We stepped onto the tour bus and collapsed in the purple cushioned seats. Our eyes were at half-mast and sleep was inevitable for most. Suddenly, one man captured our attention; his smile was lively and bright despite the late hour.
During my trip to Cambodia with my fellow classmates and teachers, I have learned many things; one being that nothing is what it seems. To the bare eye, the Cambodian citizens looked in need of our help and aid in order to sustain their lifestyles and be at peace.
Yet, as the trip progressed, these people proved to be the most independent, strong, determined, and happiest people I have ever met. A prime example is the first one we met, Weng. Weng looked like the typical carefree tour guide with the permanent smile and twinkle of his country’s history glistening in his eye. Yet that glistening held more than normal history, it held the pain and struggles of his childhood.
Neighboring Cambodia to the east is Vietnam, whose history contains horrors of its own: the Vietnam War.
Weng described how his family coped with the conflict before he was born:
“We were hiding […] due to the number of the Viet Cong [that] were getting into Cambodia. They started a lot of bomb B52.” This fear was the start of Weng’s childhood struggles of living underground for 12 years. He would have to overcome the obstacles of this life, such as only arising to grab food packets dropped by the United Nations.
The war ended, but Weng’s family remained in hiding due to a horrific event that occurred closer to home. The Cambodian Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot attempted to form a communist society, yet his regime ended in the torture and terrible deaths of 25% of the country’s population. The people despised their leader and feared for the future leaders of Cambodia. Even after Pol Pot’s regime ended, the lingering fear he had caused left the people distraught, just as it left Weng and the generations after the regime with stories of his cruelty.
“We didn’t support Pol Pot to be a leader of the country […] I [was affected too deeply] to describe because as for my father side, all of his family were killed and [tortured] in S43,” said Weng.
Weng was just one Cambodian with crushed spirits after the Pol Pot regime. Yet, his positive attitude shines through as he reveals that he still has hope for the future. Weng developed immense appreciation and love for the United States and its service to his country in the wake of these hardships.
Through the hardships, such as not being educated until the age of 12 and the tears over the numerous lost family members, Weng remains a strong individual with high hopes for Cambodia’s future.
On February 24, 2013, a screening at my house took place with the Cambodian crew. Even as we will all come together to relive the moments of the special trip, we cannot help but feel we are missing one smile: the smile of Weng.