By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
In 1975, after five years of civil unrest and increasing cruelty, the Khmer Rouge became the ruling party of Cambodia.
Battambang, the city where Sam Ung was born and where his family lived, combusted on April 15. The Khmer Rouge launched missiles into the city center, and Ung, then 20 years old, remembers the smoke, the chaos, the wounded, and the dying with grisly detail. It’s a scene from his life that he revisits in his autobiography, “I Survived the Killing Fields: The True Life Story of a Cambodian Refugee,” which he wrote with his friend, Thomas McElroy.
Ung witnessed the death of loved ones, genocide, the loss of his country, and underwent a life of extreme hardship.
When he talks about the past, Ung refers to the fact that he had died, many times over, and he came back from death.
He thinks it’s important to record history. “But — it’s kind of hard.”
“During those times, we used to have some things — it was not a great life — but our family was a lot better off than a lot of others,” Ung said. “In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came, they push everyone out of city. In those years, no people lived in city. No currency. No market. No nothing. So everyone was forced to work on farms, so whatever they give you to eat, you eat, otherwise you get nothing.”
As a teen, before the Khmer Rouge took power, Ung was combative, sometimes tough and sometimes a hustler. In his novel, he describes his youth with a fondness. He was fascinated by the way Clint Eastwood held a cigarette between his lips in movies, fascinated by the line it made against his face. Ung was enamored with surfing, even though he didn’t really know what it was. He just knew it was cool.
But after the Khmer Rouge came to power, he starved and was forced clean human waste out of sewage ditches.
“These days, when we feel alone, when we’re shorted food or kind of broke — it doesn’t compare to what I’ve been through. It’s nothing. Back then, we couldn’t find anything to eat. We had to eat the wild vegetation in the fields. And when the bell rang, we’d go get food. If the bell didn’t ring, we didn’t get food. I’ve been through so many things in life. Today, I know of a different, harder life.”
The Khao-I-Dang refuge camp on the Thai–Cambodian border held approximately 160,000 Cambodians refugees in 1979, one of them Ung. After the Khmer Rouge fell in 1980, Ung arrived in Seattle.
“When I came here, I had two separate [sets of] clothes. We landed. [My wife and I] walked off the plane. The first thing — when we got here — the 747 was full of refugees. The pilot said, ‘Welcome to America.’ Everyone cheered. We were so happy.
We were in the greatest country in the world. We told ourselves, ‘It’s a great country.’ So we got out of the plane doors — and that’s when I said, ‘I don’t know nobody. I don’t have nothing. What am I going to do?’”
When the Ung arrived in the States, his wife Kim was eight months pregnant. Their daughter Dawn was born four weeks later. It was with the birth of his daughter and the weight of the responsibility on his back that Ung made a promise to himself. He was going to eventually write his story, so that Dawn and his future kids, Diane and Darlene, and his grandkids, Derin and Devin, would know what he survived.
“I had a wish when I came to the States in 1980. I said, ‘One day, I will write the story.’ I just wanted to record history for my grandchildren, so they know why we came here. It was the biggest thing I’ve accomplished in my life.”
It was a goal that he reached 30 years after coming to the States. He and McElroy started the book in 2009 and took 25 months to complete it.
In the time between publishing the book and coming to the United States, Ung built a family and a beloved restaurant, Phnom Penh Noodle House, in Seattle’s Asian community.
“I grew up in the restaurant. I have passion. I didn’t have a teacher. I grew up in my country in a restaurant. I always look at how cooks cook, how they cut the vegetables. It was something I had to watch. Before they sent the food out, I tasted them, so I get the flavor. My mom said if you want to be a good cook, you have to have a good [ability to] taste.”
“He works a lot,” said Ung’s eldest, Dawn Cropp. “So many hours. Every day of the week. If he’s not taken away out of town, he’s here. … He is like a machine. I’m so afraid of the machine not working. Because you can only go so hard so long before it breaks down. He’s so amazing.”
Ung is quick to say that he may not have the most money, but he has heart and skill sets. He became known for donating his time and talents in support of social causes and community fundraisers.
“I only got educated six years, but I always use my common sense. That’s how I survived. During the Khmer Rouge, they took me once. They tied me up. When they tie you up, you don’t come back. I’ve been there — what they call the slaughterhouse, where the army is. I talked my way out. … A lot of people come by and tell me they appreciate the stories [in my novel]. They say they understand what really happened. There’s a lot of stuff in the book. It’s more than just how I survived. I also look at life differently now.”
Since the book’s publication, Ung has been tapped as a lecturer and presenter at educational institutions across the country, a process he finds cathartic.
“Growing up, he never spoke about it,” Cropp said. “Now, this has given us a different outlook. Growing up, we got bits and pieces. And he always said, ‘One day, when you have your own kids, you’ll understand why I am the way I am.’ I used to think my dad was crazy. Just being the first generation here was really tough for my dad. All he wanted to do is guide and protect. It’s hard to deal with sometimes, when there are two different cultures. But as an adult, knowing what my parents have gone through has given me a great appreciation for him. I always feel so indebted to him.”
“People always talk about passion, compassion,” Ung said. “I always say, especially to college-aged kids, I tell them: I didn’t have much chance in my life. I had only six years of grade school. And I worked like a dog all my life. You all must help educate. You have more chance at success than anyone. We should support our community. When you support, you build a stronger community.”
“Sometimes when I lecture, I say, ‘Sorry I break down when I speak,’ ” Ung said. “I’ve lost a lot of people. Family. But I think it’s a good thing for me, because every time I break down, I release that young man inside me, out.” (end)
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.