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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Memories of the Cambodian Border -- Part II

I cannot say I saw the Cambodian tragedy happening "on the ground", as they like to say in  the State Department.  However, I saw its close after effects, and they were bad enough. The DP camps just inside Thailand were full of the maimed, stunted, dazed, and fearful; perhaps lacking in the starving because the international community, for once at its best, saw to it that starvation did not happen, and at least some of the ravages of disease were checked. Its effects on the people of Cambodia could not but elicit sympathy.  But it provided quite an education.

Much of my work involved interviewing Cambodian DP's for humanitarian parole into the USA.  This was a provision to reunite families divided when, in 1975, some Cambodians were allowed into the USA as refugees following the Communist Victory. Of course, there was little documentation to substantiate relationships, but after a certain date, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (since replaced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement) started asking resettled Cambodian refugees for detailed family trees.  These we used to determine whether the person in front of the interviewing officer was indeed related to the anchor person in the USA.

The process was pretty straightforward.  Groups of DP's were brought from the camps to a house rented in Aranyaprathet, Thailand, and allowed to wait under a large, circus tent-like structure until interviewed, and then at the end of the day return to the camps to either start packing for the trip to the USA or mope if denied.  Not knowing the Khmer language, I depended heavily on an able young Cambodian-born woman most lately from Virginia.  However, I quickly learned the words "Bat", "Otde", and "Salap", meaning "Yes", "No", and "dead" respectively.

The last was a sobering word to learn.  Of course I had known about the killing fields of Cambodia for some time.  Yet the people I interviewed had lived through them.  Often, when we asked for their precise relationships to persons listened in their US anchors' A-files, they would misunderstand and think we were seeking the status of the person named.  Hence, I often heard the word "Salap".  In numerous cases, this led to the realization that the large, extended clans given by the anchors had often been decimated during the years of the Democratic Kampuchea regime and civil war that followed the 1978 Vietnamese invasion.

In addition to Thai, which I had been taught for my service in Bangkok, I was a fairly competent Chinese linguist at the time, and anyone who seemed to be Sino-Cambodian tended to be sent my way.  Sure, I'm old enough to remember when Americans thought that all Far Eastern peoples looked alike; but persons of Chinese descent tended to be easy to pick out from a crowd of other DP's.  Whereas the indigenous Khmer tended to be brown, with large, sometimes deep-set eyes, broader noses, and sometimes wavy or curly hair, the Chinese descent of many Cambodian town-dwellers sometimes left fair skins and smaller eyes.  When such people were spotted, someone might send them to my interviewing table.

One such young Sino-Thai male came to my table, and we soon established that he was indeed the younger brother of a waiter living in Portland, Oregon, who had made it to the USA in 1975. He had learned Mandarin from a Taiwanese organization working among former Cambodian Overseas Chinese; although like so many others of his demographic, he was more comfortable with either Khmer or Teochiu.  Of the large, complex extended family described by the brother in Portland, the only survivors were the anchor and the young man in front of me. The case seemed rather straightforward, and had the young man not belonged to a group eligible for resettlement in the USA, any official connected with the immigration system would've immediately pegged him as someone likely to seek whatever possible employment might come his way should he enter the US.  Hence, I waived any affadavit of support (a document that is signed often and seldom honored in most cases), and signed off on the case. 

The near-total extermination of the two brothers' family was chillingly common among Sino-Cambodians and Muslims.  Despite many of the Khmer Rouge leadership belonging to the former and sponsorship of the Cambodian Communists by Mao's China, the Sino-Cambodians were targeted for extermination because they tended to be townspeople, disproportionately educated past the elementary grades, and disproportionately likely to wear glasses. I suspect that perhaps to many sent their youngsters to Taiwan for education following Lon Nol's coup, which might have made them all the more odious.  As for the Muslims, they tended to belong to either the Cham or Malay ethnic groups, perhaps a little less pliable than Buddhists about hiding their religion, and hence another target.  However, I saw few of them.

