In 1990 I rented The Killing Fields on video. I was living in Japan, on a working holiday, having deferred university after 2nd year, so that I could improve my Japanese.
I cannot recall why, but I had a sudden urge to watch the film. It was very upsetting, and for some reason being away from home compounded its impact on me.
In 1991, back in Adelaide, I had trouble fitting back in. I missed what I had experienced in Japan–the kindness and consideration of others over self, of group over individual. I also felt more aware of the Asian people around me, and felt that they were not embraced by mainstream Australian society.
Consequently, I found myself striking up conversations with Asian students I saw on the bus everyday. I ended up part of a circle of friends mostly of Indochinese descent.
Among them, I was quite close to three guys–one Cambodian, one Lao and one Vietnamese: Kim, Souk and Luc.
All three were very kind and respectful of family. While all three were cheerful, I felt different vibes under the surface.
Kim in particular seemed to have a more pessimistic outlook.
As we got to know each other better I asked him about the circumstances under which his family had come to Australia. He described being taken to a labour camp by the Khmer Rouge, as a child, and being separated from his family. He spoke of the chaos caused by the Vietnamese invasion, which enabled him and family members to escape and be reunited. He told me of having lost siblings in the ordeal. And he described how his family escaped on foot to Thailand.
Kim’s story was The Killing Fields in real life.
Since then, I’ve actively tried to seek out other voices, other perspectives, other histories.
Writing now, I wonder if I’m no different from someone who collects exotic stamps from around the world.
But I’d like to think that hearing from people with radically different experiences from mine has made me see how limited my own perspective on the world is. It has made me want to step outside of my comfort zone. Hopefully it has made me less judgmental.
I’ve also felt a need to share these stories and to amplify other perspectives. This is something I’ve found a forum for on Twitter.
It is why I try to encourage people to travel, to live aboard, to study other languages.
It is also why I’m passionate about translation and language teaching.