(I first visited Cambodia in 2004 with my parents. This story was originally published on the World Bank website in 2004 and recounts my first unforgettable experience with the country I would reclaim as my homeland. So much has changed in Cambodia and in my life since then. As I look back on this story and the photos I remember why this visit was so special and why I came back to live here nine years later).
April 5, 2004—My eyes swelled with tears when the plane touched the runway of Phnom Penh International Airport. All I could see from the window were the lazy palm trees and the barren rice paddies.
It had been 25 years since I left Cambodia. My only previous memory of the country was a blur. I was four years old when my family escaped the civil war in 1979. I can still recall sitting on my dad’s shoulder and holding tight as he ran away from bombs in the distance...
Before the war my father was a French and Cambodian literature professor and my mother a nurse in the capital. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge ordered the entire population of Phnom Penh to evacuate. They said the Americans were going to bomb the city. Everyone was forced to leave their belongings and head towards the countryside.
My parents were sent to one labor camp for a few months before being relocated to another. It was there that I was born: in a hut in the labor camp at Battambang in December, 1975. For the next four years, under the Khmer Rouge regime, my parents, my family, like thousands of others, worked in rice paddies and lived in exile.
Four years later the Vietnamese invaded and removed the Khmer Rouge from power. It was then that we escaped to a refugee camp along the Cambodia/Thailand border. The camp was crowded with refugees desperately waiting to be sponsored by someone in the United States, Europe and other destinations. Luckily my father had a Cambodian friend living in Falls Church, Virginia, who agreed to sponsor us. As he prepared the necessary papers, my father realized he had not formally named me in the chaos of war. Together with his friends at the camp they decided to name me Mittpheap (which means friendship), as a pact for them all to stay friends.
U.S.: The Cultural Awakening
We came to the United States in 1981 and settled in Arlington, Virginia. To support a family of six my father worked as a cab driver and my mother a housekeeper. Through these jobs they sent their four children to college, two to graduate school.
A t home, my parents taught me the Khmer language and traditional Cambodian values. As a girl I had to learn how to cook and clean, and was not allowed to have boyfriends, or attend after school activities. I had to come home each day after school and study, study, study. Education was the most important consideration in our family.
As an adolescent and young adult, I resented my culture because I longed to fit in with my American friends. I hated going to temple and sitting down to chant with the monks. I hated going to Cambodian weddings because they were four-to-five hour ceremonies. I hated wearing traditional Cambodian dresses because they were restricting and unfashionable. Most of all I hated my name. Teachers couldn’t pronounce it, and other kids would make fun of it.
It wasn’t until I was out of college that I began to realize my culture and my name made me unique. Knowing how to speak Khmer, being able to wear Cambodian dresses, attending these ceremonies, telling the story of how my dad named me, and having this background made my life richer. They were stories and traditions I could pass down to my children.
I began to appreciate my heritage and knew I was ready for the trip back. On January 29 this year, my parents and I left the U.S. for the 20 hour flight to our native land.
Once in Cambodia, we were immersed in the country. We would pass monks in their vibrant orange robes, naked children swimming in the creek, 50 people piled into an Isuzu pickup truck, houses made of straw and mud, the faded glory of Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples, the prevalence of more mopeds than cars, the woman digging a ditch in her sarong and flip flops, landmine victims at the Central Market, an 8-year-old child selling crackers at the beach, the resplendent palm trees and skinny cows grazing on dirt, the glass case of skulls and bones at the genocide museum, a young Cambodian boy posing under a waterfall just for laughs.
I was getting to know the country through these moving images. As we passed these scenes my father would say "This is Cambodia". It was as if saying these three words would explain all of Cambodia’s beauty, darkness, humor, glory, and sadness.
I could see that Cambodia’s struggles lie in its past. During the four-year Khmer Rouge regime, all the institutions of society (schools, hospitals, religion, libraries, museums, banks, newspapers) were destroyed. It is estimated that 1-3 million people were killed, most were educated men and women: teachers, students, doctors, nurses, engineers, monks, artists, musicians, journalists, and bankers. After 29 years of civil war, Cambodia is still wrestling with its violent history as it tries to confront a tumultuous present.
Cambodia: The Challenge
Many Cambodians are living on less than $1.00 a day. I met my uncle for the first time in Takeo Province (a 45 minute car ride from Phnom Penh). He lives in a hut that does not have electricity or running water. He has an outhouse for a bathroom. He works from 5am-6pm bicycling over 50 kilometers to sell ice cream for less than $2.00 a day. Though he is my father’s younger brother, the years of work have aged him faster than his time. His daughter is 14 years old. She helps her mother make the ice cream, and with the daily chores at home. School is an hour’s walk away; she only attends when she has the time and energy.
The experiences and struggles of my relatives have shown me what it means to be poor and powerless. My family came to the United States poor, but by working hard and obtaining an education, we found opportunities to rise out of that predicament. All these years, I took for granted how lucky we were to come to the States. I took for granted all the sacrifices my parents made. I took for granted the opportunities, conveniences, and luxuries of America.
I came to realize, however, that most Cambodians remain optimistic. Touring the cities and countryside, speaking my Khmer with an American accent, the consensus was that things are better than they used to be. People are able to travel to places that were once Khmer Rouge strongholds, 89 percent of children are enrolled in primary school, and there is a steady decrease in landmine victims.
Nil Vanna, a Social Development Specialist at the Bank’s Cambodia Country Office, believes that after three decades of civil war, Cambodia is finally at peace. And she believes that with peace come stability and opportunities.
"The biggest improvement has been the clearance of landmines. Farmers are able to use the land for agricultural purposes. We are able to pave roads to reach remote villages and provide them access to health care. Merchants are able to use these roads to sell goods. Children are able to attend school. Yes, Cambodia is behind, but it is on the road to recovery. If we have continued support from the international community, I predict a positive future for my country "
Cambodia: Angkor Wat
One of the greatest experiences in Cambodia was visiting the famed Angkor Wat. We woke up at 5:00 in the morning to see the sunrise over the temple. It was the most amazing sight I had ever seen: magnificent, gracious, and serene. It was like going back in time. Seeing Cambodia today, and looking over at Angkor’s glory, I wondered if Cambodia could ever rise and be that great again. I hope that it will.
Catching glimpses of the city, countryside, Angkor Wat, meeting my relatives for the first time, talking with people about their daily struggles and triumphs, gave me a sense of Cambodia’s bittersweet beauty; the timelessness of its culture, the repercussions of war and destruction, and the indestructible spirit of its people.
To this day, I cannot imagine what my life would have been like had we stayed in Cambodia after the war. What I do know, though, is that my father summed it up best when he said "This is Cambodia", the country I’ve reclaimed as my homeland.