PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—A few weeks after we met, I called Arn to tell him that I would be traveling north to his home province of Battambang, Cambodia. “I’m in the movie theater,” he said. “I’ll call you back.” He said it was a horror movie about a Cambodian woman who could command the nation’s snakes—he called her “the snake lady.”
Two hours later, he retuned my call, canceled his appointments and told me he would take me to his hometown himself. The next day, Arn, his sister and I drove down a dusty red road that extended toward Wat Ek and the killing fields just beyond. On the way, we stopped to pick up his stepmother, who lived in a little shack next to a dilapidated rail line. The tin walls were decorated with pinups of Thai movie actresses, Hindu and Buddhist deities. Before the Khmer Rouge arrived, she was a star in the opera. After Pol Pot was ousted, she survived by making a living as a local astrologist and palm reader for shantytown dwellers.
The way to Battambang held secrets discernible only to those who knew its intimacies. We passed though the dust and looked beyond the road’s stony edges to the various locales where Arn’s family witnessed Khmer Rouge atrocities—9 out of his 12 brothers and sisters perished under the regime. Arn’s stepmother and sister retold the tales of those times and their stories were punctuated by a forced laughter that many in Cambodia use to mock the past. “Remember when Khmer Rouge almost raped you for singing a man’s song?” mother said to sister. Together they begin to sing the song. “I thought you were a virgin/Why have you tricked me so?”
“Remember that time when they almost shot you for teaching the children to sing the opera?” said the sister. The mother laughed. “Yes, they had me tied up to that pole for two days. I never was too much of a singer.”
We paused at a local cafeteria, a collection of decayed tables and chairs. When the food I paid for arrived, Arn’s stepmother and sister looked at the servings of chicken with their mouths agape and eyes wide like children. There was a car accident outside; a truck had swerved away from a little girl crossing the street and flipped on its side. They glanced at the scene briefly then returned to their meal. They spoke to each other in Khmer, and the words grew louder and more punctuated with laughter.