Thavy Srey knew her life meant little to the soldiers arguing over her. A 17-year-old bone-thin orphan, alone in Cambodia's parched and desperate northwest after the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in 1979, Srey was a mere piece of property to the motley bands of men with AK-47s slung over their shoulders.
As the men's voices rose, her dreams of escaping evaporated. She had survived five years of U.S. bombings and then nearly four years under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. She finally fled toward the Thai border, through fighting, land mines and jungle. But now she seemed destined to become a soldier's slave, or be caught in the cross-fire of a fight over her.
Just then a stout young commander stepped in and claimed the girl. He was armed and possessed a burly frame and a confident, bulldog face. The others backed off--as did many who faced Nhek Bun Chhay in those days.
For the next 10 months, Srey helped nurse Bun Chhay's wounded troops near the border as his men fought Vietnamese invaders who had installed a new government. Then a Cambodian American visitor asked her to marry him, and offered to take her out of the country. Bun Chhay encouraged her to go. It might be her only chance to escape. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here now," says Srey, who married and eventually made it to the U.S., settling in Long Beach. "He saved my life."
But through the years, Srey lost track of Bun Chhay. His comrades fell in battles that raged for years against the outsiders, or died from malaria. Srey was certain the same had befallen Bun Chhay.
TWO DECADES HAVE PASSED. IT'S A LOVELY SUMMER EVENING IN LONG Beach. Teenage girls beautifully decked out as traditional Khmer dancers float gracefully through a gathering of Cambodian Americans. A comic speaking in Khmer works the delighted crowd with his Chaplin shtick. Men in stiff suits talk in hushed tones of politics, while women wrapped in their Sunday best, faux fur and crushed velvet, parade about, some talking business. A lineup of ladies in brittle and colorful Khmer silk eye each other's gold and pearls, and rubies from Cambodia's northwest.
The crowd is part of an often-nostalgic community of Cambodians in this neighborhood known as Little Phnom Penh--the world's largest Khmer population outside of Southeast Asia. This evening's festivities were organized by Srey, then an administrator at a Long Beach medical clinic. Four hundred people have turned out and, by most appearances, this could be an elite gathering in Phnom Penh. Perhaps the most authentic touch is the guest of honor, Nhek Bun Chhay.
He and Srey are at opposite ends of this restaurant for the event she staged to thank him for saving her for this suburban life, and to collect donations for his continuing campaign to reform Cambodia's political system. "I believe in God, so that is why I think he survived," says Srey, who is raising her two teenage sons essentially alone, her husband having returned to Cambodia in 1997 as an advisor to Bun Chhay.
Such are the ways of many of the approximately 50,000 Cambodians in Long Beach. They live in America, but their ties to their homeland transcend their roots here. Unlike many immigrants who settle in the U.S., this group bonds through its love of Cambodia and its work to reform the political system into an American-style democracy.
"When I am with family there, it feels like something wraps around me, gets into my soul, something that it is impossible to pull back out," explains Sakphan Keam, who works as an interpreter at the Los Angeles County courthouse in Long Beach. "That is why my heart and my soul are still the heart and soul of a Cambodian. I am more Cambodian than American."
Feeling truly American is especially difficult for many in Little Phnom Penh old enough to remember the U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The virulent anti-Communists among them say they understand why the United States attacked North Vietnamese havens across the Cambodian border. But others recall that thousands of Cambodian civilians died in the bombardments, and they see them as the step that sucked Cambodia into a downward spiral of strife.
Few imagined at the time how much worse their lives would become. The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, led by the notorious Pol Pot, and began an agrarian reform so radical that it claimed the lives of 1.7 million Cambodians, nearly one in four, through disease, starvation and execution. When the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and installed their own leaders, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were finally able to flee the Khmer Rouge's clutches to refugee camps. Many eventually made it to Long Beach. But back home, the Vietnamese and the government they backed were seen as occupiers rather than liberators, and that image persists in Little Phnom Penh today.