by Chanrithy Him
Increasingly, recent news have highlighted students from disadvantaged backgrounds who topped their classes and earned scholarships. From observing people in my life, those who grew up with less privileges seemed more determined to do well than those who did not experience prolonged hardships.
Perhaps adversities are not as pernicious as they appear though they are always known for poor timing. Often described as metaphorical waves that sweep over us and render us powerless, to wave riders, board and wind surfers, they are gifts of nature for learning tricky manoeuvres and new overcoming tactics. Perhaps we too could learn much through adversities to emerge with new life skills and aspirations. Therefore, to adjust is merely learning how to ride the episodic wave and surf on its power – what you certainly could not do on calm waters.
For about four years from April of 1975, the Khmer Rouge brought intensive waves of human displacement and unthinkable suffering throughout Cambodia. Seen through the innocence and resilience of a 10-year-old, When Broken Glass Floats chronicles life before and after the Khmer Rouge. As a child, her innocence sees the outcome of cruel inhumanity rather than the gory processes and details that are kept away from children, and her resilience makes the renewability of the human spirit admirable.
Deprived of family contact and food, and shrivelling with untreated infection from drinking undrinkable water and eating inedible food in the harsh fields of forced labour, she wrote:
Hunger doesn’t make me modest. I continue to gorge on the food. I feel Pok’s eyes watching us – I don’t care. I’ve unlearned Cambodian table manners, all the cultural rules. Today these things don’t apply to me. I’ve learned to well, adjusting to today’s scarcity...one must adapt to one’s situation in order to survive. And I’m adjusting to my new environment, a world where formality and politeness are not a necessity – indeed are banned. Instead, cruelty is the law by which the people are ruled, a law designed to break our spirits. In the name of padewat (the revolution). Even though he works for the Khmer Rouge, Pok doesn’t have a heart of stone like them. The goodness in him has lifted my spirit.
What I like about this memoir is that it’s not just another survivor’s account of hardship under the Khmer Rouge, using words as an ‘incantation to make things right in my soul’.
There are times when I’ve denied my own memories, when I’ve neglected the little girl in me. There would always be time to grieve, I told myself. I pushed down memories in pursuit of important things. Education. Medical school. I wanted to make a difference in the world, to do good deeds, fulfil a child’s wish. There would be a time for memories, but I never anticipated it, never sought it out. There would be a time.
As I sit in the eerie glow of my computer screen summoning up the past, I know that it is time. I invite the memories back in, apprehensive but hungry for them. In trying to understand my drive to tell others what was scorched in my mind, I recognize my fortitude and ambition, which are rooted in the people who gave me life – my parents.
Convinced that good must come through even painful experiences, Chanrithy Him emerges with dignity, compassion and continues to champion for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] for children of war.