By Dany “Vegas” Son, Contributing Writer
June 20 marked the day for refugee awareness around the world. World Refugee Day was coined by the United Nations to bring forward and draw the public’s attention to the civic issue of the countless refugees and internally displaced individuals. The Jade Times reached out to Dany “Vegas” Son, a University of Central Florida alumna, to raise awareness. She shared her story.
One of my favorite childhood stories my parents once relayed to me was about how my dad balanced all four of us on one bicycle. It wasn’t a circus act—it was an everyday occurrence.
My mom grabbed a pen and some scrap paper to draw it out for us. My dad was on the main seat and in charge of pedaling while my mom sat on the rear rack, one arm holding onto dad and another arm securing my brother on her lap. Where did I sit? In the basket, of course!
I laughed at the story and stepped away because I could feel my eyes swell with tears.
I was 24 when I heard this story for the first time, and it was only because my boyfriend interviewed my parents for a research paper on culture and health. My dad made this ride every day for the duration he owned and operated his own noodle stand in Site II, Thailand, a refugee camp that bordered Thailand and Cambodia.
Growing up, my brother would occasionally ask, “Remember when a bus would drive by and throw instant noodle and snacks out the window for everyone?”
As a little kid I thought, “THAT’S SO COOL!”
But, no, I didn’t remember anything. The first memory I can clearly recall is walking through the hallway of what could be an airport terminal, some memories of meeting my cousins for the first time, and moving into our studio apartment attached to my uncle’s house.
My dad told me stories of how he worked with a dentist, or a doctor or a pharmacist, but I thought, “Why aren’t you doing any of that now?”
My mom would say how his family wasn’t at their wedding, and I thought it was so bizarre.
I didn’t know until I was 14 on my first trip to Vietnam and Cambodia that I was actually “just” Cambodian. Why were my brother and I born and raised in Thailand? How did mom and dad meet? Dad’s from Vietnam so I must be half Vietnamese, right? And half Cambodian. And half Thai….wait. That doesn’t add up.
In the first 18 years of my life, I grew up without knowing what city I was born in. I just thought it was something Asians didn’t keep track of, like how my dad didn’t really remember his birth year for some reason. I also was ignorant of Cambodia’s dark and gruesome past and how an unknown number, somewhere between 1.7 million to 3 million Cambodians were killed for a decade, from 1970 to 1980.
While my dad’s parents were much younger, they watched their land in the Mekong Delta get handed over to Vietnam in 1949 by the French during their colonization. My dad was born in 1955, but Grandpa would later forge papers to reflect 1961 to avoid my dad getting pulled into the war. By his mid-20’s, however, he had to leave his teaching job, his family, and everything in Tra Vinh behind and flee for the Thai border.
My mom said she was only 14 when she escaped on foot with her family. She was born and raised in Battambang, Cambodia, but they, too, had to leave everything behind. In my late teens, she told me stories that didn’t quite make sense. I mean, why—just why—did she have to hide behind a pile of corpses to survive? That image doesn’t ever wash away, but at least, I didn’t have to experience it firsthand.
On our second trip to Cambodia in February, my family and I walked through a genocide memorial museum. There was an illustration painted by a survivor that depicted a member of the Khmer Rouge throwing a baby in the air and shooting at it.
“I witnessed this,” she said.
My mom was about 20 when she was introduced to my dad through a friend of a friend. At 10 years his junior, they married when she was 21. They look so genuinely happy in all of their wedding photos. My mom’s brothers and sisters were all there, her parents, too, but there was no one from my dad’s side.
It all makes sense now. They were two borders over. It makes sense why they decided to renew the vows during our first visit to Vietnam, so his parents could finally be a part of his wedding. Shortly after their marriage, my dad had to get papers for my mom, stating that she was from Vietnam in order for them to stay together, from camp to camp. To this day, not a single one of us can really claim our nationality as Khmer or Cambodian on our U.S. documents.
From what I’ve read, most of these refugee camps offered food rations to women and children, rarely would men ever receive anything unless they worked to earn their keep. My dad did work with a dentist, and a doctor and a pharmacist of the Red Cross as their assistant. He held as many jobs as he could to earn his meal and extra for his family. He eventually saved up enough money and took out a loan from a friend to open his own noodle shop, where he had several employees. His oldest brother, whose family was sponsored by an American family to settle in Florida, later sponsored our family.
We arrived to America in 1994, and it’s been a long journey to find out who I am and where my family comes from. The journey continues. Although these stories are not entirely mine to own, they shape who I am and what I do. In the last three years I’ve become more involved with the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation in Florida, attended youth conferences in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to better educate myself and fight for the rights of the people in the Mekong Delta. I’m at the age where my parents and elders are voicing their concerns of having the next generation more involved with preserving our culture and heritage.
I know that many first-generation Asian Americans can relate with the struggle to hold onto our roots while embracing this new world in which our parents began their pursuit of happiness. Some can marry the two cultures so effortlessly, others may need more time and practice. I believe success lies in finding the right balance, just like my dad did on his bicycle.
Featured and Article Images: Special to The Jade Times