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Cambodian American Heritage Museum exhibit mirrors archivist's life story

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune, Thursday, September 4, 2008

When Ty Tim, his wife and daughter survived the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime and came to the United States as refugees in 1982, they brought with them two things from Cambodia: a small ivory Buddha he found while searching for food in the jungle and a copper coin his mom gave him before she died in a forced labor camp. Both were hidden from Khmer soldiers in the pockets of his daughter's pants.

Since 2004, Tim, who lost four of his five children during the Khmer Rouge's murderous rule from 1975 to 1979, has been returning to his homeland, bringing back what he couldn't before.

Tim, 65, has acquired wooden carvings, ancient Cambodian instruments, sacred texts on palm leaves, etchings from the Angkor Wat temple, children's toys and fishing traps. Some of the treasures—novelties and replicas of ancient works because Cambodian law bans removal of historical artifacts—grace the walls of his Skokie home.

But many of them made up the core of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum's exhibit last year on the arts and culture of Cambodia and are part of the exhibit opening Sunday on every day life in Cambodia.

The exhibits at the museum, 2831 W. Lawrence Ave., are in partnership with Northern Illinois University.

Tim, a retired teacher and the museum's archivist, says the exhibits help Cambodian-Americans remember aspects of their culture they may have forgotten. Many refugees came to the U.S. from Cambodia ready to put tragedy behind them and quickly faced the challenges of learning a new language and making a living, he said. The exhibits also can teach non-Cambodians and a new generation of U.S.-born Cambodian-Americans who may know little about Cambodian traditions.

"They need to know something about their culture," Tim said.

Although the ivory Buddha and copper coin, used by Cambodians as a massaging tool, are not on display, Tim's own story appears to echo through the exhibit.

His father was a farmer. Tim grew up harvesting rice and catching fish using the basketlike traps his father made. A fish trap like the one he used is in the exhibit, as are some of the different types of rice he helped harvest.

Knowing a bit about farming came in handy under the Khmer Rouge, which took power in 1975. The regime, which sent the population to work in rural farms and killed more than 1.5 million people, was anti-intellectual.

So teachers such as Tim often hid their profession, claiming instead to be illiterate farmers.

But the Khmer soldiers would still test them, ordering his family to grow vegetables on infertile land and forcing him to plow rice fields.

He has brought back Khmer-language textbooks and toys used by children in schools. A wooden toy that mimics the toad mating call comes from Tim's own collection. Nearby, a ceremonial silver tea set and wedding conch used to pour holy water on the couple's hands are also on loan from him.

Today, his life in America is quite different than that life in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge forced millions like him and his family to march from Phnom Penh into the jungle. On the march through the jungle, his father died. At the farming camp, his mother and four youngest children died of starvation.

"They kept 1,200 people in that one village," Tim recalls. "When we got out from that village, there were only 400 of us left."

When Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, the family returned to Phnom Penh. Tim started work again as a teacher.

But when friends told him officials were upset over his refusal to learn Communist ideology, he and his family fled again.

This time, they walked for two months back through the jungles, without a map, desperate for water, evading land mines and soldiers of all kinds.

They eventually reached a refugee camp in Thailand.

It's a history he feels younger Cambodians such as his three youngest children—one born in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia and two in Chicago—at times fail to grasp.

So he fills his home with reminders of his native land.

And he hopes the museum exhibits will help educate them.

source: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-cambodian-art-05-sep05,0,1210824.story

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