The Lives of Cambodian Seniors in the LBC

Every day in LA, I discover something new.  This, as a lifelong LA resident, whose had work and home connections from the SF Valley, the SG Valley, Long Beach, South LA, Central LA, East LA, West LA, hell even mother-effin' Lancaster. 

There are also still towns in here I have had little to no interface with.  Just the other day on a bike round through Paramount Boulevard, it was the cities of Paramount and Downey. Who'd a thunk that there would be a happening place down in Downey?  As I was biking through, I wondered about the histories of people, places, and things there. What strikes me then as had always fascinated me while living in Silver Lake and staring at the rows of houses were the vastly different worlds from unit to unit.

For the past two years, I've been thrown and thrown myself into Long Beach, and in particular people in the more public aspects of the Cambodian community.

Last year at about this time, I was taking an internship class through my Anthropology program. The objective of the class was to learn about the art of grant-writing.  There was an applied twist to it as well:  we would be writing the grant for a group of Cambodian Seniors.

A group of Anthropology students and I, encouraged over and over by professors to fuse work in our classes, had the idea of making a movie about some seniors who worked at a community garden on Martin Luther King Park.  The same Martin Luther King Park featured in pretty much every 90s Long Beach rap hit.  We came up with a short documentary called "Garden without Roots."

Ostensibly our film was about community gardening at Martin Luther King Park and a backyard,  how these gardens form a place of gathering for them, but that they lack space in general. It was quite a challenge for our first film being that we had no experience behind a camera, none of us spoke Khmer, and we needed translators.

What struck me however was not what we eventually produced, but the stories, experience, and wisdom I learned from them absent the camera.

Cliche-sounding, but it was experience and wisdom that I wish would be broadcasted on national network television or hell at the very least, KCET, local television.  That better than reruns and repeats of films in America.

One man in particular I learned a lot from.

Adam, one of the other producers of the film, had originally noticed him on our very first day of shooting as the guy "intensely watering the plants."

One day outside of shooting, I took another friend, a 2nd generation Cambodian-American woman and Anthropologist whom I called "Savagery" one day to come and converse with one of the seniors, a man named Kea Cheng and can be seen in the video.  Savagery was fluent in Khmer and talked a long while with him.

Kea is no stranger to local media, as he's been featured twice in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, once as a social services client who missed his white savior, and the other time as a worker of the very Cambodian Seniors Nutrition program featured in our video. Neither article mentioned much about his personal stories, not that these articles were the appropriate venue for them.

From the conversation Kea had with Savagery, I learned that about the harshness of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975 - 1979 towards him and the tragedies of his life.  He would use human manure to fertilize plants.  If plants weren't watered thoroughly and/or correctly, he would face punishment.  He'd lost many family members, and fairly recently, a son. 

Him talking about this with Savagery, and it being apparently his first time talking to a Cambodian-American, was something that ignited the video documentary project.

As months rolled on, I got to know more about Kea and other seniors.  I'd forged a bound with Kea based on the fact that he would bike everywhere.  We would arrive at the same time on bike and lock up.  We couldn't quite speak to each other as he struggled with English and I struggled with Khmer.   With the help of translators, and his own efforts to speak English, I would later learn about his experience in the military, that he had a few daughters that were doing well in Cambodia.  I learned that he lived in a temple and had struggled with legal and social services in Long Beach, perhaps because of translation issues.

Every morning that we would film, I kept trying to talk in Khmer not to just Kea but everyone in our group.  A Herculean struggle --- I walked with a clipboard of important and circled verbs that I thought I'd use in conversation.

I was the source of much comedy when attempting to use the word for 'rice', I accidentally used the word 'girl.'  What I was trying to ask was whether or not he worked on the rice farm.  In Khmer, t'wer is the verb for "make" and is used interchangeably with the verbs "do" and "work".  Roughly translated I was supposed to ask him, "t'wer s'rai?"  "Did he make rice?"  Instead, I asked him 't'wer s'ray?", "Did he do women?"

The seniors laughed it up.  The way they let me know was when Phannaka, another "senior" in the film, went up to me with a pocketbook Cambodian-English dictionary and showed me the word 'rape' and the word for 'girl.' I was astounded because I thought she was trying to say something important, but she began to laugh in chorus with the other seniors and kept repeating what I said.

I had plenty of moments with them, despite not being able to communicate beyond hellos, and goodbyes with them.  One lady, Um Sath, would always greet me with a smile and an enthusiastic hello.  She probably didn't recognize my name but she knows my face, even as old as she gets.  "How are you today?  She always tells me in her English, "Yah so sa-weet!"  It's a line I love to repeat in my head every time.

You wouldn't know that her story by way of her personality.  Only later while working my grad assistantship at CamCHAP and searching through newspapers, did I learn that she'd lost her husband and children

When we weren't filming at the community gardens anymore, I would visit them at McBride Recreation Center otherwise known as California Recreation Center. one of the elders, Kim, would invite me to sit with her during meal time.  She would give me oranges, or donuts or milk and let the meal people know that I was cool to eat with them.  They all knew I was a poor student and served me as if I was one of their sons.  Being a starving student, I'd eat whatever was served along with them.  They'd pass me their milks and any food that was too American.

I actually did most of my talking with the translators Arun and Serey.

Arun was a former nurse during the regime and was sponsored here to learn English.  He'd also been some kind of actor; I joked that he was the Brad Pitt of our lil documentary.  I didn't think about it at the time but it was an interesting connection I unconsciously made since Brad Pitt actually does have an adopted Cambodian son by way of Angelina Jolie, named Maddox.

Serey, I didn't know much about till chancing upon a Press-Telegram article.  He was always a willing translator, and would always invite me to watch him play ping pong.  I loved how he looked like a gym coach, and it turns out that he was/is.  When Pacquiao fought, he was one of the first few to talk about him.  He would let me know what was going on with Kea, when Kea forgot to send in papers for work authorization. 

As for the Cambodian Seniors Nutrition program itself, I have not visited since May or June.  The last I had heard they were running out of funding from Little Tokyo Service Center in LA.  I'd hoped to check in late July, and it appeared that they were still up and running.

I don't view the people as weak, helpless, passive victims.  These are motherfuckin' survivors who co-own the word "survivors" with anyone who's outlasted a genocide.

 While I was still involved, I thought a lot about how these seniors could be used as assets in the community rather than seen as more people to pay for and account for.  It hit me that they are the expert teachers or gardeners or chefs, just without the title, capital, and prestige bestowed upon them.  Seems like its on us to learn from them.

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