The American Dream: An Interview with my Dad

My Dad

My DadI have admired my Dad my entire life. He has always been one of the most generous people I know and has set quite the example for our family. The older I get, I appreciate him even more. Every time I got in the car with my dad when I was younger, I could 100% guarantee there was some story or lecture that I was going to hear. At the time, I probably thought, “Dad, I’ve heard this 100 times! I know…be a good kid, go to school, appreciate the opportunity that living in America affords you…etc.” As I’ve gotten older and now have children of my own, I realize my Dad didn’t have a lot of time with us when we were younger because of the hours he worked. And, as a parent, he was just trying to impart and teach us as many lessons as he could in the little time we got to spend together. If it weren’t for my parents, I would’ve probably tried to quit many times going through college, dental school, and residency. I can’t count the number of times I talked to my parents before an important test or exam, filled with doubt of my ability, and every time they told me I could do it, that they believed in me, and that they had no doubt in my ability or the effort I had put in. I’m so grateful for the advice, support, encouragement, generosity, and example they have set for me and my siblings. My parents always say, “Don’t wait for people to be gone to honor them.” I hope I can honor my parents, their story, and the examples they have set now while they’re still here with me. Here’s to the best dad I could ever ask for!

Can you tell me about our family?

I am the second oldest of 9 kids, 5 boys and 4 girls. My parents could not afford to raise all nine of us, so when I was 7, I started living with my grandparents. I never knew my dad’s parents because they lived far away from us. I stayed with grandparents until I was 14 and then I came back home to help raise my siblings and help my parents work. My grandparents lived about 7 hours away from my parents.

What was your childhood like?

I was always trying to find ways to eat and make money. At night, I would clean fish so that after I could have a bowl of soup to eat. I played drums at the theatre and I was able to watch movies there for free. I liked to play in the river and swim. During the day, I went to school.

How long were you able to go to school for?

I went to school through twelfth grade. Boys were allowed to go to school. Girls were generally kept at home and were expected to help watch the other kids and cook so parents could go to work.

What did you do after you finished high school?

Our family had an export business from Thailand to Cambodia. We exported things like fish, alligator skins, different cloth materials, pans, food, and sugar.

Do you remember in 1970 when the US bombed Cambodia?

They did not bomb the village we lived in. We were close to the Cambodia Thailand border. They bombed closer to the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. I read about it in the newspapers each day.

What do you remember from when you had to leave your home?

In 1975 around 5 a.m., they came over the loud speaker and said everyone needed to leave the city. They said they were going to kill Americans that were in the city. They told us we had to leave for 3 days and to not take anything with us. So we left and after 3 days we asked to come back but they said no, keep going. So we kept walking until we found a group that farmed rice. We were only 12 kilometers from the Thai-Cambodian border, but we heard gun shots so we came back.

What was life like after the Khmer Rouge were in charge?

It was scary. The Khmer Rouge put bad people in power. People who did drugs, alcoholics, etc. They had no sympathy for anyone and they killed a lot of people. Our family had to deny we did any business. They killed anyone who had skills or an education.
Six months after Pol Pot took over, I got sick with malaria. We had no money, everything was burned. The regime told us we only needed one pair of pants, one shirt, and one spoon to live and nothing else. I was 19 years old and I couldn’t walk. I was sick for seven or eight months. There were no doctors and no medicine. My Mom had hidden gold and used to trade it for coconut milk for me to drink. If it weren’t for her having the gold, I would have died.

What was the conversation like with your parents when you were going to marry Mom?

My Mom and Dad said I was getting older, I was 24 at the time, and they wanted me to get married. I really didn’t want to, but they told me if I didn’t get married, I was going to be shipped away. I didn’t want to leave my family.

Did you ever say anything to mom before you got married?

No, I had never talked to your Mom before we got married. Twenty days after your Mom and I married, six or seven of my friends in the camp told the Khmer Rouge superior that they shouldn’t kill and shoot people. We said the people they were killing were good people. After that, a soldier came to the village and asked who was starting trouble. I ran into the river and they tried to shoot me. I found my Mom and told her I had to go because they were trying to kill me. We ran 7-8 km and hid in the jungle. They came after us and shot at us again. We jumped into the river at night and stayed under a tree until midnight. I was gone for almost one month before I returned.

What do you remember about coming to the United States?

I remember none of us knew how to use the toilets. We would put our feet up on the seat and squat. When we arrived in Indianapolis, Barney and Marge Habbeger and Fred and Maggie Liechty were there to pick us up. I tried to go into the women’s bathroom because I didn’t know how to read the sign.
That night around midnight, we arrived in Berne. There was a lot of food for us, but no rice. We smelled the butter and it made us want to get sick. We went to sleep with empty stomachs. They had trouble finding a translator, but eventually found David Chiu. He was studying at Goshen Bible College and helped translate for us.

How did you go from speaking no English to owning your own business?

I went to a CEDA program to learn English every day in Decatur. They paid me $2.75 per hour and I was able to learn English. Barney or Marge would pick me up and take me to and from my classes. I remember Barney taking me through a drive thru and telling me I had to place the order. I said I didn’t know how to. We pronounced his last name “Habegger” as “hamburger.” I also worked at the IGA grocery store, Lehman Parts, and Economy Printing. I learned how to speak more English at IGA by speaking with the customers.
Miller Moser asked me what I wanted to do? I said I wanted to be my own boss. It took four years to save $15,000 making a little over $2 an hour. I applied to buy a McDonald’s and went through all of the paperwork, but in the end we were denied because I did not speak English well enough, and we were not US citizens yet. My Dad suggested I look into buying a donut shop, and that’s when we found the shop in North Manchester. I told your Mom, we are going to try. If we fail we can always work at McDonalds or work in a factory.

