In Vuthy’s memory, branded forever at the age of eight, the men wore black: black caps, black scarves, black pants, black shoes. Carrying loudspeakers, with tinny voices, mechanical and strange, they came. “You have 24 hours to evacuate” was the weird echo. They shot people who argued the point.
Through a child’s eyes, there was red blood in the low gray smoke of burning homes. The sirens, the bombs, the screams, and Vuthy, innocence exploding around him.
At night, on the road to God knew where, Vuthy (pronounced “voo-tee”) and his family were often forced to sleep next to dead bodies. Nearly a decade later, Vuthy cannot get the smell out of his mind.
Huong Taing is on his rounds. Since escaping from the violence of his native country, Cambodia, he has been ministering to the needs of his fellow expatriates in California. Today, he visits some of the seemingly nameless people who populate one of the nameless projects in a tired pocket of poverty in Long Beach, California. Here is the largest concentration of Cambodians living outside of Cambodia.
In conjunction with Campus Crusade for Christ, which provides a good deal of funding, and the Grace Brethren Church in Long Beach, which provides the church facilities and education, Taing has planted and pastors a church. About 70 people attend regularly.
On this typical day, he enters a home to be confronted by Cambodian money, larger than life, blown up to ludicrous proportions and taped to the wall. The paint is chipping around it. The room’s heat is oppressive; the poverty, silent and uninvited.
The exception, the stupid anachronism, the unfunny joke: The Sony 25-inch Trinitron color stereo console television, bought on welfare, spitting out a language unknown to the Cambodians—a dumb, jumping flicker for numb lives.
John Wayne is wrestling with some elephants. In between conversation with Huong Taing about lives lost to the Khmer Rouge, these people laugh at something they don’t even understand.
Vuthy’s father was an educated man. Before the fall, he had a cushy, middle-class job as a government official. After the fall, the Khmer Rouge put him to work in the jungles. Gradually, they cut back his food. For almost two years, Vuthy watched his father starve.
He still remembers the funeral. In the deep jungle, there was no casket and no ceremony. It was a mass burial. At the age of ten, Vuthy barely had time to cry.
Southern California, with its breezes and bright blue skies, is not home. That is the message that Huong Taing wants to get across to his parishioners. And it is not just a matter of being displaced from Cambodia.
“The first thing that I want to get across,” says Taing, “is that this world is not our home. We are just passing through. If there is one thing that suffering should teach, that should be it.”
But Southern California does not exactly encourage that lesson. Materialism there, perhaps like few places in the world, is rampant. Education, for many, becomes an obsession. Often, Taing says, it is not a way to improve, but to get. “They want to have things,” he says. It is understandable, but unfortunate.
Taing says the Cambodians “learn very quickly that dollars are just in front of their noses.” Christianity, once the vital hope of many of their lives, has become utilitarian. God has often been reduced to an errand boy.
“They look to him to save them from their poverty,” Taing says. “To help them with their education and in their business lives. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s not the kind of help that God always gives.”
In the jungle, Vuthy never saw his friends die. They just didn’t come back. At night, on the cold dorm floor, there was a little more space to stretch out, a little more void.
But “friends” may be stretching the point. They were all thrown together in a camp for boys aged 11 to 15. They labored together for the Khmer Rouge, clearing fields, building dams. And they played survival games. During a break from the sunup to sundown work, they would put the heat on small animals. “You had to become a hunter to survive,” Vuthy says. Lizards, rats, snakes, frogs, rabbits, crickets … they were all easier to catch with a little help from your friends.
Bluntly put, many of the people who attend Taing’s church don’t have much hope. “The older people are waiting for things to change so they can go back to Cambodia,” Taing says. “They are not normal, functioning people. They are just waiting for the past and waiting for a new day to come.” For them, everything has changed. The family structure, which was once at the core of meaning, is often toppled. They depend on their children to help them understand the new, unsettling world around them. “In Cambodia, children mostly listen to their parents. Here, they mostly don’t listen.”
For the younger or those who are more educated, the tension is even greater—and not so easily released. “It’s good to be Cambodian and it’s good to be American,” says Taing, “but it’s not so good to be half-Cambodian and half-American.” The problem, Taing says, is that the young people cannot communicate their pain, the horrors they have known.
“When the young people try to explain to people what has happened to them, they can’t find a word to explain it,” Taing says. “So they just try to forget it.”
Vuthy, for one, does not like to think much about his past. He is now 18 and a senior in high school. He has tried to communicate to some of his friends what has happened to him. Most do not understand. He rarely brings up the subject anymore.
There is one other thing that he does not do: he does not try to explain the problem of evil. “When you see so much of it [suffering], you feel like you have no more reaction,” he says. “What can you do, when it just happens?”
His faith in God, he says, has increased: “We are more thankful to Jesus. We are stronger because we thank him. We do not take life for granted.” Taing spends most of his time discipling Vuthy and other young people. That is where the future lies. And the future is what is important to Vuthy. He has worked hard in school and, despite missing school for several years in Cambodia, is now a straight-A student. His education is at the center of his life. He feels he has to earn his right to “be a good citizen.” Vuthy, eventually, wants to return to Cambodia and witness to the people—all the more reason to work hard.
Taing is somewhat concerned. He says sometimes Vuthy works so hard that he falls asleep in church.
By Rob Wilkins, a writer living in Winona Lake, Indiana.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.