There’s always this stretch of awkward silence at the beginning. I’m the only foreigner in a room full of people from a hundred other countries, an exile pinned to my seat watching a parade of expectant faces – all travelers on the final leg of a journey toward our own reinvention. We’re passengers and destination combined – come to unlock something. Anything. Everything. And this is the moment, without fail, when I look back at them all and feel my spirit deflate, convinced of having nothing of value to offer. Nothing to say or teach. No music, no wisdom, no heart. What would they say if they knew I was there for no one but myself? If they knew I come to take more than I can give back? I imagine how they’d laugh to discover this continual, near-desperate search for grace, even the accidental kind. Something to lift me off the ground and render me better. But then, as always, someone says something like hello and the moment shatters. We all become human again.
It’s like this even on Saturday afternoons sitting across a table from Neary and Lao at the Wat Buddhist Center of RI. Sometimes their daughter, Nara, is there, when her work schedule allows. It was Nara who convinced me to hold a class there in the first place. She was the first member of the family I’d met, three or four years before when she’d been my student in another program. She brought her mother, Neary, along to that class as a new arrival from Cambodia, already working and coming to class in the evenings to learn everything from the alphabet up.
Lao came along to the class at the temple about a year ago, also newly arrived. In those moments before we start every Saturday, he sits smiling silently across the table. I’ve met exceedingly few people with his ability to convey that much warmth and gentility without saying a word. But it’s usually up to me to break the silence. He reminds me of something out of Lao Tzu: “Those who speak don’t know. Those who know don’t speak.” But Lao has the uncanny ability to make you feel like the conversation has already started.
Most weeks, Lao and Neary’s granddaughters, Madeline and Norin, are there too. Although born in Cambodia, the two teenagers are honor students and speak English like natives. By all appearances, they’re typical American schoolkids, if not much better mannered than average, until you see them participating in the traditional dance class often running on the other side of the room. Their straight-spined, square-shouldered focus would be a rare commodity among the adults I work with.
The dance teacher gives them instructions in Khmer, and it often seems to come down to the exact position of the pinky finger during some particular movement of the dance. The girls are immersed.
The juxtaposition is quietly stunning: a kindly pair of grandparents chipping away at the monolith of North American English while the kids are across the room focusing every cell of their beings on a deep, old-country tradition.
So maybe you can travel from Point A to B, but journeys are never linear. And in those awkward silences at the beginning of class, my attention is always drawn to Lao most of all. I study his warm yet impassive face, fully aware of how a Cambodian of his generation has, one way or another, been touched by one the great atrocities in all of human history.
It’s the first thing you want to ask, and the last thing you can.
One day we were going around the table talking about daily routines. I had to invent mine just to make an example: I wake up at seven, get up at 7:15 … and so on.
Nara gets up at three in the morning and puts together food for the family’s dinner at the end of the day. By five, she’s on her way to work. Neary gets up at six and heads off to her own job. Lao gets up at five to make lunch for Madeline and Norin to take to school.
He punctuated his confession with that smile that always seems to quietly insist that everything in the universe that falls, falls to wherever it belongs. Then there was also whatever measure of amused astonishment I couldn’t hide. I could see him standing at the kitchen counter, Oxford shirt buttoned to the neck, hair neatly combed – just as he always looks in class – putting together those lunches. I was trying to draw a line between that early morning moment in my vision with everything else I didn’t know about him.
Everything’s connected – war, ghosts and the rice a pair of teenage girls eat for lunch in an American public school – even if only for the accidental circumstance of the same life having passed by it all.
History is a tree you walk by on your way to school every morning. Revelation is how spring turns its branches from bare lace into a rustling of leaves.
A week or two after our daily routine conversation, I ran into Norin and Madeline in the temple kitchen. I had to ask if their grandfather really got up at five in the morning to make them lunch. It wasn’t as if I doubted Lao, I really only wanted to see what they thought about it. They nodded and giggled slightly, as if being loved that much was beautiful enough to be embarrassing.
