Quantcast

Far From the Enormous Past: Under the Khmer Rouge We Were the Water Buffalo

Teacher Sath Yem, principal Sokan Sar, teacher Sopheap Cheam
  • Teacher Sath Yem, principal Sokan Sar, teacher Sopheap Cheam
  • Image by Joe Klein

In the dark Sopheap Cheam, ten, puts his foot through a body. A rotting, maggot-filled stomach, up to his calf. He yanks it out with a shudder. Grabs at the nearest leaves and starts frantically wiping away at his leg, flicking the maggots off, almost gagging at the smell.

Sopheap Cheam: “You! Do you realize how lucky you are? You only have to do schoolwork. When I was your age, I didn’t even know what school was! I fought for my life every day."

Sopheap Cheam: “You! Do you realize how lucky you are? You only have to do schoolwork. When I was your age, I didn’t even know what school was! I fought for my life every day."

It is midnight. The half-starved little boy is on a desperate mission to find his parents. He has escaped from a Khmer Rouge work camp for boys, has swum a river with a current almost strong enough to sweep his undernourished body away, and now, in the dark of night, creeps along a few yards from the patrolled footpaths through the bushes and trees toward his old family village.

He wipes his leg and starts off again, padding, padding. At least it wasn’t a land mine.

The moment flashes back as Sopheap Cheam stands in front of his Magic Marker board at the Cambodian temple school on 47th Street, writing the words “Phnom Penh” in the curlicue Cambodian script he’s teaching. Anger brought it back. Hearing his pupils behind him whisper excitedly to each other as the lesson nears its end. They should be concentrating, writing.

He whips around. Bangs his hand on the desk. “You! Do you realize how lucky you are? You only have to do schoolwork. When I was your age, I didn’t even know what school was! I fought for my life every day."

The children are suddenly quiet. Sopheap Cheam stands rigid. In the silence, through the bamboo curtain you can hear the monks chanting in the temple next door. For his pupils at times like these he is an old man, representing the far-distant past.

Souk So: “The Pol Pot time was bad. Really bad.”

Souk So: “The Pol Pot time was bad. Really bad.”

Old? Sopheap Cheam is 26. Never mind; 26 is old enough to have lived. Then. During the nightmare that brought them all to this unheard-of American town called San Diego, where a different kind of struggle would be waged to preserve their way of life.

Like the old people praying next door in the temple this Saturday morning, as the three golden-robed monks chant their offerings in Pali-Sanskrit, the ancient religious language of the East, Sopheap Cheam and these children know they are fighting upstream against the cultural tide, trying to maintain a world that the blithe hamburger culture of San Diego is ripping away from them, day by day, thread by thread.

David Tan: "Back home they would work six months in the year, then take it easy for six months. That’s what they are used to"

David Tan: "Back home they would work six months in the year, then take it easy for six months. That’s what they are used to"

Sopheap Cheam returns to writing on the board, long curled horizontal Ss below the letters to modify their pronunciation. But his mind is still in that other time and place.

That night, those many nights he escaped the Khmer Rouge labor camp for the desperate five-mile journey to see his parents, he never thought he would live more than a few months, let alone grow up and escape to another country and another life. All he knew was that he wanted to be with his mother and father. Whatever the consequences. When he finally sneaked into their hut about two o’clock that night, they greeted him with fright. “They had been warned by the Khmer Rouge. If I was caught with them again they would he punished. But I needed to see them so much. When the Khmer Rouge came for me in the morning, they had to tear me away from them, screaming. I hung on to my mother’s legs till they ripped me away. When they got me back, they tied me to the post like an animal.”

Hassina Lor: "My mother railed against the Khmer Rouge for “treating everybody like animals. Nobody did that and lived."

Hassina Lor: "My mother railed against the Khmer Rouge for “treating everybody like animals. Nobody did that and lived."

It’s not just the suffering. There’s conscience too that keeps coming back and making you sick with survivor’s guilt. Cheam and his best friend, also ten, the boy who sleeps next to him on the wallless floor of the labor camp, are returning from the day’s second trip up the mountain to bring back rocks to be crushed to make roads. They are weak and exhausted. They have to carry the rocks back across that river. Sopheap Cheam is a better swimmer, perhaps because of all his escapes. Halfway across, his friend stumbles. He is too afraid of being punished to let go of his rock. He goes under. Sopheap Cheam drops his rock, grabs him. The boy grabs back in a death grip. They are both pulled under. Sopheap Cheam suddenly fights to free himself. He thrusts his friend away, then lunges to the bank to find a vine to throw to him. But it is too late.

Over some of the OBS graffiti, the letters OKB have been scrawled in white chalk. “That’s the Oriental Killer Boys, mostly Lao. They’re the main enemy.”

Over some of the OBS graffiti, the letters OKB have been scrawled in white chalk. “That’s the Oriental Killer Boys, mostly Lao. They’re the main enemy.”

Back at the camp the leaders say, “So? He was stupid to fall. Stupid to drown. It was just one boy.”

When Cheam finally comes to America and sees TV shows like Rescue 911, he can’t believe that a nation could care so much about human life.

