“He knows the number of hairs on your head.”
It’s a bible verse that sticks out to me and essentially means…you are perfect the way you are. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is under par.
We’ve all wondered at one time or another..what is my purpose?
I grew up in the heart of Los Angeles…in one of the poorest neighborhoods in town. When I was younger, I always felt out of place. There were maybe a handful of kids who looked like me in school and they were from “well-known” Asian countries…China, Korea. Nobody had EVER heard of Cambodia. If they asked, and I told them, a series of questions would follow…and in the end an obligatory “Ahhhh”…kind of like…you’re too different to figure out…I’ve never seen one of you. It wasn’t their fault. They were kids and there weren’t a lot of “me’s” around. I remember our school auditorium was decorated with flags from around the world. France, Yugoslavia, China, Mexico…of course, the Cambodian flag was missing. I stopped telling the other kids where I was from. When you’re kids, you’re trying your hardest to fit in…not point out what makes you different, very different.
What makes me different is ingrained in me. My family didn’t grow up here. Heck, they grew up in a place that was so terribly opposite of here. Their freedoms were stripped and for FOUR years– they didn’t know if they would live to see the next day. In fact, most of my extended family..didn’t.
In Cambodia, there was mass genocide. Millions of people were killed by a communist group called the Khmer Rouge..their leader was Pol Pot. They overthrew the existing government and took over. Their goal was to rid the country of intellects, government workers, and the educated…people who would challenge their ideas.
They wanted a country where everyone worked as farmers and laborers. They evacuated the urban areas and cities.
My family lived in Phnom Penh, the capital. One day, in 1975, armed soldiers…that they had never seen before… took over the city. They told everyone to start walking. People had no idea where they were going but those who didn’t do what they were told mysteriously vanished. So they started walking with only what they could carry.
They walked for MONTHS… like cattle being forced along roads leading toward the countryside.
The end of the journey was no better. They were placed into labor camps. My dad, who was a business professional, was forced to cut lumber in the forests. My mother, pregnant at the time and with a young daughter, worked in the rice fields. My family was given a small bowl of rice to share. My mother gave birth to my brother, with no painkillers or doctor. A midwife helped but, as you can imagine, her life was at risk many times over. Thank the Lord above, she and my brother survived.
The struggles continued. My brother lost his vision at one point and my mother said there were times her children were so sick– she truly wasn’t sure they would make it. No medical treatment, no medicine. If you ate something that wasn’t given to you, like a grasshopper or something, you would be beaten, possibly killed. Starvation and illness took the lives of many of my family members. My aunt, my mom’s sister, watched as… one by one… her immediate family members died. Some in her arms.
My family was separated for long periods at a time. They lost one another. Both sets of my grandparents died…and my parents never got to say goodbye.
The torture continued. Can you imagine living in this prison for four years with no answers as to what was going on? There was no escape. There was no telling who would be killed at any moment. The smart thing to do was to stay silent and just watch. All they had was prayer.
In 1979, the Vietnamese army invaded and took out the Khmer Rouge. It was a day nobody expected but, all of a sudden, when daylight broke, everything was different. My mother and father took this as their opportunity to escape. They got to the Thailand border…and the Red Cross helped them come to the United States as refugees.
They had no money and didn’t speak a word of English. They had no choice but to start over. I was fortunate enough to be born in this country.
At least we were under better circumstances, right? Only, our early years in the U.S. weren’t easy.
We were met with poverty, some racism, and violence. Six of us lived in a one-bedroom, roach-infested apartment in the ghetto. There were shootings outside our window… the police “eye in the sky” circled on a regular basis. We heard perimeter searches, domestic abuse, gang fights. Prostitutes waited by the corner store. My neighbors were alcoholics. They drank all day, urinated all over the complex. I can’t tell you how bad it smelled. I remember waking up one morning to go to school and blood was splattered all over our front door. I guess someone had gotten into a fight last night. Didn’t even hear it…it was so normal after all. My mother worked late into the night as a cashier. She was physically attacked coming home..twice.
Yet, somehow, and I still don’t really know how to explain it but, by the grace of God, my parents survived it all and worked hard to become self-sufficient. They learned English. My dad earned a Bachelor’s degree. They, eventually, opened their own business which they ran for years. They moved us out of the poor neighborhood and all of my siblings and I graduated from college. But it was years of tough times before that. I could write a book.
Did I mention that their donut shop was burned down in the L.A. riots? Yeah, that happened. They had to start over from scratch- again.
But, by far, the hardest time for my family was in Cambodia those four years. My father and mother cry every time they share their story. It’s been three decades.
The traumatic events may have stopped but the emotional scars never go away. There is baggage that we carry as a family that would take me years to understand.
But this is who I am. Now, unlike the child I was in grade school, I share my story. I tell it all and I’m proud of why I’m unique. In fact, I wanted to become a journalist to share stories..for people who might not have a voice or who can’t seem to find it.
I’m a person who believes, with every fiber of my being, that there is hope at the end of any dark situation. I am a person with faith that can’t be shaken and a person who truly cares and loves…because I’ve seen how ugly the other side can be. I am a person who knows that you can leave a family but they are forever in you.
Every hair on my head has been counted. Because of that, I want to make my whole being count. Isn’t that our purpose?…to turn the worst of our experiences into something…something that will make this world a better place?