Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Family Memories: An Introduction


I didn’t know my paternal grandfather. I didn’t know how he looked like. No pictures of him had survived. He was killed along with his eldest son by the Khmer Rouge shortly after Pol Pot came to power. Under a regime which anonymity was the way to survive, returning to your birthplace was a big mistake. Unfortunately, that was exactly what my paternal family and many other Cambodians did when the Khmer Rouge evacuated residences out of the capital and other urban cities.

As an educated man, my grandfather was a prime candidate for eradication and having an older brother who was on the Khmer Rouge’s traitor hit-list guaranteed his execution. Miraculously, my father along with his mother and all three sisters were left alive. I didn’t really know my paternal grandmother either. She passed away when I was very young. Of my paternal family, I know just bits and pieces. My father won’t revisit old memories. In a way, he’s more like my maternal grandfather than he thought. Until the day he passed away three years ago, my maternal grandfather hardly ever talked about the past, especially what happened to my family under the Khmer Rouge’s hellish regime.

Of my maternal family, I know the general tidbits such as the one time my mom was shot during an air raid one evening in 1971 and the subsequent visit from Vietcong fighters to my family’s home in the early morning after. I also know of the time when my grandfather and his friends/coworkers were escaping the Khmer Rouge fighters and got lost in the jungle sometime in late 1970.

What remains of my maternal family, only my mother and grandmother can recall the past with any clarity. My uncle was too young to remember much, only the feeling of being hungry all the time stays with him. My aunt didn’t make it, having died from starvation several months in; she was not yet five. My other uncle, who saved my mom’s life time after time and whose gutsy life could fill page after page, passed away almost two decades ago.

I have never taken any effort into writing down their memories. However, I believe it’s important that I do sooner than later. It’s important for the sake of all my relatives that died in the war, all my relatives that suffered and survived the war, and my younger cousins who are so innocent to such horrors. 

There are 28 comments.

  1. Zafar Member

    If they’re willing to speak with you, write down everything your elders have to say about this time – and their lives before and since. It’s a legacy for your generation and those that come after, and our elders’ voices are fleeting and precious. Thanks for sharing this Lidens.

    • #1
    • December 12, 2016, at 2:40 AM PST
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  2. OldDanRhody, 7152 Maple Dr. Member

    Yes, someone in your family ought to preserve this. Do Cambodian Americans have a museum to archive these stories?

    • #2
    • December 12, 2016, at 3:44 AM PST
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  3. Podkayne of Israel Member

    I finally, finally got to see “Don’t Think I’ve Forgottten” a few weeks ago, and have been devouring material on the Cambodian Genocide, so this is fascinating to me.

    • #3
    • December 12, 2016, at 4:57 AM PST
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  4. MLH Inactive

    Important, indeed! Don’t forget to make hard copies.

    • #4
    • December 12, 2016, at 4:59 AM PST
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  5. Arahant Member

    Thank you, Lidens.

    • #5
    • December 12, 2016, at 6:02 AM PST
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  6. Phil Turmel Coolidge

    If writing all of this becomes a burden, consider videoing your living relatives while they tell their stories. Brainstorm a list of incidents you remember them describing to prompt them with. And you could prompt them to tell the stories of your other relatives — second hand is still better than no-hand.

    • #6
    • December 12, 2016, at 6:20 AM PST
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  7. iWe Reagan

    Good for you. It is important to connect with our past, and reach across the generations.

    • #7
    • December 12, 2016, at 6:34 AM PST
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  8. JustmeinAZ Member

    What painful, sad memories. Yet, don’t let them be forgotten.

    • #8
    • December 12, 2016, at 6:55 AM PST
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  9. She Thatcher

    iWe:Good for you. It is important to connect with our past, and reach across the generations.

    I could not agree more. Lidens, please find out all you can, and bear witness.

    • #9
    • December 12, 2016, at 7:09 AM PST
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  10. Trink Coolidge

    Lidens Cheng: However, I believe it’s important that I do sooner than later. It’s important for the sake of all my relatives that died in the war, all my relatives that suffered and survived the war, and my younger cousins who are so innocent to such horrors.

    Oh Lidens . . It’s so big. Bless you as you move forward on this project. It’s heartrending, but so important to preserve this history that is your legacy and a reminder to all of us about the evil and injustices of which some are capable of fomenting on their fellow humans.

    • #10
    • December 12, 2016, at 7:22 AM PST
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  11. PsychLynne Inactive

    Lidens, I am so glad you are doing this! My family doesn’t have anything like this kind of story to tell (more like a toned down version of Hillbilly Elegy) but the stories shed so much light onto who we are and where we came from.

    And would concur with everyone above, hard copies, e-copies, video, transcription…as many ways to record it as you can.

    • #11
    • December 12, 2016, at 7:45 AM PST
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  12. PHCheese Member

    It’s nearly impossible to comprehend the evil one man can set in motion effecting millions. However it keeps happening over and over again. Thanks for you and thanks for your family’s story.

