I have always wanted to share my parents’ story. Mainly because it is an amazing story and also, I want to make sure my children remember our family history. I am in awe of what my parents lived through and the life they were able to provide for me and my siblings, despite the terrible things that happened to them. I’ve heard my mother tell me little pieces of information (usually in the form of a lecture), throughout my entire life, yet somehow, I don’t think I fully comprehended the events that happened. As I was interviewing my mom, my daughter Grace was sitting on her lap. After the interview, I took Grace and Vivienne outside to play. Looking at my children, riding their bikes, laughing, having fun, I couldn’t shake the thought that they may never be able to fully comprehend what their grandparents survived. Even at my age, I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that they lived through war, a dictatorship, genocide, starvation, disease, hut houses, and refugee camps, and yet, here I am, just one generation later, my children two generations later, living freely, secure with everything that we could ever need. When I was young, I didn’t fully understand what being a first generation American meant and the significance of it, but I understand now. I am eternally grateful for the strength, kindness, love, and encouragement my mother gives, despite the adversities she has had to overcome. This is her story:
Question: Can you tell me about our family? Did you know your grandparents?
I did meet my dad’s parents, but we did not live close to them, so I did not know them very well. They had six boys including my dad. My grandparents had a restaurant business in Phnom Penh and when my parents married, they lived in the city for a while and helped at the restaurant. My mom’s parents died before I was born. They had 3 boys and 3 girls including my mom. They lived in a village called Kompong Cham and farmed.
Question: What do you remember about your early childhood?
The very first thing I can remember is from when I was 6-7 years old and I got to go to school (kindergarten). We didn’t have toys to play with. We played with things like banana leaves, coconut shells, seaweed, and parts of leftover houses that were torn down. I remember my dad having a restaurant. They sold coffee, fish, chicken, porridge, etc. I can remember being around 8 years old and helping wash dishes and selling leftover food which was used for feeding pigs. I only went to school for 2 years, kindergarten and first grade. In 1970, bombings and shootings started to happen and my mom kept us home.We lived in a hut house made of sticks. The bottom part of the house was open. We dug a hole under the house and anytime we heard gunshots we went under the house to take shelter. When my older brothers were not around I taught myself how to read, but I never learned how to write (cambodian). Staying at home, my mom taught me how to cook, wash vegetables, take care of my brothers and sisters, and sew clothes by hand. I didn’t really like sewing. I remember falling asleep while I was sewing and my mom “clicked” me on the head and said I had to learn how to sew in a straight line. Eventually, we moved to the temple to live because my mom thought it was safer there. There was still a lot of bombing and shooting going on. Every time we heard gunfire, we would lay flat on the ground and duck.
Question: What happened in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge regime took over?
Khmer Rouge soldiers came to the city and kicked everyone out of the city. They told us we could return in 4-5 days. We left our home and walked all day and slept under trees at night. There were dead bodies along the bank of the road. I remember in the evening getting water from the river to drink and when daytime came we would see dead bodies in the river. People started getting sick after drinking the water. My mom then told us to start boiling the water. Eventually we got to a village where we farmed. For every ten families, there were 3 people (civilians) that “watched” over us and reported to the Khmer Rouge. Every morning there was a meeting where they would give directions on what our jobs were for the day. The Khmer Rouge regime told us we did not need money. That the government would feed us and provide everything we needed. In 1976 my father got very sick. His job in the village was to work in the field and he also weaved hats. There was no food or medicine. There were no doctors to treat him. My mom tried to find cambodian herbs to give him, but they didn’t work. He was sick and starving and that year he passed away. Soldiers started questioning what you did previously and they broke families up into groups. If you were a doctor, worked for the government, soldier (for the wrong side), teacher, etc, they were weeded out and killed. I was placed in a teenager group. In the early years, we used a hoe to chop up the ground for planting. I worked in the fields to harvest rice and vegetables, but they did not allow us to eat the food. They gave us rice to eat, but it had maggots in it. After my father died, I got very sick with malaria and almost died. I remember being so hungry, I stole two banana rice wraps to eat. I was caught and they tied me up for two days. I thought I was going to die. I lived there for three years. My mother was shipped to another village. One day, I left the village to try to find her. I ended up finding her, and my mom told the authorities in the village that I was a widow so I could stay with her.
Question: How did you meet dad?
His family was at the same village my mom was at. His family told the authorities, the same thing, that he was a widower. They did not allow families to stay together, so his parents and my mom arranged our marriage.
Question: How did that conversation go with grandma?
She told me she wanted me to get married or they were going to make me leave. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to get shipped away from my mom again.
Question: Can you tell me about the day you and dad got married?
The people in the village gathered outside after working all day. They called a meeting and everyone wore the same black clothes we wore to work in. There was an oil lamp, and we sat on a bench. That night, an older couple (they were both widowed) was also married. We were told to obey and love the government. I shook your dad’s hand and we were told to take care of one another. I had never even spoken to your dad before that moment. We got married in December of 1978. A few days after we were married, I was sent back to work in the rice fields. Your dad worked in the village growing vegetables, lettuce, and cabbage. Even though we were married, when I worked in the fields, I stayed there with other girls my age. We slept in tents outside.
Question: After you got married, how did you end up at a refugee camp?
