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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 103-107

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The Dinner Guests

Every year, when my family finds reason to gather—for a holiday, birthday, graduation, and sometimes just because—when the coconut curry is cooked and smoke swirls heaven-bound from burning incense, the ghosts come home to feed.

Before any guests are allowed to eat, my mother prepares a tray of food, her best dishes—sticky rice, glass noodles fried with banana buds, steamed pork buns—and my father lights a handful of incense sticks. Setting these on an altar, we pray to the spirits of our dead relatives and invite them to the feast. These spirits are the ghosts of my grandfather, Khan Reang, a rice farmer; my uncle, Sao Kim Yan, a math professor; my aunt, Koh Kenor, a housewife who was married to a businessman; and so many others who died during the war in our homeland. They are the restless ones who cross oceans and continents to find my family, now safe and comfortable in America. They are the ones who did not make it while they were living.

Whether by luck or by fate, the rest of my family made it. When war tore through Cambodia in 1975 , we got on a boat that carried us to freedom. A boat that brought us to America, far from the burning villages and the thunder of bombs breaking earth, but not far enough to escape a past that returns each year to haunt us.

I was too young to remember that time twenty-eight years ago when my family was forced to leave our country, and our lives changed instantly and forever.

On April 17, 1975, the Communist Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh, forcing those they didn't kill to walk for days to concentration camps. In remote corners of the country, those who survived were forced to live in work camps as part of leader Pol Pot's design to create a classless, utilitarian society of peasant farmers.

That April day, my mother was at home in our village, Riem, taking care of her four children: my sister Sinaro, who was then eight; my brother, Sophea, then five; my sister Chanira, then two; and myself, the youngest, almost a year old. We were living in Kompong Som Province, in Cambodia's southern seaport, because my father worked as an accountant in the [End Page 103] [Begin Page 105] Cambodian navy. This job provided my father with a good salary, but only later, when the war erupted, did we realize its true worth.

My mother was listening to her short-wave radio when the news came crackling through the speaker: the Cambodian government had been toppled, and the regime of the Khmer Rouge, an insurgent guerrilla group made up of peasant fighters, had taken over.

The villagers immediately began evacuating. My father, who was down at the docks, rushed home to round up my family and relatives. He took us three or four at a time by motorbike to the port. There, one of three naval evacuation ships was waiting to take government personnel and their families to safety.

My father took my family to the boat first, then returned to Riem to gather others: my grandfather, my aunt and uncle, several cousins. Meanwhile, my mother huddled with her four children on the ship, flinching with each pop! pop! pop! of gunfire in the distance. She watched in horror as other people tried to claw their way onto the boat, only to be plucked off like crabs by crew hands worried the ship would become overloaded and sink.

Three hundred people made it onto the sitting-room-only boat. My family, allowed to board only because my father worked for the Cambodian navy, was among the lucky ones.

For three weeks, the ship drifted at sea, stopping in Thailand and Malaysia only to be shooed away by port officials who refused to accept refugees. During that time, my mother kept her children close to protect them from the waves crashing over the ship. She wondered where we were going and worried about the relatives...


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pp. 103-107
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