In her own words:
Life story of Amara
October 30, 1999
If I think about my life as a whole experience I think about from my childhood up to when I grew up as an adult. I never had a father really. I grew up without a father. I was born in Thailand in 1955. When I was about seven, my mom and my older sister next to me (she’s four years apart from me and I am the youngest), we went to visit my grandparents in Cambodia, my grandparents were really sick. There was a time that Thai and Cambodian did not get along, they were at war, so we kind of slipped across the border and went into Cambodia and my mom got captured there. So I stopped there with my sister, and so I grew up with my grandparents in Cambodia. And my two other sisters and my brother who is the oldest stayed with my father in Thailand. We stayed there in Cambodia and grew and lived and survived. I grew up with my grandparents on the farm, separate, far away from the city. It was quiet; people are in more harmony and loved one another.
We grew crops. We had rice, and when the rice was harvested, we grew beans and vegetables, all year‑round season kind of things, corn and stuff like that. Sesame. On the farm. It’s not a tree but a little bush, probably like a rose bush, and you have all kinds of fruit, I would say‑ flowers, and then they turn to fruit, and you have all of the sesame seeds in there. They come in black and white colors.
And then I‑‑there was a time when I didn’t speak any Cambodian at all‑‑I spoke Thai fluently, of course ‑‑and Cambodian and Thai do not get along ‑‑I mean, I can’t even talk because every time I see something, even fun things or whatever, I want to express in Thai and my mom have to pinch my thigh because she does not want them to know that we are Thai people, in public, because if they found out we were Thai‑‑ I don’t know what they were going to do, maybe put us in jail, or whatever.
Then I went to school and studied Cambodian. I didn’t remember how hard it was [to learn a new language] because I was so young, and somehow I adapted myself very easily, I guess when we’re very young it is easy to adapt ourselves to a new language. I was bilingual since I was seven but when I started in Cambodia, French‑‑because Cambodia was a French colony for a half century‑‑so French became a second language, so I have to take French in school. Everything we pass we have to pass in both languages, French and Cambodian.
And then, through all of high school and through all college, I spoke French fluently‑‑we spoke French more than Cambodian. I didn’t lose the Thai language because at home I still spoke to my sister and my mom in Thai, and even now, I still speak Thai fluently. I now speak five languages‑‑I speak Lao also‑‑my native Thai, Cambodian, French, English, and Lao. I can’t even remember how many I speak anymore… I just kind of … You know, most of the language that I learn, it’s not because I have time to sit and think and say, “Gee, I want to learn one more language.” I did it out of necessity, because I have to learn, you know, in school, and then I came here to America and the same thing, I didn’t speak any English, not even one word, so I have to learn. I have to study in order to understand. When I was at school at home it was totally different because the custom of the school ‑ I’m sure every country is different ‑ the discipline was so strict in school in Cambodia. I went school, also high school, I was wearing uniforms, just like a Girl Scout uniform, you don’t have the freedom to wear clothes, fashions, or anything like that. Especially the way you behave in school, they’re very strict. You’re not allowed to have dates or anything like that because our culture never allowed you to have dates, period. You would go to school in the morning, and come home at night, and stay in the house.
In the school the age in grade levels are similar to here. You finish high school at 16 or 17, and then you go to college. Over there it’s similar to here, you choose any major you want to get into. They have all kinds of schools like here, medical schools, trade schools. When I was there I always wanted to be a doctor but I didn’t have the opportunity because my mother let me get married when I was so young. I was 15 when I got married.
My ex‑husband’s aunt is a friend of my mother’s neighbor, so over there you get married by arrangement. If somebody has a boy at home and if they like your daughter, they have a middle person come and ask you is it OK to come and ask your daughter to engage to be married. And I’m not supposed to know anything, and my parents decide and say, hey, you’re going to get married. This is the man you are going to be with. I didn’t know anything different. Like I said, I would be dropped off at school and picked up at school and brought home at night. I’m not even allowed to go out of the house, even if we go to the movies or anything we are chaperoned buy our parents, either that or by a cousin or uncle, we were never allowed to be alone, never mind about dating or talking or making friends with a male, a boy, if you just looked at a boy, you would be… Mom would just look at you with one glimpse and you would be gone! Over here I see kids, if the parents have company the kids just hang around, kind of do whatever they want, not everybody. I see kind of more freedom. At home where I lived, if my mom had company, she does not have to tell me or ask me to go away, she only takes one look, I’m gone, I just knew exactly what she meant. I would go in my room. I grew up as an obedient child; I don’t know much to say or refuse. And my family was very religious.
The religion was Buddhism. The Buddhist traditions totally different worship from here, different traditions. They have different holidays and celebrate a different way. And Christian, I don’t know, it’s hard to explain…if religions are taught to love one another and caring… that’s just a different version. I can’t say to not believe, that’s my belief. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and Christians do not, and you really get deep into the Bible, but the principles of morality and stuff like that, they are the same. I was exposed to Christians since I was at home because my older sister was married to an American major up in Unity, Maine, so I kind of learned a little bit about Christians. Now I go to both the church and the temple. When I was a young child my family was Buddhist, but after I was married, I was married with a Muslim. I went into their tradition and then I learned about Christian because I moved to live in the capital city. When I grew up I was working with Frenchmen, so I would go with the Christians a lot. Just all along my life I learned about different religions and I believe there is only one God. People just some time they believe in Buddhism, they don’t go into Christians, they don’t go to any places, but to me I become acquainted with people I know. I hope that God forgives me. But I only know that I love Him. I don’t know how to explain but honestly in my heart I love people, and I believe in God. God taught me to be a good person, I would say, love and respect one another, and care. And I do care about people and I believe that’s all I can be. I believe in Him and so it doesn’t matter if Buddhism or whatever. I don’t have any problem when people come to me and say they don’t believe in God, that’s OK too. Every body has to come to their own terms. I wouldn’t hate that person or not be sociable because they are ….. Some people do, but I don’t. I’m very open minded.
