"The roots of education are bitter, but the fruits is sweet"
My father was born in Takeo Province, Cambodia in 1940. I knew growing up that this was not his real birthdate. My understanding was that he changed his birthdate at the Thai Refugee Camp to be younger so that he could prolong his retirement in the U.S. It wasn’t until I started my first interview with him in 2003 that I found out he changed his age much earlier in life and for a more important reason...
Born to a farming family in Takeo, my father was the only person in his family to get a formal education. His father was illiterate and I assume his mother was as well. His two older sisters were girls so the parents determined their place was at home. His younger brother did not show any interest in education.
At the age of six, his parents took him to Wat Khleng Moeung to study at the pagoda. Like many boys living in the countryside then and now, the pagoda was the only place boys could obtain an education. But this pagoda was far from his parents’ house. As much as he wanted to learn, on the ox cart ride there he begged and pleaded for his parents not to take him. At a very young age, he was living without his parents. Though it must have been very difficult to separate from their child, the decision to expose him early on in his life to education, particularly at the pagoda, had a deep impact on him. From that point on, education was always the foundation of my father’s heart and soul.
In the early morning he would help clean the pagoda and prepare food for the monks. Then he would receive lessons from the monks ranging from learning how to read and write Khmer to learning prayers in Sanskrit. At night he would remember these prayers by candlelight, then sleep on the wooden floor next to rows of other boys in the pagoda.
Around 10 years old he returned back home. Since Cambodia was a French colony back then, education was replicated after the French system. Under that system, one had to be six years old to start primary education. At 10 years old he was too old to be considered.
Even though his parents did not have any formal education, they saw the value of giving this gift to their son who showed strong interest, talent and determination to study. As such, they asked someone in their village to help change his birthdate to 1940 so that he could go to school. Once successful they registered him at Ecole Primare Elementaire in Chambaugh (another nearby village in Takeo).
After finishing high school, he went on to study at the university and earned diplomas in Khmer literature, culture & civilization, grammar, and eventually a Licence and Masters Degree in Cambodian and French literature. After his Masters he became a Cambodian & French literature professor in 1973.
When the Khmer Rouge came two years later no one could have predicted the carnage and destruction they would do to the country. As well, no would have ever thought that having an education was a deciding factor to being executed. So many intellectuals were killed in my father’s generation because they were educated. To the Khmer Rouge, they were a liability in having Cambodia start over to an agrarian society. It is miraculous then that instead of it being a curse, it ended up being a blessing which saved his life, and ours, during the “bad times”.
It was only sheer luck that he survived the Khmer Rouge despite being educated. We were also extremely lucky to be sponsored by his dear friend to come to the United States after the war. While luck played a pivotal role in bringing us to the right places at the right time, my father always believed in the power of education and hard work to transform lives. He was living proof. In Cambodia he studied hard, obtained a good education and a good profession as a teacher. Meanwhile his younger brother who had no interest in education worked hard all his life as a farmer, cyclo driver, and ice cream seller for less than $2.00 a day. He and his family lived a life of poverty for many years.
In the U.S., he was determined to instill this value into us and sacrificed whatever he could to give us opportunities he could only dream of, even to the detriment of his own aspirations. In understanding the power education he was the first in his family to break the cycle of poverty, and in doing so, gave his descendants and future generations the opportunity to have a better life. This is the power of education and the amazing gift my father gave me.
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