Pillows are where dreams are made. Where, when we lay our heads down for the night, we dream of the good things to come. The same goes for a little pillow my mom, Huoy Lor, kept with her during the Khmer Rouge regime. In fact, it was a pillow she made for a very specific purpose. It covertly held my parents’ diplomas so that when they made it to the United States they could prove they were educated and get a job.
That pillow held dreams, indeed.
When my mom and fellow Cambodians were being corralled into labor camps, she took the long view: she would survive this experience with her family, escape to America, and make a new life there. Unfortunately, as with many long-term visions, they don’t work out as perfectly as planned.
Her parents didn’t survive. Neither did her first-born son.
They were victims of starvation in a brutally oppressive regime with myopic visions of utopia.
As my mom tells it, she knew that even having this pillow put her and my dad in grave danger. This was, after all, supposed to be an ideal agrarian society. One where everyone worked the fields without non-sense like family, education, music, or arts to weigh you down. Right…
If any of the Khmer Rouge found out, she might have been collected, put alongside an impromptu ditch with other non-compliant Cambodians, and hit with the back of an ax, producing a sound like “cracking a coconut, only it’s a human head.” (McCormick 53)
While the documents survived and while they proved useful in America, the pillow didn’t make it. When she finally escaped the labor camps and made it to the refugee camps in Thailand, she ditched the pillow and stuffed the diplomas — folded time and time again until they had to be taped together — photos of family, a notebook, and two sets of clothes into a bag they gave her.
My mom is a little sad that she didn’t keep the pillow, as am I. In the end, though, the pillow was merely a vessel to carry her dreams. In Thailand, her hopes and dreams had grown into something bigger. It needed the bigger bag, the bigger vessel, which she was given. Then, when the threat of the Khmer Rouge began to evaporate more and more, that bag was put into a large military plane and transported to America.
It’s a beautiful thing, dreams. If you plan a little bit, try a little bit, and throw in a heap of luck they grow.
Click here to see more of David’s incredible Seeing Hands: Documenting the Immigrant Experience project.