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Three Women: Oral Histories: "My"

Collected and translated by Elizabeth Chey, in 1995

Born 1940, in Battambang

I was born in a province of Battambang in 1940 and I didn't leave there until 1979. I was the eighth child in a family of eleven. I never went to school because I had to care for the children in the family. Three of my brothers went to live in the temple.

I married when I was twenty-one to a farm boy who lived near my house. It was arranged and my mother gave us some money to start our own farm. The government was also distributing land, so my husband and I signed up for a big lot of land. We built our house of wood together and started a rice field.

I had my first child, Sopath in 1961 so I didn't harvest that year. In autumn, we went south to the lake to fish as everyone else did. In 1963, I had another daughter, Soka, who died of disease a year after she was born. Then I had Samkhann in 1964. In 1965, I had a miscarriage. There were no medicines or contraceptives where I was raised. Besides, the children helped in the fields. I had my sons, Sinath in 1968, Vichet in 1971. In between I had two miscarriages because I overworked myself while I was pregnant. I've always worked with my hands. When Samnang was born we were very lucky to be alive. He was born at 4 a.m. and I fainted for three hours. By 3 p.m. bombs were going off and bullets were shooting everywhere. The Khmer Rouge had entered our province, so we fled to Battambang and told the Khmer Rouge soldiers that we were going to the city to join the communist party.

We finally settled in north Tama. I was pregnant with Sophet in 1976, but there were no medicines and I had no milk, because we were all starving. I stole food, even though I've never stolen anything before. I stole fruits, food and extra spoonsful of porridge to save the baby. I ate extra porridge and forced myself to vomit it out so I could feed the baby. But after three months, the child died. In 1978, Sophoan was born. He was raised in the same manner, but he was strong enough to live. Although, I was often pregnant and caring for my children, I would go months without seeing my husband. Everytime we were in serious danger, he would disappear. He ran to care for his mother. He never stayed with me or his children. I always wondered how someone could dismiss his children like he did, his own flesh and blood.

The Khmer Rouge divided the kids up into age categories. The older ones were sent off to another camp. The pre-teen kids were weeders and rice planters. My sons had a green thumb, so the Khmer Rouge told them to plant rice. I raised my family as best I could without my husband. Two days after the Vietnamese had entered our country, my husband reappeared. We heard radio reports that there were camps at the Thai border, and that the UN had set up stations for refugees. Now with my husband back, we decided to head for the border. Of course, fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese was still going strong in the north where I was. We ran for two weeks, because we were pushed back and forth by the Khmer Rouge, who were trying to stop refugees fleeing to the border. One time the shooting was so dense, our family was scattered about. I lost my nerves and was so weak I couldn't walk. It was just me and my sons, Sinath and Samkhann. Bullets were flying about everywhere and I felt death looming over my fate. I told my sons to run along and save themselves. But they cried and swore not to leave me to die on the road. The two boys, their bones so light and their bodies so thin, they just dragged me along the dirt road, carrying my weight on their shoulders. They dragged me for about 100 meters and we bumped into my brother-in-law and my mother and the family was reunited again. Along the way we met more family members in our group and made it to Khao-I-Dang the next morning.

While I was in Khao-I-Dang for two years, I had another miscarriage, then had Chantha, my youngest daughter in 1982. We spent another 16 months, transferring from Transit to the Philippines until we arrived in Chicago on November 5, 1988. My eldest son, Samkhann worked with many of the American groups who had been in the camps because he spoke English well. His boss in Transit found us a sponsor in 3-5 hours. Samkhann had wrote such touching letters that Americans couldn't believe the tragedy we went through and they were surprised he could write in English so well. Seven families in Evanston sponsored our family and we've lived in Chicago ever since. When I first got here, my blood nearly froze. It was really cold.

My husband was very reluctant to come because he didn't want to leave his mother. He was so distant from us when we arrived here. He asked to entered the monastery, then he became a monk in Ohio. I thought he would come back after finding Buddha. But instead, when he left in 1991, he went to California with his mother's family. I didn't hear from them until his mother died. My sister-in-law called to tell me my mother-in-law had died. I called my husband, asking him about help with funeral arrangements, but he pretended not to recognize my voice. How can someone not recognize the voice of their wife. Since then, I've lost all ties with him. I hear he has a new family out in California, but I don't care much. I think only of my children now.

My children need a father, especially the young ones, but he doesn't respond to his responsibilities as their father. I have no choice but to take the role of mother and father.

In the last five years, I used to cry everyday, but tears have resolved nothing. I don't have anything. All I have is my children and I'm afraid for them everyday. I was afraid for them when they went to high school. I was afraid they would take the wrong path and hang out with the wrong kids. I asked them about what they did at school and how their lives were going. I have to be close with my children to keep them safe.

I always say that I'm going to learn English, but it's so hard to learn. I was at a workshop one time and it was time for everyone to leave, but my son was late in coming to pick me up. The case worker was in a rush and he was very rude to me. He kept on asking me for my address and asked if I knew my phone number. All I knew was "no." So all I said was, "no." So he grabbed my folder and wrote some profanity on it and left. I didn't know it was bad, except for his facial expressions. My son later told me that it was something like, "Get the fuck out of this country if you don't know anything." I was really shook up. My son wanted to sue the case worker. We were not here illegally, he said. But I didn't want to cause trouble. It was just a good lesson for me. I was so humiliated from it that I had learned that I need to force myself to learn English.

Now I take English lessons from a tutor who comes to my house once a week. I can't remember , just a little here and a little there. I never went to school when I was young. I don't really remember the letters, I just remember things orally.

But education is the most important thing. Jewels and bracelets can be stolen, but not your education. I was born at the wrong time. I was born very poor. But I would do anything for my kids. I'll be their mother and their father, if they keep on studying like they do. I'm an old ox and I can't be forced to learn new things. I try to obey the commandments of Buddhism.

My children are very bright; they've made my life easier. A few years ago, I didn't want to live. I wanted to be hit by a car. But I've changed my mind recently for the sake of my younger children. They are good children, but they remain in ignorance about the world. I always encourage them to tell me about their sorrows and their concerns. I ask them to be truthful with me. I want them to fit in this society.

If kids are smart and independent, then the mother has few worries. If they are unsteady, then a mother has greater worries. A mother must think about her action and be virtuous. I must walk the right path, because I am a model for my children. I want to make space in the world for things that are fruitful. I'm embarrassed sometimes knowing that I cannot read or write. I don't want to take up space. I'd rather make room for the intelligent people.

My peace will be found in the temple as I learn the rites of religion. At my age, I've nothing to do, but pray for my children. I know that now I am their pillar, but later when they all grow up and leave, I will be alone with only myself to rely on. Then, I lean on prayers.


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