Three Chapters of My Life
The lights of the city twinkled in the distance with its gentle glow. As the airplane started to descend, I hardly recognized this landscape. Only a few years ago they were a few flickers, one strand of lights enveloping the city. Now it was multiple strings encasing a growing metropolis.
I last visited Cambodia in 2017. I had the intention to visit every year or at least every other year to keep my connection to the country. To help my children maintain this part of their identity. But the world stopped in 2020 on a global and personal level. In July I travelled back to Cambodia after five years of being away. The country is the same, but different. The world is the same, but different. I am the same, but different.
On December 23rd, 2014 I went out to the market near my house in Phnom Penh to look for a few last minute Christmas items. It was the early morning hours, right after I had dropped the children off at school. Traffic was rather light and I was lucky to find a parking spot, which in Phnom Penh meant jumping the curb and parking your car on any available sidewalk. I was searching the market for some flowers I could use for a Christmas Eve dinner I would host the next day.
The white noise of the airplane cabin distracts my thoughts. I look down and see my youngest son sleeping peacefully on my lap without a care in the world. Then the lights of the cabin dim from bright florescent to a calm indigo blue soothing passengers to sleep. One by one they close their eyes, lulled by the noise and dim lights.
I can never sleep on an airplane and with a 20+hour journey to the U.S. from Cambodia, I always arrive weary mentally and physically. While I am always excited to see family and friends back in the States, I always dread the long journey to the U.S. and then back to Cambodia. But this time is different. This time it’s a one-way trip…
Throughout my time of living in Phnom Penh, I’ve always been fascinated by the architectural history of the city. While I am not a connoisseur of architecture, I appreciate the unique role history and culture plays in the design of a city.
As with most cities in the world, the context of Phnom Penh’s architectural design is a mix of political history, cultural influences, and economic rises and falls. So with my curious mind, I booked with Khmer Architectural Tours (KAT). KAT is an association run by a small group of young Khmer architecture students and graduates who have a passion for Cambodia’s unique architectural history.
Our young tour guide, Virak, enthusiastically guided us through narrow buildings, timeless French colonial structures, and the golden age of Cambodian architecture during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period under King Sihanouk.
We first started our tour on cyclo, where our guide and the cyclo drivers picked us up at our house. We were greeted by the youthful smile of Virak who had brought with him his elder cyclo drivers with their rustic vehicles representing an era of a time of a gone by.
At the start of our journey, we headed down busy Sotheros Boulevard. With the heat blazing down on us; cars, tuk-tuks, motos, and even some bikes whizzed past us at today’s busy modern pace, while we moved at a slow and steady motion as if still stuck between the past and present. If you’ve never been on a cyclo in Phnom Penh, this is one of the most interesting ways to fully take in the chaos and lively vibe of the city. We were part of the landscape, without the large obstructive barrier of machines dividing our physical space. We were taking in every smell and sound that Phnom Penh had to offer.
It’s been a while since I last wrote. While most of it had to do with being caught up with the busyness of life, work, family and friends, there was more to my stagnant state of writing than that. That was half of the truth. The other truth was that I was hesitant to put my ideas, feelings and insecurities out there again for others to judge. I understand this comes with the territory in publishing my ideas publically.
In May 2014, I published a post about ‘Re-learning Khmer’ in which I wrote that as part of my time living in Cambodia, I was attempting to learn to read and write the language, something I never learned in a formal setting growing up in the U.S. I also admitted in the post that my spoken Khmer wasn’t where I’d like it to be, and that growing up in the U.S.—particularly in an area where there was a small Cambodian community—made it difficult to speak it often or learn it formally. My parents taught me as much as they could, but with wanting to assimilate in American culture, I had little desire to learn at the time.
After my post, most people who commented on my blog could relate, that they went through the same situation and saw themselves in my experience. Some however, criticized my lack of effort for not knowing my own language better, and even blamed my parents for not pushing harder. For the most part, it was a civil discourse, and I came away with the feeling that I wasn’t alone in my struggle. I didn’t feel judged. Then that changed...
"It is our duty to do what we can to influence the young generation and get them to have hopes and dreams, while providing the necessary resources and education."
Ronald (Ron) Ung, 28, was born in Long Beach California in 1988. His family left Cambodia in 1984 when his mother fled to the refugee camps along the Thai border. Her and her family later resettled in San Antonio, Texas where she later met his father, also a Cambodian refugee. They later settled down in Long Beach California where Ron was born.
