The gray frame house on Marion Avenue in the East Bronx stands sandwiched in between two nearly identical white-and-yellow frame houses. A perfectly assimilated structure but for the bright, multistriped Cambodian Buddhist flag out front. The Jotanaram Temple has been a peculiar part of this solidly Hispanic neighborhood since 1985.
Once, many years ago, in its Jewish incarnation, this neighborhood was my neighborhood. The five- and six-story brick buildings that rub endlessly against one another, inflicting heinous boredom on me as a child, are still there. The Valentine Theatre, in which I saw Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu, has gone. I find it has been replaced by Fino Men’s Wear.
Kulen Lang, rising from the computer, welcomes me to the temple. Short, compact, bifocaled, the sixty-year-old man displays the practiced heartiness of the obstinate survivor.
He leads me into a large, cold room with an altar and two gold Buddhas perched on ledges, one above the other.
“There are two thousand Cambodians in the Bronx,” the president of the Khmer Buddhist Society tells me. “Maybe fifteen, twenty percent get public assistance.”
Some have mental illnesses, compliments of Pol Pot, and receive SSI disability checks. Others, flummoxed by the English language, can’t find work and must rely on welfare. There are a number of factory workers among the Cambodians, the inevitable cab drivers, some small businessmen, a handful of social workers, mental health workers, medical workers. (Mr. Lang works in the medical records department of Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx.) But no one is redemptively rich. Mr. Lang was living in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1981 when President Reagan announced he was opening America’s doors to Southeast-Asian immigrants. The refugee immigrated with his wife and three children. A fourth child, Koltheda, a daughter, was born in the Bronx in 1984.
Mr. Lang’s thoughts fly back and forth between two worlds, one strange, the other shattered.
“Between 1970 and 1975, I was in the Cambodian Air Force.” A crewman in the planes that fought the Communists for Cambodia’s doomed pro-American government of Lon Nol. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh. Mr. Lang was taken prisoner in the northwestern town of Battambang. Like all urban Cambodians who were seized and not shot by the Khmer Rouge, he was marched at gunpoint into the countryside.
“They kill people right in front of your eyes. They shoot people. That way they get people on line to move faster. Everyone is scared.” Three years of forced farm labor awaited the prisoner. He considers himself lucky in a way. He was born a farmer’s son in Eastern Cambodia. “I didn’t have to pretend to be a farmer like others,” he laughs. “I was a real farmer.” Still, he almost starved to death. He was fed a dollop of gruel twice a day. He had to forage for crabs and snakes to stay alive.
I raise the subject of crime in the Bronx, in the eighties. He tells me of the spate of robberies, the gangs of youths. His voice rattles energetically. It is almost robust.
In Mr. Lang’s mind, crime inhabits a more lurid space. “At re-education meetings, they bring in ‘prisoners of war.’ People who escape from heavy labor. They hit them with bamboo stick. First, the soldier hit them. Then, the village leader. Then, the first five prisoners. Then, everyone else must hit them. Some people just pretend to hit.”
The long dance of terror, the witnessing of it, the need to respond to it, gave voice to the silent Buddhism that was the practice in those years.
“Buddha, Dharma, Sangha,” Mr. Lang would chant secretly. (Buddhism was banned by the Khmer Rouge.) Or simply, “Buddha, Buddha, Buddha.” “There was nothing to say,” he murmured. “Just the prayer from our heart.”
I later came upon the words of Dith Pran, whose life, depicted in the movie The Killing Fields, was to become the symbolic life of the Pol Pot genocide: “We prayed in silence—burning candles to help guide the spirits of those who had died, to express gratitude for life’s small blessings, and to search for the strength to face another day.”
I am sitting in meditation with Sol Mang, the old monk, in the darkened temple. A tiny man in ochre robes (he was grafted onto the Bronx from Danbury), his silence is enormous. It seems to fill every corner of the room, coexisting peacefully with the Rap rhythms swirling outside the window.
“We still don’t understand it,” the Cambodians say. Is it to be understood? The visitation of “Year Zero,” the Khmer Rouge version of timelessness, with its ghastly leveling of the known. A society of razed temples and defrocked monks. A society of farms and slave farmers. A society of silent prayers and nearly two million corpses.
