Ly Chheng Tang

Ly Chheng Tang
Interview by Anne Morin
Date: July 19, 2005
1 Disk: 20 Tracks

2 Okay, I am Ly Chheng Tang, and this is the story of my life. I and my family and a whole bunch of other people, we paid this guy to guide us to freedom, we hope, which is to Thailand. That’s the first step. So they guide us at night because we didn’t want the Cambodian soldiers to see us because they would say, why you run out of our country, because you didn’t like the way we govern the country? And they would punish us. So we have to secretly escape at night.

So we walked through this thick forest, thick woods, and when the day time come, the Thai bandits came and rob us. They raped the children; they hurt men who tried to help the women. We, which myself and the children, got separated from our family, and it was so hard. I was so thirsty. It wasn’t just myself; it was a whole bunch of other children; we were so thirsty, so we find any water we can to drink, which is the puddle on the ground, and it’s so filthy, it’s almost thick like mud, but we drink it anyway because we were so thirsty.

And a few hours later, my mom found me and so we keep walking to other people that walk before. We just follow each other because we don’t know where to go. And there was a whole bunch of children that got left behind because they still couldn’t find their family.

So then we get to Thailand, to the Thai border. There, we see other refugee people that have been there before us. So they kind of like tell us what to do, you know, if you want food, here are the people, the Thai, they come in the morning and you can trade whatever gold you have for food. And my mom did. And get the plastic thing to make tent. And we stay there for about a month.

And then the Thai people come with a whole lot of buses and told us to get on the bus. Now before that, a couple of nights before that, we have words from other people that said that this is what they do. But they not quite sure that they going to do it; they just heard the rumors. So but before they came to our camp, they already when to the camp before us and sent those camp back to Thailand, no back to Cambodia, but they sent them to this place where they call it Pole Mountain, which is have a lot of land mines and nobody can survive there, a lot of disease there. And so when before, like in the morning, at night time, and the people already been sent to it, came back and said, no matter what you do, don’t get on those buses.


They said, no matter what you do, don’t get on those buses. If you do, you’re going to go to certain death. And so the people didn’t want to get on the bus. The Thai they came with soldiers. They shove us in buses we didn’t want to get on. So they grabbed the children from their mother and throw them in the buses and so the parents has to get on the buses. And so we all separated. Myself, my family, I don’t know where my parents are and but me and my sister we got on the same bus. And so children were crying and the villagers there giving us food and I see a family shove their children through the bus window to the villager, to strangers. And my mom’s friend did that to one of their son, and he still missing until now. Still can’t find him.

She tried to find him in whatever way it took: Money, she went to psychic, she went to fortune tellers and they still told her that he’s alive, he’s alive, he’s not dead. But she just can’t find him.

And so when we got to Pole Mountain, they told us to get off the bus. We got off the bus and they said, Go. Go back to Cambodia! We said, go where? There’s nowhere to go! There’s a steep mountain there with no road, so they shove us there and we all children and the adult, we all fall, because there’s no road. So we grabbed whatever we could, the vines, we grab it and one of my cousin, she couldn’t grab hold to anything and she drop all the way to the bottom, and then other people would drop on top of her. She almost get crushed because of that.

3 But she did live?

Yeah she did live. Yes. She’s married and have 3 kids. Yeah. So we were there and then as we were going down there, a bomb explodes. It explode and we see pieces of clothes and debris and all the belongings that people that went before did not take with them. And then as we go down to the bottom to the ground, sort of, and then we walk and bombs keep exploding left and right and so the children are crying and I see one man blow their leg off, and.

Didn’t you say your older brother almost stepped on a land mine?

