times
Phnom Penh, Cambodia — March 28, 1969

(Agence France Press)

The head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, charged today that "Vietnamese Communists were increasingly infiltrating into Cambodia." The prince showed newsmen here a detailed map drawn up by his general staff showing Communist implantation in Cambodia.

My parents' future marriage had already been decided when they were children. Both their parents told them that someday they would marry each other. Both came from well-to-do families, which caused wide speculation about the marriage. Some thought that they were paired up because the brothers Kong Houng and Kong Lorng didn't want their wealth dispersed. This way, the family wealth was centralized. And in Cambodian culture, it's common for cousins to marry.

Fortunately, my father's feelings were in harmony with the ideas of his elders. When Pa turned seventeen, he fell in love with Mak. She was a bright girl, and strong in her ideas. As a child, she would sneak away to the Buddhist temple to learn to read and write in Khmer, and to read Pali, the language of the Cambodian bible. In time, she picked up French as well, a skill that was forbidden for women. Parents didn't want a daughter to have education for fear that she would write love letters before they had had a chance to arrange a suitable marriage. Denying education was but one way to cloister her. In many ways, Mak defied that, secretly studying on her own.

This was the girl Pa fell in love with?a bright, headstrong young woman who spoke her mind. Hardly the demure, traditional Cambodian bride. But Pa, too, knew his own mind. He waited patiently for his parents to fulfill their promise, to make the arrangements for him to marry Mak. Tradition required them to approach Mak's family for a formal engagement. Investigations would follow, including interviews with others about the class and behavior of the groom and his family. But they took too long. Pa couldn't wait. He went to his favorite aunt, Yiey Om, in Srey Va village. He begged her to serve as his guardian, to ask Yiey Srem and Kong Lorng for Mak's hand. Understanding the depth of both her nephew's love and his fear?that any man could come at any time to claim Mak's hand?she took a boat to Prey Ronn village. She was an unlikely messenger of love, but effective.

Mak's parents agreed to speed up the marriage. But Cambodian tradition still must be followed. His parents, Kong Houng and Yiey Khmeng, were required to formally seek the approval of Mak's parents. Permission was granted. At seventeen, Pa finally got his wish, marrying Mak, a slightly confused fourteen-year-old bride.

Pa brought her to Year Piar to live with his parents. Either from fear or simply because she was too young to adjust to married life, Mak immediately ran away, scurrying back to her parents. To her surprise, her mother shipped her right back. Later, Mak laughed about it. But she remembered, too, the heavy expectations of her new mother-in-law.

Yiey Khmeng must have expected a lot of Mak, forgetting that she was so young. In Cambodian custom, the scalps of newborn babies were traditionally marked with a mashed root called paley, the saffron color of turmeric. This denoted the baby's "soft spot," and the root was thought to help harden the skull. You knew an infant was maturing when the powder fell away. When Mak married, you might say her paley had not yet fallen away. But it made little difference. High expectations were common among many mothers-in-law, whose words ruled. A woman isn't just married to her husband, but to his whole family. But Pa didn't see it that way; he was a man who had the courage to turn away from cultural expectations with which he disagreed. In time, they had two children, both of whom died. Their third child was a skinny, sickly baby. They held little hope for her survival, but she surprised them, earning the nickname Chea, which means "heal." With a frail new baby, Pa and Mak left Year Piar.

They embarked on a journey, abandoning the financial security of their families to seek their own way, to make a life on their own. They went to Phnom Penh. Bitter about his parent's unyielding expectations, Pa and Mak made a vow on the Preah Monivong Bridge: If they didn't succeed in life, they would never return to Year Piar to see his parents. They would kill themselves first, jumping into the deep, flowing waters that ran beneath them.

Now in their early twenties, they were no longer troubled by this vow. Together they built a home in Takeo. Pa was a good husband and father. At twenty-five, he was successfully supporting a growing family. In truth, my father and mother surprised not only his parents but also Mak's. A home was a status symbol, a measure of making it. Even their parents wondered, Where did they get the money to build a house this big?

They didn't know of the vow that burned deeply in Pa and Mak. The home was the temple of their vow. A trophy Pa won for Mak, his bride.

It was in this home that I first heard the word "war." The year was 1968, and I was three years old. It was a clear night and the sky was adorned with stars. Mak came into our living room and asked my siblings and me if we wanted to see a comet. Mak said it had a long, bright tail.

