Cambodian New Year, 1985

I took notes at this event in 1985 and wrote the essay soon after. It was later revised and then published in my collection of Lowell writings called What Is the City? (2006). I saw a Facebook photo from the ceremony at Roberto Clemente Park today, a picture of the “Food Mountain,” which reminded me of seeing that part of the ritual for the first time.—PM


Cambodian New Year, 1985

“Don’t watch the lips, watch the hands of those who profess to make a better world.”

— a survivor

     The Governor’s aide said the ceremony marked the first time a Cambodian flag had been raised at a City Hall in the United States. After the speeches, a tape of “Oh, Say Can You See” played, then a red-and-blue flag with a gold image of Angkor Wat in the center inched its way up the pole. The Khmer anthem blared for the hundreds gathered on the plaza named for President Kennedy. Volunteers followed up with food for everyone. I tasted beef soaked in ginger sauce, which was served on cooked but cold noodles, and sampled the fried chicken, spicy coleslaw, mashed bean formed into a small roll, and a dessert of coconut-topped clear gelatin. A thin, older woman offered me a New Year’s treat: a sweet rice cake wrapped in banana leaf.

     Dancers dressed in gold, green, and blue costumes performed, accompanied by musicians playing a drum and string instruments. In the middle of the plaza, people had built a “Food Mountain” — a mound of loose rice on a table and piles of other foods for the poor and the Buddhist monks. Families carried their New Year’s food to the celebration in decorative silver canisters with handles. The tall, round containers have five interlocking compartments that stack up.

     Two monks and a Cambodian priest chanted blessings at a low altar topped with incense, a Buddha, and cut flowers. Earlier, people had lit incense and offered prayers. They knelt on colored straw mats around the altar. Children played a piñata game — five clay bowls wrapped in bright tissue hung from branches of a locust tree. Blindfolded kids swung at them wildly with a baseball bat. The crowd cheered when anyone made contact, showering coins and candy on the pavement.

     The evening celebration shifted to a recycled church across the street. When I arrived with my friends Joan and Jim a raffle was in progress. A rock band cranked out Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” Dancers in their dressy best didn’t change a step when the sounds shifted from Asian music to rock ‘n’ roll.

Joan and I spent a long time talking to Sophin, a 17-year-old high school student. He and his mother had been in a refugee camp in Thailand for five years before finding a sponsor to bring them to America four years ago. His father was killed in Vietnam in 1971 while fighting with the Americans against the Vietcong.

Sophin grew up in Phnom Penh. He said the film The Killing Fields is true, and told us he had cried as he watched. His twenty-five-year-old brother is still in Cambodia, a lieutenant in the Khmer Free Army, which is fighting the Khmer Rouge. Both Khmer armies are battling to drive the Vietnamese army out of Cambodia. Sophin had seen a film about the persecution of the Jews in Germany during World War II. It was the same in his country he said. A person could be killed simply for carrying a camera. His uncle had been tied up by soldiers and taken away without explanation. He said, “I want to return to help my people. I want to help the refugees in Thailand. I have to do something. I have to say something about this.”

A few months later, Dith Pran, the New York Times news photographer who survived the “killing fields,” stood in the red-brick court yard of Market Mills, urging his countrymen to speak out. Monks wrapped in rust and saffron cloth sat near as he told his story: “Don’t keep this in your heart. Talk about it. I ate crickets, rats, and leaves. I wished I could have had a lizard every day. I saw the Khmer Rouge were not from the same planet. They are monsters, crazy. They forced people to work fourteen hours a day. They killed babies. They killed old people. They killed intellectuals and their families. Millions were killed. They killed their enemy. They killed children, their future enemy. They killed honest people. I lied. I said I was a taxi driver. Every day we were scared. The world did not help us. The movie The Killing Fields is mild. If it were too real, people would not watch. The killing is not over. It goes on around the clock around the world.”

—Paul Marion (c) 2006, 2015