My ex‑husband was Muslim but he was born in Cambodia. His mother was half Chinese, half Vietnamese, and his father was 100% full‑blooded Muslim, so he is kind of one third of everything. And now he met me, I’m half Cambodian and half Thai, so I don’t know what my children are now, like five different nationalities. My daughter so often asked me, Mom, tell me again what my background is, how many nationalities? I told her I think so far as I know, five, but I don’t know which ones you lean toward, or look like.
After I got married, I moved to live with my husband’s family. That is the tradition. After you marry you’re supposed to move into the groom’s house, and I didn’t know a single soul in the city. I moved far away from home. As far away as from here to California. I didn’t know a single soul. I was scared, I was so lost. And we didn’t have any phones. We could write letters, that’s about it. In those days, telephones did not exist yet. It was scary. Somehow in all of my life, I felt like I learned how to be independent. I tried to‑‑ not survive but‑‑ I tried to be strong, I would say I did tell my mom, I said, Mom I am just so scared, so afraid. And my mom was always able to comfort me and encourage me, by saying sometimes you have to be strong, and if I’m not around you’ll be able to maintain yourself, live on your own. Ever since, somehow when she told me that, I thought in my mind I hove to learn how to live on my own because if she’s right, if she’s not there I have to depend on myself. So at that moment I didn’t have any goal or plan because all I knew was that I was supposed to marry that man and move and live and start a family, that’s all I knew.
And I moved away from home, and I was living with my in‑law family. My mother‑ in‑law, because she grew up in the military, she was more demanding than my mom. My mom was kind of farmer, kind of religious, very laid back, very easy going, my mom speaks with the voice of a mother, never raised her voice. When I come to my husband’s family, they were military, she was very demanding, she had maids and servants, all the time, it was just like you were her servant. You could never look in her face, because every time you speak you would have to look at the feet, down. because that was how she is. A very powerful woman. I never got used to her that whole time, because when she started screaming or raising her voice toward her servants or her children or whoever, I was terrified, I had never seen that. My mom never did that. I did not know how to cope with that. I was scared, fear at the same time. When I got to know her, I kind of ignored her, not in a mean way, but I tried to not pay attention when she was screaming at people around me. I got to know her a little better. She is a good hearted woman, very giving, but she had a personality that was very demanding, controlling.
I adjusted, but would still feel uncomfortable, and when I was there, my mother‑ in‑law on her side, she had seven children, all boys. My ex‑husband was the oldest one. And when my ex‑husband and I were married, my mother‑in‑law, her goal was for us to have children right away, but I did not produce fast enough, married for two years, without giving any kids, so she just flipped out. And there was a time in those days, they don’t have any doctors to test you to say whether you’re fertile or not, and she was ready to have my husband remarried to another woman. But I’m fortunate, her plan did not go through because I got pregnant. When I first got pregnant I didn’t tell her I was pregnant because I was upset and disappointed I felt like I’m a baby machine. Until the baby started moving, then she found out I was pregnant.
Thank God … With my pregnancy, I was praying that I wanted to have a boy because I didn’t want my daughter ‑ I felt like – I’m not blaming it on my custom and my culture but, growing up as a young girl, I learned the hard way, no one taught me anything. Not about how my body’s development is, how I’m supposed to be married, about men, about how I’m supposed to have intercourse, you know, things like that. I didn’t know anything. I felt like I didn’t like what I’d gone through and I didn’t want any daughter to have to go through like that. And I pray and I pray, and what happened, when she was born and I realized it was a girl, my mom say, everybody say it’s a girl, I passed out. That’s how disappointed I was. Because deep inside of me, that’s what I don’t want to happen. It’s not because I don’t love my children, whether girl or boy, I felt like boy have more freedom, you know. Thank god, I say, because, on the other hand I want a boy because I don’t want a girl to go through what I’ve gone through but because it’s a girl, it made my in‑law family, like a star shining. Soon I have a daughter, I guess they celebrate with a big party, they don’t care about Amara, you know, because here, I’ve got the child, it’s a spirit, holy, worship.
I didn’t want to nurse my baby, because something in me, I knew that my ex‑ husband and I were not going to be together, because, I have my certain dream about my men in my life, but I have no other choice. But somehow I believe, I have hope strongly in my heart that someday I be free myself. And I didn’t want to nurse my baby, and my mother‑in‑law she got so upset, she was not kind to me. She said, do you want to keep yourself for somebody else? She thought that I didn’t want to destroy my beauty, that I wanted to keep myself to look good. But I didn’t have a choice anyway, so I nursed my baby. But when I was nursing my daughter, the food that I eat, she had to inspect, because she does not want her granddaughter to get sick, diarrhea, whatever. I love fruit, I love mangoes, but at the time she was born, she was born in April, it’s the time for mangoes. And I sat and drooled because I could not eat mangoes, because she does not want my daughter to get diarrhea. The whole season of mango, I missed the whole season.
