Wednesday, August 21, 2013


I spent the remaining day going about Site 2 camp saying goodbye to my friends and classmates at Phnom Dangrek High School. Our schedule for departure from Site 2 camp was at six o’clock in the morning. But we all arrived at the bus station at five o’clock, for we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to go to America, which could only happen once in a life time. When we arrived at the bus station, no bus had arrived to pick us up yet. So I took the opportunity to see two of my best friends, Sambath and Saren, who lived at the boarding house located in Phnom Dangrek High School campus one last time as I wanted to give Sambath some of my personal belongings. Vichet, another friend who came to see me off, accompanied me to see Sambath and Saren. We spent about five minutes talking to one another before I returned to the bus station with tears welling in my eyes. After arriving in Phanat Nikum camp, the first order of businesses for us was to get our medical examination done. Those who were found to carry communicable diseases such as tuberculosis had to go through treatment until the condition was acceptable for entry into the United States. My mother, Buntha, and I were relatively healthy. Hence, we all passed the medical exams and were given only a short stay in Phanat Nikum. In the meantime, Buntha and I volunteered to teach elementary English lesson to refugee children while going to attend English classes on American culture and tradition during our spare times. We spent about three months in Phanat Nikum camp. After receiving our clean bills of health, we were told to get ready for our departure for the United States. Finally, our quest for redemption in life had come to the last chapter. A new beginning was about to dawn upon us. As a wayfarer, I had spent exactly four years going through many trials and tribulations in the various refugee camps. There would be many more challenges ahead for me. But whatever challenges that America had to offer me, I felt I was ready for it. After all, if I could make it in a tough place like Cambodia and the dreary refugee camps, I believed I could make it anywhere. Since I was little, talking about the United States had always conjured up fascinating image in my imagination. I didn’t know exactly what it was; but there was always a sense of optimism hanging in the air. Thus, as we prepared to depart for America, I was very optimistic that my life would turn for the better. With that optimistic feeling, we went to Bangkok Airport on the evening of January 18, 1989 to board a Northwest Airline flight bound for the United States. Aside from a lone man, we were the only Cambodian refugee family on that flight along with several families of ethnic Hmong refugees who happened to be heading for Minnesota as well. During one of our stopovers at Tokyo Airport, an airline official, who had noticed that I could speak some English, assigned me to take care of a group of Hmong men by showing them where and how to use the men’s room. The Hmong and I spoke a totally different language, and we could not understand each other at all. But through gestures and observation, I was able to get all of them to stand in front of the urinals and doing the things which seemed to come to us naturally. After a brief stop in Tokyo, we boarded another flight bound for Seattle, Washington. During our flight from Tokyo to Seattle, a Hmong child was refusing to wear a diaper a flight attendant asked his mom to put on him. Unable to make the child comply, the flight attendant walked up to me and ordered me to go and make the child wear the diaper. Once again, prejudice had prevailed as the flight attendant appeared to believe that I spoke the Hmong’s language since we looked alike. Without saying a word of protest, I got up and walked with the flight attendant to get the child to wear the diaper. Miraculously, upon seeing me approaching him, the child let his mother put the diaper on him willingly. By the way, I didn’t even know what the diaper was used for. I only fully knew of its functionality upon arriving in Minnesota after seeing my nephews wearing them. What a comic relief! ***** By the time we arrived in Seattle, the group of Hmong men had accepted me as their de facto leader. Hence, they were walking with me as we headed toward the customs stations. Unbeknownst to me, the Hmong men had been marked for searches by the U.S. custom agents and I was mistaken as being one of them. It should be noted that the Hmongs were an ethnic minority coming from Laos, many of whom used to live near the Golden Triangle area known for producing illegal drugs. Therefore, to ensure that no one brought illicit drugs into the U.S., most of the adult Hmong men, including me, were subjected to searches. While I was being thoroughly searched by a custom agent along with the Hmongs, my mother and Buntha had gone through the customs checkpoint. After waiting for me for some time, my mother began to suspect that something had gone wrong. So she told Buntha to watch over our luggage and walked right back into the forbidden zone of the airport. Her action caused a slight commotion when the custom agents were trying to stop her from entering the forbidden zone. Unable to understand or speak any English, my mother insisted that she be allowed to re-enter the airport to look for me. Fortunately, a Cambodian-speaking employee of the airport overheard my mother’s speech and came over to assist in explaining to her the airport’s protocol. The Cambodian-speaking airport employee assured my mother that I would be coming to meet her very soon. But my mother was not convinced. She remained at the customs gate until she saw me coming out. The airport employee explained the situation to me, and I thanked him for his assistance. Our flight from Seattle to Minneapolis was less eventful. My Hmong companions and I were still traveling together, and we appeared to have cleared all the hurdles at this point. Our flight touched down in Minneapolis at about seven o’clock in the evening. Heang had brought a number of his friends to welcome us at the airport. After almost one decade of separation and many agonizing years spent in refugee camps, we were once again reunited in a new homeland. Everyone was so excited. I looked around and saw that my fellow Hmong companions had been welcomed by their relatives as well. Judging from the festive atmosphere, it was really sweet to see all the happy faces around. Though tomorrow might be different, it was worth noticing that the fascinating image of America which used to conjure up in my mind had now unfolded right in front of my eyes. We had set foot in America for only one day, but we felt that the fear and anxiety associated with going to a foreign land appeared to be absent. The smiles and projections of confidence displayed by the people who came to welcome us to America had given us plenty of assurances that this was the place where lives could be transformed regardless of who we were. As a humble refugee being plucked up from a wretched camp and dropped off in a place like the United States, it was kind of hard to accurately describe my initial feelings and impressions about America. The closest metaphor for it was probably like that of a caged bird being set free. Though nobody told me that I was free, I intrinsically sensed it the minute I set foot in America.
(The End)

No comments: