Two waitresses worked together to carefully arrange eight white porcelain bowls in two neat rows of four on the table. Each cradled a different palm-sized portion of pickled, spicy, fried, saucy, boiled, raw, fresh, or plain. This tidy array of small eats was banchan, the assortment of side dishes that traditionally accompany a Korean meal.
Food plating and eating of this kind, like tapas, mezze, or dim sum, send me into a frenzy. (A frenzy that is internalized of course.) Since I’m not opposed to having different foods touch each other on my dishware, it is not a problem for me to be fully supportive of an eating style that enables the eater to feed on a variety of different foods. (I contribute this to the American consumerist in me accustomed to having choices, and a lot of them, all at once.)
This introduction to Banchan experience took place during a lunch my friend Shan and I sat down to at the Mekong Korean Restaurant in Phnom Penh. I remember many feasts as a child with my family at the Korean BBQ Buffet, where my economically savvy parents took advantage of my stunted physical growth by getting me in for the little kid’s buffet admission price well past my little kid years. But I do not remember ever seeing banchan there. Thus at this lunch, I gazed in curiosity. First, Shan told me banchan is typically a part of the plating of a Korean meal. Second, she said it is constantly refilled. Thirdly, she said it came free. In response, I gazed in awe. The information challenged my internalization threshold.
A couple of weeks later I was feeding on small plates of a different substance. Across the table from me was Sopheap Chea, an archivist and research analyst at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center. We were lunching in a Japanese eatery that sported a blindingly white yet somehow homely interior. I was listening to Sopheap talk about his decision to study history when he entered university.
While growing up in his home village in Kampong Cham, Sopheap heard stories about the Khmer Rouge years from his parents, relatives, and neighbors. The stories were never long lectures or structured discussions. They were bits of memory, released little by little, within the context of mundane experiences. For example, if he left rice in his bowl, his mother would exhort him to not waste food. A reference to mass starvation during the genocide would follow. Or, if he was reluctant to do his chores, his father would encourage him to work hard with discipline. An account of labor conditions during the genocide would follow. Other times, in the evenings when working hours came to an end and local villagers would wind down and gather for a community social call, personal stories from the genocide might occasionally surface in the neighborly chit chat.
“It’s not painful to tell it [the history of the genocide] along with daily life,” Sopheap noted.
He continued to take in these regular rations of memory during the course of his childhood. As he matured, Sopheap began to confront the authenticity of these accounts.
“Why do they talk about this?” was the thought that confronted him during his early teenage years. “I started to ask questions.”
Then Sopheap recalled stumbling on local genocide memorials. He and his schoolmates were on an outing in Kampong Cham when they saw stupas filled with unidentified bones at Wat Nokor and Wat Phnom Srei Phnom Proh (called Wat Phnom by locals). They asked the monks, and anyone else around, about the bones and were told that the remains belonged to those who died during the Pol Pot regime and originated from mass graves nearby. For Sopheap, meeting those memorials brought him into a space where he began to embody the Khmer Rouge stories of his childhood as portions of history.
These portions that Sopheap gathered, both as a son of Khmer Rouge survivors and as a student of history, were delivered to him piecemeal. Witnesses of war, trauma, and violence usually build narratives with the odds and ends of memories and it can look like unapproachable, and unbelievable, debris. However, when taken in one at a time, these seemingly detached individual elements fall into a natural and rightful arrangement called the story.
In his work at Bophana, Sopheap is passionate about implementing art in creative ways to preserve and present Cambodian history. His current project involves working with scholars and traditional musicians to reproduce Cambodian music from the 1920s. The first album of the series, entitled Cambodian Forgotten Songs, was met with a positive public response. Sopheap reported even hearing the melodies aired on radio stations or covered by contemporary Cambodian bands on major television networks.
Currently, he and the project’s team are in the final stages of recording the second volume. In light of the album’s popular reception, as well as his personal observations, Sopheap disagrees with what critics call the current Cambodian priority and disposition towards developing the new and modern above preserving the old and traditional. On the contrary, he believes that Cambodians do care about their heritage and that they do want to remember the past. The issue is that societal agents, such as trends, pop culture, or the media, do not vary what they feed Cambodians. The problem is not that people are disinterested. Rather, the problem is that this part of their appetite has not been adequately nourished with a meal that is diversely plated and progressively eaten.
“I think that they are hungry, but they don’t have anything to eat,” explained Sopheap. “Art is food. And people need to eat different kinds of food.”
In the meantime, I look forward to the next time I am sitting at a table frenzily spread with too many types of foods.