Growing up in Long Beach was difficult economically, socially and culturally, for Ron, and many Cambodian refugee families. Discrimination, identity crisis, and living in a low income community where racial tensions converged created a ripe environment for Ron to feel lost and get caught up in the negativity.
Fortunately Ron met two people at the right time who would reshape his journey into something more positive and ignite his passion for helping others, ultimately leading him to move back to the motherland and help Cambodia's children.
Read Ron's journey below from feeling isolated and lost in the streets of Long Beach, to finding purpose in helping children in Cambodia.
" I am very happy to contribute in my own way to the development of this unrecognized and neglected heritage"
Borany Mam was born in 1985 in Poitiers, France. She was named after one of her father's younger sisters. Her father, who is Cambodian, left Phnom Penh three days before it fell under the control of the Khmer Rouge to go study in France. Her mother is of French origin. Growing up in France, talking about Cambodia was a taboo subject as it brought her father great pain with the loss of his family. It wasn't until a family trip back to Cambodia in 2000 that opened the door for Borany to learn and reconnect with her roots. Four years ago Borany made the move back to Cambodia with her parents and began the process of discovery, connection, and contribution.
Educated as as an artist specializing in art restoration, Borany founded Association pour la Sauvegarde de la Peinture Khmère (ASPK), an organization dedicated to helping the restoration of paintings at the National Museum of Cambodia. While she is contributing to the restoration of art there, she is also exploring exciting opportunities through the opening of a new restaurant and an upcoming clothing line.
Read Borany's story, from growing up in France and knowing little about Cambodia and her father's painful past, to fully reconnecting with the country and contributing in her own unique way.
"I want to contribute in my own way to the development and evolution of music in Cambodia."
Anthony (Tony) Keo, was born in Battambang, Cambodia in 1989 but left when he was two years old. He and his family immigrated to Montreal, Canada where he spent his childhood in the long Canadian winters.
Growing up in a poor neighborhood, Tony grew up speaking French, English and Khmer. Music has always been part of his life. He grew up listening to Khmer music around the house because of his parents. Although Tony was educated, trained and practiced law in Canada, one day he woke up and decided he wanted to make music, Khmer music. His trilingual roots has enabled him to write, produce, and sing music in English, French and Khmer--some which are cover songs, and others that are original songs.
Tony, and other similar artists, are part of a new generation of Khmer diaspora musicians fusing western sound, adapting it to the local audience and creating original music for a new generation of Khmer fans.
Read about Tony's journey from Battambang, to the cold winters of Montreal, to making hot music in Cambodia.
"My current life feels special and uniquely mine because I get to be Cambodian-American in both Cambodia and America and I love how complete that makes me feel."
Caylee So, was born in Khao-I-Dang, a refugee camp along the Cambodia-Thai border in 1981. Like many families, Caylee and her family immigrated to the United States to find a better life soon after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Settling down in Northern Virginia, she was a quiet child searching for a sense of place and belonging. At 18 she left home and joined the U.S. Army to explore a bigger world. Through that journey, she escaped the world around her by watching films, and by happenstance came across a compelling movie which sparked her interest in being a filmmaker.
She is one of the Co-Founders of the successful Cambodia Town Film Festival which takes place in Long Beach, California every year (for the last four years). Through the festival, she hopes to keep the 2nd and 3rd generation of Khmer-Americans from losing their roots and embrace their dual identities. She is now in Cambodia filming "In the Life of Music" a film about the song “Champa Battambang" by the legendary Cambodian singer Sinn Sisamuth.
Read about Caylee's remarkable journey from Khao-I-Dang, to Virginia, to Iraq, and finally back to Cambodia where she finds a completeness to her identity.
“It’s such an amazing chance to wear the flag of your country on you”
Thierry Chantha Bin was born in Ville Pinte France in 1991. Thierry’s parents left Cambodia during the war, but it was something they never really discussed at home. Growing up in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, Thierry was bullied because he was different and struggled in school. He credits his family, especially his mother for helping him through his difficult youth and teaching him important life lessons.
Thierry discovered football at the age of 6 and focused his passion by finding inspiration through top athletes like David Beckham. He focused, worked hard and was eventually recruited to play as the Defensive Mid-Fielder for the Cambodian National Team (Phnom Penh Crown) in 2013. His proudest moment is “getting to play for the national team and singing the national song with fans.”
Here is Thierry’s journey from the suburbs of Paris back to his homeland in Cambodia...
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