rong reth pic: Rong Roun at a market in Cambodia, in 2007: 'I don't trust this place.'
There's a place, deep within the bucolic lands of Cambodia, where the name "Madison" evokes something close to reverence. The people there drink bacteria-infested water, live beside livestock droppings and think every day of this mysterious city they've never seen.
Madison, they say. Madison.
It's a place swimming in shadows off verdant mountains, where the thought of Madison is fragile and accompanies things equally so: hope, promise, luck.
Seems strange, doesn't it? It's just Madison, after all. I lived there the first 18 years of my life. For me, Madison is where regular people do regular, Midwestern things. Watch the Packers; eat some brats; repeat. Some people in the United States don't even know about us.
So when I departed last year for life 8,600 miles away as a Peace Corps volunteer in provincial Cambodia, I never expected anyone would know of my hometown.
I was wrong. For a group of Khmer in the western Cambodian province of Battambang, the name Madison resonates. It has for 25 years. These Cambodians are, as they call themselves, the ones left behind. The luckless ones.
In the early 1980s, following four years of agrarian slavery under the Khmer Rouge, around 100 Cambodians fled to refugee camps along the Thai boarder, eventually gained asylum in America, and settled in the Madison area. They escaped the uncertain reconstruction of this genocide-ravaged Southeast Asian country of 15 million people.
But space for immigration to the United States was finite; some were left behind to their rice fields, poverty and thoughts of what could've been.
Now, a generation later, time and distance have blurred the concepts of family, tradition and nationality between the refugees who escaped to Madison and family members who stayed behind. Some relatives don't speak anymore. In some cases, they're divided over their divergent fortunes. In others, it's too sad and too complicated to keep communication going - too hard to understand how people of the same land can lead such different lives.
Yet other Madison refugees still try - sometimes with painful and unexpected outcomes.
The Rouns, one Madison family of sisters who escaped to America in 1982 and 1983, journey back regularly to their poverty-stricken homeland in Battambang's countryside to visit relatives, bringing medicine and money.
I met two of the sisters, Reth and Rong Roun, during their most recent visit in May and watched as they struggled to reconcile their relative prosperity in America with the poverty of their heritage. I saw them reflect on the cruel turnings of luck and ask unanswerable questions: Why had they made it out of this destitution? What if they hadn't?
Then the Rouns - in Madison, Rong is a translator, Reth a housewife - would sometimes fall quiet and look at their Khmer family. The ones left behind. The ones who will probably never make it out of poverty. I saw them scrutinize this juxtaposition of extremes, of haves and have-nots, knowing nothing could change it.
It was all luck.
Cambodia rests on the southern tip of the Southeast Asian peninsula that juts out into the Indian Ocean. Its borders make Cambodia look as though it's inside the jaws of Vietnam and Thailand, and at any moment could be gobbled whole.
This imagery is appropriate. In recent history, the intensely Buddhist and fatalistic people of this often forgotten country of checkerboard rice paddies have staved off annihilation with every new generation.
First it was amid conflict between Thailand and Vietnam. Then came Vietnam and France's war, which ushered in a communist revolution here that the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's relentless bombing campaigns helped hasten.
And finally, in April 1975, when the foreign aggressors were gone and the civil war decided, Cambodia attempted suicide.
During the Khmer Rouge's reign between 1975 and 1979, one in five Cambodians - two million people - died. According to one study, 99% of survivors reported nearly starving; 96% said they had been forced into slave labor; 90% had a family member or friend killed; 54% said they had been tortured.
The Khmer Rouge executed anyone foreign, educated, Muslim, urbane or suspected of subterfuge. The least-educated and most-rural citizens were thrust into positions of power, to cultivate a peasant-led hierarchy.
Destruction reigned. The Khmer Rouge said they wanted to take the country back to "year zero," and, incredibly, they did. Money, international contact, religion, tradition, education, family and private property were abolished in a sweeping and savage social experiment intended to spur the purest brand of communism in history.
Then in January 1979, Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge, ending nearly four years of egalitarian tyranny, and began a 10-year occupation that fell after the Soviet Union cut aid to the country.
The survivors, dazed from years of holocaust, returned to their homelands or followed a daring escape plan. Tens of thousands, including the Rouns, walked miles through thickly mined jungle to the Thai border, only to arrive at refugee camps awash in disease and famine. Soon, the refugee population there swelled to 160,000.
