LONG LOVE, SHORT LIFE CHAPTER 12
LONG LOVE, SHORT LIFE
LEAVING LOVE TO LEARN IN L.A.
Before dawn, the poor couple woke and got up early to catch their chickens at the backyard so that they can sell the birds to get some money for Dara. The sounds of hens and roosters also woke up their daughter. Dara felt quite sad and stopped short as his wife tied the poultry’s legs with strings. It was two days before Dara’s trip to the U.S. His wife Doungchan sold about 60 chickens for about $5 each, and gave around $300 to Dara for his pocket money.
Dara looked sad as he sat next to his daughter because he thought it was going to be too painful to leave her. About an hour later, his wife returned from the local market and handed him the money from selling the poultry. “This is all the money I made from selling our poultry. You can have it all”.
Dara was reluctant to take the money since it was too much when his wife made such a small income. But he had no option so he took a partial amount of it. On the other hand, he wanted to show his respect to his wife for her gesture.
Dara started speaking with a broken voice, “Darling, you are so nice to me in many ways. You have been saving your love for me during the Cold War era. Now you sell chickens because of me. It seems to me it is big burden for you. I took half of the $300 and you must keep some since you have to take care of our daughter Sakura. I have survived hard times in the past and I can survive anywhere in the U.S. The Cold War placed you and me in difficult situations but we learned how to survive. So I will survive on my way to U.S. and study there, then I will come back to you and our beloved daughter in six months and we will return to our beautiful world of happiness and love again and again.
The departure day arrived. The couple got up early in the morning and got on a horse cart carrying them along the dusty path links to the national route 2 where they picked up taxi to Pochentong international Airport. Unfortunately, the taxi has a flat tyre about 10 km from the airport. Time is running out as Dara had to board the flight before 11:15am. Dara and his wife have to get a cyclo [a three-wheel bicycle rickshaw], pedalling fast to the airport. Duongchan carried Sakura as Dara got his luggage. They were sweating as it was a hot and sunny day. Sakura kept asking for water and cried as there was no water available. As they reached the airport, Dara ran to get water for his thirsty daughter and kissed his wife and daughter before he rushed back to check in and then came out to kiss his wife and daughter goodbye.
There was an announcement of Dara’s name to come to boarding immediately.
Dara hugged his wife and daughter. “Darling, please take care and look after Sakura. I will be away for six months only and will be back to our world of love again”.
They hugged each other. Dara walked and looked back at his family. Duongchan raised Sakura’s hands, waving at Dara who responded by waving back and blowing kisses.
Dara walked fast but keeps looking back at his wife and daughter, almost causing him to run into a lady walking in the opposite direction.
Now Dara is on board. The plan was ready to taxi before take-off. He looked sad and did not bother to put his seatbelt on until the hostess came and told him to. Once in the air, Dara looked out the window and saw rice fields and small houses and huts near the airport, making him feel lonely already without his family. About four hours later, his plane landed at Taipei airport. As he was in the waiting room, he heard his name called for a visa check before connecting his flight to the U.S. Dara walked to the desk and showed the lady his passport. He was grilled about his visa, along with questions about how he secured the visa. Dara provided supportive documents about his scholarship. Dara looked sad and the Taiwanese lady told him not to worry. Dara responded, “I am not worried about my visa but my beautiful wife and daughter who live in the countryside in Cambodia”. In those days, few Cambodians obtained a visa as the U.S. was worried about illegal immigration. It took about 15 minutes to do the visa checking before Dara was allowed to board the plane bound for Los Angeles/LAX.
More than three hours later somewhere in the sky, Dara tried to regain his strength, physically and mentally, knowing that he has to focus on his coming course in the USA. He now felt clear in his mind.
After more 10 hours flying, the plane descended and Dara was amazed by the night lights spread across the city of L.A. Dara was briefly sniffed at by an American police dog on his way out as he has some dry salted fishes from the Great Lake of Tonle Sap in Cambodia. He was picked up by two pretty foreign female students, one from Brazil, another from Nigeria. They dropped him at the dormitory at the university. Dara joked to himself to get rid of his homesick, saying ‘University of Spoiled Children’.
It was the weekend and on that first night, Dara slept like a baby in the university dormitory. The first thing he did the next morning was to write a love letter to his wife in Cambodia.
Dara’s love letters to his wife in Cambodia dominated his journalism homework in California at the ‘University of Spoiled Children’. Their love letters flew more than 14,000 km from the countryside of Cambodia to the spread out city of Los Angeles.
