Now settling in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, without close relatives to accompany him, where unlike his Seattle home there is no local McDonald’s, Phatry Derek Pan adapts to a new pace of life. Slim and charming Phatry speaks fluent English and holds an American passport. Wearing a T-shirt and Khor Chev, (long pants popular among Cambodian farmers), and speaking broken Khmer, the 27-year-old does not look foreign to Khmer people, and he doesn’t see himself as a foreigner amongst Khmer. Phatry is an extrovert young man. He makes friends easily and gets to know people from every walk of life. To finance his three-year stay in Cambodia, the home country of his parents, he earns a living through his story-telling talents, mainly writing. In the United States, some of his friends and people he encountered nicknamed him ‘Mr. Khmer-connection,’ because he is famous as an American skilled at Khmer communications.
In 1979, at the largest Cambodian/Thai border refugee camp, Kao I Dang, Phatry was born to a well-to-do family, where he spent his early years before his family migrated to the United State via Philippines to escape from a prolonged nightmare. Phatry, at age 4, was raised, educated, and acquainted with American children as well as other Khmer refugee families growing up in a small town named Kelso before moving to Seattle, Washington, when he was 18. There, he learned Khmer from older neighbors, but couldn’t catch up easily. His father, once a businessman in agricultural productions, thought his young son rather learn English than Khmer. When he was a teenager his curiosity grew tremendously for his parents’ native country, which his father seldom spoke about. In college, he began to learn the Khmer language, traditions, and history, in particular. Studying Cambodia as an American student, was probably the most fascinating thing for him, says Phatry. His family held one thing in common with other Cambodian-Americans: Cambodia is their history; the U.S. is their future.
In which Phatry journeys home
It took the Cambodian-born American two and a half decades before visiting his parents’ home for the first time. Phatry believes his three-year residency in Cambodia will enable a first-hand understanding regarding his immediate ancestry rooted in a land known for its contradictory and tumultuous history of cultural glory and ethnic peacefulness until most recently, Pol Pot's violent genocidal chapter scarred and still shadows present-day Cambodians.
“I have waited for more than 25 years,” said Phatry, “Today, I will set foot for the first time on the soil of my parent's home province of Battambong.” In response to family, friends, and former girlfriends in the States, he claims that “…life in Cambodia has blessed me with the opportunity to travel more— to see the beauty and darkness that fills every corner of my country.” Staying in Cambodia by himself, even at his age, concerns Phatry's parents because he is the youngest son in the family of seven children. Not only is this his first time venturing into a foreign, post-war country— additionally, he has no living local relatives to ask for support, especially in emergency.
There was a time when his mother reminded him that “at night, locals will rob you because you're a foreigner.” But, in his reply to these worries, he says (in his online journal), “Yes, much of Cambodia is “lawless” but lawlessness, in my view, implies “anarchism.” Surely, not here in good ol’ Phnom Penh. You can piss outside and you won't get whipped like Singaporeans or ticketed for indecent exposure like in the land of Uncle Sam.
When offering Khmer concern and advice, Phatry's mother is not alone. Commonly, local conversations include “don't talk to any girls there. Most of them are prostitutes and their only intent is to get you drunk so they can steal your money!”
‘Who am I?’
In his second trip to Siem Reap, gateway to ancient temples and the nation’s rich history, the young fellow is more than fascinated by century-old temples. “This second trip will not serve as my last to Angkor. Surely, I hope to visit again in the coming months. What I look forward most on my third trip is visiting a small temple that bears my name. Really, no joke. If my name is unique as it is, it was a pleasant surprise to make the discovery on the map. I wonder what the history behind Prasat [temple] Patri is. Does anyone know?” wrote Phatry. It may take him longer than three years to establish his very own identity.
