I edited all the contents and copy of this book.
A portion of my Saturdays 2012 and 2013 had been dedicated to the Starbucks in Signal Hill, Cyclo Noodles, Hometown Buffet, and the Dragon Club in Long Beach. Mostly there by my side was the River Woman. Always there was Marin Yann, author of the book linked above.
Seeing me hang out at the CSULB Student Union one day in March last year, he asked if I could take a look at his manuscript for a book he was writing.
I thought he’d already published it.
A year and a half before this chance meeting, he had spoken to a class I was taking about Anthropological History, which was taught by a professor who’d done extensive research on the Cambodian American community in Long Beach.
All I remember from that class was that he made people cry. One woman was just shocked at how people could torture and kill each other to the extent he described.
Any story you hear about enduring and ultimately surviving the Khmer Rouge regime is bound to do that. However, his story was unique in that he had to go it alone as a child without any family, and for a while even got along with some Khmer Rouge officials.
For those uninitiated to Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge regime was in charge of a massive re-organization of Cambodian society, which resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians from 1975-1979. 1.7 Million or 21% of the country. The massive re-organization consisted of the regime’s forced removal of all of Cambodian citizens from cities into farms. Many died of starvation, disease, or execution. Executions would take place in what is now known as the “killing fields.” The chain of events that occurred are referred to as the Cambodian holocaust or Cambodian genocide.
It seems like too many people outside of the Cambodian community still don’t know about this history.
Being ignorant of the nuances of Cambodian history at the time myself, I remember thinking that his story was a real-life Slumdog Millionaire story without the meteor-esque Millionaire ascent or the Hollywood ending. It was unbelievable what he endured as a child and even as a teenager and young adult. I wondered whether there was anything funny that happened to him. I wondered about the everyday life he endured. I remember thinking that he was kind of brusque in his answers; he kept saying “It’s in my book.” I remember thinking that if he didn’t have it published already, I would “so” go for the opportunity to edit his book.
Nowadays, Marin is an everyday working American man. He works at a nonprofit. He recently got his Master’s degree in Business Administration.
I’d see him at Cambodian community events and would talk a bit with him. He knew a few people that I knew in Long Beach.
But I didn’t know him to the extent that I would get to know him as I did on those Friday, Saturday, and/or Sunday meetings with him this past year.
We would drink beers. We would dance. We would hang at his friend’s artist residence. We’d eat; don’t ever challenge him to an eat-off. We would talk about the ladies.
I learned about all these ideas he had to make it big. I learned about his past on the streets of Long Beach, which should be its own book. He had not just one survival story, but a multitude of them. It’s a story that continues today.
And here I was, relatively privileged American-born grad school kid, helping him were write it in a language seen to be the most universal. I had lots of social advantages that he did not have. I must say, it was an honor to be working with him side-by-side.
He wrote his story because it was complicated for him to summarize it in a sentence. There was no way to capture the breadth of it in a paragraph. He’d always been asked the question, “how did you survive?” His story is not easily reducible to a bullshit small-talk answer you simply nod with a courteous ‘yes’ or “oh” and move on with your life. This book is the culmination of 10 years of perspiration.
And at the very least people should know something about his existence.
His experience under the Khmer Rouge literally defined him. They are the reason he is capable of eating any and everything after harsh food rationing in which he ate no more than a bowl of soup or rice. They are the reason he doesn’t have any family members or relatives to help him remember what happened after his dad and sister mysteriously disappeared. They are the reason he doesn’t know where home is. He vaguely remembers where is from. To this day, he doesn’t know how old he actually is.
When we were looking over the manuscript, I tried my best to preserve his voice but communicate his raw emotion. His first language is not English but Khmer, but he’s come far enough to get himself a Master’s degree here.
I learned some interesting tidbits about survival: eating anything from a bird is safe, grasshoppers, and snakes could be edible, and when push comes to shove, you’ll probably have to steal.
I learned that there was some things about the Khmer Rouge that you could laugh at, at least in retrospect. One of my favorite moments in his story is when as an 8-year old still trying to understand the nuances of Khmer, he overhears someone talking about the Vietcong coming to save them. He confuses the Khmer word for “Vietcong” with the word for “King Kong” and momentarily thinks that a big monkey will come and save him from the Khmer Rouge.
His story is not just a Cambodian story, a survivor story, or a genocide story, something only others should read. We are exposed first-hand to the effects of the “coldness” of human beings and their social systems, mixed with the surprising warmth of individuals against their cultural milieus.
It’s a story everyone should read about the extremes, limits, and depths of the human condition.