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Tears for the Country He Left

John Rudoff
John Rudoff / The Immigrant Story

In a small town in the northwest part of Cambodia called Chongkal, the 5-year-old boy could not cry. His father had been taken by Khmer Rouge soldiers, bound for certain death. Now Kacrna Saron Khut was the man of the family. He must not cry.

But 45 years later, as he leans against the counter of his Portland restaurant and tells this story, he is overcome. Sobs stop him in mid-sentence. Tears flow freely, surprising him.

“My father, he was not only a teacher, but an entertainer, a performer,” Saron, as the son is known, said of Jen da Chhoun, his father. Almost no one used his formal name. Instead, they called him Gru (or Professor) Jen.

One day in 1975, not long after the forces of Pol Pot had overtaken the country, there was a neighborhood celebration. Along with his other talents, Gru Jen was a singer and a dance instructor. Everyone in town knew him. The neighbors asked him to perform at the party.

He came home late, after dark. Saron, his two sisters and their mother were asleep. Then the soldiers came and said they needed to take him to a re-education camp. He was an intellectual, an easy mark for the Khmer Rouge.

“He was a sweet guy,” his son said. “He knew he wasn’t coming back.”

Many years later, in 2007, Saron found himself weeping as his plane circled Phnom Penh International Airport. It was his first trip back to Cambodia since 1980 when he fled with his mother and sisters to a Thai refugee camp. A year after that, the boy and his family found themselves resettled in a distant place called Portland, Oregon. Saron entered third grade at Richmond Elementary School speaking almost no English. By high school, he was an honor student, his grade point average at 3.75. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in art and architecture in 1996, the same year he became a U.S. citizen.

Now, as his plane prepared to land in the Cambodian capital, “I wanted to see for myself.” He wanted to see the bridge he had jumped off as a kid to swim in the river. He wanted to visit his relatives, to see his hometown. He wanted to stop wondering, “was this where my father was killed?”

A Fictional Birth Date

Maybe he was born on Jan. 28, 1970. Maybe he wasn’t. In a small town with no hospitals, babies were born in their parents’ homes. Mothers kept a record of the event, but it was more like “a Wednesday in January” than an actual account. His mother’s memory that it was the Year of the Dog also helped them come up with an estimate that became his birthdate.

Certain things have stuck in his mind from the years before his father was taken. He remembers the time his father lost his voice in a motorcycle accident. He remembers the time his little sister fell into the deep end of a pond and he, the big brother, managed to pull her out. Even though the Khmer Rouge had not yet taken over, the Vietnamese communist government made frequent incursions into Cambodia. Saron remembers bombings along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and he remembers running to hide in the bunkers.

His father was a teacher; his mother, a homemaker who managed the family’s small farm. Their modest life was comfortable and happy.

Saron’s father Jen da Chhoun, an educator, was known to all in his village as Gru (or Professor) Jen. Photo Khut family archives

But already, war had left its mark on Cambodia. His mother was young, about 10 years old, when her two older brothers joined the Cambodian guerrilla militia to fight against the French in the country’s struggle for independence.

Once the country fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, many Cambodians made plans to escape. Chongkal was not far from the Thai border, and many of Saron’s aunts, uncles and cousins were able to flee. His own family had packed their wagon to leave when his father became worried about his own mother. She was old, and she was alone.

“Everything will be okay,” he told his family as they unloaded the wagon. “We will stay.”

There was no way to anticipate what was about to happen, Saron said. 

“Nobody expected a massacre, a genocide,” he said.

Typically, he said, if the Khmer Rouge took one member of a family, they soon came back to finish the job. By now, as he told his story, Saron’s voice was calm, as if he were discussing everyday behavior, not the extermination of 1.5 million to 2 million people, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s 1975 population. Some estimates put the number even higher since the Khmer Rouge were less efficient at record-keeping than at slaughter.

But in a town the size of Chongkal, “some of the Khmer soldiers, they were people we knew,” Saron said. Those people watched the family, “but would not take the extra step to kill us.”

Destabilization is always a hallmark of dictatorial regimes. Those who were not killed by Pol Pot’s soldiers often were moved frequently, giving them no sense of domestic ballast and more important, thwarting any plans to escape.

“That is what they did to my family,” said Saron.

His mother was 28 years old. First, she and her three small children were crammed into a big military truck with many other families and sent to the city of Siem Reap, also in northwest Cambodia. A few weeks later, each family was sent to a different town. The strategy was as conniving as it was cold: Take the men — especially the educated men — then break down any sense of cohesion.

