Watching “First They Killed My Father” with Survivors of the Cambodian Genocide

First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung holds a large piece of my heart. As a teen, in an attempt to find my mom’s lost sister, I scoured the internet searching for hope. Hope did not come in the form of finding my aunt (there is no closure with the unknown – did she survive or did she pass?) but it did come by finding an author with my mom’s maiden name and her memoir. I read the book and realized my mom and her family were not alone. This book opened my mind to genocide worldwide and how important it is to preserve their stories and not let them fade over time. I never saw my relatives the same afterward. Their loving smiling faces once endured something so horrific that nearly a quarter of their population was wiped out. From my mom’s family alone, the Khmer Rouge stole the life of my grandfather and one uncle, and the fate of one aunt is unknown.

Because of my nephew’s first birthday party, we had relatives staying with us this weekend. On Saturday, my mom and dad, my mom’s eldest sister, my mom’s only surviving brother and his wife (who also went through this) and my two cousins and I gathered around the tv in the living room and watched the film adaptation together. There was something deeply bonding by having them watch with me and gravitas of four survivors in my living room was heavy on my heart. Their experiences added to everything I saw and felt from the screen. It brought up questions I hadn’t asked before [“Did they also specifically say it was the Americans attacking when they knocked on your door?”] and memories I had heard before [“They gave us a watery rice soup that was all liquid. One time I counted out the grains of rice and it amounted to 17 pieces.”]

Tears rolled down our cheeks as we silently took in the difficult scenes. About halfway through, my uncle got up to use the restroom and never returned back to the couch. One of my cousins checked on him and found out he was sleeping in the guest room. Without trying to assume too much, I can only guess that the main character in the film hit him harder than his sisters because of age. As the youngest of the family, he was about the same age as Loung when the country fell, and seeing a child that young brought back a flood of memories and innocence lost. My mom and eldest aunt were both college graduates but he was only a child.

“Your uncle was drafted by them, just like Loung. Young brilliant minds were wanted to be able to brainwash.”

The next day at my nephew’s party, nearly half the guests over 40 were survivors of the Cambodian Genocide too, and between the celebrating and fun, I paused and took that to heart. I know so many strong incredible people who have rebuilt their lives here in the United States, each one with a deeply personal and moving story of their own.

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Rejection as an Adult

I’ve been conditioned to being rejected since I was a child. That doesn’t surprise me, but it does surprise me how much it still hurts as an adult.

When I was in third grade, we had a morning log we had to write in. It was either a prompt from the teacher or what we felt like writing on. One morning, feeling particularly lonesome and jaded, I confessed that I had no friends to play with at school. At first recess, my name was called along with a few classmates to stay to talk to her. She explained that I didn’t have anyone to play with during recess and it would be great if they could include me. That lunch and second recess I was over the moon to have my own little posse to play tag with and chit chat with to while we nibbled on our sandwiches at lunch. The next day they were there for recess only. By the end of that week, they weren’t anywhere to find. That’s when 8 or 9 year old me realized forced relationships didn’t work and friendship for pity didn’t last either.

As an introvert and person dealing with social anxiety, it takes a lot of mental output and energy to invest in someone new and try to make that connection. When I realize they are faking it or trying to rush out of a conversation, or are so bored with me that they jet after grabbing dinner with me (not even waiting for me to put my meal in a to-go box for pete’s sake!), I know they’ve rejected me or don’t find me interesting.

It’s okay. It’s going to happen. I understand this. Just like because a guy asks you out you don’t have to accept, if you don’t sense any platonic chemistry in building a relationship, that’s acceptable too. But platonic rejection hurts.

When it’s hard already to make friends and keep relationships, rejection just makes me feel like I’m less human – like I’m less capable of socializing and of less worth. Then, the next time I try really hard, there’s a mental grey cloud looming over me and in fight or flight, I sometimes pick to avoid any hurt and hide/decline.

I don’t understand the politics of socializing – at work, at church, with friends of friends, and so it probably makes it worse. When my coworker says he had a blast and I say that was a fun experience, we are both relating excitement in our own ways, but of course, the environment favors the ecstatic feelings of my coworker and questions if my very level-toned answer even has integrity behind it.

As a kid, I was more desperate and a people pleaser, but now, I don’t feel like kissing up. I can exude what they expect of me but that would be lying to who I am. I feel like “fake it til you make it” is a very toxic idiom when it comes to building relationships. So I just kind of sit in social limbo. “Oh yeah, Laura right?”

On the other hand? Through the searing reminders of my social awkwardness and reserved nature, through the rejection and want to fit in better? I know that I have some wonderful friends who have been very forgiving and gracious of my not-always-chipper or exciting self, and I appreciate and love them so much for never rejecting this Eeyore.