    • #12
    • December 12, 2016, at 8:02 AM PST
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  13. TooShy Coolidge

    I’d like to wish you much luck.

    You may find they don’t want to talk or remember. In my family there were some people who simply refused to talk about the past. Perhaps you can present it to them as a way to honour those who died? Another way to start might be with the memories of early childhood and happier times?

    I tried to find some links for you to Holocaust remembrance sites for advice on how to talk to a family member. I didn’t find what I wanted, but here are a few links that might be helpful.

    This one is about interviewing a Holocaust survivor. Obviously, lots of the questions are specific to the Holocaust, but much is also applicable to Cambodia:

    I found this article in Ha’aretz. I don’t usually link to them, but this is interesting because it mentions why some people talk about their past and others do not.

    Please be aware that some of your family may be suffering from “survivor guilt”.

    I only skimmed this article but it gives insight into survivor guilt.

    There are also Oral History societies that have some good websites.

    Best of luck!

    • #13
    • December 12, 2016, at 8:19 AM PST
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  14. MarciN Member

    I am glad you are doing this. I can’t imagine how hard it is.

    Nicholas Gage took on a similar project, writing about his mother Eleni. This is the description of his book about her:

    In 1948, as civil war ravaged Greece, children were abducted and sent to communist “camps” inside the Iron Curtain. Eleni Gatzoyiannis, forty-one, defied the traditions of her small village and the terror of the communist insurgents to arrange for the escape of her three daughters and her son, Nicola. For that act, she was imprisoned, tortured, and executed in cold blood.

    Nicholas Gage joined his father in Massachusetts at the age of nine and grew up to become a top New York Times investigative reporter, honing his skills with one thought in mind: to return to Greece and uncover the one story he cared about most: the story of his mother.

    What I find to be the most frightening aspect of the deaths caused by the Communists is that the deaths are always described in wide approximations:

    In contrast, critics consider [Mao to be] . . . a perpetrator of systematic human rights abuses who was responsible for an estimated 40 to 70 million deaths through starvation, forced labor and executions, ranking his tenure as the top incidence of democide in human history.

    The only weapon western civilization has against this attitude is for people who knew them to continue to tell the stories of individuals. If we don’t, all is lost.

    • #14
    • December 12, 2016, at 9:02 AM PST
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  15. DJ EJ Member

    Another resource that may be helpful to you in preserving your family’s stories is the Victims Of Communism Memorial Foundation. Here’s what came up when I did a search for Khmer Rouge. This is their mission statement:

    “The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is a Washington-based, non-profit educational and human rights organization devoted to commemorating the more than 100 million victims of communism around the world and to the freedom of those still living under totalitarian regimes.”

    They have an initiative called the Witness Project to help more people “hear these survivors tell their stories; help keep an accurate memory of communist crimes.” They may have some resources for you.

    • #15
    • December 12, 2016, at 9:30 AM PST
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  16. Doug Watt Member

    Lidens there is a quote attributed to Josef Stalin that expresses and exposes the mindset of the collectivist. I’ll paraphrase it: One man’s death is a tragedy, millions are merely a statistic. Whether Stalin said that or not there is more than enough evidence that is what collectivism has wrought.

    It may seem cruel to ask your family to relive the pain and suffering of that time in Cambodia. It would be crueler still for the rest of us not to face the truth from those individuals that suffered by not hearing their story.

    I hope you’ll get the chance to tell us their story.

    • #16
    • December 12, 2016, at 9:32 AM PST
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  17. Nanda "Chaps" Panjan… Coolidge

    A real gift to us, Ms. Cheng…Honored by your trust!

    • #17
    • December 12, 2016, at 10:09 AM PST
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  18. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Thank you, Lidens. I was only in Cambodia for a few days as a side trip to Thailand. The memorial we visited, loaded with the bones of victims, was devastating to view. Our guide told us some of his family’s stories; what happened under Pol Pot is unimaginable. So the stories might help you, and they will in a small way contribute to the world’s story, shining a light on one more tragedy of sickness, cruelty and death. I hope you will share more with us.

    • #18
    • December 12, 2016, at 12:07 PM PST
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  19. The Reticulator Member

    OldDan Rhody:Yes, someone in your family ought to preserve this. Do Cambodian Americans have a museum to archive these stories?

    It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a Cambodian American museum. There are many local and regional historical societies, many of them affiliated with libraries, that collect oral histories and other family histories. In my part of the USA this is sometimes even done at the township level, although that is not so common as the collections made by county, state or regional institutions. Other institutions have archives, too – church organizations, for example. It pays to ask around to find out how eager they are to have your particular stories and how well they will be cared for.

    Some of my bicycle destinations have come about in part due to family histories and reminiscences that have been found at these places. And they are not all pleasant stories or about things people are proud of. But they have been deposited by people who thought their family stories needed to be preserved for future generations.

    I have my own stories to tell about these adventures into other families’ histories. I have met some interesting people along the way.

