Field Trip: Victory Gardens arranged for the company to take a trip down to the Cambodian Heritage Museum run by the Cambodian Association of Illinois. This was a welcome break from hanging out in a rehearsal room all day.
I got there an hour early so I could walk around the neighborhood which is apparently called Lincoln Square. Chicagoans: I’m an out of towner, so please bear with me. Your place names are strange and unusual to me — I’m from California, and more used to the Spanish names of saints.
Anyway, this is what I love about any big American city: The streets are a pastiche of good things from all the corners of the earth. While I was waiting around I got a chorizo torta. It cost $3.50. It came with chips and two types of salsa, and it was gooood. I consumed it with dos Diet Cokes. Across the street there were a couple of Korean joints — those will be investigated on a later trip.
So we all met up at the Cambodian Heritage Museum, took the tour. Saw artifacts of everyday life in Cambodia — much of which has changed very little in the last few hundreds of years. A huge wooden rice grinder, sickles and baskets — most people are still subsistence farmers. Industrialization and globalization have arrived on the country’s doorstep, along with all the good and ill they bring with them.
What was most touching to all of us was when our guide — a man in his sixties, maybe my father’s age — told us the story of his own life under the Khmer Rouge. He was a school teacher before them. But during their rule they worked him in the fields like so many others were literally worked to death.
And then, slowly, haltingly, he told us the story of how he was caught by Khmer Rouge soldiers and accused of stealing food.
To punish him, they used pliers to pull out his teeth.
It’s when someone is telling you their own history — their tragedies, the everyday pieces of their lives — that history itself becomes personal. To write this play I had read facts and statistics, autobiographies. But it wasn’t until this moment that I had heard someone’s story of survival told to me in their own voice.
It’s something I’ll never forget.
It made everything real for me. Because this play is about personal history and how it’s told — about how it’s passed from person to person so that we can understand something about the past. Maybe not quite understand evil — who could? But maybe we might begin to understand how people can endure evil, and what we can do to confront it.
And here was this man, our guide, who had somehow survived when two million others had died. Who somehow made it all the way from Cambodia to this huge American city, for better or worse. But he had survived, and had become a teacher once again.
So it was a pretty good day. Because it reminded me of all those who died, but also let me know that others lived.
And they continue on, telling their stories.
– Michael Golamco
Visit Michael Golamco’s blog at www.michaelgolamco.com