A dream deferred, a promise fulfilled

Posted: March 19, 2014

THE LETTER came postmarked from Cambodia. The author of the letter couldn't write. The recipient of the letter couldn't read.

The author - an old man - had paid someone to write to his daughter in Philadelphia for him: "I'm dying. Come see me," he begged.

The letter recipient asked her husband to read her the letter.

Her heart sank. The woman, Phi Chhian, and her husband had fled Cambodia as refugees in 1981 after surviving Khmer Rouge work camps and losing their eldest daughter to the regime's unrelenting brutality.

They had been in Philadelphia for only a few years when the letter came. They were picking blueberries in New Jersey for money. Chhian couldn't afford to fulfill her father's dying wish.

Her son, Thai Vong, remembers the day his mother got the call that her father died. Vong was 6.

"I just remember clear in my head, she cried. She turned away from me so I didn't see her but I knew what was going on," Vong said recently. "That image has always been embedded in me."

Chhian's siblings told her they would wait for her to have a final Buddhist funeral ceremony for her parents - and they have.

Years later, when Vong was a senior in high school, he made a promise to his mother: "One day, I'm going to take you back when I make enough money."

That day, he began saving his pocket change for plane tickets.

Tomorrow, Vong, now 33, will fulfill his teenage promise and take his mother back to Cambodia for the first time in more than 30 years. They will celebrate, together, that Buddhist ceremony for her parents that her siblings have postponed for so long.

"She made a comment to me a couple weeks ago. She said, 'Son, I now realize you're a man of your word,' " Vong said.

'Four years of horror'

Chhian was already in her arranged marriage and living with her husband's family when the Khmer Rouge soldiers raided their small city of Battambang.

Her husband, who asked not to be identified, recalled the raid. His son, Vong, interpreted:

"They just came through and said, 'Get out!' They had the guns and would force you out but wouldn't tell you where you were going," he said. "They made up lies saying that the Americans were going to bomb.

"They said just leave the city for three days and everything will be back to normal," he said. "Three days turned into four years of horror."

From 1975 to 1979, the communist Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, is estimated to have killed about two million people as it moved citizens out of the city to the countryside in a push for a totally agrarian society. An untold number of others died of disease or starvation under the communist regime, which was toppled when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979.

When the Khmer Rouge soldiers came for them, Chhian and her husband were separated.

"I was always worried about him. I was not sure where he was or if he was alive," Chhian said. Her husband was sent to plow fields and catch fish. He slept with other men on plastic tarps.

Chhian was sent to cut grass to cover the houses that were being made for the Khmer Rouge. She slept in a cave. With her, she had the couple's first child, a little girl.

All they did was work. You either worked or you were killed. There was not enough food. Chhian's daughter died of starvation. She was just 3 years old.

Escaping the madness

When the Vietnamese invaded and disrupted the Khmer Rouge regime, it gave opportunities for people to flee. Chhian fled and reunited with her family in the village, but didn't see her husband. His escape came later.

"The first thing he did was look for my mom," Vong said. "He went to the village and they were running and found each other in the madness. It was fate."

Chhian, recalling the story recently in her neat Philadelphia rowhouse with pristine white carpets, teared up.

"Happy. I see him, I was happy," she said.

Despite being free from the Khmer Rouge regime, the couple said there was still no freedom in Cambodia at the time.

They had heard that Thailand was the place to go if you wanted to make your way to America, so they set out on foot.

That was the last time Chhian saw her family. They begged her to wait. Her husband told her that if they waited, they would die.

When the couple reached the border the first time, they were turned back. They had to walk for another month barefoot until they reached a border where Red Cross workers picked them up.

They were taken to a refugee camp, where they lived in tents for two years with 100,000 other people. Chhian became pregnant with Vong in the camp.

In 1981, the family was sponsored by relatives in the United States and came to Philadelphia.

"Oh, it's nice here. You feel safe," Vong's father said. "Over there, scary. Over here, you can talk. Over there they don't let you talk. No freedom of speech."

The family rented a house in Logan, and Chhian and her husband picked blueberries to make money while going to school at night to learn English. Eventually, Chhian's husband became a cook and she took a job making rubber stamps.

A journey home

Growing up, Vong remembers his parents instilling in him a strong work ethic and an appreciation for whatever he had.

"I'm not the cleanest eater, so I'd leave food behind in the bowl and they were like, 'Don't do that. It's not acceptable,' " he said. "They'd say, 'This was something that was hard to come by for us.' "

Vong graduated from Drexel University. Today, he works in information technology and is going to school to obtain his master's in information systems from Drexel. He is married and has two young children.

For years, Vong has pleaded with his mother to make the trip to Cambodia to see her family.

"I was trying to get her to go for a long time, but that fear still resonates," he said.

Chhian also worried about not being able to give her family the money they needed if she did visit, Vong said.

"The first few years she was in America, all she understood was that they were living in extreme poverty, stricken with illness and suffering, and struggling over there," Vong said.

In 2012, Vong went to Cambodia with his wife and met up with his mother's family, who welcomed him with open arms and urged him to bring his mother back to visit. Chhian's family misses her so much that they travel by bike into the city to wait in line for a public phone so they can talk to her every week for an hour or so.

Today, Chhian is 61. She's had open-heart surgery and is riddled with pain. With her declining health and his young children, Vong told his mother the trip he promised her as a child had to happen soon.

The mother and son will leave tomorrow for their 10-day trip. Chhian's husband has chosen not to go.

Chhian said that she is most looking forward to seeing her family and her old village. She's also excited to see the Angkor Wat temple complex for the first time. "Even though she lived in Cambodia, she's never been there, because back then, women had to stay at home and cook and couldn't enjoy themselves," Vong said.

As for Vong, he's looking forward to just one thing - the same thing he's been looking forward to since he saw his mother weeping over the death of her own parent when he was a child.

"I'm looking forward to her. Her joy. I just want to see her happy," he said. "That's what I live for, just to see her happy."

On Twitter: @FarFarrAway

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