A few cases after I sent off the lone Sino-Cambodian youth to rejoin his long-lost brother in the States, a family group consisting of an elderly grandmother, parents, and several small children approached. Their lighter skins, build, and small eyes made me suspect more Sino-Cambodians, so I wrote out on a piece of paper and said in Mandarin, "你们会不会讲中文?" ("nimen huibuhui jiang Zhongwen?--Can you speak Chinese?).  In unison, the whole family looked shocked and horrified and stepped back in terror with the "Uh-oh, he's found us out!" attitude. They loudly protested that they were 100% northwest Cambodian ethnic Khmer peasants, and knew no language other than Khmer. I therefore told my interpreter that she couldn't take her coffee break, for I'd need her.

Well, I was satisfied that the father was connected to two brothers in the USA, and that he and his wife would probably be ensconced in restaurant or retail sales following entry into the USA, and thus signed off on this case as well.

At the end of the day, I exited our interviewing site with my group of American officials, and walked past the shaded "bull pen" where the interviewees were waiting for the buses that would return them to Site B, Site 2, and other camps.  The young man with the brother in Portland saw me, walked over to the rope, and thanked me profusely in Mandarin.  I shook his hand, explained that I was only doing my job, and wished him good luck in the US.

A few yards away stood the grandmother from family group, tending one of her grandchildren.  As she witnessed my conversation with the other Sino-Cambodian, her jaw dropped in utter stupefaction.

I could not blame her.  My father's family were Jews from Central Europe, many of whom perished in the Shoah; and I'm sure any that survived were very careful to hide their ethnicity.  Perhaps the old grandmother hadn't quite fathomed that, whatever might have been the attitude of the Cambodian Communists, there were parts of the world where having been born an ethnic Chinese shopkeeper's daughter was not a crime.

In any event, I have never before or since, seen anyone who looked so sheepish.

Memories off the Cambodian Border -- Part One

The Land Rover with US Diplomatic plates bumped over the dirt road through the xerophytic forest along the Thai-Cambodian border, progressing eastwards from the border city of Aranyaprathet through the Thai Changwat of Surin, Buriram, and Sisaket.  Two officers of AmEmbassy Bangkok--Uncle Cephas and his senior colleague--sat in luxurious, air-conditioned comfort sipping cool, bottled beverages as they discussed their assignment of reporting on conditions in border camps for Cambodian displaced persons.  A plump, cheerful Thai Foreign Service National employee whom I will dub Khun Somchai for the sake of the narrative negotiated the potholes and clouds of laterite dust.  Occasionally, we would pass an irrigation ditch in which laughing, healthy, olive-brown children merrily splashed away the shimmering dry season heat, a few boasting briefs, others (generally male) completely naked.

The forest broke to reveal a clearing in which stood a simple baan, or house, built of wood, bamboo, and thatch standing on sturdy wooden piles.  A long clothesline extended from the house to a nearby tree, sporting a colorful array of drying laundry suiting every member of the household.  A telephone antenna perched on a bamboo pole swayed lazily over the roof, while electrical wire ran from a utility pole to power the house's utensils.  Underneath, where yesteryear's water buffalo would have sheltered, a small, red pickup truck was parked.

At that point, my senior colleague grew uneasy, noted the absence of road signs, and asked a question of the driver.

"Khun Somchai, how can we be sure we haven't driven across the border?"

After all, it was 1991, and civil war was still raging inside Cambodia, where the mines lay thick on the ground, and a carload of US diplomatic personnel that was supposed to be in Thailand blowing up inside Cambodia would be a messy international incident.

Further, language would not have distinguished the people on the two sides of the border.  Most of the inhabitants were either ethnic Khmer or Soay and spoke those languages at home and in their villages, with those on the Thai side having learned the Thai of Bangkok in school and from media, and those on the Cambodian side having acquired that same language out of the necessity of getting access to the only functioning economy in the area.

Khun Somchai, blessed with the good-natured smile that seems the birthright of every Thai, was quick with his reply.  "You saw that house back there.  If we run across one that has only a quarter of the laundry, no TV, and no truck, we'll know we're in Cambodia and will have to turn around."

