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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


A couple of weeks ago, I visited a Cambodian-American friend in the Bay Area. We spent a whole day together, starting with breakfast at my Airbnb. During and after breakfast we had a long talk about some of the events of Chantha's early life, particularly during the Khmer Rouge regime. Then we drove to San Leandro to visit with his sister and her husband who own a donut shop, a niche many Cambodian immigrants have filled in the US. Afterwards we had lunch and a walk along the beach in Alameda.
It was on the way back to where I was staying in Berkeley that we had a discussion that gave me pause. Unconnected (in my recollection) to anything we'd talked about before, Chantha said, "There are people here who are taking down statues. Cambodian people don't approve. It's exactly what the Khmer Rouge did. They tried to erase history, to say everything is new now. We want only the new. And now the same thing is happening here."
Chantha's tone was passionate, and I felt pretty passionate myself. "Do you know why they're doing it?" I asked.
"Something to do with racism," he said, sounding dismissive to me.
"It's a little more than something to do with it," I said. "Those statues honor slave-owners and leaders who fought to keep slavery in place in the US. Honoring the perpetrators of so much damage still hurts people today who want them taken down. For many of them, the horrors of slavery happened to their ancestors––grandparents and great-grandparents."
"I know, but it's the same as what was done in the Pol Pot regime. They said, 'Everything is new now. History doesn't exist.' I don't want that happening here. Cambodian people don't want it happening here. We've been through it already."
"It's not exactly the same," I said. "This is coming from the people, who are protesting terrible injustice. It's not the government trying to cover things up."
Chantha said, "They should leave the statues there and put up a sign that tells the history, tells what happened. That way the statues can be used to educate people."
I started to see his point, but I didn't want to. I had been in favor of the removal of Confederate statues and opposed to the idea that they should remain because they were part of history. I thought of how Germany removed swastikas from buildings and also statues of Hitler from their plinths; I was in agreement with that. Hitler is my reference point for extremism, racist destruction, and I asked Chantha, "What about statues of Hitler?" I probably should've asked about statues of Pol Pot.
"Same thing," he said. "Keep the statue. Put a sign there that educates people about the terrible things that were done."
I wanted to reject this idea but couldn't do it summarily. I told Chantha, "I disagree, but I can see your point, and it's worth thinking about." I haven't come further than that, and I want to pose the question to you, my readers:
What are your thoughts as your read this? What have you thought about the removal of statues in the US that honor slave-holders and Confederate leaders? 

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