Traditionalism in a trendy society
On one of several return trips from Cambodia, Phatry’s mother gave him a photo of a young, beautiful, Khmer woman, who lives in his mother’s home town Battambang. His mother, like most other Cambodian parents, still believes in a traditionally arranged marriage. For many decades, this ancient cultural norm has survived through generations and its practice continues with a large percentage of international Khmer business families, in spite of their living so far from home. He, however, like most contemporary educated youth, did not entirely accept his mother’s proposal. As a compromise, he promised to find a future daughter-in-law for his mother from Cambodia, but on his own. Although his mother was reluctant to accept this decision, she, too, is influenced by global modernity and 20 years’ living in American society. In Cambodia even today, archaic tradition still often supersedes personal evolution, or contemporary social thoughts and beliefs. Khmer parents use economic dependence to enforce control over their children. Only educationally or financially liberated Southeast Asians can hope to escape parentally arranged marriages.
A revolution of self-destruction
When the Communist Khmer Rouge attempted to transform Cambodia into a purely agrarian society, or the largest rice field worldwide, the country was ironically re-named Democratic Kâmpuchéa (DK) to reflect a non-existent democratic regime. More than 2 million Khmer were tortured and enslaved at gunpoint. Many died from executions, sickness and starvation. Others were starved, beaten, raped, and separated from family members to labor 12 hours daily in the countryside, often aimlessly digging roads and ditches to nowhere, occassionally, their own graves. Unlike Hitler's Germany during 1939-1945, no organized concentration camps were equipped with gas chambers and mass ovens to erase the evidence of “ethnic cleansing” in Cambodia. Cambodia's genocide has been the only time in history when people actually killed millions of their same native kinsmen. There were no Jews to hate and discriminate against, but Cambodia’s largest native religion, Buddhism, was forbidden and replaced with mandatory adherence to the laws and dictum of an invisible, all-powerful, non-existent entity, named “Angkar.” Hundreds of thousands Cambodians fled to safety across borders into neighboring Thailand; while some survived in overcrowded, ill-equipped U.N. refugee camps, later to be re-settled globally, thousands were also executed at their border arrival, and some still (elderly and children alike who risked their lives staggering toward the dream of freedom in Thailand, under the cover of nightly darkness, in silence, for weeks) were hurled to their deaths at gunpoint off the Thai mountaintop cliffs. Others still, were forcibly returned to land occupied by Khmer Rouge soldiers to discover an alternate fate.
A bridge from America to Cambodia
The Khmer Rouge's genocide, not yet one generation old, created a river of tears with personal, economical, and cultural impact surpassing the magnitude of Mekong. The ripple-effect of unhealed war trauma still invisibly breeds within each new generation. During Phatry's wandering in Cambodia he will record what he recovers about the past and current social order and social disorder. On a charity trip to Prey Veng province, like all other days, Phatry jotted down thoughts and observations when a group of university students delivered books and pencils to rural schoolchildren. As Phatry's foundational perspective regarding his homeland evolves, he will return to the United States to pursue a four-year Juris Doctor program. A prolific writer, Phatry hopes his three-years’ experiential work, will become the masterpiece that opens a magical window inviting younger generations of Khmer-Americans to understand Cambodia as their home country, rather than a tourist destination where they can enjoy cheap beer at nightclubs during school vacation.
Upon his JD graduation, Phatry plans to live in Cambodia permanently. He envisions himself architecturing long-term relationships between Khmer and Khmer-American. The war-torn nation's economy presently depends heavily on international aid, adding to its native agricultural industry, manufacturing and garment industries, and most recently; its new tourism industry. The country’s long term sustainability and growth will be vastly dependent upon its population, a generation of young Khmer, for human resources. This generational “human resource” engine could fuel more options for local and international commercial growth, especially if the same war-torn generation of overseas-born Khmer can connect. Together, though geographically diverse, Khmer youth could build educational and corporate resources, re-affirm cultural connections, and create unknown opportunities where none now exist. Perhaps in time, they could even mend one small seam, of the smallest broken heart torn apart a generation ago— thereby opening a floodgate of intergenerational healing.