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An Alum's Personal Journey

Q & A with Socheata Poeuv ’02, filmmaker

Since graduating from Smith, Socheata Poeuv ’02 has been busy. An immigrant from Cambodia, Poeuv has embarked on a project called Khmer Legacies that documents testimonies of Cambodians about the country's brutal Khmer Rouge regime (1975–1979), which killed an estimated 1.5 million people. Poeuv will visit Smith on Thursday, Feb. 28, to attend a screening of her award-winning film New Year Baby, which documents her journey back to Cambodia to learn about her parents' life under the Khmer Rouge. The film, which will be shown at 7 p.m. in Seelye 106, will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Poeuv. The event is presented by the college's Southeast Asian Alliance.

Poeuv recently answered questions for The Gate about her experience.

Gate: Do you know or can you estimate how many native Cambodians there are like
you, who learned of their heritage after they had grown to adulthood?

Socheata Poeuv: I have never heard of a study or survey that was able to quantify the number of Cambodians who learned of their heritage in adulthood. However, I characterize it as a generation of Cambodians, especially in Cambodia, who don’t really understand what their parents and what their country went through. There is a known phenomenon of the young generation in Cambodia who do not believe that the genocide happened or that their parents are exaggerating. In fact, a few years ago, a friend of mine who was an Open Society Justice Initiative fellow produced a documentary called Seeing the Truth in order to prove to the young generation that, in fact, the Khmer Rouge happened. They don’t know about the history because it is not taught in schools, because there isn’t actually a lot of popular media in Cambodia about the genocide and because their parents may have avoided talking about it.
Gate: How has learning the truth about your family and past changed your identity
and your regard for yourself?

SP: It has brought my relationship with my parents and my family to a much deeper and intimate level. I feel like I really understand who they are and why they raised me the way they did. I also feel a deeper responsibility to use my life and my skills to contribute to the Cambodian community. There are very few in our community who have the opportunity to do this kind of work and I feel called to bring hope and positive change to the world through this work. 
Gate: What effect has making New Year Baby had on your own feelings about your past?

SP: Until I knew my family’s past -- really my past -- I didn’t understand who I really was. I was finally able to put together the narrative of my life. It was the courage of my parents that emboldened me to pursue this risky and difficult venture of creating Khmer Legacies.
Gate: How has your new knowledge affected your family relationships?

SP: I have to say that the revelation that we’re not a nuclear family really did not change the dynamics in our family. If anything, we feel closer. Learning my parents’ history has created a more open and accepting relationship. I find myself telling them things that years ago, I was afraid would kill them. My parents are the same.
Gate: What impact, if any, did attending Smith have on your feelings about your

SP: I don’t really think I reflected on my heritage very much at Smith. This was not due to a lack of opportunity at Smith, but where I was in my life. I was really interested in and excited about 17th century poetry at time! I think also as a young and arrogant person, I saw pursuing Asian American studies or being involved in Asian American groups as limiting. I wanted to compete in the larger field and avoid being pigeon-holed. But, in fact, working with the Cambodian American community is definitely the biggest challenge of my life as well as the most humbling.    
Gate: How would you characterize the experience of attending Smith as an Asian
American student?
SP: I found Smith to be a very warm and welcoming environment to do whatever it was that I wanted to do. Not only were my housemates and friends curious about my heritage, but really loved learning about it. This hasn’t been true of every place that I lived.

Gate: What is next for you?

SP: I’m busy building up a new non-profit organization called Khmer Legacies. Khmer Legacies will create a visual history archive about the Cambodian genocide from the perspective of survivors. The organization will videotape thousands of testimonies of Cambodian survivors by having children interview their parents. The archive will then be used as an educational tool to deepen understanding about the Khmer Rouge genocide for researchers, students, and the world. We’re starting with a pilot project in the Bronx. We’re also getting ready for the PBS broadcast of New Year Baby on May 27 with various educational and outreach programs.

2/21/08   Compiled by Eric Sean Weld
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