First They Killed My Father: My Family's Story

Sunday, September 17, 2017

First They Killed My Father, novel by Loung Ung

I bought this book maybe 7 or 8 years ago and found out that I didn't have the courage to read it. This book, 'First they Killed My Father' details how Pol Pot's regime affected 5 year old Loung's life from 1975 to 1979 in Cambodia.
Back then I was scared to read it because I knew this account was also my my mom, aunts, uncles and grandma's story and I didn't want to be confronted by the sadness and horror they faced. But I'm 30 years old now and I told myself I shouldn't be afraid.
I once asked my mom her story when I was in year 10 for history class. My mom gave me a basic version and I knew she didn't want to go into that much detail. It was hard for her to relive the memories, often ending a sentence with sad sigh. It was hard for me to hear it too.
When I finally read this book, I found so many similarities in Luong's story and my mom's.
In 1975, the Teng family also lived in Phnom Penh as middle class in a house with servants, plenty of food and leisure time. My mom's father was serving in the military in the airforce and was highly regarded in the community.
Cambodia was in the middle of a civil war and eventually the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government by sheer force. The Khmer Rouge wanted to make Cambodia great again by demolishing classes, banning religion, the arts and all education. They wanted to teach those Cambodians that their captalist ways were evil and to go back to the agricultural life. Thus, Cambodia will prosper and become grande once again.
In April 1975 just after Cambodia New Year, the entire city of Phnom Penh were forced out of their homes by the Khmer Rouge soilders. They forced their way into homes and those who refused were shot dead on the spot. The people of Phnom Penh were now enemies, traitors, prisoners.My family, and thousands more were made to walk at least eight days from the city to the rice paddies. Everyone had only what they could gather in a short time. Luckily my grandmother had some spare rice and fish to bring. My mom witnessed the hospitalised and elderly also forced to make this journey, often separated from family due to the chaos. Many died before they reached their destination. 
During their journey, the Teng family were instructed by their father to act dumb and pretend they were not educated. To not talk about their city lives in fear of being caught out by the Khmer Rouge - they would've marked them as traitors to the new Angkar law and shot dead. My mom was only 18 years old and nearly graduated from high school. From then on she was to pretend she was a uneducated peasant from the countryside.My family eventually were allocated to a labour camp where most worked from sunrise to sunset planting and harvesting rice in the rice fields. The family occupied a hut with their bowls, black pants, shirt and red scarf. My mom hid her gold, family photos and family possessions by sewing them inside their old clothes they kept under the bed. The soilders were always watching.They grew so much rice. However, so little food were rationed to the "city people" (aka traitors). The city people worked alongside true countryside people and were treated unfairly.
Only a rice ball or congee with 8 grains of rice and salted fish were fed to the "traitors" twice a day. Many died from starvation as the Angkar government kept reducing their portions. Many died from disease as the Khmer Rouge murdered doctors and nurses because they were educated. Many died as the Khmer Rouge killed anyone they suspected supported the old government; or even those who wore glasses as they viewed them to be "educated". Thousands of monks, students, dancers and singers were killed too.
My mom lived in the camp for four years. She kept her head down and worked hard. She ate bugs and sometimes stole corn from nearby fields. But everyone was slowly starving to death.
After a few months, her father was 'found out' and taken away by the Khmer Rouge soldiers. Someone must've have recognised him from being from the old government army. He was killed and most likely thrown into a mass grave (aka "The Killing Fields"). It was often soldiers blindfolded their prisoners, forced them onto their knees and shot them in the head at close range. I knew my mom's two older sisters were also killed during the regime. 
After years of living in the labour camps, starved and living in fear of being caught out, the Vietnamese army finally invaded Cambodia and started to bomb random labour camps. The Khmer Rogue tried to fight them off but the military tanks were no match.
The Cambodians were afraid but finally liberated. My mom would've been approximately 21 years old.
When they found the chance, my family escaped their camp and ran for their lives to the jungles. They walked a long time risking being caught and trying to not step on land mines. They were lost, hungry, and scared yet they reached the Thai border where they finally reached a refugee camp. They did not dare to return to Phnom Penh, their old home.
They waited months for sponsors, and though they were liberated, my family lived in fear that the Khmer Rouge will find them. My grandmother, mom, her oldest sister, her two younger sisters and two older brothers were now refugees. They finally got processed but were separated. Some were sent to Australia, some to New Zealand and France. In the end, a staggering 2 million Cambodians died during that four year regime.There's so much more detail to this story. But for those that are just like me, lucky to have been raised in countries free from war, who can't connect to what their parents have been through because they don't want to prod their parents for their own terrible memories, please read this book.
I've visited Cambodia back in 2008 and visited the now prosperous Phnom Penh and areas such as Pursat and Battabong. With those memories in mind I can imagine what the people of Cambodia went through. This book will put your life into perspective and also appreciate your elders - how they have learnt to rise from this and to continue on with their lives. When I was my mom's age I had just finished year 11 or 12 and I remember complaining that the HSC was so hard. I wouldn't have had half the strength my mom and family had to survive what they went through.
My mom now has a single photo of her father hanging in front of our Buddhist shrine, next to a photo of her mother, who have now passed away. She often leaves fruit offerings and burns incense to know she is still thinking of them.
Thank you Loung for her brave account, I am sorry you lost your father, mother, oldest and youngest sister. Your book gives a voice to the survivors and to the murdered. I hope that Angelina's account does your story justice.
And thank you to my family for continuously striving to give me, my sister and my cousins luckier lives. Thank you.