Yes. That’s later. This is while we’re getting get there. That is when we got there and we try to find water. So we sort of got to the ground, all the way to the bottom of the mountain. It’s still deep, you know the mountain still like this, and we’re kind of like here and we still need to walk down. Like about two or three hours later, I saw my mom, she was there, she see me and she see the new people that got there throw away the packages of rice and stuff that the rice already cooked, the food, and it’s spoiled. They toss it; my mom grab it and keep it because she was there before us and she knew how valuable it was. The people who just arrived didn’t know that so they threw away, she pick it up and later on we found out that, my goodness, there’s nothing in there to eat. Dense, you can’t even see the sunlight – that’s how dense the forest is and all mosquitoes. In there for almost 30 days, I don’t know what the time is, but it seems like almost a month, and we stay somewhere almost a month and then we. . .

What did you eat? How did you live?

Well, we there and we eat what we have for a week or so. After that, those are all gone, so what we did, we eat the roots of the trees or whatever we can find.

You said you ate bugs?

Oh, yeah. Oh, we lucky to find bugs. You know, with thousands of people, how many bugs can you find? The first few days, the bugs are all gone. (Laughs.) Some of us get sick and diarrhea, but at least we live, you know. And when we first got there, a lot of people need water, so they walk to the stream down there to get water, but there’s land mines all over, water all bloody because the explosion.

And we stay there and then, now and then – see, the thing in Cambodia, when it rain one day, it rain a whole week. So either we don’t have water or we have too much water. So when it rain and most of us don’t have the plastic thing to make tent, so we have this like really small plastic sheet that cover on top and there’s 10 or 20 people underneath of it, so it almost get wet and there’s nothing on the ground. It’s all muddy and you go to the bathroom there, number one, number two, because you couldn’t go nowhere. You walk out, you might step on mine, you might die.

So lots of people stay there for a week. There’s a lot of disease that we create ourselves, like flies. It’s just so terrible. But it didn’t really bother us about that. It’s that mosquito. You can’t sleep. A whole month (cough), nobody could sleep there. Nobody. We were so exhausted, with no food and no, get sick and no medicine. And no sleep. We were so, I couldn’t describe how tired we was. All of us.

So anyway, we stay there. And now, there’s no more bugs to fine. No more roots to eat. You know. We did what we could and there’s new roots, but we don’t want to explore them, because some people did get killed because of poison. So we not absolutely it’s pretty safe, even we don’t know it it’s safe. We took our chances. So no more, nothing to eat now. Nothing. Our people have to decide. All of us get together and say, either we stay here and try to climb up the mountain and try to get into the Thai village and beg for food or we just try to make ourselves back to Cambodia. We know it’s that way, even though there’s no road. Nothing, we just have to make ourselves road to get there.

So, now my uncle, he got seven, eight little children, you know, a two to six to, I think, to fourteen, the oldest. And he told my dad, you know, brother, if I venture with you guys and walk off the mountain back to Cambodia, I’ll die for sure. Because, see, I got little kids. Who going to help carry my children? And we have no food, no energy. So if we die, might as well die staying here. So he stayed there.

Now, my mom, we kind of like walkable, all of us, you know? We don’t have little kids. I have my little sister. Right? Four or six years old, not like my uncle lot of little ones. And my mom said no, we’ll take our chances: We’ll walk back to Cambodia. And now my big brother, Koh, he said no, I won’t go back to Cambodia because there’s no freedom there. I don’t want to get into another Communist regime. This is it. I will stay here, try to find my freedom, or I’ll die finding my freedom. I refuse to go back. So he stayed with my uncle there. So most the people left. Hundreds of people.

4 So we make our way still, blow of left and right, and my (other) brother, he almost step on the bomb. He almost step on it, and a guy said, don’t step on that spot – there’s a bomb there! And so he pulled his feet out and walk away. That’s a very, very close call. So my big brother stay there with my uncle, plus hundreds of people stay and some of us walk back to Cambodia. We walk for about a half a day. Then we see Vietnamese soldier. Vietnamese soldier came. At first, we were so scared, said, this is it, because Vietnamese they not get along with Cambodian people either. They always the enemy.

