Cambodian Americans Celebrate New Year, But Honor Grim History

On Saturday, Cambodian-Americans in Southern California are celebrating their new year festival with cultural dances, day-long picnics and visits to local Buddhist temples. But one group is also using the occasion to educate a new generation about the Khmer Rouge genocide.

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Today in Long Beach, California, Cambodian-Americans are celebrating their new year with traditional foods, dance and songs. But the festivities also coincide with the anniversary of the Cambodian genocide. During the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror between 1975 and 1979, cities were emptied and nearly one-fourth of the population was executed, starved or worked to death. Doualy Xaykaothao reports.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: The Communist Party of Kampuchea officially took control of Cambodia 38 years ago during Khmer New Year. The Pol Pot regime eventually killed approximately 1.7 million people. Bryant Ben is president of the Killing Fields Memorial Center in Long Beach.

BRYANT BEN: A lot of survivors here - a thousand people, a thousand story, and each story, it's very, very personal to each family. And I urge any survivor to share that experience.

XAYKAOTHAO: A conversation with his son is especially hard.

BEN: He said I never see my grandpa on your side, on his mommy's side. Simple answer is pass away, but then they question is how he pass away. That very difficult for me how he died.

XAYKAOTHAO: The Khmer Rouge killed Ben's father, his three brothers and two sisters.

BEN: I remember everything. I can see the picture when I'm talking to you.

XAYKAOTHAO: For Ben and other survivors in his group, New Year is about helping one another cope but also it's about not forgetting those who died and teaching younger Khmer Americans about their history.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDHIST BLESSING)

XAYKAOTHAO: Over at Long Beach City College, a Buddhist monk offers a New Year blessing for both the living and the dead. It's an event called Courage to Remember, organized by Sara Pol-Lim of the United Cambodian Community.

SARA POL-LIM: Whatever happened, happened. We have to bring people together to talk about healing, to talk about grief, to find closure.

XAYKAOTHAO: She points out that a high number of first-generation survivors of the Khmer Rouge still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. That's why many avoid the topic.

POL-LIM: When I ask second generation to ask their parents, some would say, my parents say don't ever ask me to tell you what happened. Just be grateful you have food.

XAYKAOTHAO: To help bridge the generation gap, Pol-Lim turned to Judy Green of nearby Temple Israel. Green told the audience it took her late mother three decades before she ever talked about the Holocaust. Green says what happened in the Jewish community is repeating itself in the Cambodian community.

JUDY GREEN: The way to begin to heal some of the pain between and among generations and community is to be able to talk about some of the things that are painful in a gentle, gentle way with one another, slowly, over time.

XAYKAOTHAO: Still, even when older people are finally willing to talk about traumatic events, some young people don't want to have that conversation. At a Long Beach Cambodian restaurant, 18-year-old Ratana Kim, says she just doesn't want to learn about the Khmer Rouge.

RATANA KIM: Sometime it painful, and I don't want to hear about it.

XAYKAOTHAO: Kim's sister, 17-year-old Sophea says Khmer history is so sad.

RATANA SOPHEA: I'm not going to go live there anymore, you know, just for visiting, and then come back again.

XAYKAOTHAO: Both sisters say they don't even have time for Khmer New Year. Instead, they plan to work through the weekend and focus only on their studies. For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Long Beach.

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