    • #19
    • December 12, 2016, at 12:54 PM PST
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  20. The Reticulator Member

    We were at a museum in Ireland this year that had collected family stories of the Easter Rising of 1916. Snippets were posted for public viewing from which one could see a tremendous variety in the way that event was experienced and seen in retrospect. I thought it was great that this had been done. These events are often told as a unified narrative, but the reality is often wonderfully more complex than can easily be told in a book.

    • #20
    • December 12, 2016, at 12:59 PM PST
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  21. Caryn Member

    Good luck with your endeavor. I have many regrets about not learning more from my immigrant grandparents before their deaths. I learned a tantalizing little bit in my last visits, but they came from the generation that did not talk about the past. I think, perhaps, they were so grateful to America for taking them in that they set out to be completely American, leaving all “that stuff” behind. Sad, though, as I feel a bit cut off from my roots. I’m glad for you that you have this opportunity.

    I met this woman a few years ago and read her first two books. She lost several family members to the Khmer Rouge and aftermath. She and, IIRC, a brother were able to emigrate to the US; her sister was not so lucky. The first book, “First They Killed My Father,” is about the immediate war years. The second one, “Lucky Child,” describes the difference between her life growing up in the US with that of her sister left behind in Cambodia. It was many years before they were re-united. Both books are gripping and well written. I might be able to put you in touch with her if you’re interested; she may be able to provide resources for researching the history you are unable to get from your immediate relatives.

    • #21
    • December 12, 2016, at 1:35 PM PST
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  22. Chris Gregerson Member

    Ms. Cheng,

    It’s been 45 years since I’ve been asked to focus on the loss of my Cambodian friends. These were solders of the nationalist government who were raised after the disposing of the royalist government in early 1970. The people of Cambodia had tired of the actions of the invading North Vietnamese army, invited by the prince. Their support for the nationalist government was a stand for freedom and security.

    I was in a unit that was given the task of training infantry regiments for the Khmer National Army. For 3 months I trained, lived and fought with the rifle company to which I was assigned. As I regained my life in America I was horrified to hear about the slaughter and destruction of a free people by the communist supported Khmer Rouge.

    I have tried to keep their faces from my thoughts, have refused to see movies such as
    “The Killing Fields” as the memories were hard for. But as the sands of time have flowed through the glass of life I can now write this note to encourage you to capture for posterity the history of that demented time and its impact on your life.

    @Podkayne of Israel has cited a film with a title apropos to your conundrum which I’ll rephrase “never forget, and don’t let the world forget.” 


    • #22
    • December 12, 2016, at 2:43 PM PST
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  23. Stephen Hall Inactive

    How many eggs were broken to make that communist Cambodian omelette?

    • #23
    • December 12, 2016, at 6:43 PM PST
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  24. The Reticulator Member

    Stephen Hall:How many eggs were broken to make that communist Cambodian omelette?

    It took a lot of social justice warriors to kill that many people.

    • #24
    • December 12, 2016, at 7:01 PM PST
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  25. Ann Inactive

    Good luck with your family history project @lidenscheng. It seems daunting but it surely will flow forward a word at a time to a water fall for you. A difficult but most rewarding project. And very thoughtful of you to share this with us.

    Without history we repeat ourselves whether it is families or nations.

    • #25
    • December 12, 2016, at 7:50 PM PST
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  26. LC Member
    LC Post author

    Thank you all for your kind words of encouragement. Some efforts have been carried out. My aunt has recorded some conversations she had with my grandmother this past November and I will be doing the same thing with my mother later this month. I will try talking to my father when we’re on the same continent in the near future. This is a project for my two younger cousins and I, but I will try to share some of my family’s experiences with you all in the days ahead.

    • #26
    • December 12, 2016, at 7:55 PM PST
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  27. 2klbofun Inactive

    I have a former coworker who had a similar experience. He did write it down and publish it: Born in China, Made in America.

    Message me here in Ricochet and I’ll give you his email address if you’d like to contact him.

    • #27
    • December 13, 2016, at 9:53 AM PST
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  28. Podkayne of Israel Member

    Lidens Cheng:Thank you all for your kind words of encouragement. Some efforts have been carried out. My aunt has recorded some conversations she had with my grandmother this past November and I will be doing the same thing with my mother later this month. I will try talking to my father when we’re on the same continent in the near future. This is a project for my two younger cousins and I, but I will try to share some of my family’s experiences with you all in the days ahead.

    It is obviously terribly important to memorialize the dead as individuals, especially as they were murdered as an undifferentiated mass. English being the international language today, in order for this to pass into general knowledge, it has to be out in English, otherwise it will remain only a “Cambodian thing”.

    The Holocaust took years before many survivors were willing or able to talk about it; it also took time for the world to be capable of hearing and believing it. Real, comprehensive history only comes once both concepts have begun to be processed awhile. From what I’ve read and seen, this is still in the beginning stages with Cambodia’s holocaust.

    Somehow we have to begin to give the victims back their faces.

    • #28
    • December 14, 2016, at 5:28 AM PST
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