Are these the communist Vietnamese?

Yeah, the Communist Vietnamese. So now we see the Vietnamese people carry guns. We say, oh, my god, this is it. There’s no way we’re going to survive now. So, in the group some of us speak Vietnamese. So at first they point guns at us. They say, who are you, what you doing here? And so the man kind of explained to them, there’s thousands of us back at the mountain. We got sent back by Thai people. Lots of children, lots of people die of land mine, and we got no food. Now we are walking out here trying to get back to Cambodia. So they make us wait there for like about a half an hour. You know, they have to talk to their soldier, or whatever. And then they came, a whole bunch of them came, and they help us down. They take a mine off a mine first before they let us walk to that path, and we just follow them. And so they lead us to their base and they gave us food, they shelter us, and they help children. They ask how many more up there, and we said a thousand more up there, and so they went up there and tried to get most of us out.

Meanwhile, as we’re walking out, I think five or six days, or even two weeks, my brother told me, then they get rescued at that mountain the Red Cross. Yeah, the Red Cross.

So where your older brother was? Where the tarps are?

Right. Through the Red Cross. Now we, okay, we were there. The Vietnamese soldiers help us off the mountain stay there, and then they sent up a lot of big trucks, transport us, because they can see we couldn’t walk no more. All of us, I mean, sick from lack of sleep, no food, disease, and just no way we could walk. So they sent a lot of buses and transport us all to hospital. Meanwhile,

Where are you now? In Cambodia?

In Cambodia now. They sent us now. It’s in Cambodia land, but we are not in Cambodia; we are in Cambodia forest. That not many people heard of, you know? So now stop there.

Now about my brother. Later on, when we found each other (that’s another story, you know), we ask how did the Red Cross knew that you guys were there? What happened was in that group, there’s families that have family living in Thailand. So when they heard that the camp and sent back to that mountain, Pole Mountain, the family in Thailand go to the Red Cross ask for help, said there’s thousands of people that sent down there. We don’t know they still alive or they dead. Somebody please go help find them or give them food or what happened to them. And so the Red Cross people, they with helicopters and searching them and they found them in there. You know, some in the verge of dying; some didn’t make it. As they got there, they die there. So but some made it, and my uncle and my brother is one of the people the family that make it. So they took them all out, put them in Red Cross territory, ship them to America the next day. That’s what I heard. They ship them without no sponsor, no nothing.

Koh (Ly Chheng’s older brother, and also my former student) was with that group? So that’s why Koh got here first.

Yeah. So they ship it out here. And then when they are here, they start looking for us. They advertise on radio, on tv, that hundreds of people just came from this mountain. Now anybody want to help, bring clothes, food, anything – they could use help. That’s how we met Jo.

Your sponsor here.

My sponsor, yes. Her best friend, they teach at the same school, she heard on the radio, so she called Joe.

In Portland.

In Portland, yeah. And said, hey, Jo, I heard on the radio that a bunch of refugees came in and they could and anything we can give them, they appreciate it. You know, clothes or beds, pans, spoons, anything. Blankets. And so her name Joan Thompson get together with Jo and so they brought a whole bunch of stuff back, some clothes and stuff, and go to this place where hundreds of people, full of people just came, and that’s how they met. That’s how they met my brothers and my uncle’s family. And that started from there.

So your uncle and brother are now here, safe. And Jo is helping them.


What was her last name?


Yes. Now go back to us in Cambodia.

More story: To end of story to now.

5 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Excellent analysis.)


7 Effects of PTSD on personality and life. Positives and Negatives. (Great stuff here.)


9 Flashbacks (This is wonderful stuff here.)

10 Would you ever go back to Cambodia? Yes! Her house is the only one left in her village.


13 Family members have gone back. Chieu (her brother) went back to Cambodia to find wife and marry her. Describes the process.