Wedding Bouquet Practice with Australian Native Flowers

Tuesday, June 27, 2017
Australian Native Wedding Flower Bouquet
Australian Native Wedding Flower Bouquet
Australian Native Wedding Flower Bouquet

Wedding Bouquet Practice with Australian Native Flowers from Flemington Flower Markets

With eleven months to go until the wedding, Hai and I have hit a slight lull. We've done alot of the hard work -  booked our Reception hall, our Ceremony location, celebrant, photographers, videographer, make-up & hair. I've also ordered my bridal shoes and once I have them I can order my dress with my final height in mind.

With my flowers, I wanted to make my own bouquets, knowing that just one can cost into the hundreds of dollars. I visited the flower markets in Flemington with Betty and once in there, most of the flowers reminded me of what I saw while on my monthly hikes with Hai and friends.

I drew inspiration from that and put together wattles, banksia, cotton, small white wax flowers that grew from thick dry branches, red willow leaves and eucalyptus leaves into a fancy bouquet and white ribbon.
I then added some purple flowers to bring it all together. and it cost me at least a third of my budget - only $32.

I'm extremely happy with the result and I keep imagining me walk down the aisle with these in my hands. I also kept these flowers for a few days to see how long it took to wilt. It took at least until the 5th day to see some discolouring and drying up, which is great news since I have to make these bouquets two days in advance.

For the next months I'll continue to practice making these bouquets - for my bridemaids and maid of honours, with the Australian native flowers theme in mind. Future ideas may include bunches of baby breath, in dusty blues (they have them coloured), silver dollar eucalyptus, and coloured banksia. So much inspiration coming from my own backyard. Watch this space over the next few months.

Mogo Zoo & Pretty Beach Camping

Friday, June 9, 2017
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Mogo Zoo Jervis Bay Australia
Pretty Beach Campsite Australia
Pretty Beach Campsite Australia
Pretty Beach Campsite Australia
Pretty Beach Campsite Australia

Mogo Zoo, 222 Tomakin Rd, Mogo NSW 2536 Australia
Pretty Beach Campsite, Murramarang National Park, NSW Australia

For my thirtieth birthday, Hai surprised me by taking me to Mogo Zoo and camping. At 5am we packed our cars and drove off on our adventure. It took us three hours, driving through Berry and for their famous doughnuts on the way.