Perhaps a mile after the next fork in the road, a brown-clad, heavily armed man with all the badges and insignia that marked a member of the Aw Saw, or Thai Border Police, stepped out of the underbrush and hastened to flag us down.  He gave the typical polite wai of greeting, then pointed to a tree scarcely a hundred yards away:

"Bai mai dai, khrap!  Mai nan yu Khameen!"--"You can't procede!  That tree is in Cambodia!"

A little more give-and-take between the Aw Saw and Khun Somchai revealed that a week earlier, guerrillas--whether Democratic Kampuchea, Sihanoukhist, or the Sonn Sann faction is immaterial--had laid out mines in the road.  Hence, I felt very thankful to a merciful Providence that the Aw Saw had just happened to reach that point on his rounds at that time.  Otherwise, I could have been blown to smithereens; and if not killed instantly, probably left lying in agony in the twisted wreckage of the Land Rover with nobody knowing or caring until it would have been way too late.

Back on the right road, we ultimately reached a town to meet up with a member of UNBRO--the United Nations Border Relief Organization--a group separate from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and set up to allay the Royal Thai Government's unease with declaring the Cambodians "refugees" rather than "displaced persons".  Compared to the larger organization, it was an efficient, well-run outfit with its ear to the ground and ready to report any problem to both the Thai and international authorities.  It was also necessary for us to deal with them, for while we were free to deal face to face with internal administrations of DP Camps that were of the Sihanouk and Sonn San factions, we could deal with the Democratic Kampuchea people (Pol Pot's people) only under UN escort--and this was necessitated from time to time due to the US government's donations of vegetable oil and its humanitarian concerns over whether the camp populations were being abused in any way.

Well, normalcy genrally prevailed in the camp, which was called OTrao, even though it had been the seen in the past of DP's being moved back over the border to serve as porters for the Democratic Kampuchea faction and sometimes summarily executed.  DPs managed an in-camp economy, which, thankfully, did not include too egregious siphoning off of US-donated food aid.

However, there were Democratic Kampuchea troops on R&R in the camp--the very faction that had killed between one quarter and one third of the Cambodian population during the time it had held power (1975-1978). I was face to face with the very people who had given the world the killing fields, alhtough, thankfully, these soldiers were not armed at the time. The DK men were physically small and quiet, impeccably uniformed in Chinese-style olive drab. None spoke as camp officials spoke with the UNBRO people through an interpreter, but they watched us nonetheless.

And it was then that I suddenly developed a belief in zombies.  Yes, the camps were full of people fatigued beyond endurance from the horrors of war, famine, disease, the loss of loved ones, and displacement.  Yet these physically small, quiet men were more blank-faced and emotionless as slaughtered cattle, despite their being able to move and breathe. There eyes were, perhaps, the most perfect blanks of any I had ever seen.  Perhaps it was the strain of recent fighting, perhaps there actually was something soul-killing about participation in gruesome atrocities, perhaps a combination of the two.  Either way, these men seemed to be more of the netherworld than of that of the living.

Mao Zedong had told Pol Pot (aka Saloth Sar), their leader, that he was accomplishing things of which Mao himself had only dreamed.  Quite an admission from a ruler whose political victims numbered several tens of millions, and whose visionary programs trained a generation of Chinese to accept state-imposed suffering while beguiling and dazzling gullible Western intellectuals. Pol Pot himself, as well as his henchman Khieu Samphan, were themselves products of the best education the French Left could provide its erstwhile colonials, and were themselves working out a variant of the Marxist vision adapted to a Third World agrarian country.  And they had brought little save a vicious cycle of want, misery, violence, and death.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dogmeat in Liannan -- repeat

Uncle Cephas now revisits a memoir of his short and inglorious diplomatic career.

Ages ago, your host once had the honor of serving in Uncle Sam's "striped pants brigade"--even if the only stripes he had on his pants were on the boxers underneath the dress trousers.  This service to his country led me to the city of Guangzhou, the vibrant hub of the Ling Nan region of China, which consists of the provinces of Guangdong and Hainan, plus the Guangxi Zhuang Auntonomous Region.

