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James Taing was only a child when he found out that his father, Mae, was a survivor and refugee of the 1970s Cambodian genocide and Killing Fields. However, when he decided to tell his father’s story in a book, gruesome details he could never have imagined emerged. In a recent interview, Tobias Lentz asked about the writing process and the historical context of Taing’s newly released book and memoir of his father, Under the Naga Tail (Greenleaf Book Group, 2023), and why this story still matters today, over 40 years since the events took place.
Tobias Lentz: Do you remember the first time you heard about your father’s refugee story?
James Taing: It was actually coming of age, in my late teens into my twenties. It always had been a sort of a history that came up here and there. My father used to watch this famous 1984 Killing Fields movie that was well-known back in the 1980s. It was the first humanitarian film of its kind that showed the genocide that took place in Cambodia. And I remember he made this comment when I was very little: “I lived through worse than what you see on the screen there.” And that really just stuck with me.
I saw my family as a family of survivors: people who had gone through a lot. And I carried that ethos with me as I grew up,but I didn’t know the stories. He would not tell me, particularly. I just knew that he had gone through this time period.
Lentz: When was the moment that you realized that your father’s refugee story was one that you wanted to tell through a book?
Taing: The Killing Fields and what happened in Cambodia was one of the worst genocides in the twentieth century. It was the second Holocaust—mass murders, there’s no doubt that was a terrible time period. It was pretty well-documented. But there is an untold story that takes place after the Killing Fields itself. Part one of my father’s story during the Killing Fields is hard enough, but part two is what came afterwards, at the Thai-Cambodian border in 1979. It was a story that was buried in history, where refugees were abandoned and forced against their will back into Cambodia. When my father started telling me this part of the story and described it as way worse than all the four years he lived through in the Killing Fields—in concentration camps and labor camps in Cambodia—my jaw just dropped. And I, from that moment, was dead set: this story has to come out and has to get told. And so almost 13 years ago, by piecemeal, he started telling me the stories bit by bit.
Lentz: How did you go about that process? I imagine there was a lot of interviewing and research to be done, so what was the collaboration with your father like?
Taing: My father always voiced that he wanted to tell his story, but it took many years for him to actually sit down and have the courage to sit down with his son and tell it. It is very different when you’re from an honor-shame culture to show your emotions—raw nerves—and tell something like that to your son. It’s not easy, understandably. It took a few years of persistence when he finally decided he could do it. So 13 years ago, we sat down in April, and all I did was turn on the recorder, while I typed things out as we went.
We would go through each story, and then I would think about it for a while, and I would come back and ask more questions, like, “Hey, if I’m to write this book, how do we make it so that people feel like they’re right there? So [readers] sort of feel like they’re immersed in it. I’d ask him again, “What does this location look like? What is this? What do you see there.” And his memory was incredible. I remember asking about the train station and Battambang and what the clock tower he had mentioned looked like and the circular entryway for the cars and all that. And when I later went there myself, it was exactly how he had told me. It was stunning. It was like history coming alive before me. So every piece of detail in that book was from him and I just lent my voice to that.
Lentz: It’s almost 50 years since the event took place, so why publish the book now? Why hasn’t your father told the story earlier?
Taing: My father actually speaks pretty good English. And even though he did not tell me his story directly, he kind of did. When he came to the United States, he was 21. By the age of 30, he began his own painting business. So he had to interact with Americans. And one of the primary ways was that he loved to tell his history to his clients, and those he did work for, because they often naturally asked, where are you from? He never forgot about his past, and he did not try to bury it. And, as a side story, his first ESL teacher, when he first came to this country, actually did try to write a book for my father. They were the first to collaborate. This is in 1982. My father would be in his house and would try to act up the scenes like carrying his father and all the things that would happen in Cambodia. Unfortunately, it was too hard and the pain came up; the pain was still too searing and they had to stop, unfortunately. And then life went on and then the teacher moved.
Lentz: Why do you think that your father’s story about the Cambodian refugee crisis and humanitarian disasters has not been talked about more? When reading the book, it seemed to me that Thailand was responsible for the poor handling of Cambodian refugees, so why hasn’t there been more criticism towards that?
Taing: I don’t think Thailand has actively worked to suppress it. There’s no evidence of that. It was horrible that Thailand took these refugees and sent them back through many, many miles overnight instead of taking them into Cambodia, just across the border. They also decided to drop them off a mountain. The Thai military basically told these refugees, like, at gunpoint, “jump down.” And, unfortunately, the geography was bad, there were landmines everywhere. And these were just refugees who were trying to flee out of their country of Cambodia. I think it did embarrass the Thai governance and the Thai kingship, but this was definitely done by the military. The decision was sparked out of this outrage of how to handle these refugees.
From what the NGOs told me, they said that after this incident took place, the Thai volunteers—because they’re many—said to please don’t talk about it anymore. The Thai people knew about it, they heard about it, and it was a shameful thing. The problem was that the NGOs and the State Department workers from the United States and the international community did not want to stoke animosity about that time period of 1979 anymore, because the tactic they took was to partner and collaborate with Thailand. And pushing them into a corner is not going to help, because, primarily, they just need to save these refugees and help them find refuge and home and safety and resettlement abroad. So they put that as first priority.
Lentz: So would you say that since your father’s refugee story might come off as a “smaller incident” of the whole genocide and the Killing Fields?
Taing: Yes, I think one of the reasons that it was easy for this to be forgotten, was that there were 40,000 refugees and probably a quarter of them didn’t make it out. So 10,000 people died, which is a small number compared to the 2 million people who died during the Killing Fields. A lot of these Cambodian refugees came to the United States and also dropped the issue. I think they just wanted to move on.
Lentz: I also think it is hard to point fingers at countries during any refugee crisis, because, at the end of the day, it’s an international problem, right? And it’s something you still see today. I mean, everything that’s happened in Italy, in Spain, all these countries with refugees coming in boats.
Taing: Yeah, I will add to that. Lionel Rosenblatt, he was the State Department worker who was the champion of refugees. And he says that we have similar situations everywhere: within the United States, it’s the Mexican border. And we have these fears that some of these migrants are surrogate terrorists or they’re Syrian gangsters. Thailand had those same fears—it was just surrogate communists coming in instead. For Thailand that was a really scary thing. In their point of view, you had Communism that went through Southeast Asia. It started in North Vietnam, went to South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia: their longtime enemy was right at their doorsteps. So they saw it like, “We’re next, we’re the next country to be destabilized. And our economy can’t handle this.”
Let’s be honest, it was awful how brutally Thailand took care of it. I think in today’s world where everyone has an immigration problem, we need to make sure we are not repeating the same mistakes.
I think this story does have relevance today because we’re still dealing with the same problems. The focus and the energy and the muscle that went into helping refugees back then was so pioneering in the 1970s and we have to look and ask ourselves how we deal with the humanitarian situations globally. And let’s take lessons learned here and be careful about the way we proceed, because we don’t want another issue like refugees being deposited or becoming a nuisance in one country, and then just aggressively sort of managing them, right? So I think these are all worth talking about.
Lentz: Something that really stuck with me towards the ending of the book was really how much these refugees relied on the help that they got—and the help that some didn’t get. Their lives were sort of in the hands of others.
Taing: Yes. An important tribute that I wanted to do was really to recognize that rescue workers and volunteers and NGOs mustered up outpouring the energy and the support. With this crisis, there were people out to help people like my father. And that’s the reason why he was able to get through this horrible, horrible atrocity. He had this hope that somebody out there was trying to save them. So, my hope is that the story gets told, but also that we don’t forget what America did, which was a very good thing. The United States had lost the war in Vietnam. And it was a very long-fought war. And yet, most countries, when they lose a war, they leave completely; they retreat. But America went and doubled down, saying, “We’re going to help the people that were deeply affected in neighboring countries.”
That is so unprecedented—that really needs to be a footnote in American history. This is why I think every American should hear this story and hear about this specific time period. And, particularly, this is more important now, as we’re dealing with more and more global wars and conflicts. We need these lessons that show that diplomacy can help us again in the situations we’re looking at today.
Lentz: You mention at one point in your book that discovering this story changed your life? In what way?
Taing: One of the things that this process made me understand was that I was actually more similar to my father than I thought. I was born in America. I grew up loving American foods and all of that. My philosophy in life is different in many ways. I thought my father was this poor farmer, my whole life, but, actually, he grew up watching Western movies, loving Bruce Lee. This felt unreal. He played basketball and soccer; Apollo 11 was important to him. He was so much more modern than I ever thought, and, wow, this story was just such a tragedy. He lost all of that through the Killing Fields, the genocide, and it speaks volumes to just how destructive the Khmer Rouge were to the country, and really pummeled Cambodia back to the Stone Age. Dialoguing with him meant I could relate more to his story.
Click here to read an excerpt from Under the Naga Tail, courtesy of the authors and Greenleaf Book Group.
Tobias Lentz is an editorial intern at Public Seminar and an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School.
James Taing is the founder of the Preah Vihear Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for preserving the history of refugee rescue in Cambodia and the greater French Indochina region in the 1970s. His father, Mae Bunseng Taing, is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia.