This reading comes from the resource Choosing to Participate.
How much do you know about the people you go to school with? Where have they come from? What challenges have they overcome? What have they achieved? What stories do they have to tell? What do they know about you?
Arn Chorn had a terrible story to tell but could not tell it. When Arn arrived in the United States he was 15 years old and already the survivor of the Cambodian Genocide. Arn’s childhood was interrupted when the Khmer Rouge, a fanatical communist movement led by Pol Pot, overthrew the government of Cambodia and systematically tore apart the country–targeting minorities, artists, educated people, and the middle class for re-education and death. The population of the cities was forcibly relocated to communal farms where soldiers of the government brutally enforced the new order. Ordinary Cambodians starved while others were worked to death. Many people from outside of Cambodia offered aide, but the Khmer Rouge turned away their offers.
Arn remembers that at the age of nine he was forcibly separated from his own family and taken to a Khmer Rouge detention center. At the camp, a master musician taught Arn how to play the traditional wood Cambodian flute. After his teacher was killed, Arn was able to save his own life by performing propaganda songs for the soldiers. Arn remembers:
They let me play music for them, and I knew music could save my life, because the Khmer Rouge wanted to kill me also. . .[b]ecause I looked white, my fingers were long, and they thought I was from a rich family, so they wanted to kill me, but they couldn’t do that because I was out to play music for them, and I was good at it.1
As a young boy, Arn learned the rules of survival. After watching a friend killed for crying, Arn learned to close down his own emotions. He explains, “I literally learned how to feel nothing. I made myself numb. I made myself not feel anything. I shut myself completely.”2
After a quick revolution in 1974, the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia and began to expel to the countryside hundreds of thousands of professionals, intellectuals, members of ethnic minorities, and those suspected of connections with the former government of with the West. As many as 1.7 million of them died.
Before long, he was forced into action as a child soldier, defending the very regime that ripped him from his own family. Arn was one of thousands of young people used by the Khmer Rouge to fight in their war against Vietnam. He remembers:
I wanted to escape from the Khmer Rouge, but I knew they would kill me if I tried. I thought my life couldn’t get any worse, but when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, the Khmer Rouge gave me an AK-47 and put me on the frontlines of battle. I was 14 years old. All the boys around me were getting their heads blown off. . . and I just couldn’t take it anymore. So I ran away from the Vietnamese, and I ran away from the Khmer Rouge. I ran off by myself into the jungle. I had no food to eat, I eat barks, I follow the monkey. Whatever they eat, I eat. I was very lonely. After a few months, I found my way across the border to Thailand.3
By luck and chance, Arn made his way to a refugee camp along the Thai border. There he met Peter Pond, a Unitarian-Universalist minister from New Hampshire. Pond adopted Arn and several other Cambodian children and brought them to their new home in the United States.
Arn’s home in rural New Hampshire was nothing like Cambodia. Not only was Arn among the first Cambodian refugees to come to the United States, but he and his brothers were the only non-white children at White Mountain Regional High School. Going to school was a difficult adjustment. Before the Khmer Rouge came to power Arn had attended a Buddhist school taught by monks. White Mountain High School was completely different. He remembers the swarm of students leaving classes “like bees.” They would pass in the hall, some saying nothing or just staring at him. Others tried to reach out and make friends with him, but Arn couldn’t understand them.
He didn’t speak English. In interviews for Choosing to Participate, Arn, his adopted mother, one of his school teachers, a classmate, and his principal remember the difficult transition to the school:
Shirley Pond: (Arn’s adoptive mother):. . .The New Hampshire kids weren’t sure of them. . . . They might know elaborate kung-fu kinds of things, and so they didn’t dare push too much. But one of them would say, “Hello, fried rice,” you know smart remarks....
Arn Chorn Pond: American kids love to do that and [are] very good, very good in doing that, in making fun of you, making face[s].
Pat Kelly (Arn’s principal): Some of the other kids sometimes would get them to do things that they weren’t supposed to...teenagers picking on other teenagers.... If there were racial slurs...I’m sure they faced that.... We had just come out of the Vietnam time period....There were still prejudices involved with Asian students.
Arn Chorn Pond: Before I became like a soccer star...they were making fun of me....You know they come put their arms, their hand on my head...they go bang, bang, bang and say “Arn, Arn, Arn”...and they laugh.
Suzanne Schott (Arn’s English teacher):...I heard on more than one occasion...that phrase “gook,” which I was appalled at....
Jeff Woodburn (one of Arn’s classmates):...You know there may have been slurs....People just didn’t know any better....
Arn Chorn Pond: It hurts. It’s very hurtful for me and I felt like nobody was on my side or something, and that’s enough...to get me crazy.4
One place where Arn fit in was on the soccer field. Arn became a soccer star, leading his school’s team to the state championship. In fact, he was so good that he became a target for people on the other teams. Jeff Woodburn explains, “He was just a lot better than most of us and other teams didn’t like that...I’m sure there were slurs, I’m sure he was knocked down.”
