The following is an interview with Sophorn Cheang and Mardine Mao, co-directors of Cambodian-American Community of Oregon’s oral history project. CACO, formed in 1989, organizes many educational, cultural and social programs. For their oral history project, nineteen young Cambodian-Americans interviewed their elders, many of whom are survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. They produced a 36-minute documentary film from their interviews.
NOHA: Did you videotape all the interviews?
CACO: All the interviews were videotaped at our producer’s studio. Each interview took about 1 to 2.5 hours.
NOHA: Where are you storing your collection?
CACO: We are in the process of finishing up all the raw material and getting the DVDs to the participants. We have yet to have a physical location to store these collections, but are hoping that we can transcribe the interviews and have them available on our website for researchers and archives.
NOHA: Will the collection be available to the public? For instance, to independent scholars?
CACO: The 36-minute oral history documentary film is available now for purchase on our website. As we mentioned above, we are hoping to transcribe the raw material and have them available publicly soon. [Note from NOHA: If the CACO website is still under construction when you read this, copies of the film are available directly from Sophorn for $15. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org]
NOHA: Is your collection phase ongoing?
CACO: At this moment, we are not conducting any more interviews. However, we continue our outreach to the public through public screenings, and discuss the film at high schools, colleges and universities, community partners and neighborhood associations. One of our purposes is to encourage other communities who have faced similar oppression to take actions and raise awareness within their own communities.
NOHA: How old were your youth interviewers?
CACO: They ranged from 13 to 30 years of age.
NOHA: What effects has the experience of interviewing had on the youths?
CACO: In lieu of trying to answer this question ourselves, as directors of this project, we asked one of the young adults that did the interview, and below is her comment which we can safely say is a good representation of how the others feel:
Kimberly Im, CACO Interviewer: Being a part of the OH project was something I am so glad I signed up for. It was an amazing experience for both myself, my sister and my mother. I already think of my mother as wonder woman and my hero, but with this project it just makes me think even more of her, if that was even possible. I would highly suggest that all communities no matter what race, age, religion etcetera, take part in a project like this because everyone has their life stories and they should be told.
Learning about her struggles and her life story makes me put things into perspective. I am so grateful for all the things I have in my life, and for everything that she did to give me the life that I have now. Being a child raised in the posh lifestyles of the US, I have nothing to complain about or be sad about. I worry about things that are trivial compared to things my mother was worried about. She feared for her life, her family’s life. She had no food to eat, no safety, nothing. The experience robbed her and her other community members of that. She lost her childhood and the innocence that I got to have freely and without struggles.
Being a part of this project opened my eyes. It made me more compassionate and aware. I am closer to my mother after this. Tears were shed that day, hugs were given and love was spread because of this project. I also have such a strong respect for all of the members that participated in this. It was a hard thing to talk about and bring up, but it seems to only positively affect all those that were involved. Sharing a story can mean so much, and I thought that I had heard it all, but my mother brought up things in that interview that I was unaware of and was blown away by. In these genocide/war stories, the sharing part, I feel, although very hard, is cathartic. All these memories and gut-wrenching images that were suppressed and held back because of the fear and the suffering. But it seemed that once it was let go and shared, positive energy was also released. The youth and the offspring of all the survivors should be grateful for everything their parents/grandparents did for them. I am so thankful for my mother and my father for fighting so hard for life so that I could have mine. I am truly blessed and this project let me see that.
Everyone in this project was strong and wonderful. I am so proud to be a part of the OH project. I think it is and was a beautiful thing!
NOHA: What about the effects on the elders who are telling these painful stories?
CACO: While some were able to let go and got the burden out of their system, some were just telling on the surface and still holding back and find it hard to open up completely. For those who were able to open up completely and let go of their pain, they felt a sense of relief and were glad that they were able to get it out and able to share with their children. In these cases, we see that healing is beginning to take place.
NOHA: What would you like people to know about Cambodian-Americans?
CACO: We are many things, but more importantly we are survivors. We survived one of the most heinous crimes ever committed against humanity. We survived the language, cultural and other barriers; we survived the berry picking and being on the welfare system and most noticeably survived being far away and in a foreign land. While some of us are still struggling to deal with painful pasts and still dreaming to reach the American dream, many have called America home and made the American dreams; but not without hard work and sacrifice. Many young adults held numerous jobs just to make ends meet, in some cases going to school and providing for their family at the same time. Many elders are stuck at home, lonesome, by themselves while their children are either in school or working. Some of the things we value most are family and education. You can ask any Cambodians around middle age what they value the most; you’ll hear something like, “my kids getting good education and my mom being well taken care of.” Or if you ask an elderly person, you probably will get an answer something along these lines, “to see my grandchildren get a good education and to take care of his/her family when they grow up.”
While Cambodian-Americans are known to the mainstream population as the children of the killing fields, we’d like to be known as survivors and people who call America home, and people who have made a considerable contribution to America vitality. Many went on to be professionals, business owners and scholars. We also feel encouraged to see some of our youth going on to colleges and top universities. We have continued to see parents and community groups work relentlessly to empower our youth to live a productive life and become successful individuals. We hope that this documentary film will continue to inspire the younger generation to value America freedom and liberty and to work hard to make a meaningful life for themselves and their family.