14 Poverty!? Ly Chheng sings out her opinions!!!
I can’t pronounce that word. There’s no poverty here in this country! You call this poverty? My God! You haven’t seen poverty yet! (Laughs) No, there’s no comparison. Over here you have Welfare, you have government grant help you. You sick, you can go to a doctor with medical care card. You call that poor? You call that rich in Cambodia!

You talking about poor? You, you don’t know the meaning of poor. Let me tell you the meaning of poor in Cambodia. You got no help absolutely from noone – not government, not friends. See, that’s the thing about Asian culture, as general. When you poor, your worth ain’t worth shit. Whatever you say, you not important. 99.9%. When you rich, whatever you say, even what you say it’s wrong, without question, it’s wrong – you’re right. You’re okay. Because that money talk. That’s how it is. So when you born poor, more likely you stay poor for the rest of your life. School cost money. Okay? Poor people cannot go to school. Over here, everybody can go to school – poor or rich. You born into a poor family, you grow up, you either help your family what they doing. Let’s say if they farming. You can go help them farm. Now in this country, you say you a farmer, you rich because you own a lot of property. In Cambodia you are a farmer you are the bottom of the barrel. That doesn’t mean that you own anything. It just mean that you have the land you work, you plant stuff that you can sell, and then to feed you in that season. When it’s off season, you got nothing to plant, you got nothing to eat.

15 Difference between here and Cambodia as far as being a woman is concerned.

16 In Asia . . . power and money, you can say what you want. Still about women.

17 Myths – All Asian people . . . the Image – Number One Culture Thing in Asia. As long as the image looks good, that’s what counts.

Here are you answers about poverty here in America. And work. And sharing the wealth.

18 Prejudice and Getting Jobs
I don’t feel prejudice about getting jobs they not hiring for. Let’s say, I can’t think of example right now. We not picky. We find whatever we can. I cleaned toilets when I was in high school. I picked berries for all seasons – cucumbers, nuts (they were so damned heavy), a big bucket for a buck, but I did it anyway because we need money to pay rent.

And you didn’t think you were poor then?

No, no! We were happy! We not happy at what we did, pick berry and pick cucumber, it was so hard job, but we happy that we had freedom. This was our choice that we make and we get our money, and that’s our money and we can spend on anything we want and.

Do you think there are different values about what Americans consider poor and what people who have come from . . .

A real poor country. You know, I understand why the American people they said they are poor and I said they are not poor because they get help from the government. And I can see why because they never been to the other side, which I have been, so I can compare between the rich and poor people in my country and the poor people in America. You know, the poor people in America cannot call themselves poor through my eyes, because I been through my country.

They didn’t ever eat bugs.


Or roots.

Right. They never been hungry. They never been like you can only speak this language; you cannot speak other language. You can only wear these clothes, this color, black. That’s it. You cannot wear other colors. They tell you who to marry; you cannot pick. You have to marry whatever the government choose you to marry.

And yet here in America we know there are children who go to bed at night hungry.

Right. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s because the children, they helpless. The children what can they do if they raised by parents or family or guardian adults make them go to bed hungry. There’s no reason for.

Not everybody has that help. Depends . . .

I understand all that. But the thing is there’s jobs out there. When you said you cannot find jobs, I disagree with that. . . You can do something else. Clean toilets.
It’s a job. It’s an honest job!!! It put the food on the table; it feeds your children.

I had no problem all my life find a job. Because I do any kind of job.

19 CAMBODIAN COMMUNITY – POVERTY within Asian American communities.
Why? Reasons. By choice, no other way, don’t know, education, too old, language, low paying jobs, kids Americanized, don’t understand background, parents find it hard to raise kids in new environment. Kids don’t have same values.

Answer? Education!

20 Education that’s the answer. Does our education system meets the needs of refugee population?

When I was in school, the money was there to help refugee people to educate themselves so that they can have a better life. Now that money is not there. Now creating another generation of poor.