The Khmer civilization of Cambodia officially adopted Theravada Buddhism under Angkorian King Jayavarman VII late in the twelfth century. Cross-pollinated by Hinduism, dating back to the arrival of Hindu traders in the first and second centuries, Khmer spirituality has frequently been caught in the turmoil of Cambodia’s many conflicts with neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. Under Suryavarman II (whose reign extended from 1113 to approximately 1150), builder of Angkor Wat, the Khmers expanded into parts of Vietnam and Thailand. In the seventeenth century, the Khmers chose to ally themselves with Vietnam against Thailand, only to wind up losing land to the Vietnamese and gaining large numbers of unwanted Vietnamese settlers. (The Vietnamese ethnic minority, five percent of the total population, has been the largest and least popular of the minority groups in Cambodia.) In 1862, Cambodia was made a French protectorate. A decade after gaining its independence from France in 1953, Cambodia was plunged into the Vietnam War. In the mid-1960s, with Cambodia maintaining neutrality in the Vietnam War, the Communists of Vietnam established sanctuaries there. In 1969, America began its “secret bombing” of the sanctuaries. The following year, Lon Nol deposed the vacillating Prince Sihanouk, who then threw in his lot with the Khmer Rouge against Lon Nol. On April 12, 1975, five days before “Year Zero” was to begin, America closed down its embassy in Phnom Penh.
Sara Phok is a repository for horror stories. Not that she wants to be. It is simply the nature of her job.
Sol Mang hands us glasses of hot tea. Sara, a woman of forty, says quietly, “Many of the people I work with suffered up to fifteen traumas during the war: rape, being separated from their families, seeing members of their families killed. They complain of flashbacks, nightmares.”
Sara, a mother of two daughters in their early twenties, mentions being separated from her own family by the Khmer Rouge when she was fifteen. She had been a teacher, but the Khmer Rouge closed down her school. They turned her into a rice farmer. Later, as an émigré, she turned herself into a mental health worker. Her voice touches lightly, but without irony, on the disparity of her jobs.
“After I was a farmer, they had me work as a cook for the Khmer Rouge leader. He was a very nice guy. I met my husband then, and he supported our marriage.”
Since we are on the subject, I ask her thoughts, in retrospect, on the Khmer Rouge.
She shakes her head. “I have no answer for what they did. They were power-hungry. Crazy. They wanted to kill all educated people. They didn’t believe in karma, bad karma or good karma, or in the Five Precepts. As a human being, everyone should have some precepts to live by.”
Moving to the Bronx, torment took the form of language. Sara wrestled mightily with English. (She arrived in 1985, in her mid-twenties.) But she had siblings to help her break down the difficult sounds, to accompany her into her brawny new culture. Others had no help. “The people we treat—many are low-functioning. They have a lot of children, but poor parenting skills. They are too depressed to really be actively involved with their children. They stay home mostly. They know only the temple. It’s very difficult for them.”
Mornings, at Montefiore Hospital’s Indo-Chinese Mental Health Program, Sara sits and waits for the words to begin, for memory to collapse around the steamy places where the known world ended for Cambodians. “It’s fortunate we have the program,” Sara says. “In our culture, people don’t talk about personal problems, family problems. We tell them it’s good for them to express themselves.”
There is snow on the ground, and the temple is swept clean. Sprawled before the Buddhas on this day, dozens of Cambodians sit drinking tea, eating sweetcakes, talking loudly. The cause of this celebration is Hem Sophat, a monk who has just been ordained as a priest, and who pulls me down to be photographed with him.
Usually I find the temple empty but for the resident monk and the older women who come to feed him, or officials like Mr. Lang, or the odd stray visitor, or the temple cat. Young Cambodians, busy transforming themselves into young New Yorkers, mostly stay away.
That irks Danny Ouk, a young temple-going Cambodian who is absent from the celebration.
