Prumsodun Ok

Resilience: Fuel to Push Us Further In Our Lives

Profilers: Alexa Smith, Anh Tran, & Luis Vega

I Get The Experience of The War Second Hand

Has your family ever talked to you about their experiences back in Cambodia?

You know, for the most part, my family has never spoken to me about life during the war life during the Khmer Rouge because I think that it’s a very painful memory for my mother & my father and it’s a very painful memory for many Cambodian elders. And I think for many of them, they would just rather let that memory die than to live through the pain of, you know, sharing these memories and having to relive those images, those sounds, those experiences of pain all over again in the diaspora.

How powerful is the war’s effect on your parents? Does it have a significant impact on their lives?

You know when I think about the effect of war upon my parents and upon my family, I think about the way that my mom & dad they don’t tell us that they love us, right? But we know that they do, we feel it, right? So the same thing with the war, they don’t tell us anything about the war but we sense its damage. We sense the pain that it’s caused. So, you know, my father has already passed away but he’s never spoken to me ever once about his time during the Khmer Rouge. And my mother on the other hand, sometimes, you know, in fits of anger she’ll say, “You know, you guys have never seen struggle. During the Khmer Rouge this, during the Khmer Rouge that,” you know? But it’s never been anything very, it’s never been anything very detailed where she really wants to tell what happened, what her life was like during that time because I think it’s just too painful for her. She lost her sister during that time. Many people in the Cambodian community lost their whole entire families. So I think, you know, for myself as someone who was born in the states, I can’t even begin to imagine. How do you heal from that type of loss? How do you heal from that type of trauma, from that type of pain? It’s something very hard and something, you know, I just recently lost my dad 3 years ago and for me, even that was so painful and so traumatic and really threw my life kind of off course. And so now can you imagine having to experience where a whole society is falling apart? Where everyone around you is starving and dying? So I just can’t even begin to imagine the pain and the struggle that many Cambodian elders experienced in the diaspora. First being uprooted and displaced from their homes inside the country and then displaced to a refugee camp where it’s not necessarily safer, right? There’s trafficking, there’s unchecked violence and abuse and then after that they’re displaced into these communities (that are often times inner city communities) that are rife with problems, rife with poverty, rife with violence. And so I can’t imagine carrying all of those pains and then still having the immediate struggles of the world around you.

And I, I think that forgetting is kind of 2 things, it’s that sense of forgetting in this case is 1. being able to move beyond the pain, right? And 2. not wanting to burden the people around you with your pain because it’s a weight to hold for yourself and it’s a weight to hold for your family and some parents may not want their children to bear that weight. But then on the flip side of that is, if we don’t share these stories, we don’t learn about the struggles of our parents, of our family. If we don’t share these stories, we don’t know what struggle is. We don’t know what resilience is. We don’t have fuel to push us further in our lives.

How does it feel being the child of Cambodian immigrants in the US?

You know, it’s really interesting because as a second generation Cambodian American, I feel like my education really ripped me away from my family. So the moment I was 5 years old, English became my primary language because of school and because of my focus on school, I was ripped away from my parents. I could no longer speak to them with the same type of intent and with the same type of sincerity that I did when I was younger. And then on top of that when you go off to college and they’ve never been to college, you know, they don’t know what college is. They don’t understand it. That rips you away even further. And then most importantly was my artistic practice, you know, my parents, their life, they were farmers in Cambodia and so they lived tied to the land and the sun and the water and if any of those didn’t deliver that meant starvation, that meant struggle, that meant poverty, right? And so, for them to see their son who excels academically, to see their son who has so much potential to be whatever he wants to be choose a life of the arts and the poverty that most likely comes with that life, well then that’s really scary because they don’t want to see me struggle the same way they struggled. I’ve had a very, I’ve a very…I don’t want to say American life, but, you know, I’ve…because of my schooling, because of my education I’ve always been on track to have the same opportunities that my friends have.

So from my understanding, during the Vietnam War, the United States actually dropped bombs on Cambodian soil to basically disperse the Viet Cong who they believed had come into Cambodia. And because of that, and I think and I’m not sure, but I think they dropped more bombs in Cambodia at that time than in World War II. So because of that, it really allowed for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to gain support. Because they said, “Oh, look at these Americans bombing us, why isn’t the king protecting us?” And I think that really rallied a lot of people, not a lot of people, but it rallied people around the Khmer Rouge. And eventually they took over.

Khmer classical dancers because of of our association with the Royal Court, because by this time the dance form had been nurtured in the Royal Palace for centuries, because of our association with the Royal Court, Khmer classical dancers were also targeted. And so in a period of 4 years, 90% of artists died from disease, overwork, execution and starvation. And so what does that leave you, you know? It’s basically like destroying a country’s culture and the artists who carry that culture is really destroying the spirit of that society, right? Can you imagine a culture that doesn’t dance? A culture that doesn’t sing, a culture that doesn’t make clothes, that doesn’t have art? So Cambodia, you know, immediately after the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, Cambodia could have been like that. But thankfully the few remaining artists that survived, many of time especially in terms of dance, were, had been stars before the war. Many of them, those particular dancers worked together to revive Khmer classical dance, to revive Khmer arts. Revive it, rebuild it from the ashes of war and genocide so I really have a lot of respect for my teacher’s teachers who worked under another communist regime to keep the culture alive.

