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When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rougeby Chanrithy Him
A Heavenly Comet Foreshadows War
The New York Times
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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