Editor’s note: This Community Voice was one of numerous entries in our recently concluded Emerging Writers Contest.

For a long time, I didn’t know who I was. I grew up neither speaking Khmer language at home nor knowing about the cultural traditions and foods Cambodian people participated in and ate.

This cultural disconnection was due to many reasons which included having been mixed race and also having had a predominantly American upbringing. My dad and Cambodian family had also never talked about the genocide or our family history, so naturally, it wasn’t a topic I ever brought up as a child.

It was only during my junior year of high school in 2011 when I found out about my family’s history through University of Hawaii Manoa’s East-West Center travel scholarship. Despite only being selected as an alternate and not being able to go on the trip, I learned a lot about Cambodia throughout the process and it slowly opened up more conversations with my dad every night when we ate dinner together.

This in itself eventually led to the life-changing summer trip that my family and I took in 2016 to find my grandma.

The author’s father (in white shirt) and the author (in yellow-green shirt) walking in the remote village of Preah Netr Preah, Banteay Meanchey, on their way to offer food to the spirits that have protected the author’s grandmother. Courtesy Tricia Khun

Near a fully-grown tree at a small, remote village in the Cambodian countryside of Peth Preaneth Preh, my parents and I were led up a bamboo ladder into a straw hut raised on stilts by two local women who lived nearby. A woman seated in front of a colorful, candlelit altar and a bundle of incense sticks prayed intensely and invited my Grandma Chhithsawaii’s spirit to enter her body.

This woman was my grandma. It felt as though I had known her, but this was the first time I had ever met or seen her. I had only seen one picture and heard stories about her every night when Dad and I ate dinner together.

The two women who led us into the hut asked Grandma questions to find out more information from her about what had happened during the genocide. Grandma cried and wailed, then wiped her tears away with her krama (scarf). After she regained enough of her composure to talk, she said in Khmer language, “We didn’t have enough food to eat. People were dying.”

The hut in Preah Netr Preah where the author and her father met with a local woman (at right), a psychic medium able to communicate with the author’s deceased grandmother. Courtesy Tricia Khun

The two local women then told her, “Your son is here with his family. He came to see you today.”

Grandma replied, “I am happy that you are healthy and that you are living a good life in America. I remember seeing you last year when you came with your wife. I wanted to hug you and touch your shoulder, but I didn’t because I was afraid that you would get sick from me because I am not clean.”

After a few hours speaking to Grandma, we all left the hut and a group of local Cambodians cooked a feast of different foods that would later get offered to the spirits who protected Grandma. While we waited for the preparations to be done, Dad and I sat together in silence outside of the hut closer to where the cows roamed. Out of nowhere, Dad had begun to cry and said, “We found her. I can’t believe after 35 years of searching for her, we finally found your grandma.”

In memory of the grandmother, the author’s family honored her legacy by building a memorial stupa, or “jaiday,” in Prey Kuy, Kampong Thom. Courtesy Tricia Khun

Dad’s tears flowed even more rapidly, then he said, “I have so much regret. I should have come here a long time ago to do this, but I didn’t have enough money and my health wasn’t good. I’m sad that my mom was able to save me, but I wasn’t able to save her.”

In this moment, tears ran down my cheeks as I saw Dad cry for the first time and we cried together. After the food was finished being cooked, we brought the food closer to where grandma was buried in a mass grave underneath the fully-grown tree and offered it to the spirits who protected her.

Then, we dug up some of the soil nearby and placed it into a white cloth bag since we were not able to retrieve grandma’s bones out of the mass grave. With Grandma inside the cloth bag, we traveled back to the capital city of Phnom Penh where we held a special Jaiday (a memorial stupa) blessing ceremony to give her the proper burial she deserved and to have her life honored and celebrated alongside all the family she had once lost, but was now reconnected.

Beyond Stereotypes

By going on this journey to find my grandma, I not only met my extended family for the first time and learned about the beautiful country that Cambodia is with its rich culture, history, traditions and people. I also learned so much more about myself and what it really means to be Cambodian that goes beyond the stereotypes depicted in American media.

It’s really easy to stereotype Cambodians as “poor,” “gangsters” or “people with sad genocide stories who can’t get over it” and anything else that’s out there in the media. But if you don’t go to Cambodia for yourself, actually meet the people firsthand, sit down and listen to their stories and become aware of the lives they live every day, then you won’t know the whole story of what it truly means for these people to be Cambodian.

From my experiences meeting Cambodians in both my Hawaii and Cambodian communities as well as being a Cambodian woman myself, I know for a fact that Cambodians are so much more than any of those stereotypes. I just hope that they themselves as Cambodians recognize their own inner resilience and use that as their driving motivation to continue making an impact here in Hawaii and in the United States and pave the way for other Cambodians and Cambodian-Americans to do the same.

Inside of the grandmother’s stupa the family placed two urns on the tile flooring, one engraved with her name and another urn for a great-grandmother. Courtesy Tricia Khun

Today, I continue my journey to find who I am with a better direction than I started with. I am currently learning Khmer language while majoring in Molecular Cell Biology at the University of Hawaii Manoa. I’m also helping with research and community projects within my Hawaii Cambodian community as well as inspiring the next generation of Cambodians and Cambodian-Americans to write and tell their stories.

I am also extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to meet a number of amazing Cambodians who are making strides every day to spread love, peace and community here in Hawaii for everyone and their families. Connecting back to my Cambodian roots has been a long journey with many surprises and challenges, but it’s been the most rewarding experience and I’m excited for the next journey it leads me to in the near future as I pursue a career in medicine and public health.

By finding grandma, I also found healing and myself. From my story and my grandma’s story, I hope you as a reader, whether you are Cambodian, Cambodian-American or not can find the healing you are looking for and use that new awareness you learned during your journey to help others find their own healing and who they are.

It is in the silent nuances where the solutions to humanity’s biggest problems can be found and where those unheard voices will speak the loudest, but only those who are quietly resilient will get the privilege to listen.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author

  • Tricia Khun
    Tricia Khun is a molecular cell biology student, research assistant and writer attending the University of Hawaii Manoa. Her areas of interest include learning about the interconnectedness between different forms of healing and art from around the world to create community change as well as empowering family resilience through media, story-telling, networking and community-building in Hawaii and Cambodia.