Home is Where Your Heart is…

27 10 2010

By Kinero Tan

As I boarded a bus leaving Bangkok, entering Cambodia through Poi Pet, the same way my family left the country 26 years ago to escape the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, my mind was flooded with mixed emotion. To be completely honest, I wasn’t quite certain that day of exactly what I was in search of. But my instincts led me to believe, that answers were somewhere in Cambodia’s muddy gravel roads, never ending rice fields, in the sincere smiles on the faces of farmers, daughters, mothers and children, in the erratic rain, in a sea of street vendors, food carts, tuk tuk drivers, and the ordered chaos of unforgiving traffic, among the aromas of dried fish in the meat market, from the smells of durain, lemongrass, lime leaves, curry, and amok in traditional Khmer dishes, in the untold stories of my family members who never left the country, answers I was determined to unveil.

I am the youngest of six children and the only to be born in the United States.  My father comes from a northwest province of Cambodia, called Battambang.  He was once a successful orange farmer and still a greatly respected man in his district.  He often made trips to the surrounding cities and distributed produce to local markets.  During a stop in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, he would find the eyes of a beautiful Chinese street vendor, and the pages that followed this chapter in his life would be filled with love, children and happiness.  But like the unpredictable weather during the wet seasons, the years of prosperity would be abruptly washed away with the rain…

From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge would overtake the country, claiming the lives of 2 million + people. Led by Pol Pot, this guerilla group would rise from the northeastern jungles and systematically dismantle and destroy Cambodia in the name of a communist agrarian ideal.  We now know this period as the Cambodian Holocaust.

A time in history when my family would be stripped of everything they owned.  They would experience and witness the hardships of concentration camps, forced labor, disease and famine, and spend seven grueling days and nights fleeing to the safety of a Thai refugee camp.  Years would pass, and on January 18th, 1984, the dreams of hope would finally be answered by a sponsorship through the American Red Cross, and then a flight halfway around the world would carry them to Longview, WA where opportunity, along with a new definition of struggle awaited them.

My families will to survive and my parent’s ability to more than successfully raise 6 children in a foreign land, put 5 boys through college, and exceed all odds, I feel privileged and blessed to be standing again where the story originally began.

It’s been a little over a month since I touched down and I’ve found myself more than occupied.  Between volunteering at Panasastra University, assisting with projects under Global Student Outreach and spending time with my relatives who still occupy my father’s old orange farm, everyday is new adventure.

Scenes from the farm…

Barefoot soccer, I’ve been out the last couple weeks due to an ankle injury

Newly found appreciation for the plant and animal life we consume

My relatives and I at temple during one of Cambodia’s national holidays

My favorite thing to do is to wake up early in the morning and ride out into the countryside. Staring out to an endless sea of flooded rice field as the sunrises is an incredible spectacle.  On a few occasions, I’ve found clear skies with scattered heavy rain clouds… absolutely amazing.

Flash Showers as visitors wait for sunset atop Bahkseng Temple in Siep Reap Daily Travel Photos

Volunteering at Panasastra, one of the elite Universities in Battambang and helping to shape the lives of young adults has been a fun and rewarding experience.  The students and staff have taught me so much about the cultural nuances of Cambodian people, and my Khmer is becoming better with each day.

Some of my students and I at PUC

Global Student Outreach is a non-profit organization that provides community service opportunities for students and adults in Cambodia.  They have a lasting commitment to helping the underprivileged children in this country.  Breath of Cultures shares a close relationship with GSO and I am personally thrilled to be here helping with their current efforts in sponsoring and caring for 15 orphans in the Chheu Teal district of Battambang.

Here are some of the GSO orphans proudly standing in front of their new home

Working on the ground level with Global Student Outreach has been eye opening.  In my first week, I went along on rides to visit the homes of potential orphans. It was hard to fathom the world that these children have been brought up in.  Unsanitary accommodations, hungry and left to fend for themselves… Some haven’t seen their parents for months and are beginning to wonder if they will ever come back at all.  As each orphan departs on the long car ride to their new homes, quietly avoiding contact, nestled in the corner, with one hand gripping the handle of the car door for some type of reassurance, I could only imagine the tears in their eyes are those of fear, of sadness, of anger, of frustration, and I would like to think of hope.  As the weeks progress, I get to see the transition of these children who have made new friends at the orphanage, fed 3 square meals a day, given new clothes, a bike to ride to school, there first ever toothbrush, and more importantly, someone who will look after them and make them laugh and smile for all the years that laughter was lost.

Click the link to see how you can help Global Student Outreach

As I ride through the city streets and watch the world around me,  I can’t help but see this place, these people and the city’s character running through me.  I have learned so much about myself, my family and what it means to be Khmer.  But above all, when I leave, I leave with a deeper understanding for who my father is, what he stood for and while 9,000 miles separate us at the moment, I’ve never felt closer to him, than I do now.  What once used to be a cultural barrier, is now a common interest and I can only see our communication and relationship continue to grow.

They say home is where your heart is… Cambodia will forever be in my heart.