It’s just that, I feel like in all my life I do whatever people want me to, I never can live my life. But that’s how it goes, so… my in‑law family is happy. My father‑in‑law, he was a wonderful man. He was always the opposite. He understands me and he loves me, and he was very gentle. And I loved him and respected him because his gentleness and understanding is how my family is. My mother‑in‑law, she is not a bad person, she is a wonderful woman, a good heart, like I say very giving, but she just had that personality. My point that I’m trying to say is that I learned how to adjust myself to so many different circumstances in my life.
When the baby was born, my husband was happy. But at the same time, he’s a young father also, and he lives with his mother, so whatever his mom say, mom is in control of everything, you know. Not whether we boy or girl, when we live with our parents, and he lived with his parents, so…
It was almost nine years before the second baby. I didn’t take any birth control, but it happened naturally. I had gone through the war. The internal war started in 1975, so the communists took over my country. And I was in a prison camp with the communists for four years and they separated men and women. So when my daughter was four years, my husband and I were separated. My husband and I were not together. They put men in one place and women in one place.
They called it a prison camp, but it was not prison like it had walls around us. They just separate a territory that you not be able to connect each other. They guard us all the time so you’re not allowed to travel from within one, you’re not allowed to travel anywhere, period, but to stay in the group where you are. So what they do, they put men in one place and women in one place, and children and older people in one place, so older people can babysit. My daughter was four, I left my village to go to another place, and they didn’t allow me to be with my daughter and my mom. And all the children were in one place and they kept older people to just babysit among them, and they push all the mothers and fathers out in separate places. So I was put onto another island, I couldn’t go anywhere. They collected all or personal belongings, they evacuated the city and they tell us to get out of the house, not to take anything at all because after the evacuation, you’ll be able to come back, but we were never able to return home, ever. You had one pair of clothes, that’s about it. And then they put us into groups, and they took all our belongings, like I say, they changed our clothes to a black color, they gave us two pairs of clothes, and a spoon, and no shoes, nothing, and they divide us into a small group of ten people so one had to watch over three, so which means ten people in one group. divided into a small group, but they had the whole big group ‑ thousands of people ‑ watched over by the Khmer Rouge, which is the Communists.
And I never see my husband, because men and women weren’t allowed to see each other plus their rules, regulations, you’re not allowed to be in love, not allowed to be adultery, and even in the Communist time, when I was in a prison camp for four years, I never saw rape, I never saw crime, because it never exists. Because one could be killed if you commit ‑ no justice ‑ so people didn’t really have to put gun over the head, and if somebody did, what they do, they take people out and shoot them right in front of everybody. And nobody wanted to do anything, they were scared to death, you just wanted to survive every day. You weren’t able to say you don’t like this, you don’t like that, whatever somebody say, it goes. And if they find out your background and that you were educated people, you got killed too. So you had to hide yourself. You had to change your name. They don’t know your past, your background, who you are. I did change my name. They didn’t know who I was. After awhile I would be killed.
At this point, I was separated from my family, I was alone, all by myself. I was with people I don’t know. I was twenty‑one. For four years they only allowed you to come home, like on the holiday, once a year, and I would be able to see my husband and my daughter. That’s why I have a gap between my two children.
In 1978, after they killed all the educated people, and they don’t have any population left, what they do is try to get the married people back together, so they can produce the population. That’s how my ex‑husband and I got back together. Toward the end of the fourth year. And sure enough, I knew, I was afraid because we didn’t have any medicine, any nurse, nothing. If I am to have a baby, I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to survive. I kept telling him. But, it didn’t work, so I became pregnant, with my son.
I was worried every day when I was pregnant, I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I didn’t know how far along was my pregnancy, I could only guess. So anyway, one night, I guess when I’d come to full term in my pregnancy, the Vietnamese communists engaged the warfare with the Khmer Rouge, which is communists in my country, my people. So the Vietnamese communists engaged the warfare. They started to shoot all over the place, thousands of guns, and I took a chance, my family took a chance, I escaped. We didn’t know where we would go, we just wanted to get out of the village, we just wanted to go. So we went into the jungle, I was pregnant and I started my labor that night. Right there. I gave birth to my son in the jungle. At night you can’t walk, you can’t escape because the jungle has all the animals, and we had no path, nothing, so we hid ourselves at night because we can’t see. I know that I would give
birth to my son because ‑ the new year ‑ because the time, the season. I knew it was at night because the moon had come out at a certain time. But the moon is just so clear, just like a bright daylight, you could see distant, far away, because in the jungle, everywhere I look it is pitch dark and when the moon come out, it was just like an electric light. But, like I say, when I was in labor, we ran all day trying to escape from the guns and everything, so that night, everybody was kind of tired, and fell asleep, most of the neighbors didn’t want to stay around me because they knew if I would have labor, they were afraid that that the baby would cry and the enemy would find us, so they stayed away from me. Only a few families stick with me and be there for me. So everybody was asleep, and I can’t sleep because I’m in labor, I sit beneath the bamboo tree, and leaned myself back, like this, just waiting, and just praying, I don’t want the baby to be born while the guns shoot a thousand bombs, while I’m having the baby, I would die in one place. I couldn’t run. At the same time, the baby started to be born, and I couldn’t get up. I had to throw some piece of bark to my mother and everybody get up to help me. I had no watch, no time, but I remember it was not long after the baby when I was so thirsty because we ran all day, no food, no water, and I begged my husband to go get some water. He ran and left, I don’t know, because usually you could find some tree you could cut to get some water. He left probably about half an hour. I didn’t see him coming back. So I heard the gunfire in the direction where he left, where he went to look for water for me, and in my mind I said, Oh my God, my husband must have got killed. And all of a sudden, after a couple of shots, the enemy must know that we hid ourselves in the elephant grass, they just threw thousand of bombs, and everybody got up and left. And poor me ‑‑I didn’t mean to say it like that ‑‑ but I didn’t know what to do. I was so confused, so my mom grabbed the baby and she said, you’ve got to run, we’ve got to go. I was thinking, Oh my God, my husband, where is he, he must have died and I can’t go back to see him.