Sopheap Cheam looks straight at his class. All 34 of them, dressed in the Cambodian way, white shirts and blouses, girls with long, deep-blue skirts, boys with sandy-colored trousers, sitting erect at their desks in this carport-turned-classroom. “Do you realize how good your lives are?” he says. “When I was your age I never saw a pencil. I never saw a book. Your only problem is to do your schoolwork. You only need to study and you will have a good life. Nobody will kill you if you become educated, like they killed us. You don’t even have to get involved with the dirty life on the street like me. You can become lawyers and doctors.”

Monks chant at Precepts Day, when the faithful bring their sins for cleansing.

Monks chant at Precepts Day, when the faithful bring their sins for cleansing.

As always, he is making his mark. The faces are serious. The children are not throwing crumpled paper at each other as they do in the regular high school down the street. This is the reason Sopheap Cheam, San Diego Police Department community services officer, gives up his Saturdays and Sundays. To give some point to everything his generation and the generation before him went through, to give it meaning.

Officer Cheam is one of about 15,000 Cambodians currently living in San Diego. Each has a story, a hundred stories, of living and dying through the madness that took over their country between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmer Rouge came to power, when leader Pol Pot set the brutal tone.

Compared to other migrant populations in San Diego, the Cambodians have always remained much less visible. Perhaps because the country they came from had been less exposed to the outside world. Perhaps because of the depth of the drama they had just survived, San Diego’s Khmer (Cambodians’ ancient ethnic name) have stuck pretty much to themselves.

To find them, you have to travel to University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard, between 47th and 54th streets.

It’s 7:45 a.m. On University, outside the Sieu Thi supermarket, the Lao boys who work there are playing a game of ta kraw, lithely keeping a woven wicker ball in the air with their feet. Other Asians waiting for the number 7 bus squat on the sidewalk watching.

Down toward Menlo Avenue, men wander into a chocolate latticed building with a big yellow-and-white sign: “Trieu Chau Restaurant.” It’s a Chinese name, but inside is all Khmer. Here, as in Cambodia, it’s the Chinese who are the businessmen.

Cambodian men gather in the back room, as they do most mornings, on red Formica seats beside the iron-grilled windows.

“Most of my customers are Lao, Cambodian, Thai, Vietnamese,” says the Chinese-Khmer waitress. “But this time of day it is Cambodian. Men. They come in and talk about things that happen in Cambodia. Politics. But mostly it’s just to get together. In this country they have such problems. And everybody is so spread out. Not like in a village. Here you have to have a car. Where we come from you could walk to have a coffee with a friend. You had the time. It wasn’t far. But for these men, more of them are older. English is not so easy. Many can’t find jobs. They are lonely. So they come here.”

The atmosphere is kind of fresh and merry in the back room this morning. Beneath an ad reading “One First World Coconut Juice A Day — Your Crowning Glory Here To Stay,” the men mostly order what sounds like cafe k’doc, strong coffee with a great dollop of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom, and dja fai, a kind of H-shaped quick-fried bread, for dipping in it. Some men drop their sandals on the floor and tuck their feet up on the seat, their toes twiddling as they talk and laugh. “We used to pull a plow together!” yells one man, pointing to another. “Under the Khmer Rouge. We were the water buffalo!” It raises a laugh now, but it soon becomes plain this is a laughter of companionship masking a thousand wounds, which perhaps only talking and remembering can soothe.

“The Pol Pot time was bad,” says Souk So, who’s 51. “Really bad.” It’s a phrase you hear a hundred times.

Talk ranges from the events going on back there now to the question of who is taking away the sapphires and diamonds and gold of Pailin, in western Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge? Thais? Vietnamese? “Our fertile land,” says one man. “Vietnam wants it. There are 70 million of them, and look at the terrible land they have north of Da Nang! The Thais want it too. They have 50 million people. We have the most fertile part of the Mekong River, and we are only — what, about 5,6 million? Of course they want our land!”

“The reason these men are meeting here," says David Tan, who works for a multilingual interpreter service, “is that most are farmers from Battambang, in the west. Back home they would work six months in the year, then take it easy for six months. That’s what they are used to. And they are senior, they can’t find jobs. This helps pass the day.”

Some men have ordered noodles, scattering them with the crushed peanuts, green peppers in vinegar, red peppers in oil, fish sauce, black vinegar, dried chili, and soy sauce that sit on each table.

For me, this is heaven. In my first days as a freelance writer, I used to wander into Cambodia searching for stories — first before the Khmer Rouge horror, then, once, after. I also spent time on the Cambodian-Thai border, where the emaciated survivors from those four years stumbled out, shocked and starved and beaten, physically and psychologically. Post-traumatic stress syndrome gained a new meaning there.

And yet these smells and the sounds of the language and taste of the food at Trieu Chau evoke in me a longing for the people and the place that so imprinted me with a joie de vivre I’d never known in my own Anglo, straight-laced society. This despite the fact that in 1982, last time I was there, the wreckage was awesome in the cities. The countryside was dotted by ruined roads and suspicious soldiers and still the haunting presence of the Khmer Rouge, in retreat but never far away, especially in the town of Battambang.

“I will never go back,” says one man. “Not until they have good new laws and the Khmer Rouge are finished.”

“I telephoned my relatives in Battambang last week,” says another, “and they tell me they are expecting the Khmer Rouge to make a big attack this New Year.” (Telephone service has been on in the area for about a year. Before that, it took nearly one year for a letter to reach Battambang from San Diego.)

