Is Ignorance Bliss?
DURING THE VIETNAM ERA the would viewed Indochina through a blood-spattered lens crammed with searing images: napalmed and massacred villagers: a defiant Buddhist monk remaining upright during the final stages of self-immolation; a Vietcong suspect being shot point-blank through the temples; Khmer Rouge soldiers axing civilians; a widow wailing over a body bag.
This horror show fueled outrage among Americans, but did little to enlighten them about the Indochinese themselves. The often violent resentment directed towards the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees who have recently entered our communities shows how ignorant many Americans still are of the extraordinary plight of people whose hearts and minds were a focus of widespread concern little more than a decade ago.
Ted Hartry, director of the Boston office of the International Rescue Committee, said recently that since 1975 approximately 652,000 Indochinese refugees have settled in the United States. According to his estimates, 12,000 to 14,000 live in Massachusetts; in Boston the newcomers are primarily concentrated in the Dorchester and Allston-Brighton areas. Hartry added that as their numbers have increased so has the amount of crime committed against these new groups throughout the country.
Chuck Wexler, director of the Boston Police Department's Community Disorders Unit, which investigates racial crime, confirmed Hartry's comments locally, stating a couple weeks ago that "within the last two years there has been an increase in the number of violent incidents involving Southeast Asians" in Boston proper.
Both men said they believe the settlers' vulnerability stems from the language barrier and their mistrust of police, who in their homelands were often corrupt and actually viewed as an enemy. While the two denied any evidence of a political "backlash" against the Indochinese by Americans, Hartry attributed the local troubles to possible indignanace by "older immigrants" who arrived earlier in the century, when no federal programs existed for anyone, least of all newcomers. Nowadays, he explained, many Americans are voicing disapproval of the "very significant welfare dependency of Indochinese and all refugees."
According to Wexler, 16 reported acts of violence have been committed against Southeast Asians so far this year in Boston. Most notable was a taunting and stabbing incident in Dorchester during the summer which caused the death of a 24-year-old Vietnamese man. The crime problem comes from ignorance. Wexler said, adding, "People in this country have a lot of different ideas about what happened in Vietnam. Something which has been so foreign to them is suddenly hitting them in the face." Despite the violent attacks, "The vast majority of people in this city have been gracious to them," he emphasized, explaining that "mostly juveniles and young adults who have developed a hatred against something they don't know about and that's different from them," have been committing the crimes.
A SAD IRONY SURROUNDS SUCH ACTS of cruelty: in many instances they are being directed against people who once led lives similar to our own. Our detachment as well as ignorance melts into empathy when people ask: what is a refugee before he or she flees?
Lien grew up in a middle-class household in Phnom Penn during the '60s and early '70s (Lien is a pseudonym. She requested that her name and those of her family be changed to protect their privacy). The eldest of eight girls and boys, she worked every day after school in her parents' grocery store, handling bookkeeping and selling such items as Coca-Cola. After work she went home to cat supper, do homework, and help her mother around the house.
girlfriends. Like most American girls, Lien fussed over her wardrobe. Her mother tried to keep the family budget in rein, but her father gave in readily to her Gidget-like pleas for movie and sewing money. In high school Lien ranked third on the honor roll.
Lien's family lived, worked and studied within a Norman Rockwell-like setting; it was a tableau, however, which rested on top of a political volcano.
During Lien's teenage years Lon Nol's anti-communist government troops battled against increasingly intransigent Khmer Rouge forces in the countryside. Although such conflicts occasionally disrupted Phnom Penh city life and the introduction of military conscription placed a cloud over the future for Lien's two brothers, her family carried on as usual.
Eventually the political reality became too intrusive to ignore. Refugees from the strife-torn countryside swarmed into the cities; Lien's bookkeeping included a growing number of customers who "borrowed" food from the store. On one occasion a government soldier threatened to pull a grenade pin after Lien's mother refused to give him free beverages. Lon Nol's corrupt, American-supported regime, coupled with U.S. bombings of enemy sanctuaries inside Cambodia, not only bolstered the communist opposition, but also made Lien and her fellow countrymen long for victory by the so-called "gentle, smiling Khmers."
On the morning of April 17, 1975, that wish was fulfilled as the triumphant Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh. Lien's family joined townspeople in cheering and waving white cloths to welcome them. Lien's brother, Ty, who was 11 at the time, felt profound relief that be would not have to become a soldier and fight when he grew up. The euphoric citizens believed that the country could now look forward to peace and economic justice.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning... he found, himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect... What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream. The MetamorphosisFranz Kafka
Several hours later the walking nightmare began. All city inhabitants, including Lien's family and even hospital patients, were forced into the three major avenues and herded towards the countryside under the watchful eyes of Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of whom were even younger than Lien. Residents left behind homes, businesses, restaurants, and cinemas, carrying away only the barest necessities: in Lien's case a blanket. In the chaos and crush that ensued, she and her brothers were separated from the rest of their family, and the three have not seen them or their hometown since.
