Last week I had the strangest dream. I dreamt I was in the living room with my father. We were sitting on the floor and he had his shirt off but was wearing a sarong. I sat next to him and tightly wrapped my hands around his right arm, afraid to let go. He was sitting in a calm state and had a vacant but peaceful look on his face. I was hysterically crying, and kept saying to him “don’t go”, “don’t go”! Then my mother walked in the room and whispered to me “don’t tell him he is dead. He doesn’t know.”
A few weeks ago I embarked on a long flight back home to visit family and friends in the U.S. for the summer. It’s hard to believe almost a year has passed since we left for Cambodia. It’s nostalgic to be back home and enjoy the things that I missed. Some of them are simple things I took for granted like a fresh cool breeze, expanses of luscious green grass and trees, playgrounds that are shaded, and traffic that moves in an organized fashion. Some things I deeply miss, I can’t get back.
I’ve been in a writing limbo over the last few weeks, partly from being busy trying to do as much as I can while I am here. The other part, the seemingly lack of inspiration. As the days went by, I could feel my motivation to write slipping away from me, or so I thought.
It was easy to be inspired in Phnom Penh with the cacophony of restless images and an unknown life beckoning me to rediscover it. But being back home is different. It’s a different kind of noise, a known life and routine, and a different kind of calling. I’ve realized the source of inspiration here is quieter, calmer and perhaps more soothing because it has the familiarity of home. Instead of being drawn by life outside the house, it’s what’s inside my childhood home that inspired me to write this.
Over the last few months I’ve had a Khmer teacher who has helped me learn how to read and write Khmer. The alphabet and grammar are fairly straightforward (the vowels are a bit tricky). Writing is a bit difficult as it is entirely different than the Roman script. While we focus most of our lessons on the mechanics of the language I am also learning interesting and important aspects of Khmer communication. What I’m learning is that the Khmer language is fairly complex in the layers of communication. Cambodia is a very hierarchical society and words are chosen depending on whom you are speaking with.
There are many websites, blogs and books if one is interested in learning the history and basics of Khmer language. What might not be as easily accessible are the unwritten rules of this hierarchy in communication. Through language, Khmers communicate the values they put on respect and distinction of social classes in society. This social value is transmitted through the importance that Khmer people put on honorific titles and the different words one uses to speak with certain people.
I have a confession. I have a hard time speaking my native language, Khmer. I can speak it but my proficiency is not where I would like it to be. I sometimes struggle to have in depth conversations with my Khmer friends and family members in Cambodia. I cannot read or write it and don’t understand Khmer humor which involves a lot of parables and proverbs.
This language barrier has made me feel more like an outsider than I expected. I have lived here for almost a year and sometimes I feel more like a tourist rather than a Khmer born citizen. Most Khmers will speak to me in English first, then be surprised when I respond back in my choppy Khmer with an American accent. I tell them I am Khmer, born in Battambang. Then they look confused and ask, “Why don’t you speak better Khmer?” To which I say, “I’ve lived in the U.S. since I was five years old.”
People may wonder why my parents didn’t teach me how to speak Khmer properly in the U.S., especially because my father was a Khmer-French literature professor. The fact is, it’s not my parents’ fault. It is my fault. It’s a story that may be familiar to many Khmers in the diaspora.
It has been almost a year since I've been in Cambodia. This milestone makes me realize how lucky I am to have this second chance at rediscovering my homeland again. I am thankful that I have been able to share the window of my world, past and present, to the outside world.
I've been amazed by the many connections I've made so far from this blog, from rising young leaders in Cambodia; to teachers, tuk tuk drivers and street food vendors struggling to survive; to people around the world who genuinely care about my country.
One of them is Duncan Stuart who is from New Zealand but his heart belongs to Cambodia. He spends his free time helping to raise awareness and funds for Savong School, a free school in Siem Reap. Duncan genuinely cares about the many issues affecting Cambodia and his blog at Savong School aims to provide a broader picture of Cambodia's development in the education sector. I conducted an email interview with Duncan for his blog and shared my reflections of coming back home, thoughts about the education system in Cambodia, and my hopes and dreams for my country. Below is the interview. Thank you Duncan for the opportunity.
This interview was first published on Savong School
REDISCOVERING A DIGNIFIED PAST: INTERVIEW WITH MITTY STEELE
By: Duncan Stuart, April 21st , 2014
More than quarter of 1 million Cambodians live in the USA and for the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the refugees who escaped Cambodia during the Pol Pot era there is inevitably a sense of incompleteness; a sense of a stolen personal history. Among the US-based Cambodians to retrace the steps of her family, and to reconnect on a personal level with Cambodia is Mitty Steele, a young writer who began interviewing her father 10 years ago before he died.