“We all have these memories,’ says David Tan. “I was lucky in some ways. I was in Phnom Penh (the capital) in 1975. I predicted the Khmer Rouge would come. I heard it on Voice of America. And the town — it was so quiet! I went to all the embassies. They were empty. They had gone. So I got out. I arrived here in 1976.” Ra Him comes through the door. I signal to him. We had met earlier in the week. He is 28 and a social worker with the Union of Pan-Asian Communities. I’d wanted his take on how the Cambodians are faring here.

He is better adapted than most; he attended Madison and Crawford high schools, and he has a meaningful job. “A lot of the older people suffer from emotional problems and depression. It’s a better life here, but they’re isolated. They watch TV, but they don’t understand. I think 60 percent of the older people are disappointed — especially about their children. They think the laws here take away their authority with their children.... The child has the power. And the teachers! In Cambodia the teachers also have the role of mother and the father. They teach the children good manners and good morals. Here in America they just say, ‘Open your book at page 76’ and don’t help the children develop self-discipline at all.”

It is a theme you hear again and again in this community. Ra Him says Cambodian children drift away from their parents and their culture partly because at school they learn only about America’s culture and way of thinking. “In their homes, so many of the children who are born here understand a bit of Khmer but can’t speak it properly or read it. Hamburgers are cool, and not rice and fish. It all makes the parents feel left out and unable to control their children.”

The problems those children face are the problems Ra Him also faced at high school. Partly, it was customs. “Americans didn’t understand many things about us. Teachers might pat us on the head. For a Buddhist that is a great insult, because the head is the most sacred part of our body. Or when they stick out their index finger and signal you to 'come here,’ that is also very insulting. That is how you signal dogs to come to you. We use all the fingers, with the hand pointed down, from respect.”

He looks embarrassed for a moment. “And when Cambodian boys are friends, they are not afraid to touch each other like the Americans are. We hold hands. Girls do with girls too. It’s just friendship, but Americans make us feel ashamed. Now we stop.

"All those things I had to learn at high school, and it was hard.” Ra Him says the educational standards in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge were probably better than in America, particularly in subjects like math and history. “We were very disciplined. We stood up for the teacher when he came in. We memorized history. If we did wrong, he would hit us with a ruler. If we talked in class, he would send us to sit outside in the hot sun. If we failed one subject, we repeated the year.”

But even with his own relatives, all that is changing in America. “My nephews and nieces, they’re not like before. They’re not shy to talk boldly to their parents or to make boyfriends and girlfriends. Me, I never did that. We had to get the approval of our parents. My mom wanted to arrange a marriage for me, but I told her, because I don’t have a father — he was a soldier, killed in Cambodia — I wanted to choose my own wife.”

Like everyone else, Ra Him feels the yearning for the land he left, but also the dread of going back and being trapped in that nightmare again.

It’s all symbolized by one night he never forgets. “We were in a work group of boys all about the same age. Every morning about three they start the music going. We have to stand up and sing the Khmer Rouge national anthem, then work until the music stops, about midnight. And they play talk about Lenin. And they make us so frightened we have to do what they say.”

On this night, when Ra Him was about ten, he is sitting in a meeting, the one where they are told to forget their parents and revere their Khmer Rouge leaders. He has survived so far because he has not told anyone about the two years’ schooling he had before Pol Pot’s time. The leaders bring in a boy they have caught stealing food. They talk pleasantly to the rest of the boys. “We don’t want to punish this boy,” they tell the group. “But he was stealing from the rest of us. We would like to let him go. But only our enemies steal. Who thinks he is not the enemy?”

The children have been here long enough. The boy is their friend. But nobody raises a hand.

“Who thinks he is the enemy? Raise your hands.”

“We all raised our hands,” says Ra Him, the intervening years falling away. “Then they say, ‘We don’t want to, but you tell us he is our enemy.’ And they cut him in the chest, then they cut all his body. Into bits. Then they hang the different parts around the camp. These are things all of us here carry in our minds. That’s why many people have nightmares, are often depressed.” He points to one man’s neck. It has deep red, scarred striations down both sides. “That, he do himself. His pain is so bad. He must do something to relieve it."

Wherever you go in San Diego’s Little Cambodia there’s a story. At a jewelry shop, Ngoy Hay Leng and his wife Marlene, both Chinese-Cambodians, tell how they swallowed sapphires and gold as they crossed the border from Cambodia to Thailand so the Thai robbers wouldn’t take everything they had. “It was difficult watching every time we went to the toilet for a week afterwards,” says Ngoy. His wife shows a locket she hid jewelry in while crossing the border. Inside is the one memento from her mother, a jeweled spider. “But please don’t show our faces or say where our shop is. Maybe Khmer Rouge people here will see the pictures and send them back. And if we go back sometime, maybe the Khmer Rouge kill us!”

A lady named Kimmy waits to talk to Marlene. “My father was a secretary for the government. The Khmer Rouge first killed my older sister, then my younger sister. To me they say, ‘If you don’t marry, we kill you.’ They line up 50 girls. They bring in 50 men. They announce, ‘Lady named Kim and this man stand up....’ He is with me now, still, in San Diego. I can’t say that I don’t like him. When we escape we have one kid. And now my husband's eyes are not too good, so I take care of him and our children. Now I find my father is alive! But I am not U.S. citizen yet, so I don’t know how to bring him here. He is 74.”

