New home in another country. After the horrors of war, Southeast Asians celebrate their beginning in the United States
Lowell, Mass. — THE handsome renovated courtyard of Market Mills is the pride of Lowell. Lowell used to be famous for its textiles, many years ago. Then it was known as a town full of derelict textile factories with mostly broken windows. Now it is known as a computer center, and as a town where derelict textile factories have been turned into boutiques, offices, and other beautiful and useful places. Last week, the Market Mills courtyard was full of well-dressed people -- some Asian, but most Caucasian -- who had gathered in honor of the publication of ``Southeast Asians: A New Beginning in Lowell,'' by James Higgins and Joan Ross, a book of sensitive and empathetic photos of the first generation of Laotians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians to make their home here in Lowell.
Dith Ser Meoun was wearing a long, narrow, dark-green silk dress. She is the wife of Dith Pran, the hero of the movie, ``The Killing Fields.'' We were standing with her youngest son, Totinel, 14, under the banners and trees in the sunshine of the only perfect day in late August, talking about Mr. Dith's near-miraculous escape from the Cambodian holocaust. ``He keep saying to me, `I still can't believe why they kill so many people,' '' Mrs. Dith said.
Totinel, who is a cute, all-American kid, says he doesn't remember much about Cambodia.
``My oldest son remember more,'' said Mrs. Dith, recalling the time she, her parents, and her three children hid from the Viet Cong in an underground train station in 1970. ``The water was so high,'' she said, gesturing to her hip. ``My youngest son was six-, seven-months old, so we had to hold him up.''
Totinel, born after that, was only a baby of two when Mrs. Dith and her children were airlifted out of Phnom Penh. A few days after he was born, when Mrs. Dith was still in the hospital, ``they throw the grenade on the first floor. I jump out of bed without knowing anything,'' she recalled.
Her husband would find wounded people in the streets, more than ambulances could deal with. ``And Pran, he just put them in our car and take them to the hospital. For me, I so scare,'' she said, with wide eyes and a richly feminine chuckle.
Six barefoot monks in orange and burnt-sienna robes and with shaved heads entered and sat down on folding chairs on a little brick parapet, since by tradition they always sit higher than everyone else. Below, a Cambodian group in jeans and shorts played some traditional music, which sounded nice, maybe a little like Scottish music played on Middle Eastern instruments.
The official program began. When everyone involved in the book project had been thanked, Mr. Dith, a slight and charming man, spoke of his 4 years of living in a prison camp under the Khmer Rouge, who murdered an estimated 2 million to 3 million people after they took over in 1975.
``The movie `The Killing Fields' did not end in 2 hours and 15 minutes. It is still going on around the clock,'' Dith said. `` `The Killing Fields' is a universal story. It happens over and over.
``In the movie, we show you just a little bit because we understand that the Westerners couldn't watch. They forced babies to go to work. They left the babies crawling to eat sand and rock. In the movie you saw me eat the lizard. That was nothing. I eat leaves and grass and snakes. They cut the oxtail, live, to eat. And we are Buddhists; we are not supposed to kill anything. . . .
``I'm happy to see all these monks. The monks teach us not to be violent. That's why the Khmer Rouge could kill millions of people; because they had no religion. All religions have the same thing; to make the people love each other. . . .
``In the movie we didn't show you that they used people to pull the plow. We didn't show they killed the babies with bayonets, knives, and sticks. You can read more, but you cannot watch on the screen. I understand that some of you are very emotional and I'm very sorry. But the story, the refugee story needed to be told. . . .
``They kill because they want power. They were afraid. They saw the enemy everywhere. They killed the children because when they grow up they ask, `Where's my father, where's my mother?' It is very hard to find a family who didn't lose anyone, a brother or a father. . . .
``For me, I don't see this war to end easily. They're poor in food but they're not poor in weapons.
``I lost many teammates. They'd come at night and they'd say `you are a doctor, you are a teacher.' Sometimes they pick the real teacher, the real doctor. They look into your face, they look at your finger. Even if you wore glasses, they say, `You are educated.' It doesn't matter that you need them to see. . . .
``This book is for you who care about the refugees -- a very good souvenir. For us, the refugees, it will show our next generation, this is how we came to this land. All of us should have this for our children, to show how we get to this land, how we adjust to this new land.''
After Dith's speech, three Cambodian dancers in brocade skirts began scattering silver tinsel from silver bowls, with slow and amazing hand movements. Almost everybody in the audience bought a book and lined up to get it autographed.
A monk with a beautiful, wide chiseled face was explaining to an attentive white man in red high-topped sneakers that when the communists want to destroy an area, they must destroy the temple first. Two tiny girls, one blond, one Asian (with two ponytails and a string of pearls), trotted excitedly around a lamppost for reasons of their own.
Dith Pran's story made for such high human drama that watching it on the screen was almost unbearable. But he says that his story is the story of many of the refugees. Open ``A New Beginning in Lowell,'' and you can see it in the faces:
A Cambodian man sits on a bed in a room with peeling wallpaper; he holds a photo of his parents, whose status as displaced persons does not permit them to leave the Thai camps -- except to return to Cambodia.
An elderly Laotian woman leans out of a window, her head wrapped in a scarf. In Laos she once might have worked in the garden, growing food for her family, light and pleasant employment for an honored old age. Now she lives in a tenement.
``She speaks no English,'' reads the caption. ``There is nowhere to go.''
A Vietnamese family poses: mother, father, two pretty teen-age girls, two little boys. The mother says,``When I get to Thailand they take everything. Some girls they grab and rape. Thank God my daughters were only five and six.''
But there are also smiling families in front of neat white frame houses, and teen-agers who are obviously gleeful about their lives here. For instance, three bright-eyed kids, who have just been playing basketball: ``When we get to America, my sons grow faster,'' the caption reads. ``It's sports and American food that makes them grow tall. They don't like Lao food, they like McDonald's and Papa Gino's, and they drink lots of Pepsi.''
Photographer Jim Higgins and his wife, Joan Ross, a designer, first came up with the idea for the book while working on another project, documenting the resurrection of the city of Lowell. Meanwhile, more and more Southeast Asian families were flooding into the city. ``It's just been an explosion in the last three years,'' Mr. Higgins says.
Photographing people here wasn't easy; it took time to establish trust. Because most of the people work such long hours, most of the pictures were taken on Sundays: ``We had to catch them between two jobs,'' Higgins says.
One photograph shows a little girl wrapped in a towel in a bathroom, under a poster that reads, ``We Pamper Party Clothes.''
``We had heard that housing conditions were pretty bad,'' Higgins says. ``We were walking up the stairs and we heard splashing in the hall. . . . There was no electricity; she had to keep the door open so she could see.''
Another photo shows a little boy holding his baby sister; behind them, glistening plastic covers the walls. Higgins and Ms. Ross asked the mother why: ``Her son had gotten lead poisoning, and she was so afraid, that she had covered the walls,'' Higgins explains.
Communication was another problem. ``The children would interpret a lot for us,'' Ross says. ``When they were in Southeast Asia, the elderly were always the most respected. The older child has a lot of respect. Then when they get to this country, the parents are dependent on the children for information.
``It's like a sense of helplessness. . . . When an American comes in and shows any concern they really open up,'' Higgins says.
``Pran says he's one of the survivors, and his story is one of many. We talked to many people who had horrible experiences that equal his under the Khmer Rouge. I think it builds a very strong character.''