by សុង វណ្ណា (Vanna Song)
Some people settle in other countries on their own terms for personal, professional, academic, and other reasons. For people like myself and other non-American-born Cambodians who resettled to the US, Australia, New Zealand and other countries in the 1970s and 1980s, our reasons were anything but the aforementioned. On April 17, 1975, a small band of communist rebels called the Khmer Rouge rose to power. They emptied out all cities and towns and moved everyone in to the forests and other designated areas. The idea was to get Cambodia back to year zero. They wanted to go back to before the coming of the Europeans, when everyone worked in agriculture. They destroyed everything they could from property records to universities. They eliminated anyone who spoke French, wore eyeglasses, anyone who was educated, and whoever else they deemed impure. The idea was if the people are ignorant, they won’t retaliate or rise up against the regime. Many people were tortured in order to get them to confess their impurities. Some people had their nipples crushed with pliers. Others were fed feces and whipped with electrical cords. Others were dunked in cold water. Others were subjected to more unspeakable methods of interrogation and torture. Somehow, most of my family members managed to avoid the interrogation and torture. They went through the typical work day – fed a ladle of rice a day and worked long hours regardless of anything. Over all, about two million people died from execution, famine, disease, and from being overworked between 1975 and 1979.
On January 7, 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and deposed the Khmer Rouge. Since the Khmer Rouge had killed off every intellectual they detained, the Vietnamese could not find a lawyer to get any kind of government going. So they installed their own government which touched off a thirteen-year civil war in Cambodia. My family moved to a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodia border called Khao-I-Dang during that civil war. They did not leave Cambodia until around the summer of 1983. I was born later that year on November fourteenth at five a.m. My family and I lived in Khao-I-Dang until November 24, 1987.
The 24th of last month marked thirty years since my parents, my little brother, one of my uncles, and several of our friends arrived to the United States from Khao-I-Dang to begin a new life. That was made possible by the kind act of strangers who sponsored us here. I was young when I left Khao-I-Dang, but not too young to remember. I had turned four ten days before. I remember my flight here, my trip to the airport, and still have many memories of Khao-I-Dang. Memories like walking under umbrellas to shade ourselves from the heat, the monsoon rains, the shelling in the distance between Thai, Khmer and Vietnamese soldiers, the buzzing of cicadas, the clicking of house geckos, and the barking of tokay geckos.
To this day, my mind doesn’t disaggregate Khao-I-Dang and the United States. Coming from there and growing up here in my mind is one continuous sequence. Why? I don’t know the answer to that either. Nowadays when it comes to other places like Washington DC and Washington state, my brain will separate those places when I go there and back. Many things have happened during these thirty years, positive things, negative things, and everything else in between. Things like learning how to live a quality life as a disabled refugee, parents divorcing after many years in a marriage filled with domestic violence, hanging out with many different people from preps to gangsters, and so much more. I would not trade any of that for anything though, except maybe having the people who passed away back, such as my grandparents who did not come to the United States with us. I don’t know how it is like to have grandparents to interact with. My sponsor is another one of the people who has passed away. I will never get the chance to personally thank her. I cannot forget all the teachers, fellow students, and other folks who showed me refugees are more than welcomed in this country, and that disabled refugees like myself can be whoever and whatever we want to be with the proper resources and support. There is so much more I would like to say, but I cannot reckon how to lucidly convey those thoughts.