At Phnom Penh Video, Kim Long rents videos to Cambodians, a great business idea, he thought, since there is no Khmer television on cable. “But people, the old people, just can’t seem to get out. They’re used to small villages.” James Teer, also a Chinese-Cambodian community services officer, was one of 42,000 pushed back into Cambodia over a mountain cliff by Thai soldiers in an infamous episode back in 1979, along with his whole family. “We were supposed to die. We could hear the booms below as people ahead of us stepped on mines," he says. “And that began a three-to four-month march of tears back into Cambodia. We had to leave old people and sick people by the wayside. Many of us died.” Pematokyryrasmey Chhun, a San Diego police officer, has constant nightmares, dreaming that his childhood Khmer Rouge supervisor is coming to take him back. “I desperately try to hide my San Diego driver’s license and social security number. But on me, so I can escape and show a U.S. Embassy somehow.”

We are in the small office shared by Chhun, Cheam, and Teer at the Indochinese community service storefront. Unlike most of the Khmer in San Diego, Chhun comes from Phnom Penh. His father, Pen Chhun, was a congressman and political advisor to President Lon Nol. (Anti-Communist general Lon Nol came to power in 1970 in a U.S.-backed coup against Prince, now King, Norodom Sihanouk.) “My father’s advice to me was not to be a politician when I grew up. He said when the regime changes, you will have to commit suicide, be killed, be jailed, be executed.... He went to school with Prince Sihanouk, but he was on Sihanouk’s blacklist because he fought corruption all his life. He was a good man to the poor, and that’s why the Khmer Rouge spared him — even though he died of disease and dysentery anyway.”

On the wall behind Chhun are two photos. One is a hurried action shot of a Khmer soldier lying down, firing off a machine gun in the dust. “That was the last day, as the Khmer Rouge were entering Phnom Penh,” says Chhun.

Next to that picture is another, also black-and-white. A group shot. About ten young people, all boys except for two very pretty girls standing up front. “That is me and my friends,” says Chhun. “That’s me, center back. Sixteen years old; 1973. At my school. The Khmer-English High School run by Americans. We were students, but we had volunteered to help President Lon Nol fight the Communists. We loved freedom and American capitalism. We studied when we could, but most of the time we were holding territory secured by Lon Nol’s regular army. We were attacked by the North Vietnamese. But we believed.

“In 1975 the Khmer Rouge were coming. And then the American ambassador left! I couldn’t believe the Americans were leaving. General Sisowath Sirik Matak — a prince. Prince Sihanouk’s cousin — went to a TV station right by where the Khmer Rouge were and made his famous broadcast. He spoke to the Americans. He said, ‘If you leave us now, please do not come back. You want me to go with you, but I will stay. This is my country.’ And he did. And they killed him a few days later. He is my hero. Prince Sihanouk — he broadcast from Peking — asking the Cambodian people to join the Khmer Rouge. I will not forgive his mistake. He destroyed Cambodia.”

To see Hassina Lor dance, you wouldn’t think she ever had a care in the world. She’s 18, lithe, vivacious — and bossing a dozen of her fellow teens into perfecting one of the most flirtatious dances of Cambodian country culture, the coconut dance. “Move your bodies!” she calls from the courtyard of the Mid-City Baptist Church, where they’re practicing. “You can’t be stiff! Click the coconuts! Girls, move your eyes, too....”

To the recorded reedy Khmer music, each boy-and-girl pair moves sinuously, clicking the coconut shells they hold in each hand. If you had been to the great temple of Angkor Wat 1000 years ago, when the Khmer empire ruled Southeast Asia — when fantastic irrigation created surpluses of rice that fed and controlled the entire region, and when kings held great festivals where hundreds of dancers swayed to the light of flares in the night and then had their images, apsaras, carved in stone on the temple walls — you would have seen movement something like this. They are preserved in the harvest festivals that have survived despite the wars and revolutions of the centuries.

Today, Hassina Lor is trying to get her fellow dancers ready in time for Cambodian New Year, April 13. “I was always inspired by the traditional dance,” she says, “but I have only ever seen them on video, except when real dancers from Cambodia came through recently. But getting people to do this, knowing every step, when Cambodians my age want to be ’90s and American, not traditional and Cambodian. It took a little persuasion.”

But the art of persuasion is something that runs in the family. Hassina Lor was born in Battambang in the time of the Khmer Rouge. She remembers having to flee at the end, when the Vietnamese were coming. “We were running over skeletons” toward the Thai border. Her father was a pilot and apparently had been killed trying to escape. “My mother went to a lot of fortune tellers to see if he could be alive. But they said no, even though a couple of his friends did escape.”

Then her mother was accused by villagers of stealing corn. Instead of begging for mercy at the village meeting called to condemn her to death, she railed against the Khmer Rouge for “treating everybody like animals.” “Nobody did that and lived,” says Hassina Lor. “But my mother did. That’s the kind of person she is. Of course, she also knew bad stuff the mayor had done, and he knew she could tell. So he shut the meeting down in the middle of her speech. She said, ‘Don’t close it,’ but he told everybody to go home. That’s how we survived.”

