Why we travel: Finding the feeling of home in Cambodia

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(Photo by Roxana Norouzi)Join the Seattle Globalist tonight at Black Coffee Co-Op for a slideshow and stories of travel in Southeast Asia. Details here.

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.

Chaunty Thook (far left) and Roxana (center) at a Halloween celebration in their 3rd grade classroom at Helen Keller elementary.

Chaunty Thook (far left) and Roxana (center) at a Halloween celebration in their 3rd grade classroom at Helen Keller Elementary, circa 1989.

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.

Skulls of Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge  at the Killing Fields memorial outside of Phnom Penh. (Photo by Roxana Norouzi)

Skulls of Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge at the Killing Fields memorial outside of Phnom Penh. (Photo by Roxana Norouzi)

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.

Selling fruit on the beach in Sihanoukville. (Photo by Roxana Norouzi)

Selling fruit on the beach in Sihanoukville. (Photo by Roxana Norouzi)

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.

Roxana Norouzi has worked with immigrant and refugee populations in the Seattle area for the past 10 years. Currently, she provides strategic guidance around education policy and implementation for OneAmerica, Washington State’s largest immigrant right’s organization. She's also president of The Seattle Globalist Board of Directors. In 2010, Roxana was awarded the University of Washington’s Bonderman Fellowship which allowed her to travel to the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, East Africa, West Africa and South America. Roxana's views are her own and don't necessarily represent OneAmerica or the Seattle Globalist.

17 COMMENTS

  1. This is so beautifully written as always. It brought tears in my eyes. I remember Chaunty and hope one day you two can connect. I am sure you will. Great job Roxana. I am so proud of you as always.

  2. Great observation and experience. I am sure your story will encourage many people especially the younger generation to travel and communicate with others outside of their home and culture. As a result it would bring more peace and hopefully less conflicts in the world.

  3. You paint pictures with your words – effortlessly and without artifice. Thank you for sharing your unique perspective.

  4. Your story brings to light one main point in life: our problems and issues in life always seem big and major until we meet a group of people who have gone through something a lot worse. Only through knowledge and caring for all people around the it will be possible to bring about harmony to our universe and surrounding. Very well written story and an eye opener.

  5. Words from an objective heart! You just get better and better making me checking my mail to read your field narratives (if I can call them so!).

  6. Beautiful and touching story. I always enjoy experiencing how you blend humanity with history through your powerful stories. Thanks once again for helping us see the world with this lens.

  7. Beautiful and and touching story. I appreciate how you blend humanity with history through your powerful stories. Thanks once again for helping us see the world with this lens.

  8. YOUR VERY WELL WRITEN WAS VERY INTERSTING THE WAY YOU DESCRIBE THE CONDITION OF THEIR LIVING WAS VERY TOUCHIE .AS USUAL YOU DID VERY GOOD JOB . LOVE YOU

  9. This is an incredibly touching story and beautifully written piece. I admire how well blend humanity with history and bring words to life. Thank you for yet again, helping the rest of us see the world through this lens.

  10. This is brilliant. The idea and the wrinting. You have the heart and courage of your mother for which She has been admired and loved by me for years even before you were born to this world. You had chosen the best way in search of humanity and friendship. Travelling and observing. I wish you could travel to Iran and find more manifestation of humanity in the mother land of your mother.
    Wish you the best and hope to see you here some day.

  11. This is unbelievable beautiful, and brilliant. You are amazing Roxana Norouzi, and I am so honor and lucky to know you and have you as one of the big stars in my life. I love you and I am so so proud of you.
    As I have told you before, you and the pat you have chosen it’s what I always wanted to be and follow the same pat. I think that is why I felt in love with you, when I meat you for the first time about 24 years ago and you were 7 years old beautiful girl with a big smile.
    HIT THE ROAD ROXANA THE WHOLE WORLD IS IN FRONT OF YOU, and waiting for you to make a big difference and touch people’s life as you have done many including mine. You have my support in any way to the end.
    Khaleh Rogan loves you very much

  12. First, I wish I would have checked my email earlier, so that I could have joined in at the coffee shop on 27th!

    second, I am speechless as always for how your stories awaken the humanities inall of us and greatful as always for grounding me once again. This world is in need of people like you. Thanks again.

  13. Dearest Roxana, I have just re-read your beautiful article and again I was very moved by your account. I admire the way you are travelling, wanting to understand the people, their country and history and also seeing parallels with your own life. This makes these moments so intense and precious.
    I send you my love and I hope to be able to seeing you soon!
    Jasmin

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