While some of my recollections are safely tucked away with various levels of classification in the archives of the State Department, returning to the teaching profession and encountering some of the attitudes prevalent among my colleagues, including those who write the curricula with which I must sometimes swindle my charges and their families, I've decided to dust off memory and re-tell some of my experiences, only stripped of information which might harm others.

Since I teach ESOL,among other things, I have sat through certification seminars on various aspects of linguistics and language policies.  In the latter, I have heard the People's Republic of China praised as a model of accommodation of ethnic and linguistic minorities.  After all, 56 diffferent people groups are recognized as official national minorities, and the development of their languages and cultures are supposedly encouraged.  However, the real story is that, as with every other society, much of what is done in and by the Chinese Communist government is actually for ease of administration rather than to accommodate and care for segments of the population. 

For example, are the Lakkja of Guangxi really Yao, when the languages usually classed as Yao are of the Hmong-Mien family (constituting the Mien part of the group), when Lakkia turns out to be Thai-Kadai?  Apparently, the Lakkja were, in ages past, subject to Yao chieftains, hence they belong to the Yao "nationality".  But, shouldn't a revolutionary socialist regime pay scant regard to tribal or "feudal" (after all, China's historical narrative had to be battered into conformity with what Marx said had to be the case) ties forged in a benighted past?  Or, why are Manzhou and Xibe classed as separate peoples, when their languages are mostly mutually intelligible (at least, the half-dozen or so surviing speakers of Manzhou are reported to be able to follow speakers of Xibe)?
I can understand why mutually unintelligible languages like Mandarin, Cantonese, Minnan, Wu, Mindong, and Hakka are called "dialects", when they vary as much as French and Rumanian, since their speakers are all from the ancient Hua-Xia ethnoc and culture, a little bit like Western Europe never letting go of the imperial Roman identity, and reducing French, Galician, Italian, and Castillian to "dialects" of something they would insist on calling "Latin".

But I've digressed too far, when my real purpose is to set the record strait on China and its minorities.

Occasionally, junior officers would be called on to carry briefcases, take notes, and write up cables on the journeys of their superiors to meet with the Chinese movers and shakers of the consular district.  One such trip was to an autonomous county inhabited by the Yao, a "colorful" highland people whom I had encountered before among the hill tribes of Thailand's Golden Triangle and among refugees from Communist Laos. Come to think of it, thanks to many of them having fought on the wrong side of the long Lao Civil War (like their distant Hmong cousins), there are now Yao living in the USA, too.

The first sight of the Yao was along one of the roads leading into the Autonomous County.  Three heavily burdened Yao--two women and one man--shuffled along under enormous loads of firewood carried on tumplines.  They were short, brown, very weathebeaten-looking and clad in traditional homespun, including the dirty red turban and sash of the man.  This was in marked contrast to the Yao of northern Thailand, who, in their jeans and t-shirts, couldn't be picked out from any other ethnos frequenting the Chiengmai night market, unless one was with a linguist who could eavesdrop on snatches of their conversation. While one might praise the Yao of upland Ling Nan for their "authenticity", conversations with various persons soon revealed that the real reason for their maintenance of traditional garb was that back in those days before the Far East's new prosperity had penetrated too far inland into Mainland China, a child's simple store-bought dress might put a Yao peasant family back several months' earnings.  Hence, the traditional homespun remained in fashion.

But, there was another angle.  In northern Thailand, I had discovered that classical Chinese was a sort of liturgical language to the local Yao, whose religion was actually a mix of Daoism and Mahayana Buddhism not too different from that of the various Han groups of Ling Nan such as the Cantonese and Hakka.  Hence, I was able to read a booklet about the ancestral deity Pan Hu, a talking dog.  The occasional piece of anthropological literature I'd seen also made mention of a cult of a dog ancestor.

Well, in the Autonomous County, I hit it off well with the Han deputy magistrate (the magistrate, or xian zhang [县长] was a Yao, but didn't seem to say much).  After all, I had a smattering of Hakka dialect from my years in Taoyuan and Hsinchu counties in Taiwan as well as Putonghua, and the deputy magistrate happened to be Hakka.  I asked the deputy magistrate whether the local Yao observed the dog ancestor cult.  Apparently, something went amiss in either transmission or reception, and, in reply, I received a lecture how in the dark days before Liberation, the Han had despised the Yao, wrote the Hanzi for the Yao with the dog radical, but with the glorious advent of the People's Republic, that had all changed, all were equal,and the Yao ethnonym was now written with the human radical. Looking for items of ethnographic interest, I got simply the ritualized official "line".