Since escaping to Thailand and America, Hassina’s mother has raised her eight children single-handedly. “Now she is donating money to build temples and schools in her birth village," says Hassina.

Hassina and her youngest brother, Sophak, missed out on learning to read and write Khmer. “So I am putting together a school so I can learn Cambodian, from the ground up,” she says. “The temple school is too advanced.” This is not something a lot of her friends are interested in. “But I have always been fascinated by my culture," she says.

But there are tensions that reflect the halfway post the family has reached between the two worlds. “My mother believes in arranged marriages. I know she wants what’s best for me, but I also want to be able to decide. It’s hard to open up to her. She’s a strong woman, and our family is not particularly open. I know she has sort of picked someone out already.”

Hassina wants to be a pharmacologist and perhaps return to Cambodia to deliver low-cost medicine. “I have just added $100 into my savings account for the airfare to Cambodia. Now I have $300. Not that I want to abandon my mother. Whoever I marry. I’ll tell my husband, ‘If we’re going to get married, I’m staying with my mother, like it or not.’ I can’t understand American kids who just want to abandon their parents once they turn 18, after all they have done for them. It seems so selfish. My two older brothers have stayed at home to take the role of father until we’re ready to be on our own.”

But it is gangs that have been the major test for Hassina Lor as she staked out her place in America. “We had a major problem in the ’80s, when we had our own Cambodian family band,” she says. “My oldest brother would throw Cambodian parties, because they were kind of good and cool at their music. People would pay to get in. But around ’86, ’87, Cambodian gangs started showing up in Eastside and come in without paying, and causing problems. To a point where my brother says, ‘We don’t want you here.’

“Perhaps they felt outcasts, but they came back. They threw acid on our van. They flattened the tires. Then they came by and shot at our house. My little brother was eating dinner and a bullet flew through his hair, above his skull, and hit the wall. And at school older gang kids harassed me and my sister going to school. Senior girls waited outside after school in the park. I had to fight them alone with my fists — 30 of them! We had to get a restraining order. Then finally we moved. I worry about young kids I once grew up with, in the same apartments, sharing food. Now they’re totally gangster. It’s terrifying to know what the future will be. Why do parents allow it? How come TV rap and violence is so cool?”

5opheap Cheam decided he wanted to be a cop the night he and his father had to take his brother to a hospital’s ER. It was two a.m. He and his father had left his brother in the hospital and were walking back through the dank streets, worrying about meeting trouble at that time of night.

“Then this car cruised up. A police car. The officer asked us where we were going — then offered us a ride! At first we were frightened about what might happen. But he took us home. He understood how we felt. We had learned to fear all people in uniform in Cambodia. They abuse the people. But this man just wanted to be kind. From that day I decided I’m going to become a policeman.”

Cheam became a police cadet and then, in 1991, a community services officer at the Indochinese storefront police station, a quietly surprising success story for the San Diego Police Department, on 47th Street.

“No question,” says his boss, 34-year-old officer Roy Moody. “This is the best part of my 14-year career."

Moody’s sitting in his office at the storefront, sandwiched between a 7-Eleven and a Chinese live-duck-and-chicken shop. It has Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Somali community services officers working there full-time as bridge-builders between the area’s main immigrant communities and the police.

Moody’s office wall is packed with framed accolades. “War Sovannakiry,” reads one. “Cambodian Buddhist Society of San Diego Honors Officer Roy D. Moody For His Distinguished Community Service.”

The officer’s job is to “make sure that department policy is followed.” But it is the bilingual and bicultural understanding of his CSOs that he says is the secret to the unit’s success. “We started in 1986 here with zero interaction with the Asian community," he says. “These people hated and feared the police — probably with good reason, from where they came from. But with people who spoke their language and understood their ways, they started coming for help. Everything from official form-filling to family violence to kids running away to crime reporting. This last year we had 6241 office visits and 20,000 incoming calls. Of course the Cambodian community is a little more difficult to work with. They’re smaller. And maybe they’ve been traumatized more.”

Officer Moody seems to bring a rare understanding to the job. “Back in ’89 I switched commands to patrol the Lao neighborhoods. My buddies were into enforcement. That’s the glamorous side of police work. But I suddenly started getting interested in the Southeast Asian cultures. I started talking to the kids on the street. The gangs were just getting going then, and I was surprised how open they were. I never really felt threatened by the young gang members, though I discovered later on that some were extremely dangerous. I immersed myself in reading everything I could find about the ways of life. I developed friendships. I started going to weddings, funerals, parties. I got invited back to dinners. I went to the temples. When I could help, the people were genuinely happy. They are gracious, gracious people. I’ve read more books on this than I know, but really, you have to experience it.” He smiles. “Plus, I became engaged to a Lao girl, and her parents go the Cambodian temple. That helped too."

But the gangs that Moody saw spawning in the late ’80s have become a reality in the ’90s.

We’re cruising in his unmarked early-’80s car, looking for members of the Cambodian OBS gang, the Oriental Boys (sometimes wrongly called the Oriental Boy Soldiers). There’s no one at their usual hangout, the Coco Video Arcade at 46th and El Cajon, so we cruise into the alleys between El Cajon and University. Chinese-Cambodian CSO James Teer rides shotgun with Moody today. “We’ve been putting quite a few of them away,” says Moody. “That’s why there are not so many around, maybe.”

