In the third grade my best friend was Chaunty Thook.
We had assigned seats right next to each other at Helen Keller Elementary in Kirkland and quickly became best friends, drawn together by three common bonds: we were both brown in a predominately white school, we both spoke a different language, and we both loved Paula Abdul.
We would often bring snacks from home that the other kids thought were weird and share them with each other. I still remember the taste of the dry uncooked Asian noodles we would shake with the MSG seasoning and eat like a bag of chips. Though we didn’t fully understand this at the time, what we shared the most was our common experience as first-generation Americans.
As our friendship developed, I visited Chaunty’s home in the public housing complex across from our elementary school. Her mother was a tailor and her father took any job he could find to make ends meet.
They worked hard to provide for their family. But going to school in the suburbs of Eastside Seattle, Chaunty never really could keep up with the rest of us economically. She was always struggling to buy gifts for birthday parties or attend class field trips.
Upon meeting her parents I remember thinking that although they were much younger than my parents, their faces looked old, weak, worn-out, and tired.
Though I felt a connection with Chaunty, I also sensed a deeper pain and hardship in her immigrant experience, compared to the privileges I enjoyed. As a result, I sometimes had the urge to distance myself from her and to instead align my identity with that of my American classmates.
It wasn’t until college, when I learned about the war in Cambodia, that I began to understand Chaunty’s story. Her parents were victims of the Khmer Rouge Regime and came to Washington in the early eighties along with hundreds of other Cambodian refugee families, with nothing more than the clothes on their back, and hopes of a better life for their children–a hope they shared with my parents and the millions of immigrants in our country.
A decade later, during a nine month trip around the world, I landed in Cambodia not totally certain what had brought me there. For much of the two months I spent in Southeast Asia, I felt aimless and confused about my purpose. I felt disconnected from the other holiday backpackers yet found it difficult to break the barriers between me and the locals.
On my first day in the capital city of Phnom Penh, I hired a driver to take me around to some of the different genocide memorials. He parked the motorcycle-drawn carriage in front of the Killing Fields, a site where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge, and gave me an hour to visit the memorial.
I learned that in 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a communist driven government lead by Pol Pot, took over Cambodia, implementing one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society the world has ever seen. They had a vision to turn Cambodia into a peasant dominated, rice growing economy and to weed out anyone who didn’t fit the new vision of the country: urban dwellers, intellectuals, professionals, Chinese, religious leaders, Buddhist monks, those who wore glasses or spoke a foreign language. In short, no one was spared and everyone was at risk.
At least three million people (almost a third of Cambodia’s population) died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the four years they were in power. People were dislocated from their homes and separated from their families to join slave labor camps where they were forced to work and then tortured or killed.
As I continued through the Killing Fields, I saw the mass graves where humans were thrown after they were massacred, the bones of which are still being excavated.
Two and a half hours later I emerged from the memorial feeling drained and a bit guilty about my tardiness. I looked at the impatient driver and said, “I know, but this is more important than visiting temples or other sites. I needed to see this.”
He agreed and then he told me his story.
He was only 4 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh. Though they all rejoiced in happiness in the beginning, within a matter of hours their lives were changed forever. His father, a nurse in the local hospital, was taken away and murdered by the Khmer Rouge due to his education level and perceived connection to the west. His mother escaped with him and his sister, hiding in the jungles of Cambodia for three years until 1979 when the Khmer Rouge was defeated by the Vietnamese army. Though they suffered from starvation, disease, and trauma, somehow they survived.
As I listened to his painful accounts, I thought back to Chaunty and her family. It hit me how much history and turmoil she carried with her into our tiny third grade classroom. I suddenly understood the emotional scars I witnessed on her parents’ faces and how much they had been through before arriving in the US.
As I spent more time in Cambodia I began to feel an odd sense of familiarity that I realized stemmed from my friendship with Chaunty.
Like Chaunty and her family, I found the Khmer people to be among the warmest people I had ever met. Regardless of their traumatic history, they allowed me into their lives. Their kindness radiated through every level of my experience: slurping a cup of noodle soup across from an old toothless man attempting to practice his limited English, children on the beach begging for money but settling for playing with my hair, and the family guesthouse owners who safely kept my misplaced passport and wallet until I came to retrieve it in a panic.
All of these small exchanges reminded me of why, even at nine years old, I had been drawn to Chaunty. It was her resilience–to accept the pain her family had endured while still staying open enough to allow people like me into her life.
Ironically, from half way across the world, I felt more connected to home and my long-lost friendship than ever before.
After I came back to Seattle, I looked for Chaunty. In high school I had run into her as she was working as a store clerk in the mall–we embraced and shared a moment but then separated back into our respective worlds.
But now, I wanted her to know how much our childhood friendship impacted my life and understanding of the world. I searched for her. I was sure in a city as small as Seattle, with the miracle powers of social networking at my disposal, I would be able to find her immediately. But I never did.
Even if I never see or hear from Chaunty again, I will always be indebted to her for giving me a personal lens through which to see Cambodia and the world.
It helped me realize that the purpose of traveling is not just to visit old temples or beaches, but to create a context for our lives back home, and understand the complex histories that we carry with us, into our third grade classrooms, and throughout our entire lives.