Healing and Connecting Across Generations at the National Cambodian Heritage Museum

Daniel Hautzinger
A detail of the bas relief adorning the facade of the National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial. Photo: Courtesy National Cambodian Heritage Museum
A detail of the bas relief adorning the facade of the National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial. Photo: Courtesy National Cambodian Heritage Museum

Saturdays are lively at the National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial. Throughout the day, the building—which is also the headquarters of the Cambodian Association of Illinois (CAI)—vibrates with the melodiousness of xylophones, the clacking of sticks in time to a dance, the speaking of Khmer, and general sounds of youthful jollity. In the basement, teens learn classical Cambodian dance to a recorded soundtrack, while on the main floor children practice playing similar music on a collection of boat-shaped roneat aek, curved wooden xylophones. Adults savor making music together in a more intimate office in the back of the building, and above it all, on the second floor where the CAI has its offices, people take classes in Khmer, Cambodia’s most commonly spoken language.

For the younger participants, the classes are an enjoyable weekend activity with their friends and a way for the Cambodians among them to connect with their culture while growing up in the United States. But the classes also serve a deeper purpose. “As we teach music and dance, it’s also part of history and part of what was lost during the genocide that they learn and they appreciate,” says Anneth Houy, the programs coordinator for CAI and the Museum.

An estimated 1.7 to 2.2 million people died in the Cambodian genocide, which took place from 1975-1979 under the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot. Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program, whose estimate is at the low end of that range, states that 21% of the country’s population lost their lives. Artists and intellectuals in particular were targeted: the Cambodian American ethnomusicologist Sam-Ang Sam estimates that 90% of musicians, dancers, teachers, and instrument makers disappeared or were killed.

The cultural programs offered by CAI, which was founded in 1976 to help Cambodian refugees fleeing the genocide, provide a way for younger Cambodian generations who were born in the United States to connect with their parents who may have been traumatized, Houy says. “It’s hard for most of the parents to connect through conversations with their children about trauma, because they don’t understand. Or about suffering, or loss of family members to hardship during the genocide, because that’s something that youth here aren’t exposed to, so it’s hard to have a conversation. I think a nice way for them to be more connected, to be more appreciated, is to do something that doesn’t require a lot of emotional attachment. Dancing is fun, and playing music is fun—but it’s more than fun. There’s history to it, there’s dark history to it.”

Punisa Pov playing roneat aek at the National Cambodian Heritage Museum. Photo: Courtesy National Cambodian Heritage MuseumPunisa Pov playing roneat aek at the National Cambodian Heritage Museum. Photo: Courtesy National Cambodian Heritage Museum

Punisa Pov, who teaches the music classes at the Museum, has also seen how traditional Cambodian music and dance can bridge a traumatic generational divide. She was born in Cambodia, and began working with CAI and the Museum after coming to Iowa for school. She had studied with a master musician in Cambodia who survived the genocide by hiding the fact that she was a musician.

“Culture can be a way for the generations to connect,” she says, telling the story of a performance through CAI where two girls danced to music that included the singing of both their mother and grandmother—three generations joining together through art. “The survivors [of the genocide] want their family to understand, so this is a way to provide comfort.”

Still, “from my understanding, they never heal,” says Houy. “For us, when we work with survivors, we always want to look at hearing their stories, and what are the ways that, through their stories, how do they find comfort and healing, and what is their definition of healing. I think by having an open conversation in a very safe space, and being very respectful and mindful of their stories, that helps them feel better, that their story is actually being acknowledged and listened to.”

In Cambodia, learning about the past is not only hampered by the difficulty of discussing trauma; there is also very little official history devoted to the genocide, or programs to aid survivors in healing. Pov says that only a single page of a textbook in school covered the Khmer Rouge and the genocide, and there are very few official sites in Cambodia devoted to the horrific period.

“Here, we have the freedom to express, versus in Cambodia,” says Houy.

The Killing Fields Memorial at the National Cambodian Heritage Museum. Photo: Courtesy National Cambodian Heritage MuseumThe Killing Fields Memorial has the names of victims etched in Khmer on many of its glass panels. Photo: Courtesy National Cambodian Heritage Museum

In the United States, the Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago are unique. (Cambodian community leaders broke ground on a memorial in Long Beach earlier this month. It will be the second genocide memorial in this country.) Located at 2831 W. Lawrence, in a building owned by CAI and adorned by an ornate bas relief, they opened in 2004. The Memorial features glass panels arrayed around a somber black centerpiece etched with a white lotus and the words “We continue our journey with compassion understanding and wisdom.” Panels in the front are etched with the names, in Khmer, of victims of the genocide—the relatives of Cambodian refugees in Chicago and the United States. CAI plans to add more names.

Every April 17, Cambodians around the world memorialize victims of the genocide in a Day of Remembrance. Illinois was the first state in the country to officially designate the day, thanks to CAI and the Museum. On the Day of Remembrance, they host a candlelight vigil at the Memorial and honor the dead with a moment of silence, then allow a space for survivors who want to share their stories to do so. They invite other communities who have shared similar experiences of trauma to join them and “exchange that story and be a supportive community to one another,” Houy says.  

In addition to the Memorial, the Museum also serves to memorialize and educate about the genocide. Its permanent exhibit, “Remembering the Killing Fields,” focuses on the experience of life under the Khmer Rouge: the food shortages, the hard labor, the doctrinal slogans, the use of traditional cures in the face of a ban on Western medicine.  “For me, I want those who are not Cambodian not to have empathy but to understand who we are, why we had to leave Cambodia, and the things that we do here, why they’re important,” Houy says. “To have them better understand the cost of genocide and to let them know that our community still struggles, and needed a lot of resources and a lot of help.”

Resources such as those offered by CAI, the Museum, and the Memorial, which continue to try to foster healing and connection between generations. “That’s something that was always instilled in me: that pride of being Cambodian, and that pride of being able to have the opportunity to do that here in America and be more connected, even though we’re not physically connected, but spiritually,” says Houy. “We’re in the present here, in the moment.”