Language As Freedom







By Cam Youk Lim as told to Sophal Ear


After 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 here.


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, six.


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.


The Vietnamese 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 their euphemisms.


We’d been in Hong Ngu 4-5 days when Granny Ky, who had lived in our neighborhood in Phnom Penh, came to get her family at the pagoda. She said “Oh, Ouk my childhood nickname, you also came???” I answered “Granny Ky, 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.


Before leaving Vietnam 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 on.














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