Many children grow up hearing fantastical tales and listening to nursery rhymes. A magical forest here and furry talking creatures there. I grew up listening to the nightmares of chaos and terror as tragedy consumed Cambodia.
On April 17th, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Like many Khmer Americans, my family came to the United States as refugees from Cambodia in 1982. My grandparents reflect back on the day the Khmer Rouge scoured the city and announced over their loud speakers that the Americans were going to begin dropping their bombs. Greeting the citizens with smiles, they expressed that safety was their priority and all those living within the city should evacuate to the countryside. They promised that the invasion would be over and they would be able to return to the city. Yet, it would be four years of terror before any lucky survivors would be able to return to the remains of their homes. My family had no choice but to abandon all of their belongings and at that precise moment, their entire lives.
Soon after they began to lose sight of the city, they were met with the smell of death. Piles of dead bodies, of former doctors, teachers, lawyers, business people, and other intellectuals lined the streets. The rotting flesh was cooked by the sun and empty eyes stared at the travelers. When I was younger, my mom used to wake up in the middle of the night after she replayed this scene over and over again in her nightmares. You can find her story [here].
From labor camps to pseudo-refugee camps, my family never had the security of knowing that they would wake up the next morning. Their very lives were dependent on being invisible. Children over the age of 10 were separated from their parents. My mother, the oldest sibling, was forced to leave my family behind and live in a separate labor camp. She worked 9-10 hours a day, 7 days a week under the hot sun, surviving on small portions of rice soup and salt. Countless citizens were so malnourished that they died of starvation, diseases, and exhaustion. Yet, no matter how sick they were, my family dragged themselves out of their makeshift huts because they feared being executed. The Khmer Rouge believed that if you were unable to contribute, then you were useless and it would be a waste of food to feed you.
On one fateful night, my family was met with the sounds of gunshots and the blares of an explosion. They found cover in the bomb shelter and continued to listen to the whirring of bullets throughout the night. When daylight broke and the shooting sounds subsided, they tried to move on to another town and abruptly the shooting sounds were close by again. They found refuge in barn house hid anywhere out of sight. My grandparents later heard that there was a Khmer Rouge soldier who wanted to enter the house, but his comrade said that he had seen my family with the rest of the Khmer Rouge already. If he had not made that mistake, a simple grenade would have decided the fate of my family.
Fortunately, my family made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand. My grandpa filed for sponsorship to come to the United States, as we had no relatives living in the U.S. that could sponsor us. After he applied for sponsorship, my grandpa went to the refugee bureau every day where they posted name of families that were sponsored to leave the camp. With each passing day, my family began to lose hope, as their name did not appear on the board. Finally, in May of 1981, after a year and a half in the refugee camp, my family’s names were posted among the last ones in the list. They were transferred to the Philippines, flown to Columbus, Ohio, and eventually made their way by bus to Denver, Colorado.
Life has a funny way of coming full circle when you least expect it. Here I am, sitting in a Starbucks in Columbus writing this blog and reflecting upon how close I came to living here instead of Denver. As I began to get older and my family began to acculturate into America, I began to hear less and less about their previous life in Cambodia and the discrimination they experienced in the United States. I forgot these stories and I forgot the struggle that my family underwent. The above stories are so surreal that they almost seem like fiction.
It must be recognized that history is often written by its victors. Growing up, much of my narrative of the Khmer Rouge were small excerpts in my history book written by American historians. In many ways, America was painted as a safe haven for refugees, and while I am not denying that, it seemed as though my family traded in one form of cultural genocide for another. It was Washington’s intention in the early 1970s to strengthen the Khmer Republic and to help defeat the revolutionary Khmer Rouge movement. However, it is heavily argued that American intervention widened the war and served as a catalyst for driving Cambodia into conflict. Furthermore, evidence suggests that foreign intervention produced negative results in the end, as it gave rise to the revolutionary force and weakened the Khmer Republic, making the power transition and societal levels more volatile and dangerous.
President Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, began to discuss the North Vietnamese sanctuaries and supply routes in the then neutral country of Cambodia. Despite the fact that military strikes against locations in a neutral country would be flagrant violations of international laws and treaties, it was soon decided that the areas be bombed in order to clean out “the communist sanctuaries.” Codenamed Operation Menu, on March 18th, 1969 the US Strategic Air Command began the bombing of Eastern Cambodia under the Nixon Administration. The primary goal was to destroy supply lines and camps used by the North Vietnamese to wage attacks into South Vietnam. In 1969, these secret missions more than doubled and over a thousand missions were initiated. And in the same fourteenth month period, over 3,600 B-52 raids were conducted against targets in Kampuchea. However, these bombings were kept secret – not only from the public but also within the Air Force command. The first bombing raids were called Breakfast. Later raids that were deeper in Cambodia were referred to as Lunch. Eventually, the raids reached beyond Dinner and into Snacks and Dessert. At a great loss of Cambodian civilian lives, the operation proved unsuccessful in decreasing North Vietnam offensives. Indirectly, the bombings led to the downfall of the Cambodian government and the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
Yet… I was never taught any of this until I studied abroad in Southeast Asia. I remember being placed in an English as a Second Language track during elementary school (even though, let me be clear, I spoke perfect English) and having the word refugee thrown at me. I had no idea what that meant. I never understood how lucky I was to be sitting within the safe confines of a classroom, with the reassurance of three meals a day. I knew I was Cambodian, but did not realize how much weight and history that identity held…. nor did I realize how much of my identity was authored by American history. Why must we illustrate heroes at the expense of so many? It makes me think of how much of what I know is constructed, rather than authentic.
Recently, I have had the privilege of traveling all over the nation to speak with fellow Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (A/PIA) college students about the importance of community organizing and A/PIA activism. I realize more and more how my family’s history has shaped my passion for activism, equity, and authentic representation of communities. Since becoming involved in the social justice realm, I have had many internal conflicts about the American Dream. Despite coming to the United States with every possible disadvantage, my family made it. My mother was the first in our family to graduate from college. My family is littered with Student Body Presidents, Valedictorians, Salutatorians, full ride scholars, Daniels Fund Scholars, and Gates Millennium Scholars. Coincidentally, many of us found ourselves in fields of education and made West High School, the Denver Center for International Studies, and the University of Denver our home, including myself. But, they are only a single story. Cambodian Americans still have some of the highest high school drop out rates, are victims of the school to prison pipeline, and face numerous deportation cases.
In providing me with these opportunities and the need to assimilate to survive, I grew up not truly understanding who I was or where I came from. It was not until recently that I began to realize more and more the need and impact of storytelling. My family realized this long before I did and published their own personal memoir (of which many excerpts have been included in this blog). Storytelling allows us to preserve our roots. It allows us to share our experiences in ways that are real and authentic. Stories give us the ability challenge what we learn in our history books and gives us the power to advocate for visibility and representation. Stories give us the right to WRITE our OWN histories. They can move systems and transform institutions. Storytelling is resistance. Stories start (r)evolutions.
For the past year, I have carried an Audre Lorde quote that states, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” with me wherever I go. It serves as a powerful reminder that choosing to be visible and to speak powerfully will help to ensure that fewer communities will have to experience the types of silencing that my family had to endure. Although I was born 16 years after the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975, I choose to remember it every single day. Why? Because it is evidence that I come from a legacy of warriors, of survivors. Resiliency is on our blood. My name is Vanessa. I am a daughter of refugees. I am a feminist. I am an activist. And most importantly, I am Khmer.
**Thank you to Gao Chia-Ren for his unwavering support, encouragement, AND editorial and creative title skills.