I remember our excitement. I hurried along with five of my brothers and sisters. They were Chea, eleven, whose intelligence and thoughtfulness earned her the respect an oldest child demands; Ra, ten, my shy sister who liked to help Mak cook and clean?her tidy, domestic ways pleased our mother. At nine, Tha was my oldest brother. He was good in math and mischievous. Tha's way of finding out if the corn was sweet was to take a bite out of every cob on the platter. Ry, seven, was my easily amused sister, who liked to baby-sit me and Avy, our one-year-old sister. Than, five, was the second-oldest brother, whose tree-climbing sense of adventure often invited my own curiosity. He was my rival.

As we followed our mother, we scurried close behind her like six chicks following a hen. Mak lifted me up and I saw the heavenly body with a starlike nucleus and a long, luminous tail. Its radiance was intensified by the dark sky and the surrounding stars. We were all in awe, crowded near our mother, leaning against the railing.

A moment later my mother's joy seemed to fade?even a child could feel it. She told us of an old folk superstition: When the tail of the comet pointed to a particular place, Cambodia would be drawn into war with that country. The word "war" diluted the aura of excitement, even with me, a child who didn't have the slightest idea what the word meant. I sensed the fear in my mother and older siblings. I wondered what the word "country" meant, and what country the tail of the comet was pointing to.


In 1969 war comes, and I am only four.

Loud rumbling noises wake me. I fumble in the dark, trying to open the mosquito netting around my bed. I run in the dark toward the living room, searching for my mother and father. "Mak! Pa!" I scream with all my might, trying to compete with the raucous sounds.

From the living room, I hear my oldest sister, twelve-year-old Chea, screaming: "Mak! Pa! Yeakong chol srok Khmer! Yeakong chol srok Khmer!" The Viet Cong are invading Cambodia! Her voice is itself a blast of terror.

Chea's hysterical warning makes me realize that the raging noise outside could be related to the word I had been wondering about: war. More than anything, I want to see my parents. Suddenly the light flips on, revealing my frightened sisters and brothers running around frantically, randomly?as disoriented as ants whose hill has been plowed under.

I see my mother clutching my baby sister, Avy, and my father standing at the wall where he has just turned on the light. I run to stand beside Mak. My father reaches out to hold Chea's shoulders. He looks into her eyes and carefully says: "Achea, koon, take your brothers and sisters with you and hide in the bunker by the pond. Hunch and walk low, so you won't get hit by bullets. Hurry, koon Pa [father's child]!"

My brothers and sisters rush out the doorway, a small, traumatized herd of cattle. I clench my mother's hand, and my body rattles with each echo of gunfire. Carrying Avy and holding on to me, Mak hurries toward the door. She can't move quickly, for she is six months pregnant. Artillery explodes outside, and I scream and burst into tears. Mak shakes off my hand, then grabs onto it tightly.

"Pa vea!" She shouts to my father, who is running from one window to the next, sticking his head out and listening. "What are you doing? You'll get shot! Why aren't you careful? Help me with the children!" Mak is scared, and her tone frightens me even more than the artillery roaring in the night air.

Pa shouts back, "I just want to know where the gunfire is coming from."

Mak bends toward me. Her words come as hard and fast as an auctioneer's: "Athy, koon, wait for your father here. Mak takes Avy downstairs." My heart races when I see that she is scared for my father. After she hurries out, I cry, jumping up and down, anxious for Pa to take me to the bunker.

Pa runs over to comfort me, snatches me down from the peak of my hysteria. He carries me to the open bunker, a hole in the sticky clay soil ringed with sandbags. Safe at the bunker, he can't rest. He needs to go back to the house for Yiey Tot, his grandmother, who is blind and frail. He takes Chea and Tha with him to help carry her. Above the noise I can hear my great-grandmother's groans.

"Hunch, koon!" I hear Pa cry. "Don't you hear the flying bullets? Don't worry, Yiey, we won't drop you."

I'm relieved when everyone in my family, including Aunt Cheng, Pa's younger sister, finally hides by the pond. Lying beside my mother in the cold night, I wonder if everyone is as scared as I am as the bullets whiz over us?a fierce hiss and invisible whisper, so quick you wonder if you really heard it. Flares erupt like lightning, illuminating the dark sky.

So this is war. Will it ever stop?

Finally the gunfire belches its last round. Silence and relief. Now we can go back home, I think to myself, ready to be freed from worries about war. I look forward to the morning. I want to forget the adult world that pulled me from my dreams and into a nightmare.

What I don't know is that there is a world outside Cambodia?a world that will affect me, my family, and Cambodia as a nation. I do not know who owned the guns that night?only that they were aimed at me. It will be years before I begin to understand the causes and effects of war, the political gamesmanship. But by then my family will have become flotsam caught in the heave and thrust of its tide.