How was life after you took over the donut shop?

It was tough, but we were thankful. We woke up every day at 3 or 4 a.m. and drove from Berne to North Manchester. It was a one and half hour drive. The donut shop was open twenty four hours at the time. One of us was always there and we took turns sleeping. We would take you and Joan to sleep in the back room or you would stay with a babysitter. We did this for two months and then we found a house to rent. We stayed for seven or eight months, but your Mom wanted to go back to Cambodia to look for her Mother. So after that period we sold the donut shop to friend and went to find your Grandmother in Cambodia.

I’ve always wondered how you were able to work seven days a week for so many years…

I just kept thinking about working and making a living. My Dad always said, “While you’re young, work. When you get older, you’ll have aches and pains.” A lot of people would say, well you have to have fun. And I just thought, well, you can’t have fun without any money.

I find it incredible you were able to save $15,000 over four years, making only a little over $2 an hour. What was your mindset?

Your Mom and I believed, if we didn’t have money for it, we were not going to buy it. For example, when we went to look at houses, we looked at a house that cost around $30,000 at the time. When we looked at the paperwork, it said for a 30 year loan, we would end up paying over $200,000. I didn’t think that was very smart, so instead we bought a trailer for $2500. The first car we ever bought was four to five hundred dollars. When mom drove through water, water would come up through the floor and the inside of the car would be wet.
When we worked in the factory before buying the donut shop, we woke up every morning at 4:00 a.m., including the weekends. We washed your diapers and cleaned your clothes before work. At 5:30 on the weekends, I would go to work. My supervisor always asked if I wanted to work the weekends too and I would always say yes! My parents, one of your uncles, your Mom and I all worked in the factory at the time. We really liked the people in Berne. They were very nice to us.
America has a lot of opportunities, if you work hard and play by the rules. There is no other country in the world like the United States. Other countries have corrupt governments, kids don’t have an education, and fathers can’t make enough money to feed their families. In this country, if you don’t have money, you can borrow money to go to school and become someone. You have the chance to do the right thing. No other countries help people like the United States. The government here is good to their people.

How did you end up buying Tom’s Donuts on State St.?

When we came back from Cambodia to find your Grandma, the owner of the State Street shop asked if I was interested in buying it. Your Mom told me, if you want to do it, do it. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to or not. We weren’t as afraid this time though because we knew how to speak English better and we knew how to make donuts. At the first donut shop we owned, all of the employees quit in the first week. We bought State St. in May of 1998 and have owned it now for 33 years. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we were happy.

What was your schedule like when we were young?

Your Mom took care of you and your siblings. I woke up at 3:30 a.m. every day and got to the donut shop around 4:00. At that time, the donut shop was open 24 hours a day. I worked until 11:30-12 p.m., came home and slept for a couple of hours, and then went back at 3:00 to make donuts. I didn’t get to see you guys a lot. I managed the schedule pretty well. I really didn’t start getting tired until I turned 62.

What is the hardest thing about owning a business?

It is hard to find people you can trust, who are honest, and want to work seven days a week. Good luck with that. I never minded though. I always compared Cambodia to the U.S. and remembered how lucky we were to have this opportunity.

Have you ever thought about what life would look like if you stayed in Cambodia?

I know either way, I would’ve been in business. Either way, I would have survived because I am not afraid to work. My Dad always said, you have to work hard to make a living. No one said life was easy. But you’re the only one that can make it good or bad. Stick with what you know. Don’t overspend and don’t look down on yourself.
If we would’ve stayed in Cambodia, you guys would not have been able to go to school. You would have stayed home, and probably helped at a restaurant. So many kids overseas really want to go to school and never have the opportunity.

What have you liked most about owning the donut shop?

I’ve enjoyed meeting and talking to the customers. We appreciate the support we have gotten through the years and I’ve made a lot of friends. Every time there is something I don’t know about, I can ask one of our customers and they’ll help and give me advice.
I love the opportunity, not having to run from bullets, the ability to work hard, earn what I can, not having a government telling me what to do and threatening to take things away from me. I love having the freedom of choice and living life how I want to live it.
I tell the infamous, B+ story often. I remember coming home and showing you my report card. I was so proud because I got all A’s and one B+ and you said “Why did you get a B+?” Do you remember this?
I do remember. I knew you could do better. I wanted you to do better. My dream for you was to go to school and get an education.

What advice do you have on raising a family?

Talk to your kids. Don’t spoil them too much. Teach them right from wrong. If they do something wrong, correct them right away. Talk to your husband. Make sure you both are on the same page. Talk to one another and help each other out.

What advice do you have on owning my own practice?

Treat your employees well. Always try to get along with people and help when you can. I’ve always helped when I can because I remember what it was like when I had no money and people helped me. If you do good things for people, they will remember. When you live in a poor situation and don’t have anything, if people give you just a little bit, you’ll be happy. Always remember where you came from.

Any last bits of advice you’d like to give me?

Remember, if you work hard you will always succeed. Don’t let what other people say about you bother you. They’ll talk anyways. Don’t compare yourself to others. Whatever other people do, they have their own knowledge and skills. My Dad always said, don’t compare elephant poop to human poop. They’re not comparable. Don’t compare if people are rich or poor. If you’re poor, you may not be rich, but if you work hard, you will be able to support your family.