“I have promises to keep. Miles to go before I sleep”
THE FINAL MOMENTS
It was 7AM on June 26th when my mother called me to tell me that my father had been rushed to the hospital. His condition was getting worse. He had been suffering for a number of years from Para Supra Nuclear Palsy (PSP) and the disease was at its final stage. I rushed to the hospital as soon as I could. We had been through this before and he somehow recovered. This time was different. As I walked into the hospital room I could tell the prognosis was bleak. The doctors told us there was nothing more they could do. We were told to make final preparations.
When the Lon Nol coup occurred on March 18, 1970, my uncle Om Ngat, and his wife, Om Ear were living in Takeo Province, Bati District in Chambak Commune. While my mother recalls the streets of Phnom Penh being very quiet that day, my aunt remembers a violent uprising in Chambak Commune in the subsequent days. In my final story about the coup, I interviewed my aunt as she recalls tensions in her village soon afterwards and how the Khmer Rouge grew in her commune as a result.
PART III: “The Uprising in Takeo”
On March 18, 1970 I was living in Takeo Province, Bati District in Chambak Commune. We owned a small shop in our house. We lived in the same house your mother grew up in, which was across the street from Wat Ansung (Ansung Pagoda). We didn’t know that there had been a coup in Phnom Penh. We didn’t hear the announcement because there weren’t many TVs or radios in our village at the time.
A few days afterwards we heard rumors from Phnom Penh that something big had happened, that the government had removed Prince Sihanouk from power. Some villagers said they later heard a message from Prince Sihanouk on the radio telling the people to rise against the enemies and go to the maquis to fight the government. At that point I knew there would be trouble because people in the village adored Prince Sihanouk. They were fiercely loyal to him and would die for him.
This is the second story in the "Three Memories of the Coup" series. This story is from a recent interview with my mother, Sakhan You, and what she remembers from that day.
part ii: "Neuv SNGat SnGeam--Stay QuiEt and Still"
March 18th, 1970 was a day that changed the course of Cambodia’s history, like the first domino that set forth a chain of unstoppable events. I was 30 years old at the time and working at Kantha Bopha Hospital as a pediatric nurse. Your father was in Takeo Province teaching at Lycee Ang Prey. He would teach there during the week and come to Phnom Penh on the weekends.
We were living near the Chinese Embassy on Mao Tse Tong Boulevard, near the Cham Mosque. The country was at a boiling point. Since the beginning of the year there were widespread protests in Phnom Penh for the Viet Cong to get out of Cambodia. It escalated in mid March when in one incident the protestors torched the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Embassy. I was increasingly afraid to be in Phnom Penh alone with five children and seven months pregnant with my sixth child. The only person I had with me was my aunt, Yey Om, and a helper.
March 18, 2014 marked 44 years since the coup by General Lon Nol to overthrow Prince Norodom Sihanouk from power. Over the next few days, I will profile three stories, firsthand accounts by three people who recalls what happened that day, and chain of events that occurred thereafter. The first is written by Mr. Chhang Song who was working on Prince Sihanouk's information team as an editorial assistant at the time of the coup. He later became Minister of Information in the Lon Nol government. Read his first hand account of the series of events that took place on March 18, 1970.
Part I: The OVERTHROW OF PRINCE NORODOM SIHANOUK
By Mr. Chhang Song, Long Beach, California, March 18, 2014.
The March 18, 1970 overthrow of Cambodia’s Head of State, Prince NORODOM SIHANOUK continues to be on my mind to this day and has kept me busy sorting out information for the past 45 years. Unlike many Cambodians who turned against the Prince, I was very close to him before his overthrow.
I was on the Prince’s information team as an editorial assistant. Upon my return from the US, he gave me an office at his official Sangkum Printing Plant and put me in charge of proofreading and editing copies of articles, statements and speeches he made. At the printing plant, we paid particular attention to his political magazines, Kambuja and Le Sangkum, which were published in French and English.
We often learn the best when we learn from others' ideas and experiences. Sharing knowledge opens doors to the world and it is how we grow as human beings. Check out my new section dedicated to writers who wish to share their knowledge and experiences on Cambodia.
The first guest writer is Socheata Vong, a development professional (and recent interviewee on the Next Generation of Leaders Series). Socheata shares her enthusiasm for Rithy Panh's film "The Missing Picture" and the excitement she felt when the film was nominated for an Oscar for the Best Foreign Film category and the disappointment she felt when it didn't win. Socheata describes the pride of a nation for the country's most prominent filmmaker.
Click here to read her piece on "Rithy Panh and the Missing Picture"