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Cambodian American Memoirs: Sichan Siv & Loung Ung

Three memoirs by two Cambodian Americans – Sichan Siv’s Golden Bones: An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America (HarperCollins, 2008) and Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (HarperCollins, 2000) and Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind (HarperCollins, 2005) – remind us that life writing is always a highly ideological and contested form. Sichan Siv is a staunch Republican who served in both father and son Bush administrations and chaired Asian Pacific Americans for Mitt Romney in 2008, while Loung Ung is a feminist and activist who has worked on issues of land mines (many of which still remain), sex trafficking, education, and AIDS in Cambodia. Both Siv and Ung come from an upper-/middle-class background in Cambodia, and both lost family and friends and suffered horribly under the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror (1975-79). But their memoirs have different relationships to the U.S., Cambodia, and the Cambodian diaspora, and they have starkly contrasting depictions of the individual, family, and community.

As May-Lee Chai notes in her review of Golden Bones in Asian Affairs (June 22, 2009), the first part of the Siv’s memoir is useful in that it describes life in Cambodia after the French colonizers had departed but before the advent of the Khmer Rouge: “this golden age of increased educational opportunities, openings to the world, and a sense of hope” (98). In recounting Siv’s childhood, education, and work as a airline steward and then a teacher, this section includes a lot of historical background and cultural explanations to an American readership (e.g. why baguettes were so popular 31-33), which stylistically produces some awkward moments. For instance, as a literary work, Golden Bones probably did not need a detailed list of all the different kinds of planes that the Royal Air Cambodge (RC), the national airline, had in its fleet over the years (fyi, a few DC-3s, a DC-4, a DC-6B, and a Caravelle jetliner), and as a reader, I felt I really didn’t need to know who manufactured these planes and how fast and far they could go. But as a document of life in postcolonial, pre-communist Cambodia, these details are a fascinating testament to the always-already transnational and globalized nature of domestic economies and politics.

But after the advent of the Khmer Rouge, the memoir becomes riveting; the displacement, devastation, and butchery follows April 17, 1975, which Siv remembers ironically as “the first day of peace,” when the Khmer Rouge take over. Siv is relatively silent about his family, whom he had to leave behind and who were mostly murdered. There is obviously emotion, but in both the content (he talks about hiding his tears from a taxi driver) and the form of the memoir, the trauma of that period and the feelings of loss and grief seem curiously suppressed. While emotional distance or absence can sometimes be an act of narrative and/or ideological resistance, in Siv’s memoir it just seems odd.

The second part of the memoir is, to again quote the Asia Affairs review, “a traditional rags-to-riches immigrant story” (98). While Siv undoubtedly works hard and his account of the inner workings of the United Nations is interesting, it’s hard not to be repulsed by his embrace and praise of both Bush administrations, given both invasions/bombings of Iraq and Afghanistan and the “War on Terror,” none of which he mentions (and Sept. 11, 2011, is mentioned only in passing). Siv may be culturally interested in Cambodia, but his political loyalties are wholly to the Republican presidents he serves and his adopted country.

The most disturbing part of the second half, in my view, are Siv’s random accounts of Africans/African Americans criminals and his curious (non-)reaction to these crimes. Other than warm mentions of Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and some ambassadors, black people appear in his memoir two other times. First, he describes being swindled by a con artist in 1978. While “New Yorkers were generally friendly,” he recounts being approached by a black man who claims to have just arrived from Soweto and been robbed; the man and another woman trick Siv into revealing his ATM pin number, and they steal his entire life savings. But his reaction is “I still had forty-three cents left….It could have been worse!” (200).

A few years later, in 1981, Siv is walking down the street at night when:

 A black guy wearing a sweatsuit with a hood overtook me and turned around, holding a gun at my ribs.

“Give me your money,” he ordered.

“I don’t have any money,” I pleaded with the robber.

“Give me your waller. Now! Don’t eff with me, asshole, or I’ll blow your brains out.”