Shortly after your dad and I got married, in April of 1979, Vietnamese soldiers had invaded Cambodia. We were again forced out of the village we were living in. Your dad’s family wanted to head to Thailand because grandpa had done business there before the war. My mom wanted to return to Battambang to search for my second oldest brother. There were homes that were abandoned that no one was living in. We stayed in two different homes before reaching the Cambodia-Thailand border. The second home we stayed in one night and left in the middle of the night. A guide led us to Thailand. We walked all night and all day for two days until we reached the camp. I thought I was going to die and I wouldn’t see my family again. We had to walk in a single file line because there were land mines and traps of sharpened bamboo sticks that you could fall into. I did not get to see my mom, brother, or sister for 10 years. We did not know we would end up staying in a camp. Grandpa knew people in Thailand and we planned to work there. When we arrived though, they placed us in a camp. There were homes made of straw. We stayed at three different camps for approximately six months.
Question: How did you get to the United States?
The first camp we stayed in was called Aranyaprathet camp 15. We were given one sheet of paper. On the paper was our family name, the list of family members, and the country we wanted to go to. Grandpa had heard the United States was “good,” so our paper said “USA.” Two of your dad’s sisters drew a line on the paper and wrote their names and “France,” but they tore the paper at the line, and his sisters ended up being sent back to Cambodia. The second camp we were at for approximately two months. At this camp we had physicals done. Grandpa and one of your uncles had an infection at the time. We had to stay at this camp longer for them to heal. The final camp Lum Pi Ni we stayed in until we came to the US. We had to listen for our “T number” or family number that was called and information given. I still remember our T number: 31751.
Question: How did you feel leaving Cambodia?
When we were leaving, I reflected on the times we were forced out of our homes, and the times we were starving. I kept praying, “whichever God listens to me, and delivers me from here, that is who I will follow.” When we were leaving I remember feeling hopeful that one day I would get to see my family again. On September 13, 1979, we arrived in Berne, Indiana. The First Mennonite Church in Berne sponsored our family. They had a house for us to live in, they paid for our utilities, and each month, we received $10 per person to buy food for the month.
Question: You came to the United States, not knowing any English. How did you communicate with the people at the church and how did you learn how to speak English?
One of the people at the church, Janeen Miller, spoke a little bit of cantonese and Chinese. She had served as a missionary. She was able to speak some with Grandma, but we used a lot of hand signals and it probably didn’t make much sense. We went to Fort Wayne 5 days a week to learn English. They taught us mostly with pictures, i.e. we learned the letters “A, B, C,” etc. They would show us a picture of a can or a boat. Your dad and I had one hour lessons after work with Iona Amspaugh. She was a teacher and would spend extra time with us teaching us English. Each of the older family members also got jobs. I sewed arm caps for Smith Brothers. Your dad worked at the IGA grocery store and eventually Economy Printing. Your grandma and grandpa also worked at Economy Printing. It took about 6-7 years to learn how to speak to people.
Question: How did you find grandma again?
In 1987, your dad and I returned to Thailand for about three weeks to search for my mom. There was a camp called “Sakeo” that we went to search for her. We looked there and one other camp. We made ads with her information on them. We found someone who said he went between Thailand and Cambodia and paid him to go to the town my mom was from and see if she was there. We left our information and phone number with him. When we came back to the United States, we received a phone call that he had found her. We started making paperwork to sponsor her here. The church helped us and in August of 1989, my mom, sister, and brother arrived.
Question: What happened to your two older brothers?
My mom told me in 1980, my oldest brother had a bike and he was trying to get materials to trade. He was robbed and killed. My second oldest brother and my mom did try to come to the refugee camps after your dad and I. However, the camp they were in, they were not able to get sponsored and they were sent back to Cambodia. My brother told me they were driven by bus back to Cambodia and left in the mountains. They nearly died, and he said at that point, he would not try to come (to the States) again.
Question: What was it like owning a donut shop?
The first donut shop we bought was in North Manchester in 1986. It was really tough. We didn’t speak very good English. We didn’t know all the names of the donuts. As soon as we took over the donut shop, most people quit. The person that was supposed to train us for at least 10 days, left after less than a week. I made a lot of mistakes ringing people up. People called crescents dog turds and they called apple fritters cow pies, I had no idea what that meant. They called your dad “Wing Ding,” probably making fun of him, but we had no idea what they were saying. We just tried to be patient and laughed along with people. We owned the donut shop for about one year, and one of dad’s friends wanted to buy it. After we returned from Thailand in 1987, in 1988, we bought the Tom’s Donuts on State Street in Fort Wayne. We knew by this time how to run a donut shop and were more comfortable speaking to customers.
Question: How does it feel? Do you ever have any thoughts when you think about how the lives of me, Joan, and Cory turned out compared to what you went though?
We always wanted to push you to get an education. I always wanted you guys to do better than me. I wanted to go to school when I was younger, but I couldn’t. I’m proud that you all were able to go to school and do better than I was able to.
Question: Do you have any business advice for me?
Be patient. Don’t stress out, it’s part of the job. A lot of people have the same struggles. I’ve been through it too. You’re not alone. Take a deep breath and pray for God to give you strength. Trust in him. That’s what helps me.
Question: Out of all the advice you’ve given me over the years, what is the most important thing you want me to remember?
Family first. Always take care of your children and never let your guard down. They are only small once. We weren’t able to take you on vacations or trips because we couldn’t take the donut shop with us, but we’re glad you are able to spend more time with your kids. Cherish these times with them!