April seems to be a terrible month in recent history. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Boston, what happens in the Middle East everyday.
Its also Genocide Awareness month, the month where just about every genocide in recent history has began.
I don’t know what the hell it is with April.
But from enormous stories of tragedy, there are bits and pieces of hope, picked up and transmitted by the stories of survivors and those who help during a tragedy.
There is no definitive or all-encompassing story about surviving the Khmer Rouge, and there won’t be because there are simply too many — almost 2 million dead, whose voices will never be heard. The experiences of the Khmer Rouge will almost always be incomplete.
Anyone who survived the Khmer Rouge has horror stories that lurk in their consciousness to this day. You can see in the epidemic amount of PTSD suffered by members of the Cambodian community, a condition that affects everyone down to the next generation of Cambodian-Americans.
All of us as humans could all benefit from hearing what was endured and what continues to endure.
For Marin, the Khmer Rouge experience literally and figuratively defined him, as detailed in his memoir, The Last One.
He was about 6 years old by the time he lost his mother, father, and brother. He would later mysteriously lose his older sister. He would have to obtain food and water all by himself. He needed to learn how to hunt and steal.
Having no known living relatives meant that no one would know how old he actually was, nor what his father/mother did, nor would they be able to give him an idyllic childhood. The experiences in this book are all “his” — there was no other voice he remembers other than his own.
By the time the reign of the Khmer Rouge ended, he had no family to which he could turn. He could only beg his way onto adopted families, who each drove Marin away till he found an extremely kind couple which would adopt him as his son, and under the guise of this family, he would finally make it to the United States as a refugee.
This memoir is written in his “own words.” His own English, that I would take apart to make it flow with conversational American Californian written English.
From the perspective of identity, by writing this book, on one level he says its a way to explain the complexities he endured in surviving. This book is his representation, comprehensive for him, of how he survived, a question he has been posed many times.
On another level, he is attempting to settle the demons of his past, a childhood filled of images of beatings, disappearances, starvation, dig-ditching, sickness, vicious fights, and lost siblings.
He’s more than just a choice voice of experience, with his book, he’s now a voice of a period of time and place in human history whose daily life has been unbeknownst to the world.
The story of Marin Yann doesn’t really begin and end with what happened during the Khmer Rouge. He now lives in Long Beach, California, the central re-union area for Cambodian refugees during the 1970s and 1980s — far as I know, despite Long Beach being the center of Cambodian refugees, there hasn’t been a memoir published by an author from around here.
Here in Long Beach, he’s built his own legacy.
There is more to the man called Marin Yann.
He’s as living and pulsating and occasionally as hot-blooded a human being as I am.
Somehow he’s managed to get in with the artist community in Long Beach. Occasionally, he’ll throw a party with the help of 20-somethings whom I know independently. Somehow he’s always found a way to get himself a job even as a limited English speaker in the 1990s.
Every restaurant I go to with him in Long Beach, he’ll know at least 2 or 3 of the other customers. He’s had his stints as a gang violence interventionist, a job developer, a drug counselor, a program manager, somewhat accomplished in his life here. Marin has appeared in the LA Times and Press-Telegram as Marin Um, usually as someone who is quoted either about his experience working with youth or about his own experienced. Most recently he was recognized in this article on KCET.
To speak to him about his life was tragic, yet seeing him in the flesh speaking fluent English, you know that there’s a pretty good ending for him.
To learn about his life is to learn about the tragedies and triumphs of human behavior.
To engage with him is to interact with a triumph of the human spirit.