It all started 40 years ago, long before my older siblings and I were born. A world we almost never had the opportunity to take a breath in.
1975, the year when my parents and their family, along with 2 million other Cambodians, had their lives changed forever.
As a kid, I thought these stories that my parents told my siblings and me were just some bedtime horror stories. I mean, come on, I was raised in America. I had to deal with first world problems, like MySpace, the new Xbox, and what pizza toppings I wanted. Then you grow older and take the time to learn about history and suddenly you realized it was all (hauntingly) real.
The Khmer Rouge took the lives of about 2 million Cambodians through harsh labor, execution, disease, and starvation between 1975 and 1979.
My mom was only 15 when the Khmer Rouge knocked on her home in Phnom Penh and told her family to leave. As my mom said, “The Khmer Rouge soldiers carried big guns and said leave or we will shoot you.” With no time to pack, my mom left the house with only the clothes on her back. In fact, my grandma carried the house keys, thinking they would return once the Khmer Rouge was done raiding their house. Little did they know that was the last time they saw their home.
With no place to go, her family spent 3 months in the jungle scouring for any food they could find. It was the toughest time of her life and surviving was questionable. With not enough food to feed her family of 10, she lost her grandfather due to starvation. The rest of the family was then discovered by the Khmer Rouge and transported on boats to agricultural farms.
She spent the next 4 years going to work before sunrise and returning home after sunset. She mentioned life was simple, you work and got fed. If you’re sick, there wasn’t any medicine and you still had to work otherwise you wouldn’t have any food to eat. If you spoke any language other than Khmer, you would be killed, and this was just one of many ridiculous rules. She talked about leeches a lot, “those blood sucking worms, I hate them.”
In 1979, Vietnamese soldiers had successfully driven out the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh and many Cambodians returned home for the first time in years. My mom was at a refugee camp for 10 months and was carrying my older brother inside her womb. She delivered my brother naturally without the assist of any doctors. The following day, after giving birth, she had to leave to an Indonesian refugee camp without any time to recover. 6-months later, they were given the opportunity to become American citizens.
With only $50 USD to their name, my parents pursued the “American Dream.” They started in the all too familiar farms near Stockton, CA, but worked their way into the restaurant industry and eventually opened their own restaurant in 1990. She told me, “America is freedom, it’s great, you work hard and get paid for it.” This is the place where exchanging time and labor meant accumulating money, not just food for the day.
In 1989, 8 years since they moved into this country, I was born and took my first breath in San Francisco, CA. I feel fortunate to have had a peaceful childhood, a chance at pursuing higher education and having an opportunity to start my own ventures. I feel confident that in my lifetime, there won’t be a foreign or domestic group that causes a genocide in my home like the Khmer Rouge. That is saying a lot and I’m thankful for this country and our troops for that luxury.
I also feel being born in America is a luxury of its own. I didn’t realize that until I had the opportunity to hear stories similar to my parent’s and travel abroad. Here I am, complaining about slow WiFi, when 2/3’s of the world isn’t even connected to the Internet. My perspective about life has definitely changed and I’m glad my parents made it through some of the most tragic events in history. I learned that life is a precious gift that each of us is given. We all face our own battles and challenges, but remember, you could still make cheese with spoiled milk… Or win a game of cards, with a bad hand… or… well, you get it 😜