This is a guest post by Cindy Thang. Cindy is the Melbourne-based volunteer Events Coordinator for Human and Hope Association Incorporated, our fundraising partner. Cindy is of Cambodian-Chinese heritage and grew up in Australia. This is her story about reclaiming her ethnicity and how it led her volunteering with Human and Hope Association Incorporated.
I had never heard of the Khmer Rouge until I turned eighteen, and consequently, I didn’t know my family’s history. Growing up, my parents didn’t talk about their feelings or their struggles, and as a child, I accepted that. Sleepovers at my grandparents were a regular occurrence, with scrambled eggs cooked by my aunt while my parents worked long night shifts. Our family never had conversations about anything beyond the surface level. It’s an aspect of growing up that many families can relate to, especially Asian households. My siblings and I wouldn’t hear ‘I love you’ growing up. Our parents never told us that they were proud of our accomplishments. We didn’t see them at parent volunteer days.
When I became a teenager, I felt very removed from my Cambodian-Chinese heritage. It pains me to admit it now, but I was ashamed of being Asian. While we were brought up on traditional Chinese values and activities, such as handing out red pockets on Lunar New Year and celebrating the full moon, I felt a disconnect.
My high school was predominantly white, and I was constantly aware of the fact that I was very not white. I stopped bringing in any home-cooked lunches, avoided speaking in my mother tongue, and I tried not to talk to other Asians in my classes out of fear that I would be lumped in with them. I tried so hard to remove my Asian identity and be a “true blue, born and bred Aussie”. No matter what I tried to do, I couldn’t avoid the jokes at my expense, laughing along so I wouldn’t appear uptight. We would encounter racist remarks thrown at us during our evening walks with strangers shouting “ni hao” and stretching their eyes. Someone even called me a gook.
I didn’t want to look this way because I didn’t want to be different. There was an inner identity crisis that I had to deal with while trying to figure out who I was, what I wanted to be when I grew up, and if I had remembered to finish my English homework. Most days I didn’t feel like I was Australian enough to be considered one, but I wasn’t Cambodian or Chinese enough to feel accepted in those communities.
I don’t remember when I heard about the Khmer Rouge, or about my family’s involvement, but it triggered something inside me. We had travelled to Cambodia several times when I was younger to see family, but I didn’t think anything of the run-down houses, the number of starving children on the street, and the way my dad would pull us a little closer when we walked down the streets.
The Khmer Rouge was a brutal communist regime that lasted for four years. Millions of Cambodians were forced from the capital and surrounding cities into the countryside to undertake agricultural work. They wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society where there were no rich, no poor and no exploitation. To do so, education, Western influences, religion and private property was abolished. It was one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century. The Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University estimates that 1.7 million people died under this regime from execution, forced labour and famine. A United Nations investigation estimates 2-3 million, while UNICEF says 3 million. No one knows the real total.
There have been movies and documentaries released about the Khmer Rouge, most notably ‘First They Killed My Father’ (2017) based on the biography by Loung Ung and produced by Angelina Jolie, ‘The Killing Fields’ (1984) and ‘The Missing Picture’ (2013). Through these movies and stories, I learned about the suffering and inhumane conditions Cambodians were forced to live in. To viewers, these are just stories from a long time ago about a horrible time in history.
Except they aren’t just stories. The Vietnamese invasion saw the end of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. That was only forty years ago, and sixteen years before I was born. Most of the adults in my family were teenagers during the Khmer Rouge and I can’t imagine the repression they suffered. My late 104-year old great grandma fled Cambodia with her entire family for a better life in Australia. My eldest aunt, who would have been a little younger than me during the time, still suffers PTSD and cries without realising when she speaks about her experience. My dad lost his older sister due to wrong medication. This is all I know.
There is so much that I don’t know about what my family has gone through – honestly, I’m afraid to ask. At twenty-three, I look back at my childhood and see things I never noticed before. My parents may not have said they loved me or were proud, but they always gave me the last bite, even if it was their favourite dish. They would go out of their way and drop by a shop on the way home to buy my favourite food. They didn’t go to parent volunteer days because they were insecure about their broken English, but they always made sure they were present at our school concerts and award ceremonies. They never said the words I wanted to hear, but they showed them in other ways.
Now I can talk to my parents about my day and they will reciprocate. We (sometimes) talk about feelings and there is a playful element to our relationship that didn’t previously exist. I was too young to realise but while I was busy hating the amazing heritage they passed on to me, they were trying to find their footing in a country that wasn’t designed for them. They had to figure out Australia by themselves and only now do I understand that their nights away set me up for the privileged life I lead now.
I regret refusing to speak my mother tongue because I struggle to communicate with my grandparents now. I wish I asked more questions and embraced our culture more. There are many things I wish I could have done in hindsight, but I can’t redo my past and can only focus on my future.
I have the privilege of growing up in Australia and am able to separate my life from that history. For me, it’s part of my history, but for Cambodians still living in their homeland, it is part of their past, their present and their future. They are rebuilding a country that suffered from oppression and massacres. Cambodia is taking great strides in the way they are taking back their community – in my most recent visit, they introduced a ridesharing app for tuk-tuks in Phnom Penh! – but there is still so much that we can help with.
I volunteer with Human and Hope Association Inc. because I want to do justice for my parent’s sacrifice and give back to a community I am proud to represent. I wouldn’t volunteer for a not-for-profit that I didn’t fully believe in, and the difference with Human and Hope Association is that they care. At the end of the day, they really truly care about the Siem Reap community. It’s evident in the way Sally Hetherington, president of
HHA Inc., left her friends, a world she had known for five years, left the team so it could be entirely Khmer run. It’s evident in their end goal of working themselves out of a job because that will mean the community has risen out of poverty, which should be the end goal for all charities.
Human and Hope Association is authentic in the way they want to make an impact. They are genuine in elevating the community out of poverty. It’s not about the money. It’s not about the image. It’s not about our own egos. It’s about the vision. Human and Hope are about my people – the ones who have experienced the worst of humanity and are still the kindest and selfless people I have met. I’m so proud to call these people family.
Our most recent family photo in Cambodia