Once there, we payed our $31 entry fee plus the $10 to feed giraffes. I raced to the giraffes first, bypassing all the other animals. I was clearly keen. 
The zookeeper finally ushered me in and I walked up the steps with my Eucalyptus leaves in hand. I never thought about how big a giraffe's head is until I was face to face with one. It's face filled my field of vision with its big innocent eyes and a giant blue tongue reaching out for my leaves.
I then raced over to feed the deer with my $2 bag of food. The deer was so cute as they poked their heads out of their pen. One greedy deer did headbutt the others to get to my hand and pushed them away. Annoying deer, but still cute.

There are some really beautiful animals at this Zoo. We met monkeys, lions, a Fennix fox, hippopotamus, tigers, meerkats and red pandas, all in spacious enclosures, lazing about or climbing trees or eating food. We attended most of the talks by the Zoo Keepers - the Gorillas at 12pm, the Rhino at 1.30pm and the Tigers at 2.30pm.

And after a satisfying lunch of cheese & ham toasties, the carnivore burger and hot chips, we picked up a toy Red Panda on the way (we named him Rupert) and drove ourselves down to Pretty Beach. Here, wallabies and joeys grazed the front lawns of this sleepy town and across the beach campground. The wallabies watched us from a couple of metres away while we pitched our tent and collected firewood.

Hai and I spent our night sitting by our fire and drinking beers. Then we ate like 4 packs of instant noodles (with poached eggs!) since we packed light - but it was so worth it. The next morning we had a stroll on the empty beach and took in the fresh air and sound of the crashing waves.

On our drive back, we picked up some more doughnuts from Berry and listened to my iPod. We also discussed what super hero powers we wanted (a never ending discussion) and talked about the pros and cons of each situation in which to use our power. Only with Hai would I enjoy such geeky yet fun conversations, carrying on for hours.

 Thank you Hai for an amazing trip <3

My 30th Birthday

Thursday, May 25, 2017
Chefs Gallery Parramatta Unicorn Cake
Chefs Gallery Parramatta Unicorn Cake
Chefs Gallery Parramatta Unicorn Cake
Chefs Gallery Parramatta
Chefs Gallery Parramatta
Chefs Gallery Parramatta Unicorn Cake

A 30th Birthday, at Chefs Gallery, Parramatta NSW Australia

12th May 2017 - I've made it to my 30th Birthday. And the first thing I did was take a few days off to celebrate with Hai, friends and family. The second thing was to cry in private because I was turning thirty (just kidding).
I used my days off to reconnect with music, to catch up on my blog emails, walk, read my books and play with my dogs. It was really satisfying to put aside time for myself.
The rest of the week I spent with Hai - he took me to two zoos, camping at Pretty Beach, buffet dinners and adorned me with lots of birthday presents.

I also compiled a list. Thirty lessons, guidance, or "canon" I've written as a testimony to my life. I took some time to really reflect on my life and the person I am today.  I understand and know myself better then ever - so this list is designed to gently remind me to be myself no matter what.

1. Natalie, don't be afraid to admit you love pop music. Who cares what people say, your iPod is full of it and you should be proud of it (even if they say "What IS this song?" or "Uhh, what's this?"). They're just bitter people.
2. Natalie, don't change the song that you obviously love when a passenger gets in your car. It's your car, your music. Own your love for that song.
3. Natalie - Yes. You love hot chips with tomato sauce and chicken salt. Don't let anyone argue with you that gravy is better. Or garlic sauce is. Or BBQ sauce is. Seriously, screw them.
4. Natalie, you love soggy hot chips. Again, don't let anyone tell you that crunchy or crinkle chips are better. F*ck that.
5.  Natalie, you love Japanese Curry, it always cheers you up. Especially when loaded with lots of potatoes. Stay away from cabbage in curry; it makes it taste gross. And never again eat the curry from Ryo's. You've had your heart broken before, don't let it happen again.
6. Natalie, your favorite song is "My Girl" by The Temptations. Listen to it when you feel sad.
7. Natalie, don't weigh your bag with too many lipsticks. Rotate them, don't just add more into the side pocket for "lipstick emergencies".
8. Natalie, keep your bangs. Side fringes look terrible on you.
9. Natalie, wash your hair every three days. Don't kid yourself, four days without washing is pushing it.
10. Natalie, your favourite desserts flavour is chocolate. Don't be afraid to ask for it. You've ended up sharing way too many non-chocolate desserts with people in the past.
11. Natalie, keep spelling Mom as Mom. Who cares if its American spelling.
12. Natalie, don't tolerate rude people. Seriously, the people who have excessive foul mouths, the people who don't RSVP, the people who are flaky and cancel plans. Screw 'em.
13. Natalie, those who double book and cancel on you to go spend time with another, are not YOUR type of people. Stick with those who care about you. Stick with those who stick by their word.
14. Natalie, those people who take days to reply back to your message, are not OK. They obviously do not put you as a priority.
15. Natalie, you do not own too many backpacks. You love backpacks. Keep buying them.
16. Natalie, same rule applies for lipsticks.
17. Natalie, keep documenting your life. The events, laughter and time goes. But the photos, are forever. They enhance the memories. So don't feel embarrassed taking the camera out to capture these moments.
18. Natalie, your favourite movie is Love Actually. Keep watching it every year at Christmas, by yourself. (When you watch with other people you tend to worry if they are enjoying the movie).
19. Natalie, hugging dogs and dancing will always brings you joy, no matter how sad you are.
20. Natalie, same applies for when you hug Hai.
21. Natalie, you don't have a favourite colour. Equal contenders are - all pastel colours. dusty pink, teal, dark pink, dusty blue, sky blue, gold, rose gold and apple. But don't own too many bright coloured clothing, it does not work on you. Continue wearing blacks, browns and greys - they make your bright lipsticks pop.
22. Natalie, keep hiking. You love it; you're in your element. You feel at peace and feel free.
23. Natalie, don't forget your past. Don't regret your mistakes and decisions. They made you who you are - stronger, wiser, resilient, empathetic, independent and vocal.
24. Natalie, take care of your phone. You've had three phone funerals in the last year alone.
25. Natalie, you can't handle your Soju. Down the Vodka, down the Hennessy. Put the Soju down.
26. Natalie, keep love in your heart. Speak kindly, don't judge, be understanding, be emphatic. You only have one life.
27. Natalie, listen to the song 'The Funeral' by Band of Horses whenever you are mad at someone.
28. Natalie, continue to plan hikes once a month, to try to new restaurants, walk the dogs every week, to cook something new. Even if you lose sleep over it., continue to be passionate about living your life.
29. Natalie, you love to read. So keep putting aside time for it. Read when you can - an hour before bed, while you're cooking dinner, when you eat breakfast on the weekends. Books complete you.
30. Natalie, always remember to recognize your happiness. Don't be scared of it when it comes your way. Don't push it away like you think you don't deserve it. Your own Happiness should be your number one priority. Embrace it. Enhance it. Keep fighting for it.

I also want to give my deepest thanks to those that celebrated my birthday with me - with laser tag and dinner at Chefs Gallery. The thoughtful gifts - like my teapot, tea flask, backpack, 511 pants, books and pens, POP vinyls, Silverbullet curler, personalized purse, earrings, Sailor Moon beauty products, Lush and Star Wars products - they will be cherished and stay with me forever.
And lastly, I want to thank Betty, for my amazing unicorn cake! I know it took you hours and I'm grateful for the time and effort. That means more to me then any gift. Your friendship has guided me through my twenties and I know our friendship will grow even stronger into our thirties <3
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