“Young Cambodians don’t seem to care about the community. They isolate themselves. We need young people to be involved in the temple.” Danny, who graduated from Fordham University with a business degree, was only nine when he was whisked from a Thai refugee camp to the Bronx by way of the Philippines. He is twenty-nine now, but his smooth, boyish face makes him look more likenineteen. He is tied to the community by the same ungainly cord of catastrophe that grips older Cambodians. When he was seven, he saw his father starve to death. “I remember crying. Not because I thought I would never see my father again. I didn’t understand anything about death then. I was crying because I was starving.”
Danny would like to see the temple leaders be more “proactive.” He feels they should be out meeting with legislators, with local officials, saying to them, “We are here, and these are our needs.” He gives the Cambodian New Year as an example. Crowds flock to the temple. The street needs to be blocked off. But the leaders have not been up to negotiating with the police.
The community’s isolation has driven some folks up to Lowell, Massachusetts, where the Cambodians are better organized. Danny, as an inheritor of the years of terror, is not without sympathy for older Cambodians.
“Under the Khmer Rouge, you learned to keep everything quiet, to do what you were told. You didn’t speak up.”
Danny claims to be ignorant about Buddhism, citing a life lived mainly in the Bronx. Buddhism may be undergoing a rebirth in Cambodia (thousands of temples were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, and all but 3,000 of Cambodia’s 50,000 monks, it is said, perished in the genocide), but in the Bronx it is still struggling in the cradle. “What if Cambodian monks could be brought over here to teach?” I suggest to Danny.
“That would be awesome!”
Among those present at the temple are Lak Tev and Sok Teang Pin. I imagine both women to be in their fifties, though Sok Teang Pin, like many older Cambodian women, has black, youthful-looking hair. They are patients of Sara Phok. They have chosen me to be the bottle for their messages, which they hope will be floated deep into the world. Sara, who will be my translator, finds us a quiet back room so we can talk. Lak Tev rolls her head, in which there are no teeth, away from my questions, which she answers in stacatto bursts of Khmer.
She’s been here since 1982, she says. She has no work, as she speaks no English. She lives on an SSI check. With her daughter gone, she lives alone.
Was it hard exchanging her green land for the vertical, dun-colored expanse called the Bronx? She is not inspired to talk about landscapes. “Change is hard” is all she will say.
“What did you do before the Khmer Rouge took power?”
“I was a farmer near Battambang.” (Many in this community were farmers, and many seem to have come from around Battambang.)
Lak Tev farmed while the Americans dropped their bombs, and the forces of Pol Pot battled the forces of Lon Nol. She and her family were often forced to flee the fighting until it was safe to return. Then came April 17.
“I was evacuated from my village and sent far away. It was very strict. The Khmer Rouge did not allow you to go anywhere. You had to search for food because everyone was starving. I went around looking for root vegetables.”
Wasn’t that dangerous? Weren’t foragers punished?
“When they caught you, they killed you. I was very lucky. I never got caught.” But she was not really so lucky. “The Khmer Rouge killed my husband. Ten of my children starved to death.”
My questions crumble. Lak Tev bows, hands pressed together with ancestral care. Quietly, she rises to her feet.
Sok Teang Pin arrived in the Bronx a year after Lak Tev. She, too, is on SSI. The Bronx frightened her at first.
“The buildings were all so high. I prayed to the Buddha not to be afraid. I was lucky. I found an apartment on a low floor.” Her husband and her six children live with her.
Through much of the Khmer Rouge tyranny, she was separated from her husband. They had been living together in Phnom Penh, where he was a teacher (a profession that was a certain invitation to death, as the Khmer Rouge had it in for teachers, lawyers, doctors—bourgeois contaminators all). When Phnom Penh fell, he found himself stranded in a village near the capital. His wife, like everyone else, was evacuated from Phnom Penh and sent to a labor camp near the Vietnamese border. Vietnamese troops regularly crossed over, she says. Sok Teang Pin had to dodge the bullets of two armies.
“One day, I was told I was on a Khmer Rouge death list. I was to be executed the next day. But the next day the Khmer Rouge changed their plans, and I was allowed to live.”
From time to time, she remembers, a Khmer Rouge soldier would inform someone whose name was on a death list and help that person escape. Her brother did not escape. The Communists killed him.