I look back now as a survivor educated in America. I've sought out answers to questions I raised as a little girl. Trying to make sense of what happened. Trying to understand the players in the Vietnam conflict and those who took advantage of the situation, pulling Cambodia?the pawn, they called it?into the whirlpool of destruction.

The heavenly comet that we saw so long ago had more than one tail. My mother, my siblings, and I could only see the long, bright one?the one that pointed to Vietnam. The other tiny tails were blurred by the glare of the night sky. One of them invisibly pointed to the United States.

On April 20, 1970?in an attempt to incapacitate the Viet Cong troops operating in the border sanctuaries of Cambodia?forces from the United States and South Vietnam launched a massive drive into Cambodia, making Cambodia a stage for war. Early on, U.S. leaders denied involvement, until finally the American public demanded the truth. This Vietnamese conflict violated Cambodia's borders, disregarding the precarious neutrality Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk had sought to preserve for years. On March 18, 1970, Prince Sihanouk was ousted by his premier, Lon Nol, and his cousin, Prince Sisowath Serik Matak, in a bloodless coup backed by the United States. China welcomed Sihanouk with open arms, eager to help save Cambodia from "American imperialists." Later, Chinese leaders encouraged him to form a government in exile consisting primarily of his enemies, the Khmer Rouge, a band of guerrillas who had exploited the upheaval of the Vietnamese conflict. Thus, another invisible tail of the comet emerged. This one pointed to China, which had helped create the Khmer Rouge?a lethal virus that would years later destroy most of its former host, Cambodia, and so many of its own people.

When gunfire breaks out, my family only senses a dangerous presence, and I wish for things to return to normal. The next morning things seem quiet. We are hostages of our own thoughts, especially my father. While eating breakfast, Pa turns on the radio. A man's voice tells something about the Viet Cong coming into Cambodia. People died, houses burned, and the Viet Cong came close to Takeo City, he says, talking rapidly. I hear a reference to rotcross (tanks) entering Takeo City. Pa says that the Viet Cong have invaded srok Khmer (Cambodia).

At school I have seen posters of the Viet Cong posted on tree trunks in the school yard and on the school fence. Pointing to the posters, a teacher told us that the men wearing black shirts and pants with black sandals were called yeakong. Yeakong had big teeth and scary smiles and carried long guns on their shoulders. Behind them was a large pot called tae ong (metal pots that resemble the shape of a bell) sitting on top of human heads with tongues of flame coming between them. The heads, the teacher said, were the Cambodians' heads, used as cooking stones. When we are caught by the yeakong, she said, they will do that to us.

Pa decides to go to the office. He works for the government in Phnom Penh, overseeing import/export violations, but he also owns a number of pedicarts, which people rent from him monthly. My father is different from my uncles. He helps my mother around the house, washing diapers and even the bloodied bedsheets after she's had a baby. Although culturally women are the preparers of food, I often watch Father work in the kitchen. He finds pleasure in small things, helping us clean and trim our fingernails, pouring water over us in our shower?things women do. I can feel my father's ambition, and also his desire to escape tradition. An entrepreneur at heart, he imports televisions via Vietnam and rents out two bedrooms downstairs. He dreams of filling our home with children.

It's only been about eight hours since I first encountered war, but already I am beginning to worry like an adult. I am so afraid that our family might be separated from my father if fighting breaks out again. Oh, how much I want to tell Pa that I'm scared, but I'm even too scared to tell him this. I've learned from grown-ups that you don't think about or say terrible things or else they will come true.

They come true anyway, and Pa isn't home yet. We shiver as the gunfire rumbles in the distance. At least it's not close to our home, as it was the night before. We stay inside. I wish for the war noise to stay where it is. I'm too tired to stay awake. The next thing I feel is my body shaking, Chea waking me up.

The morning is cloudy and chilly as I stand outside the gate near our packed suitcases. I've been asked by Mak to watch for a bus to pick us up for Phnom Penh. I look at my home: the pine trees, three on each side, stand before our big two-story stucco house, almost as tall as the house itself. Along the front cement fence, a cool, shady row of mango, papaya, and coconut trees overlooks swings?a playground I already begin to miss almost as much as I miss my father.

Mostly, I feel relieved: We won't be captured by the Viet Cong after all. We're going to be with Pa.

A faded blue bus packed with people stops in front of the house. Everyone, it seems, has the same idea. On top of the bus rises a growing tower of suitcases and bags. Through the open gate, I run to tell Mak. As I begin to climb the cement stairs, my family is coming down. My mother holds Avy on her hip with one hand and a bundle in the other. Her black hair is combed neatly, framing her face and curving against her neck below her earlobes. She wears a colorful sleeveless blouse with a flowery long sarong, similar to that worn by Hawaiians. As always she is composed.