On the Move

In the first three years of Pol Pot’s regime, Saron and his family moved four times —  so often that he does not remember the names of all the towns they were sent to.

Adults were put to work, clearing forests or working in the fields. Even 5-year-old children were expected to work in the fields. In fact, Saron said, the kids spent a lot of time being kids — chasing each other instead of doing the work.

Today, Saron’s mother, Sarouen, lives near him in Portland. In the United States, she married another Cambodian man and had another daughter. In her backyard, she planted banana trees to remind her of home.

She is 73 years old and known to family and friends as Mama Khut. Many years have passed, but still he chokes up again when he recalls watching Khmer Rouge soldiers taking her away in the middle of the night. Her children were left behind with their very old grandmother, Daum.

Grandma, said Saron. “was not well, but she was strong.” His grandmother would tell the children to collect their share of rice, and “whatever was left over, go and hide so it won’t be taken away.”

Forced labor – irrigation project in Kompong Thom province in 1976. Photo, courtesy of Documentation Center of Cambodia

Saron was maybe 5 or  6 years old when Grandma reminded him that he was the man of the family. So it fell to him to find ways to feed his little sisters.

Months had passed when, “all of a sudden, one day, my mother showed up.” Her good behavior had earned her the right to pay a brief visit to her family. But the privilege came at a price: She had to agree to go back to her work with Pol Pot’s forces.

Imagine the trauma for a small boy. What 6-year-old boy does not center his world around his mother? Saron pined for Sarouen. One day, he learned where she was staying. He knew that a group of travelers was headed In that direction, and he told his Grandma he wanted to go, too. 

But halfway on the route to the town where his mother was staying, the group abandoned Saron. The forest before him was deep and wide. He kept walking.

“You think about danger,” he said, “but that is not your priority.”

You are 6 years old. You want to find your mother.

The journey was treacherous. Saron got close, then turned back, then got close again. At last he stumbled upon a woman who asked where he was going. “I want to find my mother,” he told her.
When Saron finally made his way to the camp where his mother had been held, she was stunned.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Telling the story now, Saron pauses to compose himself, yet again.

“She is the strongest woman ever,” he declares.

Blessings — and a New Name

Saron stayed days, or maybe it was weeks — who could keep track of time? — until his mother said she had found a safe place for him. She sent him to a temple where she knew there was a monk who would care for him.

“The monk gave me blessings,” Saron recalled. “And he is the one who changed my name from Kacrna” — far too upper-class to survive in the Pol Pot regime — to Saron.

“Kacrna,” he explained, translated to “merciful.”

“It means you are higher class, which we were not, but that is what my dad named me.” The monk told Saron he needed to change his birth name: “He said it was too fancy.” The new name, the monk told him, rhymed with his mother’s name.

Saron called the monk Uncle, not because they were related, but because the familial term at once conveyed respect and affection. As a religious man, the monk was a ripe target for Pol Pot’s soldiers. When the Khmer Rouge took power in April 1975, 66,000 Buddhist monks lived in Cambodia and the country had more than 4,000 temples. A government report released in 1989 stated that more than 25,000 monks had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, and nearly 2,000 temples were destroyed. Some more recent estimates place the total number of Buddhist monks murdered by the Khmer Rouge at 50,000.

But in his small town, the monk who Saron called Uncle stayed safe because he was beloved.

“He was like a Buddha,” Saron said. “The people in that town would hide him, keep him away from the soldiers.”

The monk helped Saron find his sisters and grandmother. They lived with him for almost two years in a village not far from Siem Reap. On a return trip to Cambodia in 2013, Saron and his mother drove through the area. She recognized it immediately.

“This is where we lived,” she said. “Thirty-something years later, my mom remembered everything about that town.”

Pol Pot

It was while studying in Paris that Pol Pot became infatuated with the Marxist-Leninist movement. As the iron-grip head of the one-party state that he renamed Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot closed his country’s schools and required everyone to wear the same black clothing. In keeping with his plan to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, cities were evacuated and factories shuttered. Currency and private property were abolished.

A confederacy of dictators: Romanian President Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Elena, met with Cambodian Prime minister Pol Pot, and Cambodian President Khieu Samphan. Photo, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Along with intellectuals, such as Saron’s professor father, skilled workers and those known to speak a foreign language were killed. People who wore eyeglasses or who owned symbols of decadent capitalist luxury such as wristwatches also were subject to execution. Those who were not killed were sent to the fields to serve as forced labor on Pol Pot’s collective farms.