“And your children,” I ask, “what happened to them?”
“One of my children starved to death.”
Sok Teang Pin, like Lak Tev, lives trapped inside the blaze of memory. “Sometimes I want to go down to the U.N. and just scream.”
Sol Mang was a farmer, then a slave laborer in a work camp, before he became a monk. What made him, I ask, at the age of almost fifty, at the lowest point in Cambodia’s history, decide to become a monk?
Smiling, he says through Toun Yau, his translator, “There were three reasons. One, there were no monks left in Cambodia after Pol Pot. Two, I wanted to teach Cambodians about Buddhism. And three, I wanted to learn more about Buddhism myself.”
A phoenix monk from a phoenix country. Sol Mang once said to me, “Those of us who are between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-five, who lived through the period of Pol Pot, appreciate life more because of it.”
I marvel at the way his bony face cracks open with joy whenever Cambodians approach him, consult or gossip with him, bring food to him. How could that joy have survived what he survived?
“I am not angry at them,” Sol Mang says of the Khmer Rouge. “I pity them. They were uneducated. Only uneducated people would do what they did.”
I don’t know what to make of the word “uneducated.” Is it a euphemism for bestial, inhuman? Is he trying to be as kind as possible? Or does he simply wish to avoid words with a propensity for inner shattering? I remember once saying to Sara Phok, “No matter what you say, you never sound angry.” She laughed. “I hide it very well, don’t I?”
I raise the issue of remembering. How, I ask Sol Mang, should Cambodians remember those terrible years? The monk answers slowly, softly: “If we do not forget the past, it means we are adding to the suffering of the present.”
But I twice heard him say—sadly, it seemed to me—that Cambodian teenagers do not think or know very much about the period of Pol Pot. His ambivalence is understandable. As a Cambodian, he may want to see the genocide vaulted in national memory. As a Buddhist, he is not so sure.
Toun Yau is sure. “The story of what we went through is important to remember because it is our story.”
Due in part to the reserve of the Khmers, it is a story not readily or widely told.
Sara Phok laments, “The young generation knows only the name ‘The Killing Fields.’ They don’t know the details. They don’t know the things that happened to their parents, and their parents don’t want to talk about them. They are ashamed. Or it’s too painful.”
In his book, Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, Dith Pran writes: “It is important for me that the new generation of Cambodians and Cambodian Americans become active and tell the world what happened to them and their families under the Khmer Rouge. I want them never to forget the faces of their relatives who were killed during that time.” As a Jew raised in the post-Holocaust Bronx, I grew up in the doctrinal grip of the dark holiness of memory. The injunction to remember is part of Jewish culture going all the way back to the time of the Bible. On the strength of Jewish memory, survivors of the Holocaust were embraced with fierce, if guilt-laden, solidarity when they arrived in America. (The Cambodians had no one and nothing when they came here. The memories they brought with them were in the wrong language. Virtually the only Cambodian Holocaust story Americans were aware of was Hollywood-made.)
Around the Holocaust has grown an industry of memory, crass when employed as a counterweight to Palestinian demands, sublime when hauling words, towns, from scattered bone. For the Khmers, memory must contend with a twisted element Jews never encountered.
One night, surrounded by Sol Mang, Mr. Lang, Toun Yau, and Danny Ouk, I mentioned how hard it was for me to understand the Cambodian genocide. “In Germany, in much of Europe,” I said, “a culture of hatred toward the Jews was developed over many centuries. But what is one to say about Cambodia?”
“Khmers killed Khmers,” Mr. Lang said.
“They were not Khmers!” Toun Yau interjected furiously. “They were Communists!”
I thought of what Danny Ouk said: “It would have been easier if it was done by the Chinese, by others. It makes it harder that it was done by your own people. There is no one else to blame.”
In the temple on Marion Avenue, sutra books lay open on the ground. Cambodian monks from the time before the terror look down upon the room from their places on the wall. The room is shot through with a stillness that moves the heart. Cambodian silence contains for me a charged ambiguity: Buddhist contemplation, the dormitories of skulls of the executed, the starved. ▼
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