Graffiti starts appearing on garage and apartment walls. “Oriental Boys No 1.” “Forty-Seventh Menlo Cuzz.” “Bullet Sneek 15-2.” (The 15-2 refers to the alphabet positions of O and B.) But over some of the OBS graffiti, the letters OKB have been scrawled in white chalk. “That’s the Oriental Killer Boys, mostly Lao,” says Moody. “They’re the main enemy.”

“But they’re still kids too,” Teer says. “I sometimes play soccer with them.”

“You’ve got to chew the fat with them,” says Moody. “You know, these kids didn’t even realize they were becoming gangs when they first formed. They were just Cambodian kids at high school and junior high getting beat up by the larger black, white, and Hispanic kids. So they started organizing to protect themselves. If one got beat up, all would hunt down the bully and beat him up after school. It grew from there. What else could they do? These kids may be gang members, but they all still live with their parents.”

We pass a blue sign, “50th Street OBS. Sniper and Puppet.” “They split recently, the OBS,” says Moody.

"That’s caused a few shoot-outs. These boys have gotten heavily armed over the past few years — 9mm revolvers, M-1 carbines, AK-47s. They have access to other military-style guns, even grenades, from the black market. Asian gangs buy guns by the case. Plus the OBS boys team up with Cambodian gangs up in Long Beach, like the TRG, Tiny Rascal Gang. Those boys come down and commit crimes together.”

It’s plain the gangs fill a void for many kids caught between the two wildly divergent cultures. Where the parents try to keep the old Cambodian ways going, outside there are none of the support elements that existed back in Cambodia: the temple, the village structure, the work in the fields.

Three black-and-white cars of the SDPD’s Gang Suppression Unit haul up into our alley. They’re looking too. “We’ve had a bunch of arrests recently,” says officer Chris Sarot. “I guess things are up in the air as to who’ll take control.”

Finally we find a gang member. An apprentice. “Cambodian kids stick together,” says a 14-year-old who doesn’t want to be called anything except Shorty. He was born in Thailand, and yes, he “claims” the COC, the Crazy Oriental Crips. “I joined them because I don’t get along,” he says. “Cambodians and Lao don’t get along. We’re both Asians. I don’t know why, but that’s it.”

Yes, his parents have begged him not to join the gang. “I say, ‘Be quiet’ to them. But once in a while I feel like stopping because of my mom. I feel torn between Mom and the others. I joined because I got bored.”

Does he shoot people?

“We shoot people when we have to. Like, I was just watching TV with a friend I was visiting in Modesto. This crazy white dude comes in screaming how he didn’t like Asians, slicing around with

this knife like crazy. He chased me around the block. One of our guys was shooting at him.” He shows a large welt at his elbow where the knife went in.

“My dad’s Khmer Rouge,” says another kid. I can’t tell if it’s fact or bravado. “We came over without him. He got shot in the leg. He sent a letter last year.” The kid goes to Horace Mann Middle School. “I hate English [class], I don’t even get a grade. Cambodia? They don’t teach nothing Cambodian there. I can understand some of what my mom is saying, but I can’t read it.”

We’re standing in an alley courtyard with kids and one old man. His name is Van Verng. A farmer from Battambang. He looks with a combination of sadness and disgust at his son. “I just fixed this fence last night,” he says to the officers and kids alike. “This morning it’s down.” His son Tiny just looks at him and says, “Yeah, we pulled it down. We want to get through to the other apartment.”

The father lifts his hand as if to strike the kid. The boy doesn’t flinch. “He doesn’t listen to me. Bringing up a kid here is different from bringing them up in Cambodia. The law here raises up criminals! I can’t hit my kid. I’ll get in trouble with the CPS [Child Protective Services]. I can’t discipline my own kid. And see what happens? He starts joining gangs. That’s what the law here does. The trouble starts with the law. The teacher too. He teaches him nothing about how he ought to live. He has no authority. I miss Cambodia so much. My kid’s not interested. He prefers American food. I’m going back in ’95. By myself.”

“I want to be Cambodian,” says Tiny, “but different from my dad. Yeah, I want to join the gangs. I want to kick back. It’s the cool thing to do. My dad says don’t go in gangs. I say it’s my life!”

“Every one of those kids,” says Moody later, “they have such a difficult road to travel. They’re no different than other kids. They have dreams just the same. A flash car. Money. Pretty girl. It’s the environment. They get sucked up into the violence.”

Superior Court S-21. Downtown, Judge Thomas J. Whelan presiding. Sitting at the defendant’s table is a good-looking, commanding, 20ish Cambodian man in a black-and-white sweater. His name is Chouey Chouen, or, according to Al Williams from the D.A.’s office, “Trigger.” He is accused of attempted murder in a drive-by shooting in a chase that started 100 yards from the Trieu Chau Restaurant. According to Williams, this was a payback shooting in the running dispute that has split the OBS gang into two. The 47th and the 50th Street OBS.