So my daughter, at the time she was about eight or nine, we left with the rest of the people. I traveled, it was not that far, the bombs kept being shot. I got a piece of a bomb stuck in my butt, and I passed out. I told my mom before, if I ever got shot for some reason, I want her to go on and take my baby so he can survive, I don’t want her to wait for me. Don’t worry about me. So I guess when I passed out after the baby was born, I just walked and I passed out, I don’t know what happened. My mom told me, when I woke up, she told me that she wouldn’t leave me. She was crying and praying and waiting for someone to come along and help. So my sister’s husband came along, helped me, and another man came along, and my brother in law came along, and they picked me up, they made like a hammock to carry me, you know, and we got into a
river. The river had a very strong current, so we had no other choice. If we go back the enemy chased after us with guns, so we had to go across that river and finally made it to the other side of the river. So the enemy chased after us, and they didn’t dare to go to the other side because the current was so strong. They didn’t want to get killed so they backed off. So finally we escaped across the water.
So after ‑ I was passed out so I didn’t know, my mom told me ‑ we walked for awhile and we got into another place with the Vietnamese communists, but they didn’t shoot us they didn’t kill us. Finally they just got us together as a group, and they were helping us instead of killing us. They were only looking for the communists. They helped the civilians. They were looking for the Cambodian communists, the Khmer Rouge. So for us, because we were civilians, they just freed us.
The Khmer Rouge were shooting at us when we were running, not the Vietnamese communists. Because they didn’t want us to escape, but we took our chance to escape, so we crossed into the border of the Vietnamese. So they conquered us, and we were in the safe place. And my mom told me that she met the medicine man, and she told him what happened and he went into the jungle in the early dawn and he put some medicine together and he boiled it like herbs and acupuncture and stuff.
And my mom told me that she fed me early in the morning, it was around 3 o’clock, the sun, you could only tell the time by the sun. You know when you got used to living that kind of life, you could tell the time of the day pretty much. She said usually in four or five days, I came to but I was not sustained to be awake, I was in a coma, so when she was feeding me medicine I remember trying to stay awake, because my body retained water, and so finally it washes out, I started to be awake, and I could hear my mom whisper in my ear, try to be awake. You’ve got to live, because your baby is so beautiful, I remember she said to me. And somehow in my mind, I thought, I said, I’ve got to live, I’ve got to live for my son, no one can feed him. And let me tell you … it’s fear… nobody went through what I did. Your mind is strong. I was thinking, even before I passed out somehow I was thinking, I can’t die, I’ve got to live for my son. …so somehow I stayed. I was so weak, I couldn’t walk. It was a nightmare.
After the Vietnamese communists found us, we just stayed out in a field, no houses or anything. We kind of built ourselves, from the trees, we made little huts, something to protect us from the weather. We stayed there a couple months, and they evacuated us, and the Vietnamese Communists took control of Cambodia, and they allowed people to travel, normal, but they didn’t know what their government situation was going to be any moment, but they allowed people to go find their village, where they live, their houses and whatever. So I couldn’t go back to the capital city because it was too far, so I go into the farm where my brothers and my grandparents lived. We couldn’t own any houses or anything because everything belonged to the government, but they allowed us to live in whatever house you could grab. It didn’t matter whose house, so I stayed in my village for a while to recuperate, with my aunts and my uncle. But at that time, at the same time, I found my husband, at the gathering place, he didn’t die, so we came back to the village together. When we got to the village, my brother in law and my husband wanted to go to do some searching to find a way to escape the country, to Thailand where I was born, because Thailand was not at war anymore because the Vietnamese communists took over, so Thai and Cambodia was not at war anymore. So my husband went to the Thai border, and it took him a long time, he never sent a note whether he dead or he alive, I was waiting for him in the village. So somehow we have people travel back and forth from the border, they go buy things to bring back to the village to sell. Some people were doing that. So they saw my husband, but he never sent any news to tell me that he was ok, he was alive, he’s there, so when he was gone for so long, he didn’t come back, I have an idea in my mind that I wanted to go find him. I could walk, I was feeling better, but I couldn’t nurse my baby because I was so sick, I didn’t have enough milk. My baby lived with rice porridge. I feed him, because now he’s seven or eight months, he was able to eat, so I asked my mom to take care of my son and I started to go find my husband. I left my daughter and my son and I walked from my village to the border. I walked for two days. I went with my sister, because her husband went [with my husband] also. So it was just her and me.