Arn remembers, “In Cambodia, in the jungle if somebody d[id] that to me, I [would] shoot them, that’s what the Khmer Rouge taught me....I was really happy and proud of myself that even though they hit me...I didn’t hit them back.”5
Despite his on-the-field successes, Arn still struggled in class. He day¬dreamed about life in Cambodia, [as a soldier] and of fighting and smelling blood. Unable to speak English, Arn could not tell others about the pressure that he felt. Arn recalls, “Some of the kids...really want[ed] to reach out to me, but the big problem was the language.”6
Pat Garvin, an ESL teacher, kept pushing Arn. She believed that Arn and his brothers “needed to speak in order to come alive again.” She explained, “There is more than just learning the language going on. This is a chance for them to pull themselves back together, pull all these stories and threads of their life back into a whole person.”7
Arn’s father, Peter Pond, pushed Arn as well. He encouraged Arn to share his story with others, not only for himself, but as a way of educating people about Cambodia. Arn’s first public speech was in front of 10,000 people at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York. Arn recalls, “That [speech] was really a kind of...turning point for me....I c[ould] speak now and people liked what I said....You c[ould] hear a pin drop there. And I cried...because, I felt like you had power....This...is very different from having power with guns. I feel power just standing there and talk[ing] for the first time....”8
I was able to speak out about my life. I feel better. I learn how to cry in public....[For] my first speech...I memorized the words by heart. Just, my name is Arn, my family [was] killed in Cambodia, a few words. And then there’s this little girl [with] blond hair, coming and hugged me very tight. She’s just about 10, about my age when I was in Cambodia, and she look[s] at me in the eyes. She said, “You know Arn, I’m sorry for what happened to you. I don’t wish anything [like that to] happen to anybody, to any children like that.” And she gave me a dollar, said “Here, one dollar, maybe you can help other children.” I never forgot that, because that made me feel very good...I think to myself that if I speak about it, there’s somebody who cares. It’s all in my head. Now it’s true. Now, everywhere I go, [I get even] stronger. I get standing ovations.9
As Arn began to speak more, he began to see himself differently: “I got it, that I need to involve young American kids to know about what I went through and they need to know about me, I need to know about them, we all didn’t know about each other.”10
Jeff Woodburn, Arn’s former classmate, believes that Arn had a tremendous impact on his community. Jeff explains, “What I would tell Arn if he was here today would be how much of an influence he’s had on so many people in this area. . . . He’s opened up the minds of a lot of people from my generation who. . . are [now]. . . more accepting of people who are different from us.”11
Today, Arn tells his audiences that everyone has a story to tell, including “the people next to you, [who] you didn’t even notice because you [were] too busy.” Arn explains that in school, “I was sitting next to a white boy. . . they didn’t notice. . . that I have a story to share. I didn’t know that he has a story to share either, so we didn’t share.”12
Inspired by the responses he received when he spoke, Arn, with the help of activist Judith Thompson, founded the group Children of War for children who were involved in war to come together, tell their stories, and speak out against injustice. His work didn’t stop there. Today, the former child soldier is dedicated to promoting peace and human rights. Arn seeks out ways to express the power of nonviolence to anybody who will listen, from diplomats to gang members to prisoners. In the late 1990s, Arn returned to Cambodia to see how he could help the country continue to repair from the scars left by the Khmer Rouge.
When he returns to the United States, Arn continues to speak about all that he has seen–from his experiences in Cambodia to his struggles as a refugee in New Hampshire to his role as a human rights activist who has traveled the world. Arn reminds young people that “you have a lot of stuff that you want to share....[T]he resources you have here, the love you have here, the freedom you have here, that’s a good thing and don’t take it for granted...a person will touch you and you will help millions. That’s what we should do in our life, so go like angels.”13
After hearing him speak, a high school student from Boston described the power of Arn’s message:
He told us about the suffering he went through and we really felt that we were right there with him...I’ve never heard anything in my whole life like this....[Y]ou really wanted to sit there and hug him and cry. He wasn’t a stranger any more after you heard what he had to say....He said my eyes may be different, my nose may be different, my mouth may be different, but the heart is the same, the soul is the same, and the feeling is the same. And, he made the point clearly that we are still one people.14
- 1 : Rachel Laskow, “The Power of Music,” Scholastic News, accessed on July 12, 2007.
- 2 : Rachel Laskow, “The Power of Music,” Scholastic News, accessed on July 12, 2007.
- 3 : Arn Chorn Pond, The Flute Player, VHS, by Jocelyn Glatzer (Boston: Over the Moon Productions, Inc., 2003).
- 4 : Arn Chorn Pond, Jeff Woodburn, Shirley Pond, Pat Kelly, and Suzanne Schott, Interview by Facing History and Ourselves, September 21, 2006.
- 5 : Jeff Woodburn, Interview by Facing History and Ourselves, October 18, 2006.
- 6 : Arn Chorn Pond, Interview by Facing History and Ourselves, September 21, 2006.
- 7 : Pat Garvin, Interview by Facing History and Ourselves, October 21, 2006.
- 8 : Arn Chorn Pond, Interview by Facing History and Ourselves, May 9, 2006.
- 9 Arn Chorn Pond, Interview by Facing History and Ourselves, May 9, 2006.
- 10 Arn Chorn Pond, Interview by Facing History and Ourselves, September 21, 2006.
- 11 Jeff Woodburn, Interview by Facing History and Ourselves, July 16, 2007.
- 12 Arn Chorn Pond, Interview by Facing History and Ourselves, September 21, 2006.
- 13 Arn Chorn Pond, Interview by Facing History and Ourselves, September 21, 2006.
- 14 Arn Chorn Pond, Participating in Democracy: Choosing to Make a Difference, (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves, 1995).