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Inherited trauma: Cambodian-Americans and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge

Photo by Geraldine Ah-Sue
Phillip Rama with his grandparents, Mao Ong Rama and Sivaram Rama

Growing up with family members who have migrated to the U.S. after severe trauma is something that many Americans face. 

“My mother doesn’t dwell in the past, so she smiles and shakes her  head when I ask about her life during the Khmer Rouge regime,” writes  Monica Sok, in her essay On Fear, Fearlessness and Intergenerational Trauma. “‘Mom, what did you do? Did you have to work?’ She shrugs. Her eyes are soft, then perplexed by my eagerness to bear witness to her story.”

Sok’s essay touches on what researchers call “intergenerational trauma:” that is, when the effects of a significant negative experience are passed on to generations after.

In the Bay Area, younger generations of Cambodian refugees who survived the genocidal Khmer Rouge in the 1970s are beginning to talk openly about this trauma, and how to move past it.

Hearing old stories

Phillip Rama is a first-generation Cambodian American. We’re in the kitchen of his childhood home in Suisun City, where he now lives with his grandparents. The house is remarkably quiet.

“It’s good to see my grandparents and stay with my grandparents. But, here, I’m staying in the living room, I don’t have my own room, so that’s the only downside,” he says.

But living with his grandparents is nothing new for Rama. They raised him, and always told him stories.

“I remember ever since I came to live with them in third grade, I’d sit by the couch, and they would talk about all these stories of the war,” he says.

Yeay, whose given name is Mao Ong Rama, and her husband, Sivaram Rama, came to the U.S. in 1980. They’re survivors of the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal dictatorship that ruled Cambodia in the 1970s. 

“I have a nightmare every day,” says Rama’s grandfather, whom he calls ta. “From 40 year I still have a nightmare until now. Sweating in the morning. And try, no sleep, until morning.”

The Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 after the violence of the Vietnam war led to a Cambodian civil war. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s leader, marked his victory by declaring it “Year Zero” — a new beginning.

At first, ta says people celebrated, believing that this was the beginning of a peaceful era. But soon after, the regime started evacuating cities, separating families, and corralling people into forced labor camps — often even killing them.

“They say like, if your dad do something wrong, you have to kill. If your mom do something wrong, then you have to kill. Why they do that? To wash the brain,” ta recalls. 

The regime was driven by visions of extreme nationalism and ethnic purity. People were openly beaten, tortured, starved, and killed. Ta remembers one time when he saw a professor steal some corn to eat, even though he knew the regime would notice.

“I said, oh man, when they saw, and then that’s that. You’ll be killed, you know. Anything stole, steal, they kill, you know,” ta explains. 

So, he asked the man, ‘why did you steal?’

“‘Adieu.’ He say ‘adieu.’ ‘Adieu’ in French is ‘goodbye forever.’”

The Khmer Rouge stayed in power for four years. By the end of their regime, more than two million people were dead: about a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time.

The effects of silence

“With the population that comes here as refugees, there are a lot of stories about loss,” says Rhummanee Hang, a community health specialist who works with Southeast Asian populations in Oakland.

“It’s not normal that it’s so prominent in your life, but then it becomes something that you just think is part of your life,” explains Hang. 

Hang says that while stories like ta’s are painful to hear, hearing them is exactly what might help survivors and their descendants to heal. 

“For some people, it does help to talk about some of the things we’ve gone through,” says Hang. “There’s something about actually hearing it out loud, and the vulnerability that comes with it, that you know, folks want to listen to you.”

But these memories are painful to share, so silence is often the default. Furthermore, Hang says if elders stay silent, their children learn to do that too.

“If you are seeing and learning how to not talk about things that are bothering you, then you’ll start to kind of internalize those types of behaviors as well and think that that’s okay.”

A generation of people suppressing pain can lead to many different problems. A report published in 2013 found that Cambodian American youth had one of the highest arrest rates for Asian Pacific Islanders in Oakland. And, in 2014, the U.S. Census reported that nearly a third of Cambodian Americans did not complete high school.

But healing is possible, and it’s happening in communityies across generations in lots of different ways. 

“I’m so Khmer”

“I’m so Khmer I eat bia [rice] with tuksaiaiv [soy sauce]. Let’s go… to the left,” reads RJ Sin.

Rama, together with Sin, Vannary Jim and Rhumannee Hang are Project Prolific, a performing arts group that explores the Khmer American identity. It’s a Thursday evening, the work day is through, and they’re sitting on the couch at Vannary and RJ’s apartment, eating a late dinner and rehearsing ideas for their upcoming show. 

“I’m so Khmer, I ‘mmmmm!’” jokes Jim.

Rama, Sin and Hang are laughing at Jim’s words. She’s riffing on a common form of expression Khmer elders use to indicate an imminent scolding - something Rama, Sin and Hang are all familiar with. I’m on the outside of this joke, but what I can see is a home amongst friends. A home of people who feel comfortable questioning, asking, remembering, and creating something new. 

“A lot of times we hear our grandparents, our parents, that came as refugees, until this day, they often say, ‘oh you have to know your history, you have to preserve your culture, keep the culture alive,’” says Rama. “But more recently I started thinking about, what does that mean? What does preserving your culture mean? What does keeping your culture alive mean?” 

These questions seem central, not just to first and second generations of Cambodian Americans, but to older generations as well. More than 40 years after the rise of the Khmer Rouge, what does it mean to be Cambodian in America today — to have survived, and to now be together?

Every April, a Cambodian New Year festival takes place in Oakland. Traditionally, it’s a time that marks the end of the harvest before the rainy season comes, when people get together to celebrate. There’s music and dance, and when I arrive people are getting ready to play a traditional Khmer game: a kind of a tug-of-war between the sexes.

It’s my first time here, and I see people from across generations, laughing, playing, and talking to each other. And, as Hang says, this kind of intergenerational connection is a good way to start reconciling the past, in order to help inform the future.

“It’s really trying to understand what our parents and our grandparents have gone through so that we can kind of situate ourselves and see where we stand in this world and understand why, it is the way it is,” says Hang.

I’m reminded of writer Monica Sok when she asks, ‘Who can be fearless confronting the history of genocide?’ 

Here, together, now, people look fearless. 

Crosscurrents Audio Academy