Troubles in Translation
First, I needed a translator. Initially, I thought this would be someone who could translate Khmer words into English––the talent for which was rare enough given the country’s ambivalent embrace of education. I heard stories of parents still too fearful of another intellectual purge to allow their children to attend school. But I quickly realized I required much more than language skills.
I needed someone who could be a cultural translator around medical issues, world visions and thinking patterns. I had already traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, but I still needed someone to explain to me how Buddhist notions of karma let grievous crimes, particularly against children, continue on a daily basis. Or to tell me that Cambodian interview subjects never wanted to be left alone in hotel rooms because they feared roaming ghosts. Before we even began, I had to learn that the term PTSD doesn’t carry weight in Cambodia; rather, it is a country suffering from Baskbat, broken courage.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder might be the most maligned malady the world over––and the most diagnosed, particularly in war-affected areas. Psychosocial interventions like the one I was conducting with TPO often have been accused of jeopardizing local coping mechanisms, pathologizing and stigmatizing war-torn communities, and conveying a purely Anglo-American therapeutic ethos. Labeling illnesses in Western terms has been called a form of “medical imperialism.”
Cambodians perceive trauma as a manifestation of unhappy spirits––not something covered on standard American PTSD questionnaires or in Western medical calculations. Doctors working with TPO learned to ask subjects if they had “been thinking too much”, had “wind attacks” or whether they felt “Khmaoch songot”––a term for describing a sudden inability to move or speak, sometimes in tandem with the appearance of dark shapes.
During my time in Iraq, I found Iraqis to be passionate and expressive, sometimes over-the-top melodramatic, but always engaged with their own emotions and with me. In Cambodia, the trauma was like an outside creature, allowed to emerge and sit on a sterile table to be analyzed for the purpose of our interview, but then politely put back again at the end of the day. I wasn’t sure how to react to the monotone descriptions of terror and trauma—that people could remember every province, commune, district and village to which they were sent during the regime, but sometimes forgot how many of their children were killed. There was a cyclical nature of telling, starting with the day one was born and winding on for hours through farming practices, or with former Khmer soldiers, military tactics; meandering past the years of trauma, always conveyed matter-of-factly, and around to the present day. Then: Was there a sleeping pill they could have? An antidepressant? And could they go home now, please?
The interviews wore me down, little by little, making me a bit colder every day.
This was secondary trauma, and I was beginning to realize the ways it was manifesting in my psyche. I would become frustrated with the lack of clarity and would push to connect people’s disjointed thoughts. I focused maniacally on organizing the testimonies at the expense of hearing the content, letting it settle and feeling the ways that the words played in my body. I didn’t like myself at these protective moments, but I was sure that, if I let myself go, it would open a floodgate that could never be shut. I didn’t want to be emotionally “out of control” in a country holding itself together through a guise of absolute restraint.
My photographer, Alan, had never encountered such detailed accounts of atrocity—so many, so often and so unthinkable. The impact of it all stayed with him for months after his return. If not for my fearless son Aiden, I’m not sure I would have made it. Returning at the end of the day to a bounding little boy, eager to share his new Khmer words and go riding in his go-cart around the pagodas of Phnom Penh, was like rainfall in the desert: life-giving oxygen.