Although the girls have lived half their lives in the US, they think of themselves as Cambodian. If you ask them, they’ll answer without a second’s hesitation. They speak English at school and with each other, both claiming it’s easier, but speak Khmer at home with their family.
The food Lao prepares for them runs the gamut between sandwiches and more traditional fare. But this was where Norin and Madeline also explained how their grandfather not only makes them lunch, he walks them to school. He carries Norin’s backpack as she’s the younger and smaller of the two. At the end of their day, he goes back to walk them home, carrying Norin’s backpack again.
The girls are barely aware, if at all, of how their grandfather once carried their year-old mother on his back out of Phnom Penh to Takoe Province. Neary was carrying Nara’s twin brother the same way while Khmer Rouge soldiers forced rivers of people out of their home city.
The march took a week, each parent carrying one of the twins, wading along in the current of a stream they could see neither the beginning nor end of. People got sick and died on the road, but the soldiers were always close, and the procession was never allowed to stop for the dead, only long enough to cook and eat some rice, then get up and keep on. Soldiers ordered the mournful to stop crying and keep walking. Only the dead were allowed to fall. At the end of a day’s march, Lao, Neary and their twins lay down and slept on the road alongside the untended dead.
Lao had to keep secret the fact that he’d been a teacher up until a few years before. If the soldiers had learned of his education he would most likely have been murdered like most of a generation of educated Cambodians. Many people were brutally killed simply for wearing glasses and looking bookish.
In Takoe, Lao and Neary carried dirt on their backs – like they’d carried their children, like Lao carries Norin’s backpack – to build a reservoir. Lao’s three brothers and sister, along with their families, were with them, but Neary’s ten brothers and two sisters had been sent to other camps. In the first two weeks, one of Lao’s brothers and his entire family were killed.
After a couple of months in Takoe, Lao, Neary and Lao’s remaining relatives were sent to Batambong where they were forced into the same form of labor – carrying dirt on their backs to build a reservoir. There was still no sign of any of Neary’s family until a man showed up from another camp where he’d met her father. The man had met Neary’s father three days before he was killed. In Batambong, another of Lao’s brothers and his family were killed.
Neary never heard anything more about any of her dozen siblings throughout the rest of the war. After, she spent her time searching anywhere she could think of to find one of her siblings alive. She wandered in and out of train stations and hospitals, but never found anyone.
When I think of Neary walking into a train station to study the faces of strangers, I imagine the same look in her eye that I saw when she was still a fresh arrival in America – a fresh arrival in my classroom – eyes open wide with hunger for something familiar enough to grasp in the odd marks of ink on the paper in front of her. Tiny fish swimming in the ocean of a new language.
It’s my only reference, and as wrong as it’s likely to be, I have this inexplicable need to see her there. And I need to dream what she can’t afford – that someone who loved her was out there looking for her, fearing her to be among the missing, heartbroken but alive.
Nowadays, I walk down streets wondering how many of the people I see are thought of by someone as missing.
Lao and Neary don’t talk to their grandchildren about the war. It’s nothing they need to spend much time remembering themselves, and it’s too much tragedy to bear at their ages. They say if the girls are ever curious enough to ask they will tell them. In the meantime, it’s enough they spend their time being walked to school and back, living lives free of toxic fears, learning a sweeter life, pursuing their creative talent for dance.
Now, when I sit across the table from Neary and Lao, our moments of silence are informed by secrets that aren’t really secret anymore. Sometimes, Neary leans her weight against her husband’s arm, gazing off in another direction, patiently waiting for her teacher to decide whether or not he has anything of value to say. Again.
These are the people who tell me English is scary.
Lao stares straight ahead until I catch his eye. He looks at me without turning his head. Most of the time he cracks that subtle smile and, as always, it feels like the conversation has already begun.
Everything in the universe that falls, falls wherever it belongs. Even when it’s us who fall, here, together, among the missing.
Heartfelt thanks to the entire Ith family for their trust, gentility and beauty. And to Sochettra Yieng and all the monks at Wat Buddhist Center of RI. To learn more about the story of people like Neary and Lao, watch the film, The Killing Fields, or read the excellent memoir, First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung.