by Phong Nguyen
I’m sitting in a classroom of boys, our forearms laid out on the L-shaped desks, pale sides up. My fingers are tucked into the palm and tensed, and my sleeve is pulled up to the elbow, as if waiting for a shot of adrenaline. This is what Teacher says, holding out his clenched hand in the same way: “Your heart is the size of your fist.”
The girls are sitting in neat rows in the next room, learning the functions of their bodies from an overhead projector. I can hear the whir of the fan and the drone of the tape player through the thin divider. For the boys, the teachers decided on a more interactive approach. Their idea is that we are active learners and need the feel of three-dimensional space in order to believe what we see. “This is what your insides look like,” Teacher says, opening the front of a plastic model of the human anatomy.
“Yum,” Chuck Wonicki says, sitting next to me, and a few kids chuckle. He’s got spiky blond hair and wears cologne. He keeps his backpack on the desk the whole class period, like he’s ready to take off at any second.
I was eleven when I witnessed my first execution. Around dawn, I returned from combat, shaking in my joints, numb in the face. I could not unflex my fingers. The Vietnamese troops had repelled the Khmer army under steady fire, taking almost half our number, and when the barrage broke, the anticipation of death was even more acute in the silent, deep night. There in Chau Doc, no one could tell us why a man was now kneeling on the dirt, his hair riot with blood, picked at by flies. No one said why they carved out his insides, emptying them onto the ground like spilled soup. It was a lesson in something, but no one knew what.
The organs in front of me now, carefully manufactured and glossed, look nothing like the outpour of blood and viscera that flowed from that man. They look clean and colorful and discrete, as though the human body were made to be labeled.
“If your intestines were stretched out, so that all the surface area were exposed, they would reach around the world,” says Teacher, holding up a diagram of the digestive system showing the ridges of villi and microvilli along the intestinal walls. “You could climb all the way down to China on your own intestines.” He laughs. Some of the kids look nervously back at the four of us.
“What you lookin’ at, fool?” my friend, Sen, says. He wears a sun visor, and he sports a skull earring that he bought at the flea market. “I ain’t from China.”
Before being taken to the camps, I lived in a village near the Thai border where fighting was rare. My father was a music teacher who’d retreated into village life after our mother was committed, and he could no longer stand to see his kids playing in the streets with the children of gangsters. He could not have predicted that the new gangsters would be from villages like ours—that we would be the new gangsters.
He spent evenings patiently teaching me, his eldest son, to play the tro—a two-string fiddle that he could coerce to sound like flutes, drums, and voices. “Once you learn the tro,” he told me, “your ears are attuned to melody, and even birds and dogs sound like music.”
My sisters were all singers, but only Teva learned to play the tro with me. Chann started on the khim, but he was young and wouldn’t remember anyway. There were also foreign instruments from my father’s travels in Europe. Ten different kinds of violins and fifty books of music filled his house—a retreat from the school and the daily trials of propaganda.
In 1975, the beginning of history on the revolutionary calendar, the Khmer Rouge decided to quicken the deaths of foreign-speaking scholars. They burned all of our books and instruments along with my father’s body, freshly dead. Years later, in America, when I saw a man destroy his own electric guitar on TV, I became sick with anger.
Speaking in Cambodian, Arn points out that the skeleton in the corner of the health classroom is a white man’s. Sen says that a white man would be ashamed to appear dead without pearly-white teeth. I point out that the whole bone structure has been bleached, because a white skeleton is more attractive than a brown-and-yellow one.
We talk in rounds, each listening for our moment in the rhythm of the conversation. When I first came here, the customs official gave a long speech about local etiquette; since then, I’ve often heard people, on TV and at school, go on in this way for great lengths of time. Perhaps this is why they say we are quiet people—we are waiting for our turn to speak.
On the straw-brown earth we paced the wire perimeter. We smoked cigarettes, but could not talk. We were spoken to by loudspeakers. Before fighting for the revolution, we were made to understand the doctrines of the new society. Men and women are instruments of the state. Free agency is a counterrevolutionary idea bred by generations of imperialism. All titles and honorifics are forbidden—
even terms of endearment, which show favoritism to one’s family—and everyone henceforward will be referred to as a mit, a comrade.
If your sister survives into the new regime, a friend told me, and you see her again after the camps, you are expected to call her mit. But none of my sisters lived through the purges.
Teacher says that by laughing during anatomy class we’re showing how uncomfortable we are with our bodies. And we’re showing disrespect for his classroom. But the words just sound funny to us—like the names of alien civilizations: medulla oblongata, angular gyrus, fallopian tubes. What they refer to, far as I can tell, is as mysterious as the names they’ve been given.
Teacher’s sense of humor is like this: “And I know you guys will like this one—” Pointing to the inside of his arm, he says, “The humerus! Our funny bone.” We know bones. That much is familiar.
Outside our window, the track team runs in circles.
In the camps, there was a name for what afflicted us: “memory sickness.” We were haunted by residual thoughts of comfort and family. Decadence distracted us from the purity of revolution. Particularly bad cases of memory sickness were considered untreatable.
The infection could only be stopped by the death of its host. This is a lesson that we brought to America. Comfort kills.
But the cured were given guns and the privilege of using them on the enemies of Khmer. I lay among them every night, hearing strains of melody in the still-afflicted regions of my brain. Bombs making music over our heads.
By the time Teacher rolls a condom over the tip of a banana, the class has separated into fifteen different conversations, all of which are, at least, on the subject of human anatomy. As the steady hum of the film projector continues next door, I can sense his strength wearing down. The look is familiar to me—the eyes seem to wear their lids like hats and the chin barely holds in the jaw. The shoulders yield more to gravity. The arms lose their animation.
In the din of thirty voices cracking with hormones, he moves past us to the back of the room and flips on the film projector. The screen shows a doctor calmly explaining the mechanics of breath. Over the most basic part of our brain we exert no conscious control.
Hearts beat and lungs aspirate without our volition. In this way, he says, we are exactly like machines.
During the war, my father said: “America takes over your land and says that you are free. Cambodia gives weapons to half of its people and says that everyone is equal.”
In the camp, an older boy slipped up while repeating the party dictum, accidentally using the older, French slogan “Egalité.” He was shot through the eye. I think of this when I hear the word equality, no matter how much I remind myself what it is supposed to mean. I was eleven, and the only thing I knew was that, if there were two equalities, my equality would be the one holding the gun.
Chuck Wonicki turns toward me in the half-dark and says, “Dude, you stink.” I look back at him, reading the mock disgust on his face. He’s a kid trying out toughness, seeing how it feels to control another person. I almost want to warn him. How consuming such power can be.
Instead, I point at the filmstrip like I’m too wrapped up in the respiratory system to give a shit what he says.
“Why don’t you smack that bitch?” Sen says to me. “He just said you stink, man. He’s talkin’ like he know you.”
“I know,” I say with a shrug.“Man, if you don’t smack him, I’ll fuckin’ do it.” Sen stands up. Part of his shoulder and collar cast shadows on the screen.
Our anatomy instructor, Mr. Merrick, a gym teacher three times Sen’s size, acts as if he isn’t there. He’s an ex-hippie, a health nut, who coaches the rock-climbing team. But he must know ex-vets too—men for whom killing is a rote process, like arithmetic. A simple matter of subtraction.
Sen shouts at Chuck in street Cambodian, “Play dead, bitch. If you talk, I’ll beat you till you can’t move, because dead men shouldn’t be talking. But if you sit there like a good corpse, I’ll leave you alone, ’cause you’re just another fuckin’ body.”
In the harshness of that minute, while the film runs on about respiration,
everyone is bilingual, understanding Sen’s words as though they were meant for the whole class, which passes the moment silently and begins to understand our silence too.
To shift the focus of the class, I pull out a Lucky Strike and ignite it, sucking in the harsh unfiltered air. The light between the projector and the screen is suddenly cloudy and visible.
“Roth,” Mr. Merrick says to me in his most temperate, teacherly voice, “go and see Vice Principal Edwards right now. And put that cigarette out. This is health class, dammit.”
For weeks we made tracks across the country, patrolling the border,
installing local overseers from the Red Army. At every stop, I wanted to be one of those left behind, but each time I was herded in with the other soldiers instead. We were kids from the country, every one of us, and all we knew how to do was tend crops and tame animals. I knew how to handle a tro better than I could fire an assault rifle. As a unit, we seemed to be chasing death, and only by accident did it elude our capture for so long.
When we reached Chau Doc we fortified ourselves and prepared for a skirmish with the Vietnamese, but we found the town already emptied. It had been used as a military post, then as a supply station, then abandoned. We settled there because we were told to, but once anchored I began to feel that maybe chasing death was not quite so bad as spending the nights waiting for it.
If our troop had not killed a Vietnamese for days, Commander Meng would find someone near him to blame. Even the Red Army was not immune. Calling us all together, he would shout, “Who are the useless ones among you? Who is holding back the revolution? Who is weak and fearful? Who can I kill without regret?”
In Providence, I learned the virtue of standing out. More than happiness even, it seemed, everyone desired to stand out. Boys wore patches and brand names. Girls wore glitter and big earrings. For sports, everyone wanted to be exceptional, conspicuous, and heroic—the first to be chosen for the team. In my home country, you never wanted to be picked out of a line.
Nowadays, I don’t have a choice. I have succeeded, without effort, at what people here strive for. “The pathology of America,” my history teacher says, “is to simultaneously yearn to be different and despise those who are different.”
In the vice principal’s office, I unsling my backpack and fall into a chair. I scan the room for a magazine or pamphlet—but there isn’t even a poster. Out of boredom, I dig out my book for English class and start in on the homework—a book called Lord of the Flies. It’s all about kids stranded on an island who have to live on their own until the adults come to save them. In the meantime, they revert to a tribal state and everything pretty much turns to hell. It’s a quick read, and a lot better than most of the other stuff they’re pushing in school. But as I’m reading I keep wondering what happens after it ends. Like, what do they do once they’re saved from the island? What happens when the wild ones return home to their English manors?
I couldn’t escape, until they built a wall. When the perimeter was unmarked, running had seemed impossible, but now that I could see the barrier, I also saw how easy it would be to surmount it. For a long time I only cast longing looks, as though a mere flirtation would consummate my escape. But I had no thought of doing it alone, at first, so I had to broach the subject with other soldiers in subtle and shadowy ways.
During the monsoon season, I approached a boy a little older than me who had a gentle, girl’s face and a war-weary voice. “The rain looks like it’ll last a while, comrade. You want to seek shelter?” I asked him, although we were already covered from the rain in our enclosure. He responded with a look that was naked of feeling, either solicitous or treacherous. Then he glanced at the command post the way I’d been glancing at the wall: longingly. Just a movement of the eyes, but it was telling. For turning me in, he would have been rewarded, and I would have been killed. There are two equalities.
If the missionaries were right and there is such a thing as hell, I know that I could survive there. You must store up all your evils and repent for them later, when you are not beset by so much killing—and fear of being killed. For now you must stay alive long enough to know such leisure. Some sinners confess on their deathbeds. Some sinners confess on Sundays. But most of us live with chronic pangs of conscience like migraines. All I know is that no one is guiltless.
Vice Principal Edwards busts in with my Lucky Strikes in a plastic
bag. I know he’s putting on an act, but I’ve never fully cast off my fear of authority.
“Hey, boy, you know what you did?” He looks even more serious
than when he’s speaking in the auditorium. His face is as red as his hair.
“Kid?” he says. His usual routine is to call you Mr. So-and-so, so I thought maybe he didn’t have a handle on the pronounciation.After a silence I manage to ask, “What?”
“Do you know what you did?”
As we enter another drawn-out silence, I almost want to break apart, to unburden myself on him—not just my James Dean moment in the middle of third period, but the whole confluence of moments before it: the heaviness of the guns in our hands; the rice we seized from our comrades, the farmers; the awkward smiles we wore during executions, to prove that we were immune to indulgences of sympathy.“
I lit a cigarette,” I finally answer.
“You broke the law,” he says. “You’re not in Danang now, kid. You can’t just do any fool thing you want.”
“Who’s from Danang?” I say.
“Don’t try to patronize me, son,” he says, sliding the Lucky Strikes across the table. Then he says something sharp in Vietnamese, which sends an electric coil down my back and settles in my groin, where, no matter what anatomy says, a soldier feels his mortal fears. A host of unwilling memories comes over me, and I start to go faint. My vision blackens at the edges. But I remain strangely conscious.
Vice Principal Edwards is quick to fill the silence with his judgment: a mandatory two-week suspension. “Smoke that,” he says, like it’s a one-liner in a movie and this is his moment. I notice he’s left the pack of cigarettes on the table, as if daring me to take another one.
After he leaves the room, I right myself on the chair and go back to my reading. He might haunt me, but when he looks at me I know he’s haunted too. The thought of it makes me less lonely.
I don’t ever talk about what happened after the monsoon, because the things I remember are not the things that people talk about. If they ask, I’ll tell them about “triumph over adversity” instead. If they probe, I’ll say how I “struggled nobly” for “freedom,” against all the odds. What I will not do is talk about the long walk to America, because children lay dead on the side of the road, and I was happy not to be one of them. And because someday I might have to escape again, and I do not want you to know how I can be caught.
Phong Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American writer, teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and edits its literary journal, The Cream City Review. He is at work on a collection of short fiction set in Providence, Rhode Island. “Memory Sickness” is part of the series, as are stories forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review and Rosebud. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Village of Whitefish Bay. (4/2006)