As a consequence, as they moved from place to place with their grandmother, Saron and his sisters received no formal education.

“Our school was life,” he said. “Doing whatever we could to survive.”
Friction between Cambodia and neighboring Vietnam dated back at least to the 13th century, when Angkor, the capital of the Khmer empire, was subjected to Vietnamese rule. But with Vietnam’s war with the United States concluded, Cambodia presented a fresh focus for the Vietnamese communists.

In late December 1978, Vietnam launched what it called the Counter-Offensive on the Southwestern Border. Cambodian nationalists called the incursion the Vietnamese Invasion of Cambodia. 

As the Khmer Rouge retreated, Saron recalled, “there was a lot less tension, a lot less stress, but it was still war. There were still soldiers, still people dying.” 

When the bullets flew or the bombs exploded, he and his family hid in trenches by the river.

With his government toppled as Vietnamese troops seized Phnom Penh in January 1979, Pol Pot fled to the jungle. Years later, in 1997, he was arrested and found guilty of genocide in what many regarded as a show trial.

Although placed under house arrest, Pol Pot was never imprisoned. He died in 1998 in Anlong Veng, Cambodia, apparently in his sleep of natural causes.

The Khmer Rouge downfall meant some loosening of the rigid government control. Saron’s grandfather was finally able to travel in order to locate what was left of his family. The standard reaction when people who had been separated greeted one another was surprise, Saron said: “It was ‘Oh, you’re still alive?’ Or, ‘Are you for real?’”

The prevailing mindset, he explained, “was that everybody’s dead.”

Home, But Not for Long

Back in Chongkal, Saron and his mother were grateful not only to still be alive, but to be home. Soon enough, they learned that Saron’s uncle in the United States had been sending letters, trying to learn the family’s fate. It seemed that his mother’s older brother had made his way to some remote place called Portland, Oregon.

Once he learned that his sister and her children were alive, Saron’s uncle asked some friends in Cambodia to help them leave the country. Their escape was scary, Saron said, but also, because he was just a kid, a kind of weird adventure.

They traveled by night in a group of about 100, making their way through woods and jungles. At one point, the group went to cross a main road in the darkness. But military cars lined the road. If they were caught, they knew they would not survive.

Among the group was a tiny baby. As the group debated how, when or whether to cross the road, the baby began to wail. The noise was so loud, it was like an alarm, telling whoever was guarding the road that illicit travelers were on the move.

A group debate ensued: Should they kill the baby — because if not, everyone else would surely die. Or should they leave the infant and its family behind?

Just as they were about to make their fateful decision, the baby fell asleep. 

With silence assured, they all agreed: Cross the road. Just take the risk.

But as they began to climb the mountain that separated them from the Thai border, they ran out of food.

Saron could not yet read or write when he arrived at a Thai refugee camp. Photo Khut family archives

“We foraged. We ate leaves, plants, anything,” Saron said.

And then their guide gave them bad directions, leading them to the wrong refugee camp. For a time, Saron and his mother were separated from his sister.

“It was a wild, wild, crazy night, that night,” Saron said, “In the end, we all met up in the field outside the camp.”

Miraculously, some teachers were among those who had survived Pol Pot and the escape from Cambodia. Some even had brought books with them. At the Lompouk refugee camp, and later at a camp named Chon Bo Ree, Saron received his first official education, mastering the Cambodian alphabet at the age of 9.

Indirectly, the camps were also Saron’s introduction to the English language. It was December, and volunteers at the camp decided to teach the kids some holiday songs. Saron had no idea what Christmas was, and he certainly had never seen snow, but he joined in a hearty round of “Jingle Bells” with the other children.

At the camps, Saron saw his very first movies. One was a World War II movie, “A Bridge Too Far.” Another was “Spartacus,” about a Roman slave rebellion.

“Good times,” he said about the refugee camps.

More than once, he would see American surveillance planes flying above him. 

“I wish I could be on that plane now,” he would think. “I want to be on that plane.”

And then one day, he was on a plane.

A Place Called Portland

When their immigration papers came through in 1981, Saron and his family flew from Bangkok to San Francisco. It was a long flight, on a very large plane. A smaller airplane took them to Portland several days later.

They arrived in winter, something else Saron had never experienced. It was cold, and so many trees had lost their leaves. He wondered why all the trees were dead. Saron and his family knew of just two Asian grocery stores when they arrived in Portland. Most Asian immigrants lived in one of three areas. For the Cambodians, it was North Portland. Later, as he learned to navigate the city by bus, he discovered Vietnamese stores on Northeast Sandy Blvd.

“Everything here was odd, but compared to what I had in Cambodia, it was 100 times better,” Saron said;

Saron spoke little English when he entered Richmond Elementary School as a third grader. As a student, he was lost.

“I was in a classroom where everyone else spoke English,” he said. “I had no idea what was going on.”

There was talk of holding him back, but Saron was determined to remain with his age group. Even with the language barrier, he made friends. His secret weapon was music. He listened to the radio and did his best to sing along, even when the words meant nothing to him.

One song he quickly mastered was Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”

He concedes that the steady trauma of his childhood may have sharpened his sense of resilience. In a sense, the fact that he had no choice but to adapt as a small child in Cambodia turned out to serve him well as a young immigrant in the United States.

“From an early time, I learned how to survive, how to fit in,” he said. Even when he first arrived in Portland, speaking only fractured English, “I got along with everybody, all types, including the gangsters. I learned the value of different cultures. I don’t disrespect anyone.”

In fifth grade at Duniway Elementary School, Saron entered an ESL (English as a Second Language) program run by Jim McCall, or as Saron called him, Mr. Jim.

“He was a great man,” Saron said. As it happened, Mr. Jim used music as one of his teaching tools. “He loved The Carpenters,” Saron remembered.

The teaching method worked. A few years later, Saron wrote speeches and papers while attending Cleveland High School, earning that 3.75 grade point average. He spent three years at Mt. Hood Community College before finishing up at Portland State University. 

The day he got his U.S. citizenship in 1996, he remembers thinking, “This country is awesome. This country is what we as immigrants always talk about: the land of opportunity.”

Saron said he has never missed a chance to vote in state, local or federal elections.

The part-time job with FedEx Ground he held at PSU grew into full-time work as an operations manager. Four years later he was hired by Intel, also as an operations manager.

In the meantime, he married and had two kids. His son by that marriage, which ended in divorce, is 16, and his daughter is 13. He and his second wife, Jai, have a daughter who is 4.

Saron loves sports. He also loves food. In 2009, he seized the call of the land of opportunity to leave Intel and open the city’s first Asian sports bar. “Good Call,” at Southeast 110th Avenue and Division Street, lasted a year and a half.

Mekong Bistro nights are filled with music and dance events, and Saturdays and Sundays host a variety of special events, including weddings. When Saron’s sister-in-law Maly married her Vietnamese partner, formalities and feasting lasted many hours and were attended by guests from throughout the region. Photo Richard Mitchell

He quickly channeled his energy and his entrepreneurial spirit into the Mekong Bistro, the restaurant-cum-karaoke-bar he owns on Northeast Siskiyou Street. The restaurant takes its name from the river that flows 2,700 miles through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Saron offers fare from most of those countries.

At first, his mother was the Mekong Bistro’s main cook. Now Saron does all the cooking, calling his mother “more of the brain — she makes everything run.”

Giving Back

The bistro has become a kind of hangout for many people, drawn by Saron’s passion for music as well as good food. Some nights he offers blues music, or jazz. Other nights he might serve up Cuban sounds — or Iranian, or Ethiopian. Music from Vietnam and Cambodia is a staple.

People dance, and they sing, led by Saron at the mic. “We make a lot of noise,” he said. His father’s son, he loves to lead the room in song.

“What I wanted out of the Mekong Bistro was not just to make money, but to bring our community and our culture together,” he said.

Apparently the formula has worked. 

“Mekong Bistro is more than a restaurant,” Saron says. “People compare it to Cheers in Boston. We connect people. We know each other by name. We call each other Brother and Sister.”

Saron has spearheaded other efforts to foster community spirit among Southeast Asian immigrants in Portland. In April 2015, he organized the city’s first Family New Year Event, attracting about 3,000 people from Portland’s Lao, Thai, Burmese, Hmong and Cambodian communities to a giant picnic in Glenhaven Park. By 2019, the crowd had mushroomed to close to 10,000 people. Just as many were expected this past April, but the coronavirus outbreak brought group gatherings to a screeching halt.

Family New Year started as a small gathering for Portland’s Southeast Asian communities. By the time this photo was taken, in 2019, the event in Glenhaven Park was attracting close to 10,000 people. Photo Khut family archives

The COVID-19 pandemic also has not been kind to the restaurant industry. Saron says he is barely hanging on.

