...I clearly remember one funeral for a close family friend who went to war and died at a young age...
...dogs would bark giving us a signal that there were soldiers nearby. My mom would wake us up from our sleep so we could evacuate the house...
...saw the reflection of an African American man lighting a cigarette. I noticed his skin was like the color of chocolate and he had hair that was short and kinky...
...the United States was very safe compared to all the bombings and shootings we experienced...
...The love my family had for one another is the love I share with my husband and my two children...
Montha Chea talks to Isabela Walkin about her life in war-torn Cambodia to her safe haven in the United States. This story was shared to show the strength and integrity of a woman shaped by her childhood in conditions we as Americans have only heard about. The force inside her made her amendable to her environment, allowing her to heal from childhood scars and to go forward by sharing her life lessons with her family, friends and students. Her words show true character of “I am my force!
Montha’s story - I was born January 9, 1963 in the southern part of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia in a place called Ta Koum, which means Grandpa Black. Our little family consisted of my father, mother and four siblings. I have an older brother Chenda, a younger brother Mara, and two younger sisters Monthy and Pau. I am the second eldest child. When I was 12, I didn’t know about the Khmer Rouge party and Pol Pot or their influence on the country. I started seeing army trucks, jeeps and tanks on the road I used to cross to get to the ice cream man and to ride an elephant. Later I started attending funeral services for older grandpas and grandmas. I clearly remember one funeral for a close family friend who went to war and died at a young age. A lot of people in our town mourned his death. It was after his death that I became more aware of what was going on.
Our lives drastically changed during this time. I remember we had to stay home; sometimes could not go to school or go on trips because of the loud sounds of the bombing. When we heard certain sounds screeching in the air we would run home and sit in our bunkers. We sat together as a family and waited for the bombing to stop. At first, sitting in a bunker was scary, but then after a while, it became routine. When the bombing stopped, we would go out to explore where the bombs fell and see who had died. I remember coming home from school one time and a bunch of kids got onto a boat where we could see a dead soldier’s body floating in the river. On the way back we were so scared that the boat was going to sink, but thankful no one got hurt.
During the night, dogs would bark giving us a signal that there were soldiers nearby. My mom would wake us up from our sleep so we could evacuate the house. We would walk in the dark to insure we were far enough away from the soldiers. I remember one night we had to cross a rushing river; my uncle was swimming back and forth as we held onto his shoulders to get safely to the other side. In the morning the people in the village would gather to check to make sure everyone was okay. Sometimes there were families whose fathers were taken in the middle of the night. There were rumors that if you were educated and lighter skinned the soldiers did not want you around. Soldiers often took men who were educated. I remember those things happening during Pol Pot. They were taking over the country to run it for themselves.
I remember another time when I slept at another house in the village and when I looked down on the bamboo floor, I saw the reflection of an African American man lighting a cigarette. I noticed his skin was like the color of chocolate and he had hair that was short and kinky. At first, I was very scared because I had never seen someone who looked like that. Later I started noticing soldiers who looked different from other soldiers I had been accustomed to seeing.
Based on my understanding of the war in Vietnam at the time, American troops in Cambodia were countering Vietnam troops that were using the country as a safe haven. As a result of American occupation in the country, in 1975, the Cambodian government decided to save those who worked in the embassy. Ordinary citizens on the other hand were forced to flee from where they were and stay in Thai refugee camps and from there, some families fled to America. Although my impression of American involvement was unclear, I will be eternally grateful for my family arriving safely and securely in America.
My father worked at the American Embassy and employees there were starting to leave the country to go to Thailand. My father came home and told my mother the embassy employees had opportunities to leave Cambodia for a while to get away from the dangerous state the country was in. The embassy told my father it was only a temporary evacuation and once the fighting was over, they could return to the country. There were other opportunities before this one to leave the country; however, we believed the bombings would stop before we would actually have to leave the country. My father said, “…since we don’t have anything, we shouldn’t have to leave...” My mother replied that she wanted to leave because she was tired of all the bombings and shootings. She then said, “…since we do not have to pay anything we should leave...”
The condition of war in Cambodia did not get better, it escalated and my parents began to plan our escape. As a child I went with the flow. Whatever my parents said, we listened and followed their instructions. I was excited for the opportunity to travel especially because I was with my family.
Once evacuated, we did not know what our final destination was going to be, that was the biggest risk in leaving the country. Although we knew we were going to Thailand, it wasn’t a permanent location. The plan was to leave the first week of April, right before the Cambodian New Year and finally our family left Cambodia and went to Thailand. We were not able to take any of our belongings because we had to move quickly. My parents were worried about our overall security and safety. We were in Thailand for three weeks. It was during the Cambodian New Year that the country fell and everything we had known had been destroyed.
The embassy provided families with three different choices: return to Cambodia, go to France or the United States. Even with Cambodia in a horrible state, the embassy gave people choices to return home. Some families chose to return to Cambodia while others did not. We made it safely out of Cambodia to Thailand. What we did not anticipate was leaving the area and coming to America. It was my father’s choice to leave Thailand for the United States. He remembered the many good things he heard about America while working at the American Embassy.
When we first came to the United States, we arrived in Mercer Island, Washington. Our travel to the states was sponsored by a Catholic Church. We thought the United States was very safe compared to all the bombings and shootings we experienced when we were in Cambodia. Although we were safe and in a nice area, there was not an adequate population that represented our culture. My parents maintained the culture to the best of their ability by preserving our language, traditions and customs.
I believe America has a lot of opportunities for women and a lot of freedom of expression. There are a lot of choices and opportunities for individuals to succeed in life including advanced education, high quality paying jobs, and the freedom to travel and visit the various states. America prides itself on being an advanced modern country unlike what I had grew up with in Cambodia.
In looking at my life now, like anyone, childhood has lasting effects on your life even when you reach adulthood. My childhood has influenced the person I have become today. I am friendly, honest, respectful, kindhearted, and most importantly happy and safe. Although my life as a child while living in Cambodia was sometimes scary, I was able to take those experiences and strive to work hard at my job and instill my best life lessons in my students and children.
As time passed, I attended Washington State University, where I met my Husband. He was from Sebastopol, California. I decided to leave Washington and move to California to be with him. The love my family had for one another is the love I share with my husband and my two children. I always follow the law and expect others to do the same. Since leaving Cambodia in 1975, I have returned to Cambodia twice to visit family and friends. I find that due to the war and limited education there, even to this day, I am not able to understand the geography of the Cambodian map.
I encourage my children and students to do the best they can because living here in America allows them to have many more opportunities, unlike the ones I was limited to when I was a child in Cambodia.