top of page

She Offers a Smile

I think the Peace Corps volunteers were grateful for the audio tour at Choeung Ek, the notorious Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh. It let us walk the grounds in silence, individually plugged-into our own mourning for humanity, the symphony, A Memory From Darkness by Him Sophy, the only grace note. The ride home was quiet.

At dinner, Mai asked us about our trip. Much sorrow we replied. In my limited Khmer I asked her to tell us her experience. She was a teenager in the village where we live now. When the Khmer Rouge took over, she was moved to another province, separated from her family, like everyone else during those dark days. Her older sister was accused of helping “the enemy” cross the river and was killed. They were starved; lived on a couple of spoonfuls of boboa (rice gruel) a day. Later, she was taken to a prison with 50 other women. Only two survived. When the Vietnamese rolled into Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge fled to the northern Thailand border. My Mai walked back to her village. It took months.

As she tells her story tears slide down her cheeks. We say nothing except to whisper we are sorry. Did you hear about this in America? No, not at the time, we must admit. She nods, takes a napkin to wipe away the old grief. She does not condemn us for our ignorance. She offers a smile. I am happy now, she says. I have my family.

Her husband is lying in the hammock listening to a sports on a transistor radio. Her two-year old granddaughter, Le Le is clowning around with a big goofy grin wearing someone’s over-sized flip-flops, pushing a plastic chair like a cart. One of her younger sons rides though the gate on his moto with a bag of sugar cane juice. The older daughters insult one another, laugh and pull each other’s hair. Baby Pesek squeals like a gecko and looks around for approval, then settles into his placid Baby Buddha gaze. And I see what she means. Perhaps that is why the first words we learn in Khmer are mai, bopok, b’rong s’rai, b’rong pro, ta, yay—mother, father, sister, brother, grandfather, grandmother.

Here is the link to Him Sophy’s work: (Sorry, cannot embed video or post photos with this slow connection. Please see new photos on FB.)

bottom of page