By Wei Ming Dariotis
Some people mishear his name as “Ricky,” but it is pronounced “ri-T.”
He was born in Battambang, small little town in northwestern Cambodia, in 1968. Rithy’s wealthy family was targeted by the Marxist Maoist-nationalist Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide. Rithy’s parents and most family members were killed, leaving his older sister to take care of all their surviving siblings.
WMD: How do you feel about being Cambodian American?
RC: How do I feel about my Cambodians roots? I guess when you are born somewhere you always feel connected to the place you were born. I love my culture and my roots, I am very proud of Cambodian heritage and culture, but at the same time, I am happy where I am now. Like my nephews, even though they were born in California and Hawaii, they are drawn, like I am, to go to see their family’s original roots.
Being Cambodian American to me means being my own person. We are such a minority and there are only one or two families in San Francisco that I know personally. I’m not so involved with the Cambodian community here. I try to blend in with my neighbors. I have gone to temples and community centers and I feel a little left out. I prefer diversity and integration. Since we moved to America, we settled in the middle of Harlem and lived there for two years with no other Cambodian families around and we integrated with many different ethnic groups all the time. Surprisingly, I do still speak perfect Khmer, or “Cambodian.” When I come back to the US after speaking Cambodian for two weeks I can’t speak English because my tongue muscles won’t switch over.
English is an interesting language to me because it is non-hierarchical. “You” in English is just “you”—not upper or lower class “you” just direct simple “you.” That’s why when I speak to Cambodians who speak English I prefer to speak with them in English. Cambodian derives from the two main root languages of Sanskrit and Bali from India, where there was a caste system. So the language is hierarchical, like the society is hierarchical.
Being Cambodian means a lot to me. The culture dates back over a thousand years. For Southeast Asia, Khmer culture, art and architecture is as the Greek and Roman cultures are to Western culture. Everyone in the region tries to identify and associate with it and preserve it. Classical Khmer art and architecture were extraordinary achievement for any society, in any era. We have “golden proportion or ratio” just like the western world. I did a study and analyzed Angkor Wat, which was built in the 1100s, and the golden proportion or ratio is everywhere. Being Cambodian means a lot of different things. Even the Khmer Rouge [note: the nationalist socialist regime that massacred over a million Cambodians in the genocide often referred to as the Killing Fields] —it was a bad thing, but what I got out of it was that living through that drove me to be a better, tougher, stronger person and to have more tolerance.
My family was wealthy, but during the massacre both of my parents and two of my siblings were killed. In 1979-1980 was a desperate time. I begged people for food. We would go to the jungle where the Khmer Rouge was with land mines to pick fruit then walk for miles to the market to trade it for a little rice to survive.
My family escaped to Thailand and spent three years there in the refugee camps. We were the first ones there and almost the last ones to get out. We waited for my older sister to be old enough to become our guardian. We did not want to be split up to orphanages. My older sister is my hero, role model and also like a mother to all of my siblings. She is so amazing and to this day, over three decades later she is still the most successful one. She is a single mom living in a brown stone in Park Slope, New York City.
WMD: You are working on a body of drawings; how would you describe your artistic style?
RC: I guess right now it is pencil: realism combined with surrealist and imaginary images. I don’t want to say just surrealist—maybe fantasy/Escher-esque. “Tricking the eye.” To me, artwork doesn’t have to be realistic because for that you can take photos–so you might as well have fun with it.
WMD: How would you describe the themes in your art?
RC: The stories usually involve figures in universal themes. For example, in the latest piece, the single figure is trying to help all the others stranded together below, but he is holding on to broken brick balloons, which don’t exist; they don’t make sense. The people below are being oppressed or massacred, and he can’t do anything to help them. Like the UN which was supposed to stop massacres after WWII.
A lot of times I try to juxtapose images that are transcendent—between the planes of this world and those of another world.
Humanity repeats itself all the time—look at San Bernardino recently—or Paris. It’s like WWII, Rwanda, or the Khmer Rouge all over again. This kind of trauma doesn’t seem real to the population at large, so I try to put it into my artwork. It’s an abstract concept until you have experienced it yourself. For example, what Donald Trump says about immigrants and refugees shows that he hasn’t experienced that kind of trauma.
For each person it’s different; I was younger than my older sister when we survived the Khmer Rouge. So, compared to her, it is much easier for me to talk about it because it seemed normal to me to see people getting killed. From the eyes of a kid, you think it’s normal and natural.
If you grow up in the ghetto, you would think that is normal life, too, unless you move beyond it. Some of my friends can’t understand why I live here in the Bayview, but I love it. I won’t say I’m not scared—I’ve been on the street when there have been gun shoot outs and it doesn’t matter who you are—Black, White, Asian, Muslim, Buddhist, rich or poor, you can get hit. Bullets don’t discriminate.
WMD: What do you like most about living in the Bayview?
RC: I love the weather, and the diversity of the community. All the houses are separated and you get a big garden.
WMD: Have you always been a gardener?
RC: No, after coming from Cambodia, our family lived in New York City; I never had a garden before. When I came to Quesada Street I saw the palm trees and they were the main draw. I love the palm trees and lots of wild life here and I especially love the parrots. And then I found out the neighbors were very diverse, which is a major plus that I didn’t know before. In my mind, since I knew I was going to make it my home, I just planned to get to know my neighbors anyway, so the diversity was a nice bonus. It is like a little paradise in the city.
But it a paradise with garbage—I picked up three bags of garbage this morning because the people that come here to buy drugs just throw trash out of their cars. But even if you paid me to live in the Sunset or Richmond I wouldn’t live there—the summer is just depressing.
WMD: What do you think you’ve learned about yourself from living here?
RC: How to be tough and kind to the neighbors at the same time. It’s a balancing act. You have to respect the people you live next door to, and at the same time, some people are doing certain things that are destructive. I have to negotiate to make sure people respect my space like I respect theirs.
I also learned how to garden. It’s a lot of physical work but it is sort of meditative for me. Weeding, I can let my mind go instead of thinking of the stress of the city. Seeing plants produce fruit or vegetables, taking care of them, seeing some plants succumb to disease—its all very challenging. It’s fluid—it’s the relationship between life and death. It’s like anything else—you have to take care of it to keep it surviving. For example, this year we really cut back water and a couple plants died. We learned what can survive in these drought conditions.
This yin and yang is also reflected in my artwork. You have bad people and good people working to balance each other. No matter how it is resolved, I think everyone has good intentions.
I wish we had better services—like a gym. Better stores. More restaurants. But on the other hand, house prices are lower because of that so I can’t complain. It would be nice for your neighborhood to be walkable. Homelessness in this city is just growing, and it makes me sad to see that. It is one of the richest cities in the US and yet, the disparities are growing rapidly and the gap is getting wider.
Overall I feel lucky to have ended up in this neighborhood and community – the Quesada Gardens Initiative and the people here are unique and special.