To be continued …
January 10th 1997
I miss you and Sakura dearly. I am happy where I am today although it is a bit cold here. I will write more to you next time. I have to see the head of the university today. Please write to me when you can… Much love,
Dara, after his enrolment, walked straight to a Walmart near the university. He had more than 100 dollars and could not afford to buy expensive items but did buy some apples. Once he received some fellowship stipends, he started to explore his new world in America. He bought student kits, study materials, pots & pans, and other items he needed.
Dara took three courses for the first semester, including editing news, advanced news writing, and media and society, with more to come in the next semester. Dara faced some challenges, including U.S. laws and regulations which often placed him in a difficult situation when dealing with his homework. But he did all he can.
Two weeks later he wrote another letter to his wife in Cambodia though he could never know if the letters reached her given the country’s poor infrastructure and postal service.
I hope you and Sakura are fine. I am great here. I have to focus more on my study as I am lagging behind others in the journalism class. As you know English is not my mother tongue, and I get confused sometimes when I travel to see people for interviews for my homework. On top of that, I am not really used to the rich Mexican-American food here in L.A. I sometimes prepare my own food and do homework at my dormitory. I checked around and it seems no Cambodian student has attended this university before. Almost all the students here are white and from rich American families, driving expensive cars to school, some are from Europe, and others from South Korea, Africa, and South America.
I will write more next time. Please do your best to take care of Sakura and make sure she sleeps under a mosquito net to make sure no deadly malaria or dengue fever virus hit her… bye for now… I miss you and Sakura so much… love… your husband, Dara
Around two months have passed already, and still Dara has not received a letter from his wife, making him more worried. Dara’s classmates and professors noticed Dara is sad and quiet in class. But Dara pretended to be just OK although it is not convincing to the people around him. His worries about his family back in Cambodia affected his homework.
In Cambodia, Dara’s wife, Duongchan, is quite worried about Dara’s situation since she received no letters either. She had not been sleeping well and looks skinny and pale. On the top of that, Sakura cried every night and asking where her daddy was. Sakura’s crying was another burden for Duongchan.
“Please sleep, smart girl, your dad will come and visit us this weekend.”
Duongchan kept trying to console her, but her crying returned when after three weeks Dara did not show up. Sometimes Duongchan cried too as she saw Sakura’s tears rolling down her cheeks and keeping asking for daddy.
Duongchan told herself in tears as she sat down with Sakura, patting the picture of Dara in his journalist’s jacket, “my darling, what happened to you. Why did not you write to us? This situation seems worse than the Cold War era when I often received your letters… now nothing.”
1997 is one of the worst years in Cambodia. The political fallout was great. Social problems of land grabbing, corrupt courts, and the war of words between Cambodian politicians were widely reported. Protests against such problems took place one after another. The victims of most of them are the poor from near and far who joined the country’s biggest opposition led by Sam Rainsy, Paris-educated and an ex-finance minister, who had become popular among the government’s critics.
Dara learned about the political development about his country via wire news reports. Still he had received no letter from his wife. He believed the domestic problems could be partially blamed for delaying the delivering of letters. There was nothing he could do but call to his newspaper office in Phnom Penh to get his friend to drive to the village where his family lived. Now Dara and his wife were at ease after they learned that they were safe two months after he left his family for the journalism class. Dara and his wife found a way of better communication by using the newspaper office address for his wife. Every two to three weeks,
Duongchan came to Phnom Penh along with her daughter and picked up the letters and sent back the ones she wrote. She is a shy lady and did not chat much with Dara’s friends at the office when she came to get the letters.
One day in March 1997, Duongchan—after getting the letter from the newspaper office which was about 300 meters from the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers—got on a cyclo on street 240 at the South of the Royal Palace as she wanted to bring Sakura sees the four arms of the rivers. As she was about to pass the palace, grenades exploded one after another inside a demonstration led by Sam Rainsy in front of the National Assembly. Duongchan was terrified and grabbed her daughter, got off the cyclo, and ran all the way back to the newspaper office for safety as she knew nobody else nearby.
To be continued …
Later, Duongchan left Phnom Penh for her home in countryside. After dinner she grabbed a pen and wrote to Dara.
