Last November I spent the month in Asia, traveling around Vietnam and Cambodia. One of the places my friends and I went to during our trip was the Choeung Ek killing fields outside of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Now, I readily admit, that I only superficially knew about what happened in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. As a 20-something year old privileged white American girl, my bandwidth as part of the human population neglected to pick up details about the genocide other than “crazy dictator named Pol Pot who killed a bunch of his own people,” “mass grave site,” and “the West didn’t know about it at the time because of Communist lockdown.” I was born in 1985, and history class in public high school in the early 2000s stopped with U.S. History around the 1960s and early 1970s. We spent like half a day on the space race and the Cold War, and half a day on the Vietnam War. Needless to say, going into the intricate tunnel systems and the jungles in Vietnam and seeing everything first hand was quite the experience, and quite a different story than the couple chapters we read in history class and what you see in American TV and film. It really speaks to how you can bend a story.
Anyways, we went to Choeung Ek and walked around the fields. They have signs telling you not to pick up any bones that are on the ground, since the rains wash away the topsoil each season, unearthing hundreds of human bones and remains. We listened to their audio tour that leads you around, chronicling things like, “this is the tree where they would smash babies,” and then listening to survivor’s stories about being held in the prisons and how they escaped. It was actually a really surreal, horrible, awful, and yet a compelling thing to go through, and it’s really hard to put into words how it made me feel.
On one hand, I just started silently crying, knowing that people had suffered that much and seeing where and how people were so cruel to their fellow human-beings. Especially seeing the tree that they used to kill babies on by bashing them against it. It’s beyond words.
On the other hand, I felt this sense of peace, especially looking at the monument, a commemorative stupa, where they had put hundreds of thousands of bones and lined up the skulls of the victims they had found in the fields. It was like a way of saying, “this is something horrible that happened, and we won’t let these things happen again.”
After, I got into a debate with someone who balked at why I would want to visit such a site. He wondered why I would want to see and remember those horrible things, and complained that making a genocide site a tourist attraction was a new low for humanity and incredibly disrespectful.
I told him, however, that I fully supported turning the site into a tourist attraction. I believe it’s a really great thing for the Cambodian economy and the government to boost tourism anyway possible. The average daily wage in Cambodia is less than a dollar. Tourism is now one of their biggest industries and a way to help the livelihood of millions. If they can turn something horrible into something to something to save the economy, then more power to them.
Life isn’t always pleasant. It isn’t always rainbows and ponies and good times. There is a lot of suffering in the world, and I think trying to gloss over it and not remember, is extremely disrespectful. Those people died horrible deaths, and someone should remember so that it doesn’t happen again. And who am I to turn a cheek and skip to the fun parts of life? We all need to step up and remember, the good and the bad.
I recently interviewed the author Ali Liebegott for a piece I was writing for Art Animal Magazine. One of the things we got into during our conversation was gentrification of cities, especially cities like Oakland or San Francisco. I have my own thoughts on gentrification, but I played devil’s advocate against hers, trying to tease out a good response for the interview. Unfortunately, this part of the interview was cut for publication. Good thing I keep drafts of my work!
Liebegott’s response was vehemently against gentrification:
It’s not about progress, or change. It’s about completely erasing the culture that was there before, so that you don’t even remember that there was something else happening there. It’s just heartbreaking.
Liebegott talked about one of her favorite books, called Gentrification of the Mind, by Sarah Schulman, which discusses New York City and the aftermath of the AIDS crisis and the gay movement during the 1980s. It is a call to action to remember the fight that others have fought for progress. I was reminded of this as I argued for why I believed in going to the killing fields and remembering what had happened to other people.
It’s not going to be pleasant. It’s not going to be fun. But someone needs to remember other people’s suffering, or else, it all is eradicated, and nothing else remains.
We need to learn from history so we don’t repeat the mistakes.
And the least I can do is remember.