I remember growing up and being 5-6 years old and being all like, “Oh, you know, Thailand saved us. You know, we…we…my family escaped into Thailand and then everything was okay.” But that’s just not the reality. Women were raped and trafficked. People were abused, you know, there wasn’t a lot of…there wasn’t enough food to go around. But for someone like myself who is born and raised here in Long Beach, I get the experience of the war second hand. I see the war in the way that, oh, did you know that Cambodian adults show higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than combat veterans? I see the war in, oh, did you know that over 50% of Cambodian youth demonstrate symptoms of depression? I see the war in that, you know, Cambodians in general have the highest rates, I’m sorry, lowest rates of college graduation amongst Asian American populations and are one of the poorest Asian American communities.


I Don’t Feel Any Resentment

Do you feel any resentment toward the US and American policy in Southeast Asia back in the day?

I don’t feel any resentment, because I was born and raised here. You know, America has always been what I’ve known. So I don’t feel any resentment because one thing is that you can’t hold anger in the heart. I know many Cambodian-Americans who are so angry at the situation in Cambodia right now. It’s not as developed as it can be, there’s so much corruption. I think about cycles of violence, about cycles of power; so in Cambodia, since classical days, you’ve always had a king and his elites, and everyone else is just dirt poor. And the king is worshiped almost as a God in Earth. And it’s really easy to be authoritarian in that type of political environment. For centuries, that’s all that Cambodia has known, that authoritarianism. So what you have the communist, the Khmer Rouge. No I don’t think what they did was right, but what they were trying to do was to eliminate that authoritarianism; that quality of being led by a despot, where only one person’s authority matters. They were trying to eliminate that, they were trying to create a egalitarian peasant society. What they ended up doing was actually tripping and choking on their own power; becoming the same despot that they didn’t want to serve. So now in Cambodia, today when you’re out in Phnom Phenh, you really see the violence that’s perpetrated between the rich and the poor. Usually the rich have big cars, and when they’re driving they honk really quickly, really furiously for you to move out of their way or else they’re going to run you over. People in Cambodia do everything to demonstrate their wealth and how that wealth makes them better than someone else. Hun Sen himself was a Khmer Rouge, was involved in a Khmer Rouge. So what you have is a cycle of violence and a cycle of power where one group replaces another but does the same thing. So for me, I don’t say, “Oh, the Americans caused the war,” they didn’t. What’s happening is that the people inside of Cambodia were trying to change that and they got lost along the way, they got horribly lost along the way. Anger doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Secondly, I think as Americans, we have a responsibility to question our role in the world. It’s really interesting to have Cambodian groups and say, “My country was formally colonized”; but at the same time say, “but my other country is the empire of the world right now.”


The Sense of Lawlessness-Cambodia Today

What have your experiences been visiting Cambodia today?

So when I’m in Cambodia, I really see the sense of lawlessness. And it’s the lawlessness, a product of a society that was nearly destroyed. It has to do with corruption too. You know if your leader is corrupted, what image do you have to be a good citizen? That lawlessness [and] that corruption… There was probably corruption before the war too. Let’s not be silly. But this is corruption that goes unchecked, lawlessness that goes unchecked. And I think right now in Cambodia, people are really growing tired of that and that’s why youth has been using Facebook, has been using social media to organize and to [gather] together for common causes. But you know, despite all of that, I love being in Cambodia. It’s a very dynamic place. The people are very loving and beautiful (raising his eye trying to recall the memories). And I really do feel like Phnom Penh is really at a crossroad right now where it can really explode onto the international scene in terms of art and culture or it just might remain in the background the way it is right now. I feel like [Cambodian art and culture]’s teeter tottering between both sides right now.

How do you think Cambodian elders appreciate art after surviving so many hardships?

Immediately after the war, Khmers began to revive our arts and our dance forms because it’s been decided that this is the spirit of our people and we can’t let it die. And so traditional dances, traditional arts always have a high place in Khmer society and the elders today are always very proud, very happy to see young Cambodian American, young Khmer Americans practicing dance and practicing music. Like I said, they were crying when they saw my students dance. Even when I took my students to San Francisco, some of them cried because they didn’t think that it was possible to have young Cambodian Americans dance at such quality here in the States thousands, thousands and thousands of miles away from Cambodia, years, years and years, and memories, memories and memories away from the Cambodia that they knew. Here, they are assembled [as] a little reminder of the beauty that was in their life.

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