I ask Mak, "What about Pa? Pa's coming home tonight, and we are not going to be here. Will he be scared when he doesn't know where we are?"

"Your father will know. He'll find us. Go on now. Go to the bus, koon Mak!"

As the bus starts to leave, I look at my home, one last snapshot, click. With my eyes, I caress all that I see?the pine trees, the swings by the shaded mango trees near the fence, the balcony with hanging houseplants cascading from the ceiling. I remember how we used to come out and sit on the balcony and enjoy warm evening breezes together. I would chase fireflies hovering near the houseplants.

Everyone on the bus is quiet, even little kids. We glance at each other and see silent worry, especially on the adults' faces. Some people hide it?they look out the bus windows, staring at trees and passing landscapes.

Pa somehow finds us in Phnom Penh. We find shelter at Bantiey Sheichaak, a military garrison of sorts. We enter a world of curfews. At 11 A.M. we can't leave the house. For hours Cambodian surveillance planes circle overhead in search of Viet Cong infiltration. If they detect any movement, you could be shot. Whenever I hear the whine of engines above, I am afraid to breathe, to play, even to pee.

For two months this is our life. Then Pa says we're going home to Takeo. "It's safe now," he announces. But it is not the same. Our home has been bombed.

Surprisingly, Akie, a collie, has survived these months alone, unlike our guard dog, Aka Horn, who is gone. Akie endured the war, waiting loyally outside the charred remains of our decimated home. When Pa arrives, Akie runs up to him, licking him again and again. In Cambodia, it is rare to see public displays of affection between adults. But with pets, we feel free to lavish our affections. Pa has always enjoyed pampering Akie, shampooing him, feeding him prime table scraps.

Instead of staying at our home, we go to the house of Kong Horne, my mother's uncle. His family has abandoned it and has not returned. But he is one of the lucky ones, whose house is untouched by war. His two-story stucco home overlooks the Bassac River, located near the heart of Takeo City.

Sitting on the scooter, Pa tells Than to go with him to see our home, but I ask to go along too. He looks at me, hesitant, but then says I can come.

Along the streets lie clothes and debris. I look for people, but there's no one. When Pa says we're here, I look at our house, but the top part is gone. It looks broken, shorter than before. The gate is broken. The mango, coconut, and papaya trees look dry, burned. The tops of two pine trees have broken off, withered, and turned brown, and now are dangling.

Pa holds my hand as we climb the stairs. When we get to the top, there is no door. Metal spikes stick out of what used to be the walls of the bedrooms and the balcony. The floor of the living room is partially gone, exposing the downstairs room. Pa holds me back from moving any further. The sofa, the glass cases holding crystal and engraved silver chalices, the pictures, and everything else in our house are reduced to ashes. Where the television set, radio, and record player once stood there is nothing but charred debris.

When Pa takes us to the backyard, the pond is dried up, its beautiful water lilies and green lotus and trey pra, the catfish we used to feed, are dead. The trees once bowed with the weight of fruit are wilted and brown. Our house is dead, and I ask my father to take me away.

Copyright © 2000 Chanrithy Him

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steventran, February 12, 2008 (view all comments by steventran)
I seriously could not put this book down when I was reading it. This is a great book and Chanrithy Him does an amazing job telling the story of her childhood in Cambodia during the Pol Pot Regime. This book is emotional, heart-wrenching, and raw. This book kept me interested from beginning to end.
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alberta.ashok, September 10, 2006 (view all comments by alberta.ashok)
revealing the atrocities beyond the ordinary humans head can cook. really must read.
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Product Details

Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge
Him, Chanrithy
W. W. Norton & Company
New York
United states
Ethnic Cultures
Political atrocities
Family/Interpersonal Memoir
Childhood Memoir
Political refugees
Ethnic Cultures - General
Political refugees -- Cambodia.
Political refugees -- United States.
Biography-Childhood Memoir
Series Volume:
v. 2
Publication Date:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
15 black and whtie illustrations
8.3 x 5.5 x 0.8 in 0.6 lb

