Fate: Rebuilding a Family
Profilers: Laura Lee, Kevin Neftaly Lopez, Andrew Rishwain
The War Across the Border
I was born in Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
I grow up there as a usual just a kid, and then go to school, try to become, well at that time, try to become a lawyer. To be a lawyer, you see the thing is I go to law school two years after my high school, and my major in math. And what happened is I just liked talking and debating, so I think that the lawyer the best for me.
The country just fell apart in 1969 because of the conflict with the War, the Vietnam War and outside.
At that time, I joined because I had no choice but to be an air force pilot. But I saw from the air, the Cambodians fight with the Communists because they set up the Khmer Rouge, and the Khmer Rouge was fighting with the Cambodian government, and the American support the government to fight with the Khmer Rouge at that time. Americans have the conflict of the war with Vietnam too, and then they came into Cambodia to help Cambodia fight with the Khmer Rouge too.
The