It takes time, but time is what it's all about for Phatana Ith.
California State University, Long Beach, communication studies lecturer Phatana Ith is compiling the oral history of Cambodia Town residents —particularly women who survived the Khmer Rouge regime. During the regime's reign, from 1975 to 1979, dictator Pol Pot instructed his army to carry out genocide against Cambodians. Historians say up to two million were killed.
Thousands of Cambodians fled to other countries, including America. Long Beach has the largest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia.
Just getting the women to talk is difficult. Ith said her doctoral research project's methodology proposes that one must integrate with the community before they trust enough to open up about their experiences. She said so far she's been right.
"The process of integrating with the community has many layers," Ith said. "People have to familiarize themselves with and integrate into certain spaces. It's a process of learning the community and what's going on."
After she feels she's integrated enough, Ith said she'll begin recording the women's experiences. She said she's been familiarizing herself, or "showing face," with the community for about a year — even though her ethnicity is Cambodian. She's still in the beginning of her research, she said.
Ith was born in Cambodia and immigrated with her parents when she was 7 months old in 1982, she said. She added she didn't know much about her own heritage.
"It's important to have this preserved," Ith said. "From a historical perspective, there's very little access for Cambodians to their own history. It's surprising to some, that people who have been in this country for more than 40 years don't know who they are, how they got here and the trauma they've been through. You couldn't open up a history book and find this."
It's not discussed.
"Their (Cambodians') own family members don't talk about their trauma," she said.
For instance, she said she and her siblings never met her grandparents because her parents didn't share anything.
"They couldn't say, 'Well grandma lost it after she saw her son executed during the genocide,'" Ith said. "These answers didn't come to us. There were a lot of missing pieces we didn't know. Without that access, we felt it wasn't important to know our history."
Without that access, people's well-being is jeopardized, she said.
"It's very critical and crucial to the psyche of humans to have those things," she said. "It's my hope to at least restore some dignity to the group I'm part of."
Ith said she didn't know how many women she'd met so far, because the stories aren't transcribed yet. But they danced around a recurring theme.
"Every story has a common thread and it is genocide," Ith said.
One woman in particular stood out. Ith said she kept seeing her at various gatherings and always greeted her. During one boat ride, Ith said the woman suddenly opened up about wanting to commit suicide because her children had been killed by the regime. Despite that, the woman told her she provided service when and where she could. The conversation went dark and bright so quickly Ith said she was taken aback at first.
"All she really needed was for someone to hear her," Ith said. "By the end of the boat ride we had shared crackers and smiles. I remain in contact with her."
That's just one rewarding example, she said.
"These women give me so much more than I could ever give them," Ith said.
Among those women is former United Cambodia Community director and current community advocate Sara Pol-Lim, who said she participated in an oral history with the University of Southern California.
"I support the idea of her research and the effort to preserve history," Pol-Lim said. "Hopefully, the effort also will lead to more closure for the women survivors like myself."
Pol-Lim was about 10 years old when she came to America with her mother, she said. Her father and three brothers were killed in the genocide.
"With my childhood trauma, I've learned to soften the scar of the past and make sure it doesn't happen again... One of my joys is to connect to the community and support the healing process."
Upon completion, Ith said the history will be available as a public archive. But it's also for herself.
"It's been a personal journey for me," Ith said. "I don't see it as something that stops."
For more information about Ith, visit www.csulb.edu.
Emily Thornton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.