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Introduction to this Stone Soup Writing Activity

Map of Cambodia, Loas, and Thailand.
Map showing Cambodia in relation to its neighbors Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.

Yuthilkar Sokban's story, simply titled "My Story," is about war. It starts in 1975, the year Yuthilkar was born and the year a group of people, the Khmer Rouge, led by a man named Pol Pot, came to power in Yuthikar's country, Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot was one of the more murderous governments of the twentieth-century. Between 1975 and 1979 millions of Cambodians were forcibly displaced from their homes, including the family of Yuthilcar Sokban, the author of this story. Many people were tortured and between 1 and 3 million people (nobody knows the exact number) were murdered. Cambodia only had a population of 8 million. The murderous Pol Pot regime ended in 1978 when Vietnam invaded the country and put an end to the horror that had been visited on the country by the Khmer Rouge.

This story was originally published in Stone Soup in 1985. Pol Pot had only been out of power a few years. Readers of Stone Soup at the time could ask their parents about Cambodia as memories were fresh and Cambodia was still in the news. Refugees, like Yuthikar and his family were still arriving in the United States. But as all this happened what is now a long time ago, in addition to asking your parents to tell you about what they may remember of the historic events that underpin this story, you may have to do some of your own research.

Yuthilcar's story is largely about how his family was repeatedly moved from one place to another under Pol Pot, and about their final escape from Cambodia in 1979, after the Vietnamese overthrew the Pol Pot regime, and their subsequent move to the United States in 1981. This is not a story that is rich in detail about place or about character. It is a story that chronicles repeated displacements -- including the several moves after arriving in America. As Yathilcar arrived in the United States in 1981 and this story was published in Stone Soup in 1985.

The actual physical and mental pain of the hardships suffered is implied but never explicitly described. In this story, for years, the family is hungry, tired, and scared. Though it isn't mentioned, we have to assume that they experienced and saw frightening things, including other people who are sick and dying or dead. But all of that is outside the scope of the story.

This is a story by a survivor. It is a story about surviving from day to day. It is a story about finding life and a future by putting the bad things outside of oneself and just focusing on getting through the day, the week, the month, and finally the years to get to a better place in a better time.

Yathilcar does write about his family's suffering, but offers few details. For example, early on in the story he writes, "Our family life was harder than the first place because we ate only corn." What he doesn't say is that corn is not a complete food. If you only eat corn you will eventually get sick and it is even possible to die from a corn-only diet. As a reader, you need to imagine that Yathilcar's family, and the others living with them, had too little eat and were also all weak from not eating a balanced diet. But, even hungry and weak, they still had to work because the army was telling them where to go and what to do. One way to think of it is that they were enslaved.

As you read the story, try to imagine the context and what is not being said or described.

For example, throughout the portion of the story that talks about their movements within Cambodia there is a "they" that is never described but is clearly all-powerful. For example, after a mosquito infested night with little food in their bellies Yathilcar writes, "In the morning, they told us to leave the place for a village about three days' walk away." This is not a friendly "they." Bottled water and food are not provided. Nor are proper clothes and shoes or a place to sleep. Being tired or sick made no difference. An entire family, including very young children, is sent on forced moves in a tropical climate. The "they" are soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. You can imagine them armed and brutal.

For Yuthilcar's family, peace comes to them when, with good luck, the arrive in a refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand, and then are able to move into a United Nations refugee camp inside of Thailand, and then are finally allowed to come to the United States. During the period this story was written the United States was taking in tens of thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos--countries that had been upended by years of war in which the United States was a participant. As I write this today (in 2016), there are again millions of families on the move escaping war--but this time the families are from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Few of these refugees are allowed to come to the United States.

Project: Make a Screen Play

There is a way that you can think of this story as an outline for a screen play. It offers a plot outline, some characters, and general settings. The opening scene takes place when the author, Yuthilcar, is three-years-old. The Khmer Rouge army captures Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and then forcibly empties it of all the people living there. In this opening scene Yuthilcar's family is forced to walk for 15 days in the tropical April heat carrying little more than the clothing on their backs. Imagine the chaos! The fear! The crying! The shouting! The soldiers, the families, the old people, the toddlers like Yuthilcar. What does his mother say to her family? What do the soldiers say to them? What do the adults say to each other?

There are many scenes that you can choose from. If you know someone from Southeast Asia--like from Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia--then you should talk to them to get a sense of the landscape and the weather. If you know someone from Cambodia, then you may also learn something more about the time that the story describes.

Read My Story on the website, here.

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