She Had To Forget

Not long after my in-laws moved here from Cambodia, I was at home with my mother-in-law who, up until that point, I had assumed could speak very little English. I forget what we were doing, but there was a magazine or newspaper lying around and, to my shock, she picked it up and strugglingly read a few words aloud. Taken aback, I looked at her and said, “You can read English.” “A little bit,” she replied. “I used to read and write,” she continued slowly. I asked, “What happened?” She looked at me and said, “I had to forget.” Confused, I asked her, “What do you mean, you had to forget?” “I had to forget,” she continued, “or they would have killed me.”

I knew very little about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (the Cambodian communist party) up to this point, but I looked at this woman, the mother of my wife, and my heart broke for her. I was so confused. I began asking more questions here and there, always careful to be respectful of the fact that this was a sensitive subject. I discovered that the Khmer Rouge killed anyone who had any connection to the West. That means that if you were educated in a Western classroom, if you knew any Western language such as English or French, if you wore Western clothing, or were simply known to associate with someone who did, they would kill you, no questions asked.

I think about this kind, intelligent, generous, and strong woman who taught my daughter how to speak two languages and who is now teaching her how to read and write in them as well. Then I think about what the Khmer Rouge set out to destroy. They wanted to kill anyone who had what they considered to be ‘unfair advantages’ of education, wealth, or status. They wanted a society of agrarian equality, wherein everyone (except them) had an equal share of nothing, so that they could rebuild their country ‘fairly.’ If a person had more of some thing or some trait than others, or stood out in some way, he or she was killed. If they were not killed, they were sent into the fields to do manual labor under the harshest and most cruel conditions a person can imagine.

When I hear so many young people these days angrily decry privilege or advantage, I think about my daughter and I fear that someday they will come for her. Then I wonder if she will be able to forget what she knows and hide in plain sight like her grandmother did so that she to can live to see her granddaughter grow up.

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

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