The whole point of reading literature, it seems to me, is to learn to have sympathies, imaginative relationships with people who are different from one’s self.—Irving Howe
All families suffer under the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer), but each in its own way. For the Hong family, in addition to playing down their commercial background, they must also renounce their Chinese language, heritage, and culture, and speak Khmer peasant vernacular in order to appear nonthreatening to the Angkar (Organization). Like the rest of the population who are not of the upper echelon of the Khmer Rouge, they overwork themselves and subsist on morsels of food, little sleep, and no medical treatment. Whatever they do, it is never enough to please the people who supposedly are the eyes, ears, and mouthpiece of the mysterious Angkar. Jennifer H. Lau’s Beautiful Hero is not only about her mother, whose tiger-mom mentality saves her family from starvation and violent death, but it is also about finding humanity in the most trying times of human existence.
Jennifer pays tribute to her mom, Meiyeng (which means “beautiful hero” in Chinese), in this epic family memoir. Meiyeng finds herself assuming her father’s role by working overtime and attending school part-time, starting at the age of ten, after he becomes an alcoholic due to negative comments resulting from a bad business venture. Hard work and responsibilities have been instilled in Meiyeng at a young age. She took care of her siblings and parents. Even after marrying, she steers her husband toward business that is “passive and profitable” rather than “labor-intensive” and “risky.” She shines as a matriarch. She helps her husband and together they provide a comfortable life for their children with their profitable businesses (a hair salon, which she runs, and photography, which her husbands runs), a nice home to live in, and land ownership. Then America abandons the Lon Nol regime, and the China-backed Khmer Rouge relentlessly slaughters Lon Nol’s soldiers and wins the war in 1975. Soon the people will find out that they will suffer the same fate—but not before they’re mentally, spiritually and physically tortured, after they are forced to evacuate at gunpoint to leave their properties and their comfortable modern lifestyle.
Amy Chau, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, points to the following as successful traits: 1) superiority complex, a deep-seated belief in one’s exceptionality; 2) insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough; 3) impulse control —the ability to resist temptation, and systematically sacrifice present gratification, in pursuit of future attainment. Throughout their long, forced evacuation and in their four years under and after the Khmer Rouge, it is Meiyeng who keeps not only her family alive but her brothers and relatives as well, knowingly or unknowingly practicing these traits.
First, it is quite possible that Meiyeng’s superiority complex, in addition to her family’s hunger, makes her take great risks, even under the hawkish eyes of the Khmer Rouge soldiers, local chiefs, and supporters of the Angkar. She acts as an intermediary, to wheel and deal and barter possessions of the old, modern world to dangerous people of this new, backward world, who are buyers and still lust after watches, jewelry, and other luxuries. Even after she and her family witness their ignorant, illogical and brutal ways, she still pushes on. When Meiyeng is caught, an exchange of local power diverts and spares her from execution. Luck and the play of events seems to have a role in the Hong family’s destiny, too.
Second, in regard to her insecurity, a feeling of not having done enough, Meiyeng has demonstrated this on countless occasions. She uses all of her brainpower and strength to reason and trade with the natives while acting as the underground wheeler and dealer. Working in the fields alone and accepting the small portion of porridge, she knows it will not sustain her family. There has to be more, and she and her husband are always looking for ways to help their family.
When the children’s health is failing, her knowledge and resourcefulness saves them. Hard labor, fear, anxiety, lack of food, and infection have caused her brother’s system to shut down, and he cannot relieve himself for many days. He’s within an inch of his life; but she refuses to let him go and pulls him back with her concoctions and extreme physical therapy. She makes her children eat poison fruit to excrete the many worms inside their bodies. “I was much in awe of Mother’s insane methodology and her ability to heal us without killing us. How did wisdom or knowledge come to her with such ease? What possessed her to give us poison which took us to the brink of death, only to yank us back to life? In a strange and bewildering way, I worshipped her, feared her, and loved her; all the same time.”
Third, it’s her impulse control, to sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment, that’s displayed when she forces her children to work hard on their garden, in part to divert the Khmer Rouge and the indoctrinated people from thinking they are planning on escaping and from starving to death. The author dislikes her mother for pushing her hard to work on the garden and to act as a clock for her. “I could not distinguish if she was my tormentor or savior,” says Jennifer. “I felt her punishment and her deliverance all at once. Sometimes she talked about having all of us hang ourselves; yet other times, she worried parasites would kill us.” Meiyeng pushes her children and her husband hard so that they would not give up, and to live as long as they can under this brutal and hopeless regime.
Lastly, Jennifer, at such a young age, not only goes through constant hardship of forced labor, but she also bears witness to the most heinous crimes against humanity. She watches as the Khmer Rouge soldiers beat her uncle’s wife to death; as Thai soldiers blow off a woman’s head next to her; as thousands of others, including her family, get dumped off of the Dangrek cliff that is infested with landmines.
The Hongs are survivors. Thank goodness they found a home in the United States of America where they thrive. Most importantly, their humanity is still intact. I highly recommend this book. Please grab yourself a copy of Jennifer H. Lau’s Beautiful Hero: How We Survived the Khmer Rouge.