By Gea Wijers
Special to Khmerican
Amsterdam, the Netherlands – “Returning to Cambodia was really hard. I had to explain to my family here that I did not come back for the money. That I had come to find some kind of satisfaction. I was looking for fulfillment in doing something I care about. But this is where it had to happen.”
Mr. Das left Cambodia in June 1979, just after the Pol Pot years. First to the border with Thailand and then on to Bangkok. He was 28 years old and did not have a lot of education, only high school. His parents were Sinokhmer and came from Kandal province. Before Pol Pot won the war, it was very unsafe in the region, so his family tried to survive in Phnom Penh. They had a little restaurant. They made food and sold it at the military school. At the time, Das was training to be a military police officer at that school.
Das explains that he was not really into politics: “At the time I did not have a lot of ideas. I just went with the flow as you didn’t know what was going to happen next. You had no clue, back then.” This come-what-may outlook had Das stuck in the Khmer Rouge work camps for four and a half years, the whole time of the Khmer rouge takeover. Mr. Das is very clear about his unlikely survival: “Basically I am not supposed to be alive at all. A couple of times I was almost dead. I escaped and escaped, and I was just lucky.”
This mix of going with the flow and “good luck” also brought Das to the United States. The first experience was one of total culture shock. Das frowns and makes clear that, for him, America was just a totally different world and not the paradise they had expected. The language, a job, trying to make a living and a new life. It was all a bit much.
“There were a lot of mixed feelings,” he states, “as in one way you are still Khmer but you mingle with American lifestyles. You’re making your own way of life instead of holding on to Khmer traditions and culture so much. I felt like I was given the opportunity to learn both sides of the culture to choose for the future what I wanted to become.”
His years in a Southern state started with the struggle for a livelihood. After several manual labor jobs and many hours in night school Mr. Das managed to land a job as a technician that made him relatively happy and allowed for a certain comfortable lifestyle. Nevertheless, he never felt he managed to fulfill his potential and blames himself for making the wrong choices. In those years, his marriage started to deteriorate and his happiness, in large part, now seems bound up with a great pride in the careers and scholastic achievements of his children, whom he remains very close to.
However, true integration into American society and the sense of being an American citizen has eluded Das. He is ambivalent about this lack of belonging: “I will never be American. I do not consider myself well integrated. I will always be more Khmer.” His thoughts returned to Cambodia and the possibility of going back to his country in the 1990s. “Around 1993 I started to think about returning. More and more people were talking about the elections. I was getting bored in the U.S. and my marriage was not working. I was depressed really.”
After visiting relatives in 1995 and 2001, it took another seven years before he had found a temporary source of income and built up enough savings to help him return to Cambodia for several months. He decided to go and look for a true livelihood that would allow him to stay for the long term. In this, Mr. Das was following his heart. He was determined to realize his dreams of working in education and providing a service to the poorest communities. In Cambodia, this is not an easy thing to do if one also wants to earn a living wage. Yet Das never considered anything else:
“In my experience, your life is like a log floating down the river where a flood was taking place. You just go with the flow. Sometimes you get stuck in an obstacle, and then you stay there for a while. Then you change direction, and you zigzag through the river, and you zigzag through life and just move along with the flow again. Life is unpredictable just like the river. You have to navigate by what you can see. You have to navigate a river by its bends.”
Things were not easy, indeed. Working as a teacher for a local NGO enabled Das to prolong his stay, as they paid for his housing, but he wasn’t earning any money yet. For Das it was quite a let-down to find that he wasn’t welcomed back to Cambodia with open arms: “It was frustrating and disappointing, and I felt like a real failure. You have something to offer, and you want to do something meaningful. And then nobody gives you a chance!”
His relatives in Cambodia did not understand why he would want to return and live in what they considered to be poverty. His Cambodian network in the United States, including his children, however, applauded him for his brave decision and ambitions to contribute to building Cambodia. This international network is still the support Mr. Das thrives on, as he is now a program manager for an American NGO that builds schools in the Cambodian provinces. Funding is mainly collected in the United States by the founder of the initiative. Das and a Cambodian colleague are the ones who function as in-field liaisons, making sure the money gets used in the right way and the projects reach their aims. For Das this is the only way his NGO could be effective:
“You need to have somebody abroad to inform the others, and you need someone here because otherwise you cannot make the connection and you will not always know what is going on. And if you don’t trust anyone, you better do it yourself . You need to do it in both places. And you need a partnership with a Cambodian person.”
It’s early days yet, and he had only been in this position for two years at the time of interview. But Das feels that this is the happiest time of his life. “I look at my life this way: I really should not be here today. But I have life. I survived the Pol Pot years. So I should not be afraid to learn something new or to go out and try something new.”
He is to be admired. Mr. Das has had some tough experiences. What he is trying to achieve is certainly not easy, but to him it is very rewarding. All the while, his standards are high and his strategy for reform is exacting.
Of his work building schools by nurturing the wider communities they are found in, he speaks about winning people over: “I think that when you want to change people, they will not change what they know. They change what they feel inside. As a Cambodian, you never trust a stranger. First you don’t trust, and then you start working on that. It’s based on experience. I want to change people by showing them that honesty and integrity is the way to go. That’s how I believe we should do it.”