Catching Up, No. 1: The Gardener

One of the many hidden and tucked-away gardens in the city - Botanic Cafe and Gallery, Phnom Penh

One of the many hidden and tucked-away gardens in the city – Botanic Cafe and Gallery, Phnom Penh

This article is part of a series dubbed, “Catching Up,” also known as, “An Attempt to Redeem Myself.” The series will cover the period between January and March 2013 when there was a big gap called, “The Time When I Wrote Nothing.” We begin with a reflection on an interview with Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).

Walk east of the traffic that twirls round Independence Monument, enter the building of a renovated villa, precociously hidden behind a plain black gate, scale up the staircase to the top, and there, you will find, the office of Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam). There are shelves filled with books, boxes stuffed with books, tables stacked with books, and parts of the floor covered in, well, books. It’s the space of a curious mind. But then, take a glance through the glass windows. There is a terrace, blanketed with plants. This is the space of a dedicated cultivator.

My first interaction with Youk was when I was 16 years old, while I was doing research for a project in school and needed more information on Khmer Rouge propaganda. I came across some relevant documents on the DC-Cam online database and then wrote an email to DC-Cam asking if they had additional sources. Youk wrote back (rapidly) and said yes. Soon, a chubby package arrived at my house. It contained three humongous volumes of Khmer Rouge poems, songs, and slogans, fully bound, in English and Khmer, and they were all for me. I was speechless. I was just some little high school student, who had never been to Cambodia, never done anything for DC-Cam, and there I was, in possession of a package that made it all the way from Phnom Penh to the doorsteps of a home in smoggy suburban southern California. There were occasions throughout the years following when I might have sent a short inquiry to DC-Cam if I ever had a project related to Cambodian genocide history. Each time, Youk replied (rapidly). Thus, it was a mildly surreal celebrity moment for me to be standing in his office this one morning, eight years after I first held that chubby package.

Before I arrived at the office, I knew Youk was well educated and had a passion for the preservation of Cambodian history, so it was not shocking to see that his office functioned part-time as a book storage facility. Towards the end of our conversation, after we had tended to the usual round of talking points on history, politics, society, and culture, I had a closing question for him.

“How do you remember?” I asked.

He answered, “I grow flowers.”

Now what I find much more evocative than Youk the scholar is Youk the gardener.

The conversation with Youk left me with a handful of things to think about, in terms of the history of local genocide memorials, the nature of memory, and guidance on how to refine my research project. But, what compelled me most when I left the office was his story about how he gardened as a young boy and how he continues to garden today as a means of regaining a childhood the genocide took away.

“All these things I grow, the same flowers that I grew when I was a boy,” he said as he pointed to the flora spanning the terrace.

“One of my favorite flowers is called the thunderstorm, pkah pakuol loat. It only blossoms when there’s a thunderstorm. I grow that flower because it’s easy. When the thunderstorm comes, it blossoms …. Actually, it was a flower that my father brought from the countryside. It’s easy to grow,” and he added with a chuckle, “I was a lazy boy.”

“Memory is broken.” That is a statement that Youk repeated on multiple occasions during the course of our conversation. He explained that the reason the history of the genocide can be difficult to piece together is because of fragmentation – an individual may no longer be currently living in the province or village where they were born or where their ancestors came from, or they may be distant from where they were during the genocide. For others like the youth who were mobilized from camp to camp for différent labor projects, there was not even a sense of a home base during the Khmer Rouge years. My mother, who was a teenager under the regime, has a difficult time recalling the names of all of the places she was moved and the chronology of those relocations. Rather than being one continuons narrative, her experience, like that of Youk, had parts shuffled or simply missing. The memories are broken.

For me, the genocide is nothing. It cannot harm me. What I miss the most is the childhood that I lost. So what do I do? I grow flowers. That’s how I remember.

I don’t claim to have much knowledge in terms of gardening. My mom started my brilliant career as a horticulturist by giving me a small terracotta pot of impatients to look after and a package of pea seeds to bury in a one square foot patch of dirt. The peas flourished, those resilient green viney thing, but the impatients did not last long before they wilted into something that looked like the crumbs of potato chips that went rotten and were glued to twigs. I haven’t worked much magic with the plant kingdom since then, save for a succulent I named Sir Perry and watered perhaps too frequently. However, I do know that what I lacked in my gardening pursuits was patience, hence a cruel irony to the impatients I was started off on. It takes patience to let something sit and germinate, to wait for it to mature. Like memory, it must be cultivated, not forcibly, but in line with the pace of nature. Events like the genocide were traumatic. As Youk said, it broke memory, and in many cases even repressed or erased it. But despite these poignant admittances, Youk’s calm and rested composure, spoke not a shred of victimization, defeat, or hopelessness. I believe it is because he is a gardener, and gardeners (including the non-performing kinds like me), know that there is a resilient quality to nature. After autumn and winter’s shed and freeze, nature (and memory) has a way of getting back to spring and summer’s bloom and green. Perhaps this sounds too much like a poetic idealist’s speech in a noon-time soap opera episode. But that’s the truth that I am claiming.

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