A second guy behind me was pushing me with something hard and pointed. I saw no reason to bargain with these robbers and reached for my suit pocket. (213)

When they take off with his wallet, Siv’s reaction is, “I lost a few credit cards and about $100, the largest amount I had ever carried. Piece of cake! It could have been worse!” (213). The language of the encounters convey Siv’s disdain and indignation, and simply including these anecdotes is telling – but the narrator’s reaction (“It could have been worse!”) is puzzling. Siv might be comparing these crimes to his suffering under the Khmer Rouge, but he never explicitly makes this connection, and moreover this comparison makes little sense to me. These depictions are delinked from any understanding of racial formations and systemic racialization in the U.S., and they’re certainly not linked to Siv’s passing mentions of his own experiences with racism. Siv implies these crimes are isolated instances by dangerous individuals within a larger framework of American meritocracy and open-mindedness, rather than products of systemic exclusions that he is partially participating in (and which the Republican party particularly exploits).

Just as odd and disconnected are Siv’s accounts of his experience with anti-Asian racism. For instance, he’s identified as an illegal alien other when he first attempts to find a job in New York. Although Siv is a legal refugee, his papers include the terms “alien” and “parole number,” so despite his explanations, he overhears someone say, “we are not finding jobs for illegal immigrants who just got out of jail” (194). But then the narrative blithely goes on to recount how he obtains as a data coordinator. Similarly, very late in the book Siv recounts being thrown from a horse while riding with his friends. They are far from help, and when a park police member finally arrives, he has trouble understanding that Siv is an American ambassador (the policeman asks repeatedly, “Ambassador? From which country?” 315). Siv treats the anecdote as a humorous story – concluding the book with “This is a beautiful country!” – instead of reflecting on what it means that officer would be puzzled by the fact that Siv is U.S. ambassador. Again, it’s significant that the memoir includes these moments, but they totally lack any reflection or analysis or even some basic emotional reactions.

Overall, the oddest thing about the memoir is its emotional distance; in Siv’s memoir, there is no post-traumatic stress disorder, no extended family members to worry about and care for, no apparent material or emotional remnants of his Cambodian past to prevent upward mobility in the United States. While I do not find it possible to criticize someone’s actions and mindset under the Khmer Rouge, it is possible, perhaps even necessary, to hold someone as prominent as Siv responsible for his politics, his determined individualism, and his treatment (or lack thereof) of trauma, memory, and history.

In thankful contrast, Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers and Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind grapples with all the complexities that Siv’s glosses over. A young girl during the 1975-9 rule of the Khmer Rouge, Ung makes her own narrative inseparable from that of her Chinese-Cambodian family, and her eventual immigration to the United States is fraught with memories, emotional trauma, and self-questioning. Both of Ung’s books depict the particular experiences of women in these various historical and social contexts. Furthermore, and again in stark contrast to Siv’s memoir, Ung explores the complexities of being Cambodian American and Asian American in the U.S. 

First They Killed My Father (FTKMF) begins before the Khmer Rouge take over, but as Ung is born in 1970, her memories of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia are primarily of an idyllic – if rambunctious – childhood. The first pages of FTKMF depict a young Loung who refuses to act like “a proper young lady” (2) and “ask[s] too many questions” (10), yet who is the apple of her father’s eye. Ung vividly portrays her parents and six siblings as unique individuals in 1975: her laughing and generous father; her glamorous, ladylike mother; the responsible, serious eldest brother Meng (18); the tough and restless second brother Khouy (16); the fashionable and lovely older sister Keav (14); the joking “little monkey” brother Kim (10); the quiet and shy Chou (8); and the happy baby of the family, little sister Geak (3). They live a comfortable middle-class existence in Phnom Penh, in a large apartment with modern amenities (plumbing and a television, but no refrigerator). Five-year-old Loung is aware of the poverty around her, but she is curious and questioning.

Ung’s father is a military police captain, a major in the Lon Nol government, so when the Khmer Rouge take power on April 17, 1975, he must – like Siv – hide his background; he instructs his family to pretend that they are peasants. The family’s descent into starvation, disease, and death are explored unblinkingly; although the events are horrific, the prose is controlled and measured. The use of present tense (in both books) contributes to the sense of unpredictability and constant dread. The young narrator relays the incessant fear, the desire to survive at any cost, the guilt, and most of all the powerlessness of those living under the Khmer Rouge. The family struggles to stay together but is eventually separated, and several die in horrible circumstances.