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Related Subjects

» Biography » General
» Biography » Women
» History and Social Science » Asia » Cambodia
» History and Social Science » Asia » Southeast Asia
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When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge Used Trade Paper
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Product details 336 pages W. W. Norton & Company - English 9780393322101 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Astonishing and heartbreaking....Written in spare, visual prose that makes the world it describes tangible."
"Review" by , "Born in Cambodia in 1965, Him lived from the age of three with the fear of war overflowing from neighboring Vietnam and suffered through the U.S.'s bombing of her native land. However, thanks to her loving and open-minded family, her outlook remained positive — until 1975, when the Khmer Rouge seized control and turned her world upside down. (According to a Cambodian proverb, "broken glass floats" when the world is unbalanced.) Armed with a nearly photographic memory, Him forcefully expresses the utter horror of life under the revolutionary regime....Yet for all their suffering throughout these years, the surviving Hims remained loyal to one another, saving any extra food they collected and making dangerous trips to other camps to share it with weaker family members....But by the end of the book, Him finds herself surprised when she encounters remnants of humanity in people, for she has learned to live by mistrusting, by relying on her own wits and strength. When the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, Him moved to a refugee camp in Thailand. Today she works with the Khmer Adolescent Project in Oregon. This beautifully told story is an important addition to the literature of this period."
"Review" by , "There are few books that give a refugee's point of view as clearly and passionately as Him's. Her book is further proof that in any war, from Cambodia to Kosovo to Iraq, it's often the innocent who suffer the most."
"Review" by , "During the three years that the Khmer Rouge tried to create an agrarian utopia in Cambodia, two million people are believed to have died from execution, starvation, and disease. Two million — a horrifying number, but so large as to seem almost an abstraction, like the distance to the nearest star. The number gains far greater psychological force with [this] new memoir, whose author, a young girl in the Cambodia of the time, describes the terror and losses she suffered during the Khmer Rouge revolution in wrenchingly particular terms....[Him] tells her stories straightforwardly, vividly, and without any strenuous effort to explicate their importance, allowing the stories themselves to create their own impact."
"Review" by , "A worthy and compelling debut by Him....In this graphic memoir, told from a child's perspective, Him vividly recounts her memories of the war....Separated and forced into labor camps, death and illness became constant companions to the Him family — of the 12 of them, only 5 survived. Yet, throughout her struggles and losses, Him's enduring hope, strength, and family loyalty gave her the courage to carry on....Her memoir seems to be both an attempt to face her own circumstances as well as to open the past and avenge the victims of the Khmer Rouge. A simply told, yet inspirational memoir about the reign of the Khmer Rouge that helps to shed light on the plight of the Cambodian people."
"Review" by , "This memoir told from a child's viewpoint about the brutal Cambodian killing fields is a touching and illuminating human account and should not be missed by anyone around the world."
"Review" by , "A gut-wrenching story, told with honesty, restraint, and dignity, When Broken Glass Floats is one of those books that open our minds to a world of unimaginable brutality and horror. This book, packed with authentic details, testifies to the gratuitousness of human suffering inflicted by a violent revolution. Page by page it brings history to life."
"Review" by , "Out of a childhood of unspeakable loss and trauma, Chanrithy Him has fashioned this eloquent chronicle of survival, courage, and perseverance. This effort is not only a personal triumph but describes the Pol Pot regime as experienced by countless thousands of Cambodian children during those four years of terror." Willam H. Sack, M.D., Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry and Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Oregon Health Sciences University
"Review" by , "In this breathtaking, luminous memoir, Chanrithy Him takes us into the chaotic world of the Khmer Rouge....Out of brightly colored shards of memory, she has assembled a spirited account of coming of age in a dark time, and a heart-breaking elegy for everything that was lost along the way."
"Synopsis" by , Chanrithy Him felt compelled to tell of surviving life under the Khmer Rouge in a way "worthy of the suffering which I endured as a child."
"Synopsis" by , In the Cambodian proverb, "when broken glass floats" is the time when evil triumphs over good. That time began in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia and the Him family began their trek through the hell of the "killing fields." In a mesmerizing story, Him vividly recounts a Cambodia where rudimentary labor camps are the norm and technology, such as cars and electricity, no longer exists. Death becomes a companion at the camps, along with illness. Yet through the terror, Chanrithy's family remains loyal to one another despite the Khmer Rouge's demand of loyalty only to itself. Moments of inexpressible sacrifice and love lead them to bring what little food they have to the others, even at the risk of their own lives. In 1979, "broken glass" finally sinks. From a family of twelve, only five of the Him children survive. Sponsored by an uncle in Oregon, they begin their new lives in a land that promises welcome to those starved for freedom.
"Synopsis" by , In this luminous memoir, Chanrithy Him takes readers into the chaotic world of the Khmer Rouge. Over the course of four years five members of her family, including her parents, die, and so do nearly two million other Khmer. Out of shards of memory, she has assembled a spirited account of coming of age in a dark time, and a heart-breaking elegy for everything that was lost along the way. Photos.
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