"Some refer to the Khmer Rouge as a prison without walls, and the refugee camps as a prison with walls," says Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and a refugee who settled in Texas before returning to Cambodia. "Some there said they wished they could still live under the Khmer Rouge."
As knowledge of the torture prisons and genocide in Cambodia reached the international community, wealthier countries and aid organizations tried to distribute medicine and food to the camps. But corruption and ineptitude sustained the suffering into the early 1980s.
Meanwhile, the rest of Cambodia languished under Vietnamese occupation, as an embittered West punished it for America's defeat in the Vietnam War. At that time, only 1% of the population had access to safe drinking water, yet substantial humanitarian aid never came.
Several Western countries, including the United States, began to offer asylum. Following an interview and test, some 180,000 Cambodians were approved to come to America between 1979 and 1987. Many ultimately earned citizenship and settled on the coasts.
Roughly 100 of these refugees came to a sleepier and colder part of the country. A place called Madison. A place they would come to call home.
At 9 a.m. the temperature already flirts with 100 degrees and I'm waiting outside the harried New Market in Battambang City with a giant Cambodian man named Dos Bora.
"What are we waiting for?" I ask Bora, the Rouns' half-brother, who shares the same father and promises to learn English if he ever joins his sisters in Madison. He's sweating an impressive amount, and I'm reminded that being native Khmer doesn't mean you don't feel the heat.
"They're buying fruit, food and presents to give our family in the very rural areas. So we must wait," Bora, 24, says. He looks straight at me and deadpans, "It's very hot."
The market scene pulses with sensory stimuli: screaming horns, flopping fish drying in the sun, begging children. Cambodia.
After 10 minutes Reth Roun with her two half-sisters, Dos Theary and Dos Sophia, dart out from the market. Right away you can tell - maybe it's her confident stride or purposeful stare - that Reth isn't an ordinary Khmer. She moves differently. Like an American.
"It's hot out here!" Reth exclaims as she climbs inside our tuk-tuk - the taxi-carriages of Cambodia. Reth should know. Barely removed from Wisconsin winter, she has come back to Cambodia at its hottest time. Already, her makeup is sweat-streaked.
There's barely enough room in the tuk-tuk for everything Reth has bought. So we all rest our legs atop the endless bags of ramen noodles, red cooking sauce, Tylenol and fresh water. Reth clutches a two-inch-thick wad of currency, American and Khmer. By the end of the day, it will all be gone.
We're traveling back to her past, and to her siblings' reality, in the Cambodian countryside.
"Where's Rong?" I ask, knowing that the sisters had traveled to Cambodia at the same time. I thought she would join us for this series of visits.
"She's not coming," Reth says. "She's scared to go. She's worried the people out there will only want her money."
The tuk-tuk coughs to life and Reth begins talking. At 45 or 46 - "I can't remember which," she says - she's thick, handsome and effervescent in a way that contrasts with the reticence of most Khmer women. And she knows how to weave a tale.
Reth was 12 when the Khmer Rouge took power. Her memories of this period arrive in sharp, focused glimpses, like a movie skipping every few frames. She recalls hunger. Random killings. Her father's removal from his daughters and wife. Rice farming under an angry sun.
Four years later, the torment finally ended with the Khmer Rouge's expulsion. In the confusion, Reth's mother gathered her five daughters and said: "If we don't make it out now, we never will." So, at 5:30 a.m., they left for the Thai border as the village slept around them.
This was the defining decision of all their lives. To leave Cambodia and their family, perhaps never to return.
For three days and three nights they walked. Over rivers and through mined jungle, they followed a guide along a narrow path. On the third day, a landmine killed a man just paces behind. Again, luck had saved the family.
Eventually, they got to Thailand, all five sisters. But the story of what happened next, the Rouns' life in Wisconsin, would have to wait, Reth explains as the tuk-tuk stops. We have arrived at her uncle's home, set along a row of small huts identical in squalor.
"If a story is what you want," Reth says as we get out, "he'll give it to you."
For 25 years the Rouns' uncle, a burly Cambodian named Ma Chhoern, has carried more heartache than most of us can comprehend. He walks with a slight limp and is, in his own estimation, profoundly unlucky.
