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“Out of the Shadows”

Published: March 20, 2017

Phatana Ith family photo.
Pictured (l-r) are two unidentified colleagues of Phatana Ith’s father, Sampheas Chea Tan (Ith’s sister), Chea Tan (Ith’s mother), Phatana Ith at 7 months old, Romma Ith (Ith’s brother) and Sarin Ith (Ith’s father, an author and school inspector). The photo was taken in Thailand in 1982 after Ith’s family escaped the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

What happens to a peoples when they are silent for 42 years? What are they not saying and why? What is our responsibility as citizens who share a space with them? Phatana Ith seeks to answer these questions and more in her research that draws out stories from female genocide survivors in ways that communicate honor, respect, cultural sensitivity and care.

From 1975-79, the Khmer Rouge regime carried out the Cambodian genocide under the direction of dictator Pol Pot. Since its end, Long Beach has become a haven and home to the largest population of Cambodians outside of Cambodia.

Ith, a CSULB lecturer in Communication Studies, delves into the depths of the female genocide survivors in Long Beach and their stories of struggle and healing. Her research project called “Out of the Shadows” is an “oral archive project,” or collection of narratives, that will help preserve the history of the Khmer people and highlight the experiences of Khmer women.

A Khmer woman herself, Ith is an insider to the community with unique knowledge of cultural codes of being.

“Coming into this community with any kind of agenda would not yield authentic responses,” said Ith. “I want to unearth these stories with honor and respect.”

Ith’s project stemmed from personal and academic sources of inspiration. A research proposal she wrote for her Ph.D. borrows from Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s text, Decolonizing Research Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. She received waves of support from esteemed colleagues all over the nation to continue her efforts after she presented her proposal at the Western States Communication Association 2017 conference in Salt Lake City.

Ith’s research, or as she calls it, “me-search,” is inspired by her own family’s history. She recalls a story her mother told her about hearing trucks that came into her concentration campsite every night. As soon as the detainees would hear the wheels roll into the camps, they would all fall silent, waiting to see who would be pulled from their hastily made shacks and loaded onto the trucks. The trucks that arrived empty every night would return the next morning, also empty. Some detainees were moved to another campsite, some were executed in mass graves. Knowing this, Ith’s mother would instruct her children how to survive had one of the trucks taken her. She carefully wrapped jewels and hid them under the boards of the home instructing her children on what each jewel’s value was and what they could buy with them, things like a kilo of rice, some fish or a paid guide through the jungle to the Thai border.

As Ith explained, women tend to harbor these traumatic experiences because speaking about them runs counter to cultural beliefs which values silence, an acceptance of suffering as part of life and shame.

“It was my impression from personal experiences with the community members that these women’s stories need a platform of their own to be told on their own terms,” said Ith. “It has been more common for Khmer men to speak on those experiences and to be regarded as authorities on this knowledge. There are matriarchs that exist among us. They have knowledge that is unique to being women.”

The subject of Khmer women, their history, their leadership roles, and Ith’s connection to them is what maintains her interest and dedication to the research project.

“Elders and matriarchs are the gatekeepers of knowledge and glue of the Khmer community,” she said.

Ith’s urgency to conduct this research was at the forefront. She explained that “baby boomers” and “matures” of the community are aging out of the population. When they go, their stories will go too. What is at risk is the likelihood that Khmer millennials will not have access to the oral histories of their elders; they will have incomplete knowledge of their own history, as the complexity of the Khmer-American experience is not commonly taught in schools.

These narratives have the potential to be the bridge that connects generations so disconnected from each other due to language barriers, conflicting value systems and a lack of cultural understanding. The opportunity to listen to these stories and learn about their culture and family’s pasts can be revived with a research model of compassion. Ith wants this research to be a resource for millennials to help uncover these stories.

“Millennials have a bare understanding of the past of their parents and grandparents,” said Ith. “There’s untreated trauma in this community. The elders don’t talk about their experiences because they’re too painful, even when their children or grandchildren ask about it. We can understand why. These women experienced unspeakable atrocities like witnessing executions of their loved ones, being separated from their children never to see them again, being beaten for growing their own potatoes to sustain themselves, and these are just stories from my family’s narrative. There are others out there, many of them right here in Long Beach. The gatekeepers are among us. We exist among giants that hide behind masks of humility. We can learn from the resilience of these peoples.”

While Ith’s research focuses on the history of Khmer women, she knows other women can relate to and connect with the experience of being silenced.

“What we can take away from this project is the power of compassionate research and the connectivity that exists among all women,” she said. “We can all see a little bit of each other in each other’s narratives.”

Ith’s research intentions include practices that use “trauma-informed care” in interactions with gatekeepers and survivors in the Khmer community. These practices demonstrate understandings of the cultural code of ethics, sensitivity and respect that is needed for unique communities like these. Once her research is published, Ith wants people to see how storytelling with care can connect us all as members of communities that experience social, cultural and generational divides.

“I anticipate that this can be a model for how we treat people who have experienced war, genocide, trauma, diaspora—peoples who were forced to leave their countries not for a better life, but to have life,” said Ith. “Once communities are presented with avenues for healing that they can understand on their terms, the possibilities for them are greater. They are limitless.”

To hear Ith discuss her research, click here.