Exhibition tells story of those who return

A photo of Sophy, who moved to Massachusetts as a child and is now an actor in Cambodia. ‘I walk into a room here or in America and they automatically assume I’m from somewhere else,’ he told van Kemenade. Photo supplied
A photo of Sophy, who moved to Massachusetts as a child and is now an actor in Cambodia. ‘I walk into a room here or in America and they automatically assume I’m from somewhere else,’ he told Erik van Kemenade. Photo supplied

Family history and identity lie at the heart of a new exhibition opening tonight by Erik van Kemenade, an exploration of the homecoming of second generation Cambodians whose parents fled the Khmer Rouge.

Those Who Came Back is an intimate look in the lives of 25 Cambodians who have returned to the country after spending most of their life abroad, most in Western countries. The photos are taken in each person’s favourite place in Cambodia, and are accompanied by short interviews about their lives.

“Along the way, I got struck by the variety of stories and how the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge uniquely unfolded for second generation children,” says van Kemenade. In particular, he points out the story of Sophy.

Born in Cambodia near the end of the Khmer Rouge, Sophy moved to Massachusetts in the United States at the age of 5.

“[Sophy] describes [how] Khmer people started drinking, dealing with their trauma, and having issues with it, although it didn’t happen with his family,” says van Kemenade.

“As a kid he said that while America was big, [his world] was so small, because he would never leave. [He] was basically working all the time to save money. I find this interesting, because in those circumstances, they don’t have much choices.”

He describes three paths open to Cambodians: college, the Army, or getting sucked into criminal activity.

As much as the project is the story of returning Cambodians, it is also personal. Van Kemenade himself is half-Khmer, and his mother also left Cambodia on the eve of the Khmer Rouge takeover, finding her way to Vietnam, and then later to the Netherlands, where she met his father.

“In every story I recognised bits and pieces that I can relate to from my own background,” he says. “I realised the interviews served as some sort of mirror of my own identity.”

He talks about straddling two cultures while growing up, never really understanding why his Cambodian mother was so different from his Dutch father, or other Dutch parents. It was only by coming back to Cambodia, and seeing his mother’s home country through his own eyes, that their relationship grew closer.

This idea of retracing roots and finding Cambodian identity runs through the exhibition. As Poramy, a Khmer-Australian lawyer, says: there is a “generational gap but also a cultural gap”.

“I think it’s important for our generation to know the history and origins of our parents in order to know ourselves,” says van Kemenade. “In that sense, if this exhibition helps other people with a full or half-Khmer background to make that easier, I achieved more than I could have wished for.”

Those Who Came Back opens at Meta House tonight at 6pm, and will be shown from December 7-15.