Robert Marquez is testifying. He is a criminal investigator for the district attorney’s office, an expert on Asian gangs. “Asian gang leadership is much looser than others,” he says. “Leaders are recognized as those with the most heart, courage. Individuals with strong leadership qualities.... Chouey Chouen is recognized as leader, or a leader of the 50th Street OBS.”

Chouey Chouen’s parents sit, small and expressionless, in the public seating. They are also farmers from Battambang. Chouey was seven years old when they left. Yes, he saw a lot of dead people when he was a kid. His own dad was tied up and taken out with six others by the Khmer Rouge to die but miraculously survived. But no, their son was “too small" for the ravages of the Khmer Rouge to have affected him. “My son is a good boy. A good son,” Chouen’s father says. “Chouey is in jail and he didn’t do it,” says his mom. “I don’t want him to go to jail for someone else’s crime.”

“Half these boys claim to be gang members to impress the girls,” says Hank Howlett, Chouen’s attorney. “Once they ‘claim,’ they’re automatically labeled gangsters.”

“Every single Asian is suspect,” says Luan, Chouen’s girlfriend. “Chouey has been out in the schools talking against kids joining gangs,” says Howlett. “He is into boxing. He’s been in five prize fights. He’s been working with his coach in anti-gang work.”

“I’ve known Chouey since he was 15," says Al Williams. “I knew him as a victim in those days. A nice kid. Intelligent. I like these people. I like the community. This is embarrassing for his parents. But there’s no doubt on this one.”

“Sure,” says Chouen when I ask him for an interview in a quiet moment in court. “When I beat the rap we can talk.”

But he doesn’t beat the rap. Three days later, the jury finds him guilty of attempted murder. He had turned down a five-year jail term deal because he said he was innocent. Now he’s likely to be away twice that time.

Do you want to join gangs?” Social worker Khom Som is leading his regular class with Cambodian children to help fill the gap so many Khmer parents complain about — providing moral values leadership at school.

This is Euclid Elementary School. These kids are seven or eight years old. Giggling, excited, speaking half in English, half in Khmer, much as they must at home. This is the first real all-American generation.

“How do you know gangs?” he asks.

“They let you kill people,” says a little girl.

“They use a drug,” says another.

“Tattoos,” says one of the boys.

Khom Som is trying to impress on these kids the seriousness of what he’s talking about. He goes on to explain about the electric chair, which is where you go if you join a gang and kill someone. Then he reads them the mantra: Do your homework, don’t watch TV, read books, be home by five o’clock.

Among this group, no one was born in Cambodia, and only three were born in the refugee camps. These kids are Americans. “I hate my food,” says one little girl. “You know, rice and stuff. I like American, because it’s good chocolate, junk food.” The other kids laugh.

“But you should help your mother in the supermarket," says another, “and tell them the prices, because they love you.” “My mom said she watched her mom and two brothers get killed in Cambodia.” “My dad told me the Khmer Roo caught him and started to eat him, but he ran away to Thailand.” “I’m going to be a doctor,” says a little girl in purple, “because my dad told me it’s better if the family is sick, you can help them — and you can go to Cambodia and help their brothers and sisters too.”

“Gangs?” says a cheeky little boy who has twice fallen off his chair. “Some people say they’re cool. They go far places to play. They think it’s fun killing people. Bad...and cool.”

The kids file out of the library. “They seem to accept their dual role, as Cambodians and Americans,” says Carol Richert, the school librarian, who has been watching Khom Som’s class. “Maybe they’re not as confident reading English, but they do go for the picture books. But books for them about Cambodia? They’re very difficult to come by.”

Eight o’clock Saturday morning. On 40th Street. Du Choi tamps down the Chinese broccoli that he planted two days ago. He looks over his snow peas and mint. He does nothing fast. The Khmer Rouge bullet that went through his back set off a heart condition that stops him from working at a job and prevents him from lifting anything heavy. But like Voltaire’s Candide, he finds this garden gives him contentment after a life of tumult and just the right amount of exercise. The heavy work he leaves for his sons when they come on Sundays.

This is the community garden on the strip of land between University and El Cajon that will eventually become I-15. Du Choi is the only Cambodian farmer who has taken a plot of land here, although most of the other plots are being tilled by Hmong people.

Du Choi came from a farm in Kampuchea Khrom, the delta area of the Mekong River that is populated by Cambodian people but has long been conquered by the Vietnamese. The land has always been fertile, disputed, and the people living on it never fully ' accepted by either nation.

“We used to farm rice and coconuts,” says Du Choi. “We’d sell the coconuts for oil. A hundred years ago our nearest town was called Brattebang. Then it became Tray Vinh. Now it’s called Cuu Long. From April to August we couldn’t grow because the saltwater came up from the ocean. But October to February, it was okay for vegetables. Here we can grow all year long!”

He became a special forces soldier for General Lon Nol. “My brother stay on the farm, and I speak two languages, Cambodian and Vietnamese, so I joined. We were trained by the Americans. But up near Kompong Thom we were in an area called Chen La-Deux, 12 of us on patrol. We were ambushed by the Khmer Rouge. Five die, four injured, me one. I was shot in the back. For three months I was getting better. Now my son wants to become a U.S. soldier. I say to him that it can sometimes be...difficult.”

Du Choi needs his three sons and his daughter to help him hoe his plots. But it provides them with food and him with a life.

