On our way back from Siem Reap, when we stopped for lunch, the discussion somehow turned to the disastrous years of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Our driver, Heng*, like all other Cambodians in or over their early to mid 30s, had a story to tell.
“I was a lucky baby,” he began. Of course we wanted to know why he was lucky, so he told us his story. I admit that I’m fuzzy on some of the details, as I was seated at the far end of the table and was tending to Alexa, but here is what I believe is that story.
Heng was born in 1978. In 1979,when he was around Alexa’s current age (she’s 20 months), his family decided to escape Cambodia. His mother took him, his brother, and his sister as she and her brothers walked to the border (I presume the Vietnamese border). I believe he said it was an 18 kilometer walk, just over 11 miles. She carried him the whole way.
When they arrived at the border, Heng started to cry. His mother could not quiet him, so the family hid in the bushes, choosing not to engage in the risky crossing when he was certain to draw attention to them. I’m not certain how long they waited, if it was just a little while that night or if it was all night and day to cross the following night, but whenever they started moving toward the border again, Heng cried again. Finally, Heng’s uncles decided to risk the crossing on their own, leaving Heng’s mother and her children behind.
That was the last night of their lives.
Heng’s uncles and anyone else who attempted the crossing with them were caught that night. They paid for their “crime” of fleeing for their lives with their lives. Heng said that his brother and sister still cry whenever his uncles are mentioned. I assume that his siblings are older than he is and that they remember their uncles. Depending on just how immediate the executions were, they may remember their deaths.
The following morning, Heng’s mother picked him up, gathered her other two children, and walked the 18 kilometers back home. Ever since then, she has told Heng that he was a lucky baby, because he saved his own life and the lives of his mother, his brother, and his sister.
When Heng was older, she became less pleased with him. She wanted him to marry his cousin, but he refused. Instead, he ran off to the city. He presented himself to some Buddhist monks and asked for shelter in their monastery while he attended college. He spent four years living in the monastery, attending school, working for the monks, and eating with the monks. He told us that he was hungry every night, because the monks eat only before noon—there was no dinner for him unless he managed to find somewhere in his price range (usually free) outside of the monastery.
Then Heng graduated from college. I forget what he said he studied, or how long he worked in his field, or even if he ever worked in his field. But eventually he became a taxi driver, specializing in working for westerners. Now Heng owns multiple vehicles—at the very least, a sedan and a van. He is married, and he’s earned enough money to live in relative comfort and to send money to his family. He has paid for at least one sister’s education. Now his mother tells him that he was right to go to the city, and she’s glad he didn’t obey her.
Heng was a lucky baby, and he’s a lucky man. He survived one of the most brutal regimes in history, and as a defenseless infant, he played a role in saving his immediate family. He’s risen above his humble beginnings as a member of a poor family that survived by harvesting, purifying, and selling sugar from palm trees. He’s helped his family improve their lot in life as well. Now he is able to provide for a wife, and he proudly announced that they’ve saved enough money to start having children soon. He’s gone from such an uncertain beginning to a present filled with hope for the future.
It makes me wonder about the stories of all the others I interact with, or even just see, on a regular basis. My housekeeper. My tuk tuk driver. Our guards. All the Cambodians I see at the embassy, working in the shops and restaurants, or traveling from one place to another on the streets of Phnom Penh. They all have stories. Everyone my age and older has a story with a dark chapter in it, a story that includes horrors I don’t want to imagine. But, no matter how dark the story, it contains hope and perseverance—the fact that they’re alive tells me that much.
*Heng is not our driver’s real name. It is a pseudonym that I am using to protect his privacy. I chose the name “Heng” because it is a Khmer name (although of Chinese origin) that means “lucky.”