I am grateful for an endless list of things that would take forever to translate into words—a loving family, inspiring friends, Ben Harper, books that nourish the soul, opportunities to develop myself, clean water, food, sunshine, education, live music, options in life, my Mac. I am guilty of taking these things for granted, guilty of being caught up in the ease of my fortunate life which is so easy to do, and the things I love and cherish; so hard to imagine without. But ever since I began to understand where I came from and the struggles connected to where I am today, I have felt grateful and guilty in equal measure—guilty because my parents’ enormous sacrifice means that I have so many things to be grateful for. When I was asked to write a personal piece for PEPY, I thought—“What story have I got to offer? What wise words could I possibly impart to our already amazing support base?” What I’ve come to realize is that I don’t need to be wise, or offer new insight (I’ll leave that up to Daniela!). For me, this piece is about sharing my experience and hopefully encouraging you to think about the things in your life that you are grateful (or guilty) for, and how these feelings can motivate all of us to want to be, and do better.
I was born on the 28th January 1986 in a refugee camp on the Thai / Cambodia border. Two months premature, I came into the world quickly and unexpectedly, and not without drama. My two sisters and I are daughters of Khmer Rouge survivors, a bloody regime that engulfed Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. My mother lost her father and four siblings. My father does not talk about what he lost—I suspect it is more than I will ever understand.
My family emigrated to Australia when I was one—making the hard decision to not re-enter Cambodia like so many others during this time. I suppose they felt like they had nothing left in Cambodia, and therefore nothing left to lose by leaving. I suppose they had that innate human longing for something better. As hard as it was for my sisters and me to navigate being both Cambodian and Australian, it must have been even harder for my parents to start a new life in Australia—a place that was so distant and culturally unfamiliar to them. For twenty-four years they carried Cambodia in their hearts, not once making the trip back—always with the intention to, but with each passing year, never quite following through. This past April however, during the hottest time of the year, my parents returned to Cambodia for the first time in almost thirty years. I was lucky enough to be with them as they re-discovered Cambodia under the sweltering April sun. I was lucky enough to hear their complaints about the heat and their astonishment at how I could possibly live in such a hot, dusty country. Lucky enough to bear witness to my mother’s hilarious outfits that made her look more like a tourist than her daughter (yes, she invested in a pair of Tevas and a money belt). I loved every moment of it. They still carry Cambodia in their hearts, but now they have new memories to go with it—photos, experiences, and the dust on their sandals. New memories of a country they still love and cherish, but ultimately a place they no longer call home.
For the longest time, I’ve wanted to come to Cambodia: to live, work, and discover things about myself that life in Melbourne couldn’t elucidate. I wanted to connect the dots and fill in missing pieces. I wanted to better understand my own ‘Cambodian-ness’—an aspect of my identity that has informed so much of my worldview and personality. I feel blessed and undeniably proud of my Cambodian heritage now, but I’d be lying if I said that this was always the case. It is an aspect of my identity that has frustrated, embarrassed, and hurt me; something that caused me in the past to question who I really was, and at times wish that I were someone else. Mostly, I wanted to come to Cambodia to better understand my parents’ story, and to reconcile some of the issues that I have: being healthy, educated, and living in Australia with big dreams, while so many other young Cambodians struggle to acquire the very basics.
Now, after living in Cambodia for almost one year and learning about the Khmer Rouge through the narrative of other people’s stories, I wonder why I didn’t just ask my parents about theirs. Perhaps I was afraid. Perhaps it’s much easier to accept pain and suffering when the pain and suffering is removed from you, easier to accept when it belongs to someone else. For a long time, I refused to believe that pain and suffering were in my blood, refused to believe that my parents’ story would influence mine. But it has, and it will continue to, through my reactions and actions, and through the decisions I make both in my personal and professional life. It contributed to my desire to try and make the world better and to understand why certain things happen. My commitment to social justice derives from the fact that such a massive injustice affected so many people I love. I chose to study International Development because of what happened to them, and because of the values they instilled in me.
My parents suffered, like so many other Cambodians. This much is true, and I would never try to claim otherwise. But what I’ve discovered this past year is that their characters are not only dictated by this single story of suffering, as Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie declared at a recent conference, “To insist on only these negative stories, is to flatten my experience, and to over look the many other stories that formed me.” What I’ve discovered is that there are so many other stories that make my parents who they are, so many other ingredients that form them, and while being Cambodian is a big part of my story, it is not the only thing that defines me.
I have been working at PEPY for almost one year where I have been given so many opportunities to improve my skills and develop my knowledge and passion for community development. I work alongside an incredible team of hardworking individuals, most recently in the planning and coordination of PEPY’s campaign ‘The Power of 10.’ I am grateful to have been a part of something so special, an idea that when conceived seemed completely out of the realm of our capability. An idea that got bigger and bigger every time you visited our website, viewed our video, and clicked the donate button. An idea that was successful because you are grateful for your education, and therefore believe that every child should have opportunities to be grateful for theirs. For this, we thank you.
I came to Cambodia in search of stories: stories of hope, recovery, and healing. I came to Cambodia because I thought it would help me understand myself better. What I’ve realized is that in doing so, I can help young Cambodians create new stories about the Cambodia they want to see—positive, empowering, and multifaceted. Now that is definitely something to be grateful for.