During the next four years Phnom Penh and other Cambodian cities turned into ghost towns. Lien, Ty and Van (her other brother) toiled in labor camps in the countryside, fulfilling Pol Pot's (the Khmer Rouge leader's) vision of a peasant farming nation. The Khmer Rouge were hostile and brutal against the people who had lived comfortably in the cities while they had struggled and fought in the jungles for a new Cambodia.
Lien recalls that by virtue of their young ages (10, 11, and 17) and sparrow-like proportions, she and her brothers were able to survive within the regime that tolerated only non-threatening individuals with "blank" or "uncorrupted" minds. Execution followed any display of intelligence, education or disgruntlement and eavesdropping was used regularly to ferret out individuals and families who posed a potential threat to the new order.
The three siblings slept on dirt floors. Woken each morning before sunrise, they were shepherded to distant work fields, just to keep them tired. Independent canting was punishable by death; laborers were fed communal "meals"--always boiled water with a countable number of rice grains. Lien and her brothers quickly adapted to their new lifestyles because they were too delirious to do otherwise. Weak from overwork and malnutrition, they could only focus their attention on food and day-by-day survival. Together they conjured up imaginary servings, as if the words alone could nourish them. While a nearby campfire or a scent in the air triggered memories of childhood meals. Lien says she actually grew to believe: "If I have one good meal, I fall down on the ground and die happy."
The regime prohibited familial affection. When Lien requested permission to pick a mango from a nearby tree, the guard made her vow that she intended to eat it herself and not to bring it back to the camp to share with her brothers. After taking a few bites of the unripe and bitter fruit, she handed the remaining portion over to the guard to prove that she did not, as she puts it, "love too much."
The terror which confronted Lien and her brothers was more phantom than graphic, since few people were actually executed before civilian eyes. But the three recall clearly: the sudden and permanent disappearances; people's belongings strewn along roadsides; the distinct, revolting stench of corpses which wafted into the camp from the neighboring woods; and the rumors and stories passed along by chance witnesses of the Khmer Rouge's but cheering.
ONE WEEK BEFORE THE Khmer Rouge takeover Lien had acted as bridesmaid at a girlfriend's wedding. The ceremony took place on a sunny morning as friends and relatives arrived with presents and money-filled envelopes. Instead of the traditional pink Cambodian dress, the bride wore a western-fashion, white, wedding gown. At the reception afterwards, the guests plowed through cakes and cookies and drank tea and Coca-Cola.
In a labor camp a couple years later, Lien spotted the bride-in-white's mother by the sound of her voice; she had withered beyond recognition. The woman sadly but tersely informed Lien that the girl had died, along with her new husband. The bride had been premonitory in her choice of attire: Cambodians customarily don white for funerals.
In December 1978 the Vietnamese launched a massive invasion of Cambodia, by then renamed "Democratic Kampuchea." Cambodians welcomed the conquest of their homeland by their historical neighboring enemy, just as they'd embraced the Khmer Rouge only a few years earlier, Lien credits the Vietnamese with rescuing her from certain death: the flux and confusion accompanying the incursion allowed her and her brothers to escape one night across the reedy, mountainous border into Thailand. Behind in the camp they left a cavernous pit, which Lien had learned was to be a mass grave for the workers.
During the following two years the three siblings lived inside refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines. Although they were no longer terrorized, they continued to sleep in the dirt and catch colds while less hardy escapes succumbed to the squalor and despair. Some refugees gobbled down food with a hunger that caused shrunken stomachs to burst. Lien watched one man groan and writhe after eating several bowlfuls of rice; he died that evening in his sleep, by his wife's side. According to Lien, he had simply become "too hungry."
THROUGH THE WORK OF an American refugee resettlement organization, Lien and her brothers were brought to the United States a year and a half ago. Now ages 18, 19, and 25, they live under church sponsorship in a small clapboard house in a New England sea town. There are bicycles on the porch, a struggling tomato plant in the yard, bright white T-shirts on the clothesline, and a fully stocked refrigerator in the kitchen. During the summer months they bicycle everyday past candy and clothing stores to their coffee shop jobs. During the rest of the year the boys attend the local high school, where Van is an A student.
Despite appearances, however, the three have not resumed their former lifestyles. With their backgrounds, it should be easy for them to fall into the American rhythm--Lien's idea of fun remains unchanged: "Four, five friends, go to movies." But she and her brothers must contend with the isolation imposed by their past trials and their flawed English. On top of it all, Ty and Van endure daily harassment and ridicule from their schoolmates.
If is ironic that our society, which has developed its degree of strength and magnanimity from immigrants, should mete out so much ill will to people who have been cruelly mistreated and who have no other home. Perhaps, as Americans, we take our own comfort for granted, and therefore find it difficult to relate to victims. Most of us, after all, enjoy the luxury of waking up from our nightmares.
"What a quiet life our family has been leading," said Gregor to himself... But what if all the quiet, the comfort, the contentment were to now end in horror?