Cambodia’s Past Shapes America’s Future – An Interview with Zaklin Phat

ZaklinMy grandmother talked about how peaceful life was before the genocide…
…after the Khmer Rouge, everything changed.

– Zaklin Phat

April 2014 Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month:
Remembering the Past toward Healing our Future

A six event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children

Living Ubuntu, in collaboration with with Amnesty International – Irvine and six local academic institutions, presents a six-event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children. April is Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, and each film commemorates a genocide that started during April. Living Ubuntu provides education about global traumas as part of its mission to heal trauma in order to promote peace. All films are free and open to the public.

Below is an interview with Zaklin Phat who will be a featured speaker at the Cambodia genocide event.

* * *

An Interview with Zaklin Phat

Birth Place: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Age:  21
Occupation:  Student, University of CA-Irvine
Major:  International Studies

Q:  Do you have any memories of life in Cambodia as a child?

A:   Actually, I only have happy memories of my childhood there.  I remember mostly playing hop-scotch and jumping rope with friends, and also teaching myself to ride a bike in alleyways and scraping up my hands and knees.  One of my favorite memories is of my birthdays.  My dad would always buy a piece of cake just for me, and we would spend time together,  just the two of us.

Q:  How were your school days?

A:   School there was very strict.   We had to have our hair pulled back and wear uniforms. Our skirts had to be at least knee-length.  The teachers used rulers or a metal stick to hit our hands or behinds if we didn’t do our homework, misbehaved or even if our fingernails were too long.

Q:   How did you come to live in the U.S.?

A:   When I was nine years old, my father asked my older sister and I if we wanted to come stay with an aunt and uncle who had moved here a year or two before.  Because I was so young, I thought at first he just meant to visit.  It wasn’t until I got here that I realized he meant for us to stay.  My sister came here with a relative, and then I came with my Godfather about a month later.

Q:  Do you have any brothers?

A:   Yes, a younger brother

Q:  Does he live here as well?

A:  No, he lives in Cambodia with my parents and attends University.

Q:  Did your parents ever say why they wanted you and your sister to come here?

A:  They never said for sure, but I think it was the opportunity for a brighter future.  As a female in Cambodia, you are supposed to marry at a young age, and primarily be a housewife.  Women are slowly getting more rights.  Some are able to go to school and get jobs.  But you don’t see many women with high positions at work, and they are still expected to not do things that embarrass their parents, like go out late at night, party and have boyfriends.  My father wanted us to be able to choose our own futures, and I’m glad I chose to stay here.

Q:  Do you know roughly how many of your family members went through the Cambodian genocide, and of those, how many survived?

A:  I don’t know too many specifics since the only one who really talks about it is my grandmother on my mother’s side.  I know that two of her family members died, and that three of my uncles escaped the Khmer Rouge to the U.S. in the late 70s or early 80s.  They later sponsored my grandparents enabling them to come here also, and then my grandparents sponsored my aunt and uncle.

Q:  Do your parents or grandparents ever talk about being separated from their family members?

A:   My mom was only seven or eight years old and said she just remembered crying her eyes out all the time.  My father was a teenager and doesn’t talk about it when asked.  My grandmother said she worked in the fields and was separated from her sons (the three uncles that escaped to the U.S.).  I didn’t meet my uncles until I came to U.S., and I feel that it’s insensitive to ask them about what they went through.

Q:  Why do you think your grandmother is the only one who talks about her experiences?

A:   I think it’s the gender difference.  As a man in Cambodia, you are supposed to be strong and silent and not talk about the hardship that you go through.  My grandma always wanted to go back to a time where everything was good, and things were better than they are now.  She always wanted to change a past that she couldn’t ever change.  One of the things she had trouble adjusting to was getting along with the future and the present day.  But as time goes on, as I grow older, I learn more.  And right now, I guess she’s living ‘the life’ here, retired now.  So that’s a good thing I guess.  Talking about it is her way of coping.