Young women are taken away and raped; entire families commit suicide; people fall into madness. Ung’s brother Kim must bear the abuse of Khmer Rouge soldiers to obtain a little more food for his family; children are brainwashed and become informers and bullies. Horrors become banal; rotting corpses and unimaginable suffering become a daily fact of life. Everyone in the family is forced into hard physical labor, except Geak, whose growth is stunted by lack of nutrition. Ung uses italics to indicate speculative sections when she imagines the death of those family members with whom she could not be when they actually died; it is a clear attempt by the narrator to – if not make peace – then at least try to grasp the facts of their deaths. I really could not put the book down; the reader mourns for the family, the senselessness and needlessness and the sheer scale of suffering and death.

One particular story captures the complexities of the struggles to survive and the emotions of survivors: the six-year-old Loung, desperate with hunger, one night steals rice from the family’s meager store. She is consumed with guilt yet did it anyway: “I wish I had been still in between the sleeping and waking worlds when I did it, but that is not true. I knew exactly what I was doing when I stole the handful of rice from my family. My hunger was so strong that I did not think of the consequences of my actions” (89). This deed repeatedly comes back to haunt the narrator – the guilt of a starving six-year-old girl struggling to survive.

Another principle difference between Ung and Siv’s memoirs is that these atrocities fill Ung with anger – all-consuming, unfocused, unrepressable anger, particularly as a child who does not understand what is happening (even less so than the adults, that is) and whose maturation process is physically, emotionally, and mentally marked by her traumatic experiences. Ung is so angry that she is taken out of a work camp and “promoted” to a child soldier training camp. The narrative skillfully immerses the reader in the complex emotions; and while sometimes memoir as a genre can be problematic in this way, I think this content demands this kind of near-visceral immersion. The memoir ends after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, with Ung, her older brother Mend, and his wife leaving a Thai refugee camp and boarding a plane to the United States.

Ung’s second memoir, Lucky Child, picks up where FTKMF left off, with Ung arriving in the U.S. – in Vermont, of all places. Lucky Child juxtaposes the narrative of Loung’s life in the U.S. with that of her older sister, Chou, growing up in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. As she acknowledges in the preface, Chou’s narrative is mediated by Ung as writer, language (translated from Khmer and Chinese into English), and memory, but nevertheless the book “is [her] best attempt to piece together her wstory from our numerous conversations, interviews with family members and neighbors, and our many literal and emotional walks down the memory lanes our childhoods” (xiv).

In Loung’s narrative, she describes both the generosity and subtle racism of their American sponsors. She represses her experiences in Cambodia; her brother and she adhere to an unspoken agreement to not discuss their wartime experiences. She postpones contact with her family in Cambodia (including her sister Chou and her brothers Khouy and Kim), even when, in later years, she has the chance to communicate and/or meet with them.

Growing up, Loung is a welter of contradictions and conflicting emotions. Particularly at first, she is full of anger (she fantasizes about beating up the Brady girls on The Brady Bunch) and suffers from PTSD (a fireworks display triggers flashbacks, she absolutely cannot stand to be hungry and becomes enraged when a date delays their dinner). When she gets into fights at schools and her brother lectures her, Ung thinks, “In my mind the war rages on, even though I know I live in a peaceful land” (69). She also experiences disdain when watching The Killing Fields on television. She thinks, “Americans will never know what it was truly like….They won’t remember the smell, the sound, or the heat. For two hours, they’ll sit in the dark and watch but they’ll never know what it was like to be there for three years, eight months, and twenty-one days. What it was like thinking everyday that I was going to die and not knowing if the war would ever end. When the credits roll after two hours, the lights will come back on, and they’ll leave the war. But I can’t” (124).

She also shows a budding sense of Asian American consciousness; living in mostly-white Vermont, Ung feels more comfortable around the adopted Korean daughter of their white host family. At a fourth of July barbecue, Ung notes, “With her black hair and Asian features, Ahn is the only other girl who looks similar to me in the crowd, and she makes me feel accepted. Her acceptance warms me” (30). Of another Asian American boy in her class, she says, “Even though Tommy and I rarely spoke, I felt tied to him in our Asian-ness. When everyone else would play together during recess, I oculd always count on him to stay near me” (66).