Finally I found him, and he said he stayed there to search for some more ways to get out. He stayed on the border on the Cambodian side, but not into Thailand, you have to walk across the border because the Thai have guns. That’s why he didn’t come back home, because he didn’t really have success in his searching. So, I was there, and then I realized a way to get out to another country. I left the men to stay to do their homework and I went back to get my children and my mom. So I walked back home with my sister, came back, and I told my mom that I wanted to escape but we had to go to the border in order to escape. My aunts and my uncle, and my mom, they hadn’t seen their family for a long time, so she didn’t know what to do and I said to her, this is going to take a lot for you to decide, because I understand ‑ and she’s older ‑ I love you very much mom, but I can’t live the way we live. I have to find my freedom. And if you can’t go, somehow I felt so strong, I love my mom, but I wouldn’t let it hold me back, because I suffered so much in the prison camp. I love her but I wanted to have my own freedom, for my right, because I want my children to have freedom. My mom loves me very much, she was willing to leave her family behind and come with me. A lot of my aunts and my uncles wouldn’t come out, my cousins, neither one of them. They love their home, they are comfortable, they wanted to stay there. But my mom left the family. Remember, my mom was in Thailand to begin with, so she kind of thinks about maybe she would have an opportunity to see my brother and sister again and her husband. So she left with me. I brought my two children, and went to the border. And I have my brother’s family on the farm, remember he married and took care of the farm when my mother and I left to live in the capital city. And I left my brother.
So we got to the Thai border and we found a way to escape but we have to pay people. We gave them some gold because I have some gold left. I had spent gold in trade for food, even though we suffered, I never suffered because we always had enough food to eat. So I have a whole kilogram of gold to live, and every person who help us to escape into Thailand but we don’t know the way so we have to pay them, five ounce of gold per person. So I’m willing to pay that, my mom willing to pay that to get out.
But you know, I missed my sister. My other sister is already in Thailand, and my other sister already out of the country, so only my sister next to me and my brother, and I feel bad for my brother, I didn’t want to leave him behind. So I decided to go back, tell him of the situation, that we have an opportunity to get out, I want him to have a chance to make up his mind, so I left my two children again. No one was willing to go, my sister didn’t want to go, because they were afraid they would get captured and they won’t come back. I don’t know where I got the ambition I have, the braveness I have, where I get it from, how I did it. I voluntarily walk home alone again to get my brother’s family. And I went, and I told my brother the situation. He has four children. And I said, if you want your freedom, you’ve got to get out of here. You don’t know what is going to happen, you don’t want to go back to being in prison again. And they will kill us if they want to kill us. So, my brother made the decision to go, and we took off. This time, it was not easy to get out of the village because they knew people escaped to go to the Thai border, so we can’t get out during the daytime, we have to wait until midnight to come out. And that was risky, very risky. If we were caught, we wouldn’t be able to get out. And I left my two children there. It was really dangerous. So anyway, we made it.
We left the village, because the people that ‑ how do I say? ‑ the people that handle the village happened to be my best friend that I went to school with, and her husband is an important person. And I told her the truth, that I had come to get my brother. I kind of whispered it, you can’t say anything, I told her, look, I know I may be asking you to do too much but I’m going to come and get my brother’s family out of the village. And you too have that opportunity. You can, because even though your husband has that important position, you don’t know what it’s going to change into. You’ve got to think about yourself, your freedom. She said I can’t do it because my husband won’t go. She know that her husband won’t go. Why would he want to go? Because he’s got a very important position there. And I can understand, but I, you know, like a last goodbye, I can’t believe what’s happening, we don’t know if we will ever see each other again. So she wished me luck. And I told her husband that I have come to get my brother and I know that you won’t stop me, I know because you’re my best friend. But, if I ever get killed, I know it’s not your fault. I believe in my heart that you’re not going to report this, and they didn’t, they didn’t report it. They let me free.
So I took my brother’s family, we left and we walked. This time, you can’t walk on the road. You have to go through the rice fields with water up to our waists. We had to walk through the rice fields because it hides us so they won’t be able to see us. So we walked in the rice fields at night in water up to our waists. Finally we get to the place where we can walk on a regular normal road.
When I got close to the Thai border on the Cambodian side, close to my family, Thai people shoot a thousand bombs into the area where my family was, and I couldn’t get in because there were too many bombs. And I was soaked myself, from walking in the rice fields and the bombs flew over my head, everywhere, and I can’t run because it’s in the water. Just waiting to die! But, I made it, because finally they stopped. They bombed about two hours. They were thinking maybe to kill all of us, and they just kind of stopped. So here we have a chance to move forward, finally to meet my family. We got to the lines where my family was and my mom was nervous and terrified, didn’t know where I was, never thinking I was going to be back. I made it.
After that, when we got to the Thai border, here’s the story. We were supposed to pay about three to five ounces, we don’t know yet until they tell us. Finally they say five ounces of gold per person, and there was a time, we weren’t sure that we were going to make it, but you know what? It was the fraud, you know people who didn’t know any way to go but just wanted our money. And we paid the money, They brought us to where the Thai borderline is, you can hear people talking in the village. Those people had no way of bringing us into Thailand because they didn’t have any authority, they were just one of us. So we paid money for nothing. We couldn’t get it back, because they took it and spent it. So we can’t even get out of the border. We stayed there. And everything we had, we gave, because we wanted freedom. But you know, and people like that, I pray, I was mad, I prayed, but then you know what? I thought what goes around, comes around. People take advantage of the situation that people needed help, and you know, it’s not a good thing to do. But I say, let it be, Mom, don’t be upset, you know, people like that, they will pay their own price. Let it be. So we stayed at the border for almost a year.
