Loung Vy sits in her garden. Photo by Sophinarath Cheang.
My grandmother Loung Vy is approaching yet another milestone in her life — her seventy-year mark. She has been living in Long Beach since 1986 and today, just as in her native Battambang, Cambodia, she still plants her own herbs and vegetables. She remembers raising her five children with my grandfather Chok Man and, on top of that, chickens, water buffalo, cattle, horses, and even an elephant. This life though, now like a dream for my grandmother, was turned upside down in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over and sought to create a solely agrarian nation by force.
My grandparents, mother, and young aunts and uncles were forced to work for the radical communists in harsh labor camps. “It was difficult caring for my children and working hard everyday when they didn’t give us enough to eat, enough to work, enough to live,” Grandma Loung says. Everyday, they and other forced laborers were fed the same old rice porridge at miniscule amounts. They worked for hours on end and, as she reveals in her bedroom, “If we didn’t fulfill our duties, they would kill us.” My grandparents, aunts, and uncles eventually were able to escape into the forest with the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979.
But even then they were not safe.
Grandma Loung remembers running through bullets exchanged between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces. And in the dark stillness of night, she constantly nursed her baby son — my uncle Khoeun — to avoid being discovered and killed by the Khmer Rouge. On top of this, landmines were planted all over the place and Grandma Loung and her family traveled in cautious fear to avoid stepping on one. She got out of bed to show me how she followed the steps of others in front of her as to avoid losing her leg, and, quite possibly, her life.
After escaping into the forest, she and her family were led to a refugee camp near the border of Thailand called New Camp. It was nearby another known as Old Camp. “For some reason, soldiers from New Camp and Old Camp fired at each other,” says Grandma Loung as she recalls lying on the floor to avoid the gunfire. Eventually, she and her family were transferred to Old Camp and then to another camp called Khao-I-Dang. From there, they were transferred to Kap Choeng and then back to Khao-I-Dang, then to Chon Buri, to Trong Seet, and finally to a refugee camp in the Philippines. It was difficult to live in the camps. “There was never enough to eat so I planted what I can to feed my family and myself,” Grandma Loung says, referring to a small plot of land she and the other refugees divided amongst themselves. She even made some money selling sweets and pastries she made. Grandma Loung used what she earned to buy food, MSG, clothes, and tobacco leaves for her mother.
Plunderers, thieves, and human traffickers were a common thing among the camps and Grandma Loung, always worried and fearful of losing her children, dug a small trench in the dirt where she hid them when the time called for it. She covered the top with tarp and leaves. Grandma Loung was able to leave these conditions when she and her family were granted an opportunity to live in the United States in 1986. They took advantage of it and decided to leave for Long Beach, California where some of my grandfather’s family had already settled.
Upon arrival, Grandma Loung and other Cambodian immigrants were recruited into a sewing-training program for a garment factory. She learned how to sew and was thereby given a means of supporting herself. Adjusting to life was difficult nonetheless as, with the exception of a few simple words for common vegetables, Grandma Loung didn’t speak English. But luckily for her, she was among many others who spoke Khmer, the national language of Cambodia. And now, almost thirty years later, Grandma Loung lives just around the corner from a strip of the Anaheim corridor that has become known as Cambodia Town. Boasting an abundance of Cambodian restaurants, markets, bakeries, and shops that feature Khmer script, it has become a new home for Grandma Loung and the many other refugees who fled the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime.
But after thirty years of being in Long Beach, little social progress has been made by Cambodian Americans. Many of whom arrived here were middle-aged and unable to go to school or pursue a career with the demands of parenting. Furthermore, a large majority of refugees had known little more than rural life in Cambodia; American society and its social structures and systems must have felt like an overwhelming, alien world.
Vy is interviewed by her grandson and Voicewaves Youth Journalist, Cheeravath Aphipunyo. Photo by Sophinarath Cheang.
Arriving here empty handed was difficult for Grandma Loung. Having to care for her mother — my great grandmother — as well as her children, she decided to stop working. She didn’t want to send her elderly mother to a senior-citizen home because she thought of it as an immoral thing to do to family, especially to her mother who cared for her. In fact, coming empty handed and earning minimum wages, Grandma Loung couldn’t even afford it at all.
Although she misses her homeland and her other family members that remain there, Grandma Loung still enjoys living in Long Beach. She says living in Long Beach is easier than in Cambodia because the government helps her out with money to buy things like groceries through programs such as Social Security. She only wishes for a little more help from the government to provide for a substantial amount of food, senior-citizen care, and enough money to buy some clothes. Money is hard to come by for Grandma Loung so she knits and sews her own clothes and socks. “Never have I owned pants worth more than $20,” she says while pinching her brown, stretchy pants she had sewn herself. And when asked about other issues, she mentioned, “I just want people to stop fighting and shooting each other so we all can live in peace. And many people are struggling and can’t afford housing, cheaper housing would help.”
Despite her struggle, Grandma Loung still finds a way to have some peace of mind. She continues to grow plants like lemongrass, an essential ingredient for Khmer cuisine, in front of her residence just as she did in the peace of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Back in her homeland, she planted many things like rice, bananas, lemongrass, papaya, ginger, and various types of herbs. Her garden here, much more modest in size and variety, is easy to take care of and she simply waters the few herbs with a hose. This is unlike earlier years when she hauled buckets full of water for her plants. She used to dig her feet into the mud and water of rice fields but now, she says, “Over here, you don’t get your feet wet.”