"If you had luck, you went," Ma, 60, says from his fetid home of cracked wood, rusted iron and livestock. "If you didn't, you stayed here. In Cambodia. I haven't had luck my entire life. If I did, we would be talking in Madison right now."
Ma smiles. It's distinctively Khmer, the smile of Cambodia. Always disarming and serenely happy, this smile has enchanted Westerners since France's first days here, whatever sad emotion it may hide.
"My family pities me that I couldn't go," relates Ma, a former soldier. "It's very difficult."
He misses his family in Madison and often wonders if they remember him. Some days, as he tends his fields and contemplates his life's fortune, he's not so sure they do.
Once he was young, passionate. As a soldier with the Khmer Republic - the capitalist, pro-American regime the communists overthrew in 1975 - he fought bravely against Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.
In 1975, during his third campaign, Ma was shot 10 times. Six in his legs, two in his torso, one in his right arm, and one more in his head. If he parts his jet-black hair, you can see a sprawling, convex scar the shape of an arrowhead.
His Khmer Republic fell while Ma recovered under military medical care in Battambang City. When he returned home six months later, everything had changed.
"You're no longer a soldier," he was told. "You're a farmer like everyone else." The Khmer Rouge had killed almost every other Khmer Republic soldier; Ma was spared only because he'd once shown kindness to a Khmer Rouge commander in Battambang.
Ma's life for the next four years was that of his people: farming and starvation. But then, in 1979, after the Khmer Rouge's fall and the chaotic joy that followed, he was presented with a fateful choice: flee like his sister and nieces, or stay.
He recalls his decision with regret. He didn't risk it. He didn't take his parents and pregnant wife and follow his sister and nieces to the refugee camps. He didn't know they'd end up in America. "I wasn't lucky," he says.
By the time he heard his sister and nieces had gone to the United States, it was too late. There wasn't any more room for Ma and his family.
So bearing a fatalism inherent to Khmer culture, he continued his life in Cambodia, never making enough money to save, just enough to live. He's never stopped thinking about how his life would have been different had he gone, how he could have ended up in Madison, where his children would have gotten a First World education.
"When I was younger, I wanted to go to Madison," Ma says. "But now, I'm old. And sick. How could I live there? How could I work? How would I have money to share? I would visit, yes. But I would never live there."
For Ma and his family, Madison has taken on a surreal quality. It's almost evanescent, something they grasp at and muse over. But at times they wonder: Is it real?
"Sometimes, all they want is money," Reth complains, switching to English so only I can understand. "I feel so bad. They ask for my money but I'm so po...." She stops herself from saying it: poor.
Reth has just visited another uncle, Ma Luun, who initially had also wanted to go to America but missed his chance.
"America is better than Cambodia," Reth reflects. "I could never be happy here. It's too hard to find food or take care of your family. Too hard to live."
As we wade through the crushing heat, I think about what she's said. America is better than Cambodia. Such finality in her words. They stick with me.
We arrive at another squat wooden house, where the inhabitants live next to livestock excrement. Reth's half-siblings, Theary and Bora, walk with me. In the months I've known them, both have shared kindness and meals with me, though they could scarcely afford it. They call me "brother" or "uncle."
I try to imagine my response in the United States if a curious foreigner with a heavy accent asked me to take him into my life. Would I be so trusting, so generous?
America is better than Cambodia, I repeat. The words sound wrong.
I realize this family has heard about America for 25 years, but they don't understand some of its ugly realities: racism, drugs, a population often too busy to be kind. But even if I told them, they wouldn't believe me, or they'd say it is worth it to live there.
"If I ever go to Madison, what sort of job would I get?" Theary, 28, round-faced and pretty, asked me months ago while we ate lunch together in Battambang. I considered the question and gave her my honest estimation. Without a college education or knowing English, she would probably cook or clean.
"How much money would I make?"
"Maybe $8 an hour."
Neither of us said anything, but I knew what she was thinking. In Cambodia, even if Theary could find work cooking or cleaning - which she can't - she would make around $1 for 12 hours of work.
At that moment, America's lack of civility seemed an awfully trivial concern.
In 2000, the Refugee Studies Centre researched the relationship between forced immigrants and their families left behind. Its findings reflect the Rouns' own experience on their trips to Cambodia.
"Asylum seekers and other forced migrants," the researchers found, are "unavoidably confronted with economic issues - the livelihoods of those at home as well as their own," much like labor migrants.
Cambodia's migrant population, which includes refugees, sent $469 million home in 2006, the World Bank reports.
The psychological burdens can be extreme. "There's a huge friction with refugees coming back to Cambodia," says Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. "People [here] say, 'These traitors fled the country and left us to our suffering. And then they come back with everything that they didn't fight for.'"
During one discussion in Battambang, Reth's sister, Rong Roun, says money seems to dominate her relationship with Cambodia. But on Sept. 8, 1983 - the day she came to the United States - she was just 14 years old, and not concerned with money but with survival.
Yes, she had endured civil war, the Khmer Rouge and Thai refugee camps - but would she survive West High School?
She was already sick of America, sick of Madison, wanting out. The people were too disingenuous, the food too bizarre, the language too difficult to pronounce and understand.
Rong, now 42, moved into a small apartment on Allied Drive. Reth, who had married in the refugee camps and came to the United States with an infant daughter, was miles away on Cypress Way. It was the early 1980s, and her husband had begun his career as a carpenter, making $3.30 an hour. They bought a two-door blue Nissan; their life was happy.
But for the first time in Rong's horror-ridden memory, she was apart from her sister, Reth, and felt alone.
The chaos and politics of West High swallowed Rong, who at the time weighed 80 pounds. She couldn't understand why her younger sisters went to Van Hise Middle School, why they couldn't be together. She shivered in the autumn chill and questioned whether she could be happy in Madison.
But Rong grew into her new life. She practiced her English and excelled. She graduated from West, briefly attended MATC, and was hired as a translator for Cambodians at UW Health, a job she's held since. In time, she reached a clear conclusion: I'm never going back to Cambodia.
And she never has, not completely. Rong has made several return trips to Cambodia, before the one I meet her on, each of us a world away from our Madison homes. I notice her eyes constantly scan. She quivers, like a small bird caught in a downpour. She's scared. Cambodia means Suffering; its synonyms include Genocide and Hatred.
"I don't trust this place, you know," Rong whispers, looking behind her. "It could happen again. And my family, we're close still. But the way we talk, it's different now." Time and money have changed the way Rong and her sisters feel about their family members in Cambodia: "Lately, we don't trust them."
Nobody speaks much on our tuk-tuk ride back from the countryside. Battambang's dramatic landscape of sheer mountains amid horizon-stretching flatness blurs past, all greens and browns.
The tuk-tuk putters into Battambang City when Theary asks a question that brings us back from our thoughts. She wants to know whether my newspaper article will help her and her family in Cambodia. Is there any chance they'll ever live in the United States?
I tell her I don't know, and wish I had something better to say. Theary looks away and is quiet.
That night, I sit alone in my $4 hotel room. Notes from the day are stretched in front of me on the bed; a pack of Ara Light cigarettes waits on the nightstand. I search for the message of this story but can't pinpoint it.
I light a cigarette and step outside with one of my interviews with Reth, who sleeps with her half-siblings a kilometer or two away in a small house built with money she'd sent from Madison.
Under the fluorescent lights outside, I see a quote that explains it - the theme of their stories. It is something that Reth said, something that captured the essence of what I'd found - a family divided, living out unequivocally different lives as best they can.
"I'm American. I'm more comfortable with Americans. It's my life," she told me. "But my family here," she continued, motioning to the 15 people gathered around, "it's their destiny to live in Cambodia."
Terry McCoy is serving a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cambodia. He has asked that payment for this article and photos go to United Refugee Services of Wisconsin, a Madison-based group that works with Southeast Asians.
Battambang Province, by the numbers
- Population: 980,000
- Area: 11,622 square kilometers (4,487 square miles)
- Density: 84 persons per square kilometer
- Infant mortality up to age 1: 9.8%
- Infant mortality to age 5: 12.7%
- Incidence of children deemed stunted, moderate or severe: 36%
- Chances that a rural household is landless or owns less than one hectare (2.5 acres): one in two
- Percentage of households that lack a sanitary toilet: 71
- Percentage that lack a source of safe drinking water within 150 meters of their home: 51
Source: A 2010 World Food Programme report, based on 2004 numbers.