So finally, somehow, the Red Cross of America, one day we see the helicopter drop us some supplies, so we can build a tent. They dropped us some canned foods and stuff like that, so people can live and survive without going to the woods and finding some wild stuff. So we had a tent, we made it, and then after that, I guess, we finally walked into Thailand, we made ourselves walk across the border and they shoot the bombs, a thousand bombs, to kill us. Again. So finally, we passed that, we made it, my family, but a couple of my neighbors got killed. One lady that lived in the same place as me, she got killed, and I had to walk past her, and I carried her four children with me, so I can find their family when I got to the Thai place. The four children found their aunt, and I told her that her sister passed away. And I couldn’t help her, she got killed in front of me. The only thing I could do was take the children. And my brother found a little girl that lost her father, and they found a parent when they got to the Thai border. So when I live on Thai border, I was sick to begin with and I had three girls that did not have any parents, I was so sick and I have a little girl, so what she does, she does not have food, and I provide her food and she come and help me. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t take care of my baby. So they come and help me to clean up my baby, you know, like a nanny to my baby, three sisters, I was very fortunate, they helped me out when I was sick, helped my mother because she was old. We helped each other, together, as a family.
So when we came to Thailand, they put us in a camp so we have American Red Cross in there. So what I did, I put in the application. I had lost contact with my sister completely, I didn’t know where she was, because I was in the prison camp, no contact. And I went back into Thailand, my father was in Thailand but I couldn’t contact him either, because I don’t know where he was, and I was not able to become a Thai citizen anymore, because I went into Cambodia when I was young and I was captured, and I became a Cambodian citizen. And plus, I was a refugee, I’m not allowed to associate or be out of the camp anyway, so I got put in the prison again. This time the prison had walls, like a prisoner, not allowed to go anywhere. With the Thai soldiers, who conquered us, around.
So I put the application into every country I can possibly find. I sent a letter saying I needed some sponsors. So at the time, my ex‑husband’s brother, he was out in America, so he found me, through news from somebody else, so he sponsored me. At the same time, my sister found me. They both sponsored me. But at the same time, I was working with French people, so I sent a letter to their old address, and they sponsored me in France. So finally I got accepted by French people, on my ex‑boss, before America, because when you put in the application you don’t get accepted right away. So at the time I wanted to get out to the third country, to get my freedom, no choice, I say whatever comes, I will go. But while you are accepted, when you say that you are going to go out, you have a certain grace period of time to wait, so I had to wait six months before I get out of the camp. Because you have medical treatments and every thing else before you come out.
So while I was waiting in that six‑month time, I was accepted by America also. And I used to be, not living there, but I used to go to visit France, for almost eight months I had been there. I didn’t live there for a long period of time, just a short period of time, so I knew what the French culture was like, I worked with French people, I was much more comfortable. But, something in me, I have challenge. I want something that is unknown.
My ex‑husband he does not have much of this. Somehow he is very demanding, controlling, but he does not have much to say about it. I’m not saying that I was more intellectual than he is, but I learned more about the outside, more experience. My decision, he was kind of OK. He did not disagree with that. So when I decided that I wanted to come to America, he said it’s ok, if that’s what you want to do. So we changed our plans, instead of going to France, we wanted to come to America. At the same time, I didn’t know where my journey would end. All I knew was that my sister was out here, my brother in law is out here, but I don’t know where I’m going to be. I don’t know anything about America. So when I came out, it took a 24, 26 hour flight from Thailand. So like I said, I’ve just been waiting, changing plans, from one place to another, I didn’t know when my journey would end.
My daughter, my son, my mom, and my ex‑husband were with me. My sister who was with me in the family … See you have to have somebody to accept you because you can’t get your own family in, you have to have an application for each family. My brother’s family was accepted but could not come together, they had to come at different times. My sister (who grew up with me in Cambodia) decided to go to France, because her husband’s brother, he’s a doctor in France. They came out before the war took over. So she followed her husband because more secure job and family. They wanted to go there for security. And me, I wanted to come to America, either my brother in law (my husband’s brother) or my sister. I didn’t know which one I’m going to end up with.
So I came out to America. my brother’s family still stayed in the camps. My sister’s family and friends. She went two months before me, then in two months I came out, and my brother came out three months after us.
So I came here, actually, my application was accepted by my ex‑husband’s brother, but I decided to come to my sister because of my mom. So that’s how I came to Maine. My ex‑brother‑in‑law, he lives in Texas, otherwise I would have gone to Texas. So I came here and also the people at the Methodist Church in South Portland sponsored me. So that’s where I have gone to Church for twenty years.
People have been wonderful. I came here, they taught me how to survive all the things around me, like shopping, they found me school. When I came here, I went to school for ESL, English as a second language, at Portland adult education. I went for six months, I was on welfare, but I vowed to myself that I was not going to be living like that, because every month I go for an interview and they asked me all kinds of questions. Always asking, what do you own, what do you have? All kinds of those questions. And what do I have? A pair of clothes. Do I own any car? No, I don’t.
Somehow I just knew that I didn’t want to be on that system. I wanted to get on my own. My independence told me I wanted to live my own life, I didn’t want to answer any more questions.
So I went to adult education and applied for a job. Didn’t have much credentials, or education, and you look for anything.
