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September 15, 1981, is still deep-rooted in my mind as if it was yesterday. It is now only just two weeks since I celebrated my thirty-first birthday. People find it puzzling that I celebrate my birthday not on the day I was born, but on another day that is special in my life. According to psychologists, one should forget his or her past and lay down their upsetting history to be able to focus on a more promising future. My life story, however, can never be complete without the events that happened before this date.
Both of my grandfathers were of Chinese descent. One grandfather came from the province of Fujian, China. The other grandfather came from the province of Yunnan, China. They both migrated southward to Cambodia during the time when China suffered an economic depression. During this migration, many countries migrated from China to not just Cambodia but also Vietnam and Laos (Mandal, 1981, Marilyn & Cooper, 1985). During this migration, they brought along with them Chinese cultural practices and traditions. Among these practices were getting married to multiple wives and practices such as feet binding and Feng Shui.
Both grandfathers were businesspersons. They sold everything, from rice to clothes to pots and pans and other household appliances. In addition, they raised chickens, ducks, cows, and pigs for sale. One of my grandfathers is famed for being one of the most versatile businesspersons at his time, considering that he engaged in almost every business one can think of, from being a snake breeder to being a brewer of alcohol, to be a Feng Shui master. Through struggle and resilience, both men were able to adjust and establish themselves in the relatively comfortable life of Siem Reap in Cambodia.
The grandfather from Fujian married two wives, one Chinese and the other from the Khmer, an ethnic majority of Cambodia. With these wives, he was able to have 24 children, 12 children from each wife. My mom was a direct descendant of the Khmer wife. The grandfather from Yunnan married a Cambodian woman, with whom they had six children. My father was one of their six children.
Both my parents were the eldest of their siblings. This meant a lot of responsibility for both families. Being the eldest, my mother had to help with her dad’s business. She never received proper schooling like her brothers and sisters. Mom’s brothers and sisters were also ordinary people. One of my mom’s brothers was a high school teacher while one of my mom’s sisters was a physical education teacher.
My dad, on the other hand, was known to have a photographic memory. He was therefore able to work and help with earning the family income and go to school at the same time. Just like my dad, his siblings were extremely high achievers in academics. Two of his brothers were medical doctors while one sister was the Dean of a university, the university where dad was a professor of Physics. These were just stories told to me by my mom. Because my mom neither knew how to read nor write Khmer, these stories were often passed down orally.
My parents got married and had six children and for a while, their lives in Cambodia were going well. That was until the Khmer Rouge turned the country upside down. The chaotic life between 1975 through 1979 is clear in my mind (Stuckey, 1996; Maguire, 2005). After the Khmer Rouge came to power, between two to three million Cambodians were massacred for political purposes (Silverburg, 2011). In his pursuit of patriotism, my father refused to leave the country for the United States. This decision cost him his life. The killings were so bad that among my dad and mom’s 100 immediate family members only fifteen survived.
I was lucky to be among the fifteen. In 1980, I remember our family struggling to make our way to a refugee camp in Thailand. It was not easy crossing the border from Cambodia to Thailand. A distant relative from New Jersey sent us some money to be used as payment for the locals. This was to help us get us across to the Thai border. Bandits robbed us on two occasions. It was traumatizing. The first group of bandits took the little money that we had with us. The second group demanded to take my eldest sister away if mom could not give them money or gold. Mom promised the bandits money if they could wait until we reached the refugee camp in Thailand. They refused the offer and decided to hold my eldest sister for ransom. Mom was forced to gather up some money from relatives who were already in the refugee camp to exchange for the release of my sister.
The locals that lived along the Cambodian and Thai border never received their payment for their ‘help’ for their failure to get us across safely. The locals and mom got into an intense argument and mom refused to back down because she did not have any money left with her to give. She accused the locals of manipulating her for money and at the same time working with the bandits, who called them “friends” as they robbed us. She demanded the locals to leave us alone; otherwise, she would call on the UNHCR for help.
Once we made it across to the refugee camp my mom’s little sister sponsored us to the United States. Her sister, the physical education teacher, had come to the United States during the late 1960s to study abroad. She never experienced the Khmer Rouge as we did, although she always ensured that she was updated on all the events. I verified this when I got a chance to chat with her one day at the house. She left for the United States soon after she participated in the Olympics volleyball qualifier games when they were held in Cambodia during the late 1960s.
It was on September 15, 1981, when we arrived in the United States. A day I will live to remember. I had heard many stories about the Land of Opportunities; however, what I experienced was incomparable to the stories. From the great scenery, buildings that went to the sky, taller than anything I had imagined before, America was miles apart from Cambodia. Back in Cambodia, the only world I knew was the jungle, dirt roads, and our wooden stilt hut.
The Khmer Rouge had moved us around the country so much that we never got the chance to settle in one place for long. When we got to the United States, we soon were acclimated to the new life. We lived in a good rent house, very comfortable, and after a while, my mother was able to drive a car. I also got a new American nickname, but my favorite experience was eating burgers and french-fries.
My family’s cultural and ethnic story was a story of constant adjustment and reinvention of us. When my grandfathers migrated to Cambodia, they had come along with their Chinese cultural practices and had adopted the newly found Cambodian cultural practices. Back in Cambodia, we had considered ourselves the Khmer of Chinese ancestry. In the United States, we considered ourselves the Cambodian-American of Chinese ancestry. What a change in events! All my life, I have been constantly adjusting and reinventing myself, together with my family as we move from one place to another and from one country to another.
I have come to accept this as my destined life. I have also learned many lessons from all the experiences I have had. For example, I have learned that our ideas and concepts as we hold so dearly are bound to change with time as time passes on and life’s challenges take their toll on us. For example, we were brought up as Buddhists, although my eldest brother became a Baptist minister and my mom remained a Buddhist.
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Some of us, however, became agnostics, because of all the chaos in our lives. I have also learned that one’s environment is extremely important in changing his believes. As we move into a more global environment we can only imagine what our children and nieces and nephews’ world will be like. As we move into a more global environment, I can only imagine what the world will be like for our children, nieces, and nephews.
Maguire, P. H. (2005). Facing Death In Cambodia. Columbia: Columbia University Press.
Mandal, R. B. (1981). Frontiers in Migration Analysis. New York: Concept Publishing Company.
Marilyn, J., & Cooper, R. (1985). Migration with imperfect information:a theoretical and empirical study of individual decisionmaking. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania.
Silverburg, S. R. (2011). International Law: Contemporary Issues and Future Developments. Boulder: Westview Press.
Stuckey, M. E. (1996). The Theory and Practice of Political Communication Research. New York: SUNY Press.