But at the same time, particularly as she gets older, Ung does her best to be an “all-American girl,” watching a lot of TV; in junior high, she writes, “I wear jeans and baseball caps wherever I go, listen to Loretta Lynn, and watch Crystal Gayle on TV” (108-9). She develops crushes on boys and sneaks off to parties. Ung internalizes and desires the dominant “normal,” i.e. white, middle-class, certain notions of femininity, etc. Speaking of her Asian American friends Ahn and Li, “at school, I want new friends who are not Asian, who aren’t ‘different.’ Even though I pretend it doesn’t matter, I hate that whenever the three of us are together, people stare at us as if we are as rare a sight as a three-headed snake. My normal friends at school will have blond or brown hair and blue eyes, very much like the girls I see on TV. On the small screen, these white girls always seem so light and happy. I just know that if I’m friends with them, I’ll be normal and happy, too!” (59). She hates her body, her hair, her appearance as she grows up, asking “Why can’t I be normal?” (160).

More engaging to me was Chou’s narrative, probably because it was not as familiar to me as Ung’s Asian American coming-of-age tale. Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, life is not easy for Cambodians, and international politics prevent Meng from even communicating with his family in Cambodia, let alone bring them to the U.S. In addition to poverty and general devastation wrought bythe Khmer Rouge, Chou and her family must avoid land mines and survive Khmer Rouge attacks on villages, and civilians are sometimes caught in battles between Vietnamese-occupied Cambodian government soldiers and the Khmer Rouge. In the years after liberation, Chou’s family still lacks electricity or plumbing, live in a poor shelter, and they cannot even afford soap (34). Chou also suffers from traumatic flashbacks. Her days are occupied with work: gathering wood and water, cooking food, taking care of her cousins, cooking for her large extended family, and worrying about whether they will have enough food. In the night she cries from fear. A niece falls into the cooking fire and dies from lack of medicine and proper treatment; she witnesses people horribly maimed and dying from landmines left by the Khmer Rouge. Chou struggles to attend school; she chastises her brother for thoughtlessly washing his bicycle with the precious water she so laboriously gathered in the morning so that she could go to class in the afternoon. But all her household duties ultimately prevent her unable to attend school; this so upsets the gentle Chou that she stabs another girl in the hand with a pencil. While life is difficult for everyone, this part of the narrative details how Chou’s life is particularly circumscribed and hard because she is a woman.

Chou’s narrative is also interesting for its discussion of the situation of Chinese Cambodians, particularly in Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia. Just as Loung is negotiating her Cambodian American identity, Chou is also divided; she “sees herself as both a Cambodian and a Chinese” (118), and she fears being deported to China, a country she’s never been to. Chou gets married in “a truncated Chinese-Cambodian marriage ceremony” (171), combining a Chinese tea ceremony with a Cambodian string-tying ceremony.

When the sisters meet again in 1995, it is initially awkward but soon they become close. The Epilogue recounts the process of the sisters’ reconnecting, Ung’s reconnection with Cambodia, and her work with the campaign to ban land mines (258-9). As Cathy Schlund-Vials writes, “Lucky Child – focused on sisterly frames and narratives – becomes a literary monument to the role of women in forging a post-Democratic Kampuchean selfhood. Such selfhood is constructed through memory of the past and reunification” (“Between Ruination and Reconciliation: Dragon Princesses, Cambodian American Heroines, and Loung Ung’s Lucky Child” in Transnationalism and the Asian American Heroine, ed. Lan Dong, McFarland 2010; see also Cathy Schlund-Vials’ forthcoming book on Cambodian American cultural production, War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work, U Minnesota, 2012).

So, overall, count me a fan of Loung Ung’s books as well as her activist work.

I’m currently also reading Haing Ngor’s Survival in the Killing Fields (coauthored with Roger Warner, Carroll & Graf, 2003; initially published as A Cambodian Odyssey by Macmillan in 1987). All three – Ngor, Siv, and Ung – come from upper-/middle-class backgrounds in Phnom Penh; I would be interested in how narratives from other classes and places would or would not differ from their narratives. Chanrithy Him, author of the memoir When Broken Glass Floats, was born in Takeo province (slightly south of Phnom Penh), but I haven’t read it yet so I don’t know where it is set. Will report back later!

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