Q:  Since the Cambodian economy was devastated after the Khmer Rouge was defeated, was your father able to go to school or learn a trade to make a living?

A:  He wanted to go to school but wasn’t able to.  He sold bikes instead and actually met my mother that way since my grandmother sold bike parts at the time.  He then worked for a company distributing drugs to pharmacies in Cambodia.  But he is retired now.

Q:  Do you know where your grandparents stood socioeconomically before the Khmer Rouge takeover?  Did they ever talk about life prior?

A:   My grandmother talked about how peaceful life was before the genocide and always wants to go back to how life was before.  She talked about how you could just live off of what you have.   Everyone could leave their doors open, and not worry about anyone stealing anything. Your neighbors were your family.  But after the Khmer Rouge, everything changed.  Neither of my grandparents (on mother’s side) were educated, but were middle class I think.  My grandmother said the highest level she and my mother went to school was the fifth grade.

Q:  Why did you choose International Studies as a major?

A:   Because of my dad.  Once I asked him what he would have wanted to do if he could have gone to school, and he said he wanted to be a politician.  I researched what would be a good major since I really love to travel and decided on International Studies.  But I’m still deciding exactly what I want to do with it.

Q:  Do you think your Dad’s desire to go into politics had anything to do with wanting to be a part of change after everything that’s happened in Cambodia?

A:   Yes.  He sees a lot of corruption going on.  But he also just really loves politics.  Whenever I spend time with him he’s always reading, watching and talking about the news.

Q:  How has knowing what your family endured, affected you and the decisions you’ve made thus far in life?

 A:  It changes how I see life and my perspective.  I have cousins that were born here and have never been to Cambodia.   Even though they know what their parents and grandparents have been through, they still have an innocence where they don’t really understand.  I was born in Cambodia and have been back four times since then.  I’ve witnessed the atrocities of children begging for food and people surviving on garbage.  I think it’s helped shape who I am today.

Q:  During any of your visits to Cambodia, did you visit the Genocide Museum (Tuol Sleng)?

A:   The second or third time I went back, I went to a place where they had skulls and photos with the history of the victims and the killers, but I can’t remember the name exactly.  I think it was Tuol Sleng.

Q:  Have you noticed any improvements in lifestyle over the four times that you went back?

A:   Not really.  the current prime minister hasn’t done much to improve the lives of people.  The last time I was in Cambodia, the election was going on, and there were a lot of protests and conflicts among people.  My parents wanted me to go back home earlier than I planned, but I was like “Nah, I want to see this”.   It was like seeing history.

Q:  Have your uncles that escaped to the U.S. been back to Cambodia, and how did they feel about it?

A:  Only two of the three went back.  they said that everything had changed from nothing to a city with cars, markets, electronics…to see the whole country flourish into a modern world..  they went back just to see that.  There was nothing like that when they were there.

Q:  Does anyone in your family remember Cambodia receiving aid from any countries after Vietnam took over?

A:   No. They were left to rebuild on their own.  I think aid started coming in when Hun Sen became prime minister (1985) since he wanted to rebuild the country and make it more socialist rather than communist.

Q:   Have there ever been times when you wish you knew more details about what your family went through, or do you think you’re better off not knowing?

A:   Both.  Sometimes I want to know to understand what they’ve gone through, and to understand how they see life.  I am relieved not to know at the same time because I don’t think I would be able to handle the pain, the heartbreak, the starvation they went through.  I just don’t think I could handle that.


Alicia works as a cytogenetic technologist in SoCal and volunteers for Living Ubuntu.

2 Responses to Cambodia’s Past Shapes America’s Future – An Interview with Zaklin Phat

  1. Pingback: Remembering the Past toward Healing our Future: April 3 (Cambodia) | Living Ubuntu Blog

  2. Pingback: Interviews with Survivors | April GAPM film series starts April 1 (tomorrow) | Living Ubuntu Blog

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