6th Feb. 1997
Our daughter and I are fine. The grenade attacks at the park near the royal palace terrorized me enormously. I am now back home with safe and sound after picking up your letter at the newspaper office. I am unsure if you are aware of this bloody grenade attack against the anti-government demonstration. On my way home, I heard people say at the bus station that three or four grenades were thrown into the demonstration led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy. I heard people say that more than 10 were killed and scores more wounded. I personally heard loud explosions followed by people screaming. I saw people running in different directions. Sakura cried out loud and asked to see you. I am scared of going to that area so please do not send the letters via the address of the newspaper anymore. As long as you are safe and enjoy your study there you do not have to write to me. I will not go to that area again. I may call you from the post office to the dormitory telephone number you gave me before.
Our daughter Sakura keeps asking about you and wants you to come back home as soon as possible. I miss you so much and I wish the time would go faster. In the daytime I wish the sun sets and when the night falls I wish the sun rises so that we will meet and enjoy living together as before. I am sending this letter from the post office instead of dropping it at the newspaper office as I am scared of another possible attack… Much love, your wife.
Back in California, Dara learned about the tragic news on 30th March 1997 from Cambodia thanks to American media outlets but was not yet aware that his wife and daughter were near where the grenades attacked as the letter has yet reached him. The story made all the newspaper headlines in California. Usually Dara picked up newspapers in the morning and scanned all the headlines as he walked to school. He was shocked with the front page story about the grenade attacks in Cambodia. Dara said to himself as he read the newspaper, “Oh my God I do not believe this. Who the f** did this? Holy shit!”
Dara, after he had finished reading the article, headed to his class and wondered if the case of Cambodia’s grenade attack could be the topic of discussion in class today. His thoughts came true as his professor walked in and glanced at Dara, the only Cambodian student in class.
“Can anyone tell me what story dominated the world news today?” the professor asked the students.
Dara raised his hand and answered: “Cambodia’s grenades attack against the opposition rally in Phnom Penh.”
The professor said “that is correct, great. Can you share with us what is wrong in your country?”
Dara started by saying, “there is nothing wrong with my country other than the people who threw the grenades and who are responsible for the deaths and wounded people. But let me tell you the background. It is about the grenade attack against the demonstration led by the opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been fighting for social justice since his return from France in the early 1990s. As far as I have learned from newswire reports, four grenades were tossed into the crowd of the anti-government rally who were protesting in front of the National Assembly next to the royal palace. The attack happened on the morning of 30th March, killing more than 10 and wounding scores of others. Although it is too early to blame someone for carrying out such crimes, my initial assessment is that there must be people trying to weaken the critics and if possible shut up the opposition leader who was also the ex-finance minister. We should wait and see until an investigation is completed, so no-one should come up with any conclusions yet.”
The professor, who was in his 60s, was familiar with Cambodia’s past history thanks to his reading about Cambodia and the Vietnam War of 1965- 1975.
“That sound fair enough. Let’s wait and see. But it is a good idea if Cambodia can solve their differences by way of dialogue and not grenades. It is too much for your country when innocent people continue to lose their lives over fighting for social justice after the Cold War gone… Oh, man I forget it was worst in U.S. when there were thousands of university students protest against American leaders waged the war in Vietnam... and several students shot dead… you know that about the Vietnam War, while Vietnamese called it American War in Vietnam,” said the professor turned his face and shook his head of his disapproval with then American presidents in office in 1960s and 1970s. “Do not expect American is good model of all forms… I mean we have our own problem as well.”
Dara, after briefing the class, felt ashamed that his country still has such violence after all these years of civil war. “Yes sir, you are right, this is California and that is Cambodia, we live in different worlds. Protestors led by the opposition rallied one after another and called for justice over the issues of rampant corruption and land grabbing. That is to say that there will probably be more bloody events after this,” Dara responded to the professor.
“What? Are you saying more people will get killed in the future? The professor asked, while the other students looked shocked.
“Maybe, only time will tell. It is very sad for Cambodia, the people should have enjoyed peace of mind along with social development after the Khmer Rouge era was over, but after all these years Cambodia continues to be divided and sometimes innocent people get killed just because they have different political affiliations. Sometimes local journalists were murdered on street for just doing their job of covering illegal logging and corruption. Too much is too much,” replied Dara.
About three weeks later, Dara received the letter from his wife, Duongchan, who wrote in brief about her being near the scene of the grenade attack. He read her letter with rapt attention. He was shocked after he learned that his family had been travelling near the area where the grenades exploded although they were safe.
He was angry, and it prompted him to write an op-ed piece about the grenade attack which he sent to some newspapers in the U.S. with the title “Grenade Attack Terrorizes Wife & Daughter in Cambodia”.
To be continued …