Still, he keeps his eye on his family, his community and his home country. Saron started working full-time as soon as he graduated from college. He made good money. But he knew not everyone had his advantages, especially those in Cambodia. 

“I was always thinking back to my people in Cambodia,” he said. “They are poor and they need help.”

So he began raising money to send to Cambodian orphanages and also to help build water wells in that country. In Cambodia, a new tractor is a precious commodity. It didn’t take long for him to raise the funds to buy a tractor for an orphanage in Siem Reap.

“It just takes somebody with a plan, or an idea to start it,” Saron said. “I’ve been doing that. I guess my life is about servicing people, helping people.”

In 2007, Saron took his mother and his youngest sister to Cambodia. 

“I wanted to go back because it had been 30 years,” he said. “Believe it or not, I missed Cambodia. I missed the country where I had spent the first nine or 10 years of my life. For me, it was a mission. I wanted to check the country out, to see what was going on.”

Once he got past the tears of returning to Cambodia, he got to work. In Chongkal, he was appalled by mounds of trash scattered around the Buddhist temple. When he asked his aunt why no one took care of the place she shrugged and asked who would clean it.

So he gathered all the children he could find and told them he would pay them to clean up the trash. Word traveled fast, and soon just about every kid in town was on the job. They smiled when Saron compensated them for their labor.

Since that first visit, Saron has made four more trips to Cambodia.

The Cambodian Elvis

One of the ways in which Saron rediscovered his Cambodian roots was through music. Specifically, he made a study of the songs of a man often called the King of Khmer music. Fans of Sinn Sisamouth in the 1960s and 1970s likened him to a cross between Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. He was handsome, charismatic and is believed to have written more than 1,000 songs.

“Everywhere he went, every province, every town, every fruit, every flower — all the foods he ate — he always has a song for it,” Saron said. “That is how I learned about Cambodia when I came to the United States. His music painted these pictures for me. He was that good, that inspirational.”

As a performer and a man with a vast popular following, Sinn Sisamouth represented a giant threat to the Khmer Rouge. He disappeared, his exact fate unknown, but his death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge almost certain. One apocryphal story holds that as he was about to be executed, he asked the Khmer Rouge soldiers for the chance to sing one last song, presumably hoping to soften the soldiers’ heartstrings. They shot him anyway.

When Saron learned that the singer’s widow was living in poverty, he once again stepped into action.

“His music is all over the world,” he said, “but his family is poor.”

He compiled a CD, “ordinary people singing Cambodian songs,” and offered it for sale online. He charged $10 per CD, promising that all the proceeds would go to Sisamouth’s widow. He raised $1,000.

Delivering the money was the occasion for his second trip back to Cambodia in 2008.

“We drove for eight hours, along bumpy roads, past water buffaloes,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly where she lived.”

Finally, they came to the house. The widow was napping in a hammock when Saron, his mother and their driver arrived. When she awoke, she was overjoyed.

A strong friendship developed, and Saron went back to visit her again in 2012. With an American filmmaker, Chris Parkhurst, he is working on a movie about Sinn Sisamouth.

At her 70th birthday party at the Mekong Bistro, Saron’s mother, Sarouen, was honored as a kind of Portland village elder by people from throughout the Southeast Asian community. Photo Richard Mitchell

The Next Big Thing — or Things

Usually, when he has what he calls a big idea, Saron Khut knows how to make it happen. His next goal is to establish a multicultural community center for Portland’s Southeast Asian immigrants. He wants a space where culturally appropriate meals could be served to as many as 1,000 people.

“This is what we are missing,” he said. “This is what we need in Portland.”

And he has another rather grand ambition.

Whether it was soccer as a kid, kickball or pickup basketball — any sport, really — Saron has always been an avid athlete. But after he ripped both ACLs (anterior cruciate ligaments) and had to have his knees repaired, his wife banned him from playing contact sports. Try something more sedate, she advised, like golf.

In the ensuing 12 or so years, it is safe to say that he has become a fanatic golfer. He has won many town titles and describes himself as “probably the No. 1 ranked Cambodian golfer in Oregon,” not that he has legions of competitors for that title.

At one point on his home course, Glendoveer, his handicap was as low as 1.5.

So now the title he really wants is: “From the Killing Fields to the U.S. Open.”

“This would be a dream come true for me,” he said.

He smiled. The fact that he is 50 years old does not seem much of a deterrence.

“I’m pretty close to it,” he went on. “If I keep working hard, there might be a chance.”

 

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