Passing a row of newish, albeit Spartan, rural housing, the deputy magistrate conspiratorially whispered that the Yao peasants still lived with their livestock.  "Very backwards! 好落后吧"  However, I maintained my diplomatic presence of mind and refrained from observing that the Hanzi for "home" or "family" in Chinese--Jia 家--represents a pig under a roof.  Perhaps it was that I had already uttered one gaffe, and did not wish to add another; perhaps it was because I didn't have the heart to go on and explain as well how many white Americans claimed descent from what my mother called "pig-in-the-parlor Irish".

Well, things generally went well.  My senior colleague was fairly certain he'd name the deputy magistrate as someone to go on an exchange visit to the States. There was an official banquet back at the Xian government offices.  It featured a lot of free-flowing mao tai, braised palm civet, and a number of other delicacies.  But, we had hit it off so well with the deputy magistrate that he insisted on treating us to the sort of hospitality he liked; an informal late night snack at a local place run by a bunch of other Hakka-speaking Han folk in the area.

My senior colleague, who was manfully fighting back the effects of an already sufficient dose of mao tai, turned vaguely green as we approached the open eatery.  On a slab of concrete, a woman squatted over the freshly killed corpse of a smallish dog, busily removing the hair from its skin.  The Hanzi on the shop clearly indicated that the specialty of the house was dog braised with turnip; and the deputy magistrate, our congenial host, praised the dish to the skies. In fact, it was an excellent dish.  While Uncle Cephas prefers beef, pork, or mutton braised with turnips, the dog meat tasted a bit like something between pork and mutton, although a little more intense than either.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm an animal lover.  I raised cats when I was a boy, and I've always liked dogs, albeit as long as they were somebody else's responsibility.  But, one of the "things" about diplomatic life is that you don't insult your hosts by shouting "eeeeeuw" like an eight-year-old girl at a well-intentioned dinner. And it just so happens that for almost all of the Han groups of southernmost China--Cantonese, Hakka, Teochiu, Hoklo, Hokkien, whatever--whether on the Mainland, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, dog is a delicacy.

And it was during the repast, with the mao tai flowing freely, that Uncle Cephas inadvertently got his answer to the status of the dog ancestor cult among the Yao of Ling Nan.

The deputy magistrate's driver and security chief were both local Yao.  While the Hua-Xia and Western cultures exchanged jokes and toasts, these two men sat motionless and silent, their hands at their sides, their heads bowed, and their down-turned lips looking as if--in the words of Mrs. Cephas' Hakka-speaking Taiwanese folk--three catties of pork were suspended from them.  I honestly and truly felt bad that I was enjoying myself when these two hard-working men, whom I, by my very presence in their bailiwick, had kept from going home to their families, were probably feeling as if I were urinating on their ancestral graves. Indeed, I felt bad about the sadness of my fellow human beings (even though I am an Evangelical Christian, and the Yao driver and security man were clearly "heathens") throughout the following day all throughout the drive back to the Consulate.

So, I suppose, even among dialectical materialist Communist Party members, the cult of the dog ancestor remains alive and well among the Yao of Ling Nan.  And  I guess that the Party's manuals for cadre among national minorities do not explain how to show proper respect to traditional, "pre-scientific" beliefs.

I wonder.  Do the Yao think that the modern Communist's totem animal is the ape?

In our world of flux various cultures rise, flourish, decline, and disappear. Those that flourish best are those whose members value them enough to preserve and celebrate them even in a rising sea of a more dominant culture.  Probably, the use of government bureaucracy and subsidy to preserve them will result in nothing more than keeping various tribes living museum pieces in the care of well-meaning government functionaries who will remain outsiders and may or may not possess sufficient anthropological sensitivity--but for whom the ease of administration will surely trump all other considerations.