LANGUAGE AS FREEDOM /
MY LANGUAGE IS MY PASSPORT
By Cam Youk Lim as
told to Sophal Ear
April 17, 1975
we were evacuated from Phnom Penh to Pursat province by the Khmer Rouge.
They sent me to work,
plowing land. When I came back from the field one day, the Khmer Rouge called
the commune to a meeting; they said that the Vietnamese Government wanted its
citizens back. When I heard this, I thought, “I have to lie, I have to tell them
I’m Vietnamese, to get away from this place.” I had seen so many dead people
from overwork and illness. So I told your dad to put our names on the list.
“They’re letting us
go to Vietnam”
I told him.
He answered “Okay,
yeah, let’s do it. We can’t stay here. If we stay here, we’re going to die. We
have to go.” He didn’t know how to speak Vietnamese.
I wasn’t afraid. When
your grandmother was alive, she went to live in Vietnamese neighborhoods. My
older sister and I liked to hire Vietnamese cooks and cleaners. I also liked
hiring them as nannies. As a result, I spoke some Vietnamese. If I stayed I
would die, everyday I’d see dead people. They got bloated and would die.
In other communes
they had also reported the same news of Vietnamese people being returned. People
in our commune said, “Auntie, auntie, they’re lying, they’ll kill you…”
I told them: “To stay
is to die, to go is to die, so might as well go.” I couldn’t see any future
THREE months later,
the Khmer Rouge told us that we were to go to Vietnam, a big truck had come to
take us, but we had to walk to the large road, because the hospital was located
deep (in the countryside).
Your dad walked with
a walking stick. He nearly couldn’t walk, he had diarrhea, and you too were
having diarrhea. By the third night, he died in the middle of the night while
sleeping on some hay. You were just bones.
It was now just your
brothers Cheng and Boun and your sisters Da and Moum, and you. Five. Plus me,
There was no light,
and we had to make dinner in the forest. Everyone was afraid. No one dared to
express their fear. Some were real Vietnamese. Some were happy, some were scared
and fearful. Thinking that if they got to go to Vietnam, they’d be happy. Or to
get somewhere, who knew? What if they took us to be beaten to death? We did not
know. But we just kept quiet and washed our pots and plates to make dinner.
There were a lot of people.
I met some people
that worked in our military clothing business before the KR took power. One
asked me to help him by pretending to be his wife in order to pass the exam. I
wanted to help, but I couldn’t do much. The guy was totally Chinese and didn’t
speak any Vietnamese.
Whoever passed could
cross, whoever didn’t was sent back to a place the KR called Phnom Penh Thmey
(New Phnom Penh, a euphemism). That’s when I met Ms. Teuv, a Vietnamese woman
married to a Khmer lieutenant in the army, who had been killed.
I told her I had
changed all the children’s name. She said the names were wrong, that I had given
boys’ names to girls and girls’ names to boys.
For the older kids,
Cheng and Da, I wrapped them in blankets and had them pretend they were sick and
could not answer questions, lest they ask “What kind of Vietnamese kids are
these that can’t speak Vietnamese?”
For two days, Ms.
Teuv took me to the forest. She screamed “Sister what is your name!!!???” and
would go on with her lesson.
Finally, when it came
time to be tested, the Vietnamese cadre asked “Sister what is your name?” I
answered “My name is Nguyen Thi Lan.” I didn’t use my real name, I just made it
up. “How many kids do you have?” “Five.” “What did your husband do?” “He was an
entrepreneur.” They just kept asking “what did your husband do?” They wanted to
know if he had been a soldier or a big shot, to figure out why he was dead. I
kept answering “No, he was a trader, that’s all.”
When I passed I ran
with the white paper only given to those who passed they had given me and I was
so ecstatic! I nearly fell on my face; I was so happy, so very happy.
From there they took
us by boat to Hong Ngu, Vietnam. They served us rice on the boat, they gave you
canned milk. I fed it to you until you became bloated. I hadn’t warmed it up and
I overfed you. In Hong Ngu we were made to stay in a pagoda, someone was selling
noodles and your sister Moum cried and cried “I want noodles! I want noodles!” I
had no money and was heartbroken, I asked a passerby about selling some of my
possessions jewelry to get some money.
authorities announced that they were going to send us to “build a new life(style)”
if family didn’t come to retrieve us within a week’s time. With the KR, you
couldn’t move around. The Vietnamese weren’t evil in that way but they too had
We’d been in Hong Ngu
4-5 days when Granny Ky, who had lived in our neighborhood in
came to get her family at the pagoda. She said “Oh, Ouk my childhood nickname,
you also came???” I answered “Granny
can you get word to my sister and her husband uncle Tu?” Their address was in
your dad’s pocket, and we didn’t take it with us when he died. Uncle Tu had to
get to us in time.
By the sixth day,
around 6PM, I got to a market by boat where I could sell my stuff. I sold a
ring, got 200,000 Vietnamese Dong, I bought a pot, some three-layered fat pork
to make a stew. That’s when uncle Tu got to us, just about that time. We’d
already put up the mosquito net. So we gave everything to those staying in that
pagoda. You were all very sick, especially you and your sister. I had acute
malaria. It was very hard.
in 1978 I found Ms. Teuv and I gave her a present. I hugged Ms. Teuv for her
help at Kaoh Tiev. I was alive because of her. And she said “It
was nothing/You’re welcome.”
Looking back on this
recent trip/retrace now that we are Americans I was scared, thinking of the
past. Thinking that one should be afraid, afraid of such a life we had. Going
back scared me, but I was happy that my children were grown-up. It was unlikely
that I’d see this type of life again; there was only a different path from now