“I help my dad plant, and I help my mom and dad read, because their eyes aren’t very good,” says ten-year-old Du Long, Du Choi’s youngest son, back at their 42nd Street apartment. Except he can’t read Cambodian script. He was three years old when he left Kampuchea Krom. And he still misses the dog they left behind. “My grandpa planted lots of fruit I like. My mom is Cambodian with a little bit of Chinese — do I look Chinese?” His grandparents look down from their places high on the wall. Electric incense sticks burn at an altar to them.

There is a lower altar too. “That’s Fot Dek, Vietnamese god,” says Long. “He controls the ground. If you kick in his face, you shouldn’t do it....”

Up on Menlo, shouts and cheers ring out as a group of Khmers play boules, the French equivalent of lawn bowling, which they brought to Cambodia when it was part of their Indochinese colonial empire. The French departed but left behind their game. Now it has become a regular weekend thing for the men to gather with beers and boules and compete in the same casual, jocular way they did back home.

But if there is any center to Cambodian life in San Diego, it is the temple. Actually there are two temples. People more pro-King Sihanouk tend to go to the one on 52nd Street. The rest go to “the old temple” on 47th.

“The temple?” says a Cambodian girl near the boules players. “It’s over there near Wightman Street. They’re having a ceremony or something. I don’t know.”

The temple compound is guarded by an old man with a stick who looks at you searchingly. I learn he was so badly tortured by the Khmer Rouge it turned his mind. Now he sits most days at the entrance protecting the homey-looking building that houses the four monks who, more than any other, hold this immigrant society together.

“Most Cambodians stick to traditions," says Phra Dhammanath Phornprasit, one of the monks. “For instance, sometimes they believe that the food they give to the monk can go directly to their dead relatives. Whereas it’s the merit that goes through, not the food. But these people are farmers, not sophisticated people.”

But he worries more about what happens to the temple when the next generation of Cambodian expatriates grows up. “Even now they know the ceremonies, but not what they mean,” he says. “Young people here in America — their life is too pressing. They compete in everything. School, work, family. In former times, the Cambodian temple was the center of everything, culture, school, herbal medicines, handicrafts. But gradually the monks have lost their activity, their influence. I think we need to look back to what our role was.”

In the garage next door, Sopheap Cheam finishes his Saturday morning Khmer language class. He takes his books from the bamboo-curtained carport that is one of the school’s two classrooms to the trailer that is the school’s headquarters.

In the trailer, the four or so other teachers are gathered around the school’s one Apple computer. Its keyboard is English, but what comes up on the screen is Cambodian script. That’s the best they can do on this donated gear. They have to remember the equivalents as they type.

This is how their textbooks are created. “We don’t have any books so we write them ourselves,” says Cheam. “This school is voluntary. Nobody is paid. The parents make the children’s uniforms. We find the desks, make the textbooks, and spend every weekend here. Because in American schools they only learn about American things. American history, American values. Because in American schools, there are no Asian values taught. Really no values. That’s an important reason we start this school.”

The school has about 200 pupils each weekend. It is run on a shoestring. “We need photocopiers! We need computers! We need classrooms!” call the teachers good-naturedly, when I follow Cheam up the steps. “Actually," says Khom Som, the social worker who is also a past president of the temple, “we are thinking of offering this place as a center for many students, not just Cambodians, to come and do their homework in a good working atmosphere after school. We’ll hire mentors so we can give as many young people as possible better chances."

Sopheap Cheam introduces the school’s founder and principal, Sokan Sar. “You know something,” Cheam says, “I was his pupil in a refugee camp in Thailand. So was my friend Sath Yem. We all met up again here! We’re all teaching. That’s why it is a good school!”

But Cheam might not be here much longer. He has been selected to become a full SDPD patrol officer, along with James Teer. That means no more teaching, no more storefront. They hope they’ll be replaced. Other teachers support the inception of a special charter school embracing these Asian values for the immigrant community in mid-city San Diego. The Cambodian Buddhist Society of San Diego has given the project its full backing.

Across the way, the three monks chant inside the low, spacious temple. Today is Precepts Day, when the faithful bring their sins for cleansing and food for eating. The platform the monks are sitting on groans with dishes. These are offerings from the people, and as the crowd chants prayers in Pali-Sanskrit, the monks nibble on their offerings. Then it is the monks’ turn, who chant as the food is brought down for the people to eat on matting floor, beside the platform bearing the large brass Thai buddhas. China bowls, silver rice pots, cups of tea. As the chanting ends and the food is laid out, people ease up from their praying positions and smile broadly as they set into the food that is theirs. Not another borrowing from America. Bamboo and baby banana, fish, rice, meats, egg with bamboo steamed, and afterwards betel nut and leaves for the old women to chew, as their mothers did before them in Cambodia, to soothe the mind and preserve the teeth. This for the stomach, the heart, and the spirit is what sustains so many of these people, thrust by strange circumstances into a strange land.

Sopheap Cheam, the teacher who once was a small boy in a very big revolution, has already gone home. From now on as a patrol officer with the SDPD he will be a cop. Pure and simple. Not Cambodian, not immigrant. Just part of America. Right now he needs his rest for Monday morning.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

Log in to comment

Skip Ad
Close

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader