Anak sokhasabbay te. No … this is not a typo. It is Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, and it means, “How are you?” It is also the only phrase that I can seem to get myself to remember on the occasions that I get my nails done by my sweet salon that is filled with Cambodian women. I have gone to this salon, two minutes away from my house, for a few years, and I have made friends with the wonderful owner and her staff. I know who has a baby girl, and who has a baby boy. I ask after their families and when they might go on vacation. I make pleasantries and ask them, each time I go, to teach me a new word or phrase, but so far, “How are you,” is all I can manage.
This time, as so many before, I sat down with one of the stylists, and chose my color. I hadn’t had this particular woman do my nails before, but I had seen her numerous times, on the edge of conversations … in the margin of the flurry of chatter around her. Sitting down, we made small talk and for a time, nothing was out of the ordinary – until it was.
A lot of people in my life say I talk too much – that I make conversation with everyone and anyone, and that I never leave room for silence. “Maybe people don’t want to always talk,” is something I’ve heard a million times. But my answer is always, “Then they wouldn’t talk back.”
And so I was myself, it seems I have little aptitude for being anything else. I talked. I asked. I questioned. And she answered. I asked her where she was from. Cambodia. I asked when she moved. She said she walked to Thailand when she was eight.
“Walked?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
When I asked her to explain. She did.
Can I say, and I am rarely ashamed of myself. I try to be open, honest, and caring. I love easily and well, and am always willing to learn something new. But sometimes, I realize that I not only can be ashamed … but should be. Because I simply didn’t know. A minor in history of all things … that is what I have! And yet I knew nothing about Cambodian’s sordid history. Between 1975 and 1979 nearly 24% of Cambodia’s population was murdered through a massive genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime under the hostile take-over of the government by a man named Pol Pot. Nearly 1.8 million people, mostly educated and well respected members of society, were killed with an attempt to rid the cities of their progress and set the country’s people to be agrarian (farm) laborers. She shared that her father, an educated man who spoke seven languages, was taken, and never returned. She shared that she and her mother and sisters were split up by age to work in different labor camps. She shared that it was her three-year-old sister who found them and reunited them to one another, and that sometime later, her brave mother and two sisters walked endlessly to reach the Thailand border. She shared that they hid in ponds with straws in their mouths to breathe as shooting picked up around them. She shared that when they arrived, they were placed in internment camps, and only years later, when her aunt had made it to America, worked for three years to grant them sponsorship, and flew to California to make a living, was she really free. She shared that she wrote about the experience of losing her father, and won a youth poetry contest.
And then another nail technician came over. She said something in a quick, clipped way, and took the storyteller’s place. “She’s taking too long,” she said. With heavy, knowing eyes, she walked away.
Before I left, I found her, hugged her, and asked her to bring her poem so that I could read it when I came back. She said she thought she knew where it was.
I went home and asked my husband, a VP of International Sales and Marketing if he knew the story of Cambodian genocide. He did not. So I researched it, and sure enough. The experience of her life and the lives of millions of others was splayed across thousands of websites.
Shame has no place among those who hope to make a difference. So I am no longer ashamed. But I am asking you to join me in knowing this tragedy … in feeling its gravity and honoring its victims. Mostly, I am asking that you take the time to ask. Because sometimes people don’t want to talk – but sometimes, they really do.
All my love and peace,