My ex husband got a job working at the YMCA ‑‑ passing out the towels, answering the phones, doing the cleaning. At the time the job was $3.25. But just to live on welfare for $400 a month, with the food stamps $100‑something, and the housing subsidized, this didn’t give me much of a life. So at least I could get a basic salary, and between the two of us, we could have a decent living, put food on the table.
And at the time, I applied for the school. There was some federal money, because all the different ethnic groups and children come to this country for the first time, so they kept some money as funding for a multi‑lingual program to help out those kind of people. And I applied for a job, and I got the job as a facilitator for Portland public school, for my first job. I assisted the ESL teacher, when they conduct a lesson, I translated into different languages. I speak more than one language, so they hired me. So I translate, and help those kids learn to understand the culture here, just adjusting. So that’s how I got a job.
I was working and going to school at night, and my husband was working at the YMCA for a while, then he applied for a job at Hannaford Bros. and got a job, so we could move up a little better grade. So I continued to go to school to study English at night, and working during the daytime, and then come home to the rest of the family. When I was working at school they had some money, some grant funding, so if anybody wanted to go to school they would pay for school. At the time, I was working a lot with the parents also, because the parents didn’t understand the language. If they had a school meeting, either that or the children come to school, I explained to the parents what is the tradition here, what does the school system do, the regulations here. So I worked both with the children and with the parents. And I knew there was a time that I didn’t want to become a teacher, I love to work with children, but that’s not what my plans are. I like to work with adults.
So somehow, I took the sociology, because I worked with the parents to begin with anyway. So at the time, I was still working at school, but they gave me time to go to school, two days a week I’m going to Boston University, and three days I worked but they paid me full time, because the grant paid the school. So anyway, I went to school, I completed my courses, and at the same time I was still working at school, and in the summertime, usually the teachers here, they take a vacation, they get paid, but for us, we didn’t get paid. But they will pay for us for the summer, because we can’t just have a job at the school year round, they wanted us to teach our own language to the children, so I was the head facilitator at the time, because we have Lao, Cambodian, Vietnamese facilitators, so I wrote the curriculum for the summer what needed to be taught, and I learned along with my job. I didn’t have any experience, but I was willing to learn, willing to take time to go to school at night just to learn all those things. I have to be thankful.
All my ESL teachers, some of them spoke French, they helped me to learn a lot faster. They took extra time for me to go to their house at night if I can’t do my homework. I’m going to college, I needed some help, they were willing. I’m thankful for those people. They helped me along with my life career.
So when I graduated from school, I wanted to work full time as a social worker, so I resigned from teaching. At that time I had gotten promoted, we had 18 facilitators instead of six, we started with six with myself. And I was working not much as being a translator, conducting the lesson. Because we had more people I had become totally as a head facilitator working with the director. I handled three schools, Reiche School, King Middle School, and Portland High School, but most of the time I was working with kids at Portland High school because they needed me more to translate, there was more difficulty over there. I was still doing my visiting to make sure everything was ok, all the facilities doing the right things, and stuff like that.
I was still going to school, and working full time at the time I got promoted. But at the same time, when I got to high school, when I got promoted to the top facilitator, I graduated. I didn’t want to work, it became too stressful. Those three schools, and 18 facilitators, and going to assist at workshops with the director. When you wanted funds, you had to go to workshops and explain what we do in our program, and I was away from home all the time. I lived in a hotel with the director, she was single, she had no husband, no boyfriend, her career was her life. I had two kids at home, and I couldn’t wait to graduate. When I graduated from school, I resigned from teaching, and I worked full time as a social worker. I worked at the Refugee Resettlement Program, on Lancaster Street at the time. My niece was working there also. She is a social worker so I worked with her.
Changing from one job to another job, I had to adjust myself into a different way. I was kind of scared to leave another job to go to another job, but I was willing to do it. I was working fine, but we didn’t have enough staff to work and I did a lot of home visits. And I worked with kids also, when kids had abuse, because the culture here, the parents were abusive or whatever.
I had thirty cases to take care of, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnam, Lao. Some of them were Polish. I can’t communicate in Polish, but I can speak English with the parents. Part of my job was multi‑lingual. I had to take care of all the different ethnic groups, it doesn’t matter whether I speak it or don’t speak it. There was a lot of pressure, because we didn’t have enough staff. So when my niece got married, she resigned from her job to open a store down in the Old Port with her husband. She opened a boutique store ‑ Club 21 ‑ on Exchange Street. And all the cases she had were piled on Amara, and I been working for only a year when they promote me and give me more salary, but the thing is, I can’t handle it, I’m totally stressed out. I would be away from home all the time, and snow. My territory was North and South Berwick all the way to Rumford, Maine. I traveled all the time.
I didn’t know how to drive when I came here to America. My husband didn’t know how to drive either. But I was working at school, and when I was on lunch break, I took the driver ed classes to get my license. He flipped out. He almost killed me. But I can’t tell him, he won’t let me. So, anyway, I drove. They paid me mileage and everything, but very dangerous, I would come home at night, in snow. And I would come home, especially my boy, thank God for my mother. My boy was being raised by my mother pretty much. So, after a time, I resigned.
Then I opened a store called Battam Bang with my sister. On Noyes Street. The little oriental store, now called Vientiane Market across from Corsetti’s. By the University. I owned that store with my sister. After I owned that store for a year and a half, or two years, I opened up a little take out. At the time there was no Thai food in Portland, Maine at all. So word about of mouth was getting spread, and everybody was very happy, so I expanded. I sold my partnership to my sister, and then I opened a restaurant on Washington Avenue, the Sala Thai, that’s my restaurant.
By that time, I had gone through the divorce, I didn’t know where my career was going to be, all I knew I was burned out, and I didn’t even want to think about counseling another single family. It was so hard. People just didn’t understand about norms and culture here. And people over there, sometimes they abuse their kids, the family, the wife, they don’t understand that it’s not acceptable here. And then, if I explained to them, because they are men, their ego, they would say I don’t have to listen to a woman, you’re a social worker, and you’re telling me what to do. Either that, or they’re threatening my life, if you help my wife to go through court divorce, you’re going to be murdered tonight, you know what I mean? Just pressure. You want to help out to make them understand, don’t fight, no divorce. I lived everyday like walking under threats. I was ready to crash, to fall. I just couldn’t live like that, I couldn’t do it. It was not worth it. There were good benefits, believe me, but I left.
After I sold the store and opened the Thai restaurant, by then I was divorced, living all alone with two kids. And my mother, and my ex‑mother‑in‑law, she lived close by. If I see her, I help her because my ex‑husband was gone. When I was still married, my ex‑husband and I sponsored his family and they all came over. But my house was like Grand Central Station, because every family that came in, before they could find their own habitant, they had to stay with me. So I catered from one family to the next family. I was working all the time, going to school, working, come home, clean and feed them. I don’t know how I did it. But I was so stressed, there were six brothers in the house, and my two kids and my mom and everything else. But you know, I just look back, I almost had a nervous breakdown if I would think about the way things were. I thank God that He just gave me so much strength, that I am capable to do all that I did.
So there were my two kids, and my mom, and having to manage the restaurant. I had the restaurant for four years. And then my mom fell down, she broke her hip. There was no one to take care, it was so hard. With the restaurant and everything, I come to a stress point again. I said to myself, I can’t handle this. I would have to take mom to the doctors, and try to do everything, come home, with the kids, I said I’m going to find a way. There was a time too that the restaurant was very popular because it was the only Thai restaurant in the state of Maine, so everybody knew about it. Now people have come down from Boston to open a couple more restaurants, so there’s not enough local people to support the business, so it was kind of slow, so I find a way to sell my restaurant. And finally I found somebody to buy it, and I got out, I stayed at home and took care of my mom for awhile. Just take a break, for a while.
That was a time I met a man in my life. I hadn’t been dating, after the divorce, for so long, with careers and kids, no time. No date. Period. So I met this person, I was engaged with him, not even go out, just to both be comfortable for the family to allow me to date, because tradition ‑ not tradition ‑ I would say because I didn’t feel comfortable, because I live with my mother. It’s not like, hey I’m going out on a date, I’m in America. My mom wouldn’t accept that. So I was engaged with him, just to get to know each other. He was American. At the time he was in school.
So when I was with him, I never really know who I was yet, I was married young, never had the opportunity to love him enough. At the time, he wanted to have children. After raising my children, I didn’t want to do it again. I never grew to love him, I never found my own identity. I never had time to be alone. So I finally broke it off. I loved him, I can never thank him enough for what he did for me and my family and my kids and everything. There was a time when he supported me when I took the break from the restaurant. He didn’t want me to go to work.
So at that time, I started to go to hair school, just to have something to take care of myself. When I go to hair school, I go to face, I go to massage, but when I got out, then he and I were not together.
Then when I start working, even for a little money, I enjoyed hairdressing so much. So then I wanted to expand my career because I didn’t just want to do hair, I want to do skin care, I want to do massage. At the time I was working at Hair Designers III. When I got out of school I worked there for a year. And then the manager said to me, if I continue to work there, they will expand a new store. But after I worked for a year, they hadn’t really expanded, so I say it does not look like it will be soon enough. And I became close friends with the owner, he was just an investor, but he hired a manager to run the place. I told him I wanted to work on other things, not just doing hair, you don’t have the facility to provide for me, I want to look for a new place.
I found a place. When I got into that field, I didn’t know how successful, how good I can be. So I found a person ‑‑my partner, my investor‑and I came here, to Shear Elegance. And that’s my career. I start from there. I expand more my knowledge, and I go to school more, I do more than just hair. And I’m very happy and I like what I do.
I set my goals, step by step, and I worked so hard, and at the same time, raised my children. When I was working at the other hairdresser for five years, my ex‑mother‑ in‑law passed away. I paid for her funeral. My ex‑husband made me pay for the funeral, and I was not even married with him. I hadn’t seen him for eight years after the divorce. But I did it for her, not for him. After that, in a year, my mom passed away. She just went in her sleep, and she was gone, And then my daughter moved away from home, because she’s old enough, just left me with my boy. And my aunt. It’s such a lonely place, with everybody gone.
After my mom passed away, for two months I had a broken kneecap, I couldn’t walk. I was out of work for six or seven months. For the first time for me, my spirit was ‑ it just broke my spirit. I was so run down. Lay on the couch, can’t move, thinking about my mom passing away, and everything.
I am thankful, I have all good clients. They are very supportive of me. They come to visit me, bring me some tapes, books, anything. They would take me for a walk a little bit. From one person to the next person. I have a good relationship with all of my clients.
I never lost faith in God, never, ever, no matter how my life goes.