By Dara Ea
Dara Ea, 41, came to the United States of America in February 1981 along with many Cambodian refugees. Dara and his family were fortunate in that they only lost three family members during the Khmer Rouge regime. They escaped to Thailand shortly after the Vietnamese invasion before settling in California two years later. Dara returned to Thailand to serve as a translator and statistician at the Cambodian refugee camp in Buriram.
Back in the United States, Dara eventually went to technical school and college before enlisting in the US Marine Corps for four years. After receiving his honorable discharge he returned to life as a civilian, working for the U.S. Postal Service in San Jose, California. Dara's life away from Cambodia has been a success, but the adjustment to life in America was difficult for him and the thousands of other Cambodian refugees who settled here, as he tells in his essay, Destination Unknown.
The jet aircraft full of refugees took off from Bangkok, sailing through the sky of darkness like explorers navigating the menacing seas of Southeast Asia. The refugees faces were glazed over with worry, yet they were happy knowing that they would now live in peace, having fled their homeland after many years of civil war. They were granted political asylum to resettle in a new country - the United States of America - thanks to the kindness of President Carter.
The plane soared smoothly through the air, taking these refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos to a destination unknown.
For years, the people of Southeast Asia had enjoyed their lives in their own homeland, despite the bad times. The Vietnam War created civil wars in Cambodia and Laos. Cambodians brought their own country into isolation, thanks to Pol Pot and his communist party. They brought their country down to ground zero where everyone was forced to become farmers, working like slaves. The Pol Pot regime killed over one million of their very own people, trying to erase the images of the past. They visualized a society of pure communism.
Below the plane the seas sprayed salty waves, relentlessly nibbling coastlines, slowly eroding the edges of distant lands. This lonely aircraft was lead by a crew who spoke a funny language. They spoke English so fast the none of us could understand. The crew chose one of our own who knew English enough to translate their air safety speech into Khmer. It didn't mean anything because our minds were in chaos. We didn't know what to expect. Our lives now were depending on those international organizations who had helped us since the day we made our last step out of Cambodia.
Meal time was quite an adventure. We didn't know what kind of food they would give us. A little tray with a small package wrapped with plastic wrap, two pieces of bread with some vegetable and meat in between. A little bottle of orange was to the side with a little paper napkin. We tried a bite and went no further - it tasted funny. So we kept them in our bags for later, just in case something happened before those pretty ladies (the flight attendants) took them away. Food was a commodity for many years in Cambodia.
We traveled two days and two nights thanks to the time zone changes. It was very difficult to sleep because the seats were all upright. There were a few benches for the flight attendants where we could lay down. They were very nice to let me sleep for a while.
The plane descended after a few hours in the air. All around we could see tall buildings standing by the ocean. The nose of the airplane pointed straight at the top of a very tall building. Were we going to hit it? We found out that we were landing at Hong Kong's international airport. They fueled the airplane, preparing for a long trip across the Pacific Ocean. The crew made us stay in the airplane for about an hour; then we took off again. It was scary because there was nothing in front of us but water. A little mistake could take everyone on board to the bottom of the ocean. The pilot was our savior. He carried us to the air safely. Hong Kong now was behind us. We went up until everything disappeared. There was nothing except the sky and bright light.
We now began to think about how we were going to deal in America. Our lives would never be the same. We had heard some stories from friends and relatives - everything sounded wonderful. Everything should be better than what we had. A little house with a little freedom would bring us happiness, we thought. Cambodia brought our lives to disaster. What else could be worse?
The plane eventually landed in a dark place we had never heard of. It was night. Our flight attendant told us that we were in Alaska. "Alaska?" we asked ourselves. "Where is it?" It was very cold. The only thing we saw was light hanging over a building. We continued our journey after a short stop there.
We landed at the Oakland, California airport at about 7:30 am. Our nice short sleeves shirt, thin pants and sandals made us look very presentable for California. Our clothes were tailored made. We wanted to wear our very best to come to this great new homeland. We rushed out of the airplane and walked to a building nearby. Some Cambodian workers were there to welcome us. Boy, it was cold.
The customs agents were something else. We walked through a narrow gate to a waiting agent who checked all of our documents given us by a United Nations organization that had prepared everything we needed for our resettlement. Then we proceeded to a large table where we had to pen all of our luggage. They checked everything for so-called contraband. We didn't have anything illegal except some medicine, syringes and a few bottles of antibiotics. They didn't take them away, though. We had heard story about Laotian refugees, especially the Hmong people, who carried those big smoking pipes with them wherever they went. Those things were normal in Laos. Unfortunately, Americans considered them as illegal drug paraphernalia. They confiscated them before they allowed them to proceed. Some Hmong asked the agent to send them back - they couldn't survive without those pipes. Unfortunately, they had to give up the pipes and continue on. I didn't see anything like that when our plane load of people arrived in Oakland, though.
They sent us to a large heated room because we were miserable out there. It was really cold. Someone brought us some thick coats. They were ugly and very heavy, made of something like nylon. We put them on and they sure made us warm. The sun was up and shiny but it was still cold. It was very strange - Cambodia was never cold. They then took us to a place which we had no idea what it was. There was a big building where we found a lot of bunk beds in a large room. someone told us that it was military base. We didn't care because were so tired. We dropped everything and laid down on the bed and went to sleep. We didn't even know where the restroom was. We just didn't care. Two days and three nights in the airplane was enough for us. However, it was so strange. We left Bangkok at 3:30 am on the 21st of February, 1981. And we arrived at 7:30 am the same date at Oakland Airport. How could that be? Was it our mistake? It must be something about the time zones, I thought.
After a long sleep, they gathered us one more time and took us on a long trip. They said that we were going to San Francisco International Airport. Our journey from the military base was amazing. We crossed a long bridge, longer than anything we had ever dreamed about. "How can they make the bridge like that?" we wondered. Then we arrived at a crowded airport, where our sponsor showed up and took us away before they put us on another plane. Everyone went to San Francisco because some had to continue their journey to another state in order to reach their final destination. From the airport, our sponsor drove us along this highway - everyone was driving so fast. We had never seen so many lights along the highway. It was early evening when our sponsor picked us up after work. We arrived at his house where we were given luxurious fruit to eat: apple and grapes. Those fruits were so expensive - only rich people could eat them, even just once in a while.
This small three-bedroom house was now filled with 17 people. It was incredible. Furniture took more space than anything else. We stayed there for only a short period of time because our sponsor set up a new place for us. We then moved into a four-bedroom house. We used all the space available. There was nothing inside. No pots, no pans, no spoon, nothing. We started from scratch. We went to a refugee agency where they handed us about $300.00 each. We took the money to pay for the rent and the deposit, to buy all necessities needed to start our lives again. We went to that supermarket nearby looking for rice. There was none. But chicken was very cheap, as well as some vegetables. We ate chicken day in and day out; that was what we could afford.
Everything was so different. There were many types of people in America. Many of them didn't like us. They gave us all kinds of hateful signals but we just ignored them. We associated with other Cambodian people who had just arrived. Many more people started to pour into the Bay area. There was an apartment where many Cambodians started their new lives. It was only about a mile from where we lived. So most of our free time was at these little homes where we could socialize with each other. No one else could help. The only way to live was to stay together and support one another.
In Cambodia we used to live in the mainstream. National pride, both good and bad, was always in our mind. Back then there were Chinese people who conducted a lot of local business. We Cambodians never liked them very much because we blamed them for the inflated price of goods during the Lon Nol regime. Many of these Chinese were eventually killed by starvation during the Khmer Rouge years. The Khmer Rouge didn't even have to kill them by hand - harsh conditions alone were enough to kill them. But now it was our time to face racism, here in America. There were many people who didn't accept us well. Many of them believed that the federal government had given us thousands of dollars when we arrived. They didn't know how hard it was to restart our lives here. Most of us were forced to join welfare while we went to adult education schools to learn English. It was so embarrassing for us to go back to school, to the 9th grade. We felt demeaned by society. Some people looked at us like we just came out of the dirt. Some even continue to do so today.
Our house was located right in middle of a small court. There were about 15 houses in the neighborhood. One Mexican family lived about three doors away. A nice Korean family lived right next to us. The rest belonged to white families. They never talked or said hello to us. That was a culture shock. People in our old village knew each others. It was very different here. They really didn't care about their neighborhood at all. That Korean family was the only one to communicate with us one in a while. Eventually they moved out.
Our Cambodian community became stronger as thousands settled in the area. Many more Asian markets were opened where we could buy the food we normally eat. We had a small car where we could do our chores without using public transportation.
Cambodians did many things different from mainstream America. We carried a bag of rice on our shoulder aboard the public bus - this was new to others. We also spoke a funny language where other ethnic groups could only see the movement of our lips and had no idea what we were talking about. More and more of us started to learn to drive and received their driver's licenses. Our "driving school" was a Cambodian friend who had his license first. We could not afford a driving school. However, it worked for us. Many didn't drive that well after they received their driver's license. All street signs and signs were in English, which was difficult - some Cambodians had no clue what those signs were for. A policeman stopped a Cambodian one time for going through a red light. The policeman asked why the driver didn't stop at the red light. The driver replied that he stopped, looked left and right, and there was no car. That was why he drove through. The policeman then tried to tell him about the law and how he should drive. Unfortunately, the driver's English was not that good enough to understand, so he started to say everything in Cambodians. The policeman was so frustrated he got mad and gave up - he told the driver to get out of there. It was his lucky day - no ticket was issued. Then was joked about it that we should act like we didn't know English when the police stop us - they would have no way to communicate with us, so they would let us go. That's not true anymore now. They have translators and other policemen who can speak multiple languages.
I had the opportunity to work in Thailand where I worked for the Thai government, United Nation representatives, and a group of the Joint Voluntary Agency who interviewed refugees and prepared papers for the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). I got to know a lot of refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos.
There was a Laotian family whom I knew very well. The husband was in his mid 50s. His family came to live in the area where I live. They had quite a story. His family knew almost zero English when they came to the United States. Everyone went on welfare at that time. But he said that welfare was not good for them. He found a job just a few months after he arrived as an electronics assembler. He saved money from working hard. I found out that he bought his own home in just a few years in this country.
There were many who took advantage of the welfare system. They went to school learning as much as possible and then found good jobs to survive. Those people are now doing very well and are off welfare. There were many others who just wanted to stay on welfare for the free money. They learned to find jobs that paid under the table and wouldn't effect their welfare money. Those people normally make more money than average working people because they didn't have to pay taxes. Is it fair? No, it's not. What can we do though? They have to pay reparations when they get caught. It's rare that they get caught for doing so, though.
It has been many years now since we first arrived in the United States. Our area has changed so much since so many refugees have some from all over the world, mostly from Southeast Asia. Many Asian stores and shopping centers have been created. It's easier now to find the foods we want. There are bigger restaurants we can find that can accommodate our large traditional wedding ceremonies. There are mortuaries dedicated to our traditional burials. America's Asian population has been booming, making up 20% to 45% of general population in certain areas in California like Stockton, Long Beach, and San Jose. Many people have moved here because the weather resembles the weather in Southeast Asia.
Many of us have settled into permanent jobs where we earn our living, especially those of us in the younger generation. Many of our children now have graduated from higher educational institutions across America. Asian refugees with college education are now all over America. We have seen doctors, lawyers and engineers come from our Cambodian families. But much of the general society still views us differently. Hatred and other attitudes disappear a little bit at a time.
The Asian community has the highest growth among minority groups in the United States. Government agencies across the country are aware of our cultural differences and have taken steps to prevent racism. We have kept a low profile while we send our children for the best education we could afford. These children are now integrated into the society. Building new businesses has become popular among Asians, especially in technology areas. We have seen many electronic companies owned or run by Asians. We also see a new generation picking up the challenge I the government. It's getting better and better. Many people now realize that Asians have a high capacity to provide for themselves and are not like the "chinks" they once thought we were. This is our golden opportunity.
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