It’s fall in the Northern Hemisphere, and Americans are going gaga over their “sweater weather” and pumpkin spice lattes and fantasizing about which country they’ll move to if the election doesn’t go their way.
Well, I think sweaters are itchy and coffee is gross, and I’d like to ask any American who only half jokes about abandoning ship whether they actually have a passport (not to mention a visa) or if they’re just planning on sneaking into Canada illegally.
I get it, though. I’ve spent a good deal of my life dreaming of escaping this country. And I actually did it a couple of times too.
That’s how I know escapism doesn’t work. It doesn’t fix the problems you leave behind at home, and it only reflects your own faults and issues back at you that much stronger, like a mirror reflecting the sun straight into your burning eyes.
So instead of running away because they were all out of your favorite dessert at the buffet, why not stick around and fill up on everything else the buffet has to offer?
We need all you sane citizens to stay put and stay sane.
This isn’t what this blog post was going to be about, but when I started writing, it’s just what happened.
I think it’s because I’ve been crying my way through the same book for the last five months, and if there is any doubt in your mind that this country isn’t great enough already, then you need to read this book.
It’s the memoir of a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s genocidal Communist regime of the late 1970s. If you don’t know about the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields, check out the blog post I wrote after visiting Cambodia here.
At this point in the book, the author has been beaten, starved, mutilated, tortured, suffocated, crucified, barely escaped being burnt alive, and somehow survived bouts of malaria and dysentery on top of all that.
Believe it or not, he’s actually witnessed worse things than these. Things I can’t talk about because when I remember them I want to throw up and then sit and weep for the rest of my life.
Most of his family has died, and he’s recently buried his wife and child, who couldn’t survive an early, malnutrition-induced labor. He is a doctor and an obstetrician but could do nothing to save them under the regime.
However, as the Khmer Rouge falls apart and liberation approaches, he writes:
“With all the good food and the companionship I began to feel better.
We could eat what we wanted and when we wanted.
We could say whatever we chose.
We were free to criticize, to speak out, to show anger. We didn’t have to be silent if someone else did something stupid or committed an injustice.
The long darkness was almost over.
As we walked through the forest toward the highway, I began to sing.”
After all that, he began to sing.
I already know how the story ends. That he survives and immigrates to America as a refugee and goes on to win an Academy Award for playing a role in a movie about the same Killing Fields he should not have been able to escape.
I’m glad he did. I’m glad he wrote down his story, even though I’ve been emotionally shredded to bits by reading it.
But that’s why this blog post turned out to be what it’s about and not about what I was planning it to be about.
Because all the liberties and human rights we have are so much more than just great. It is the reason that refugees and economic migrants are still wanting to move to this country, even as its born-and-raised citizens whine about wanting to leave it.
So instead of whining, maybe we should be asking ourselves how long it’s been since we started singing just because we have the freedom to eat what we want, when we want?
Because we can say whatever we choose, because we are free to criticize, to speak out, to show anger, and because we don’t have to be silent if someone else does something stupid or commits an injustice?
Because even though our candidates suck, we were the ones who chose them and we have a say in who will win. Why aren’t we singing about that?
Our cities and towns haven’t been ransacked. We haven’t been forced into the countryside to grow food we aren’t allowed to eat, to live in terror of child soldiers brandishing AK-47s, to every day know that it could be our last if it strikes the fancy of a cruel man sitting in a hut to have us executed.
I should be whistling a merry tune as I write this simply because I know it won’t get me killed as soon as I hit publish.
When the author is liberated, he hears Pol Pot’s name for the first time. I think I audibly gasped when I read that. How could he not know the name of the dictator (and that there even was a dictator) behind the four years of hell that had ravaged his life?
No matter who wins our election, at least we’re going to know their name. And that’s something to sing about.
If you want to read this book, it’s called Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor, and I will warn you now that if you thought Schindler’s List was horrific or Beasts of No Nation was brutal, you’ll need to brace yourself for a whole new level of atrocity. There is no movie version because there is no rating level strong enough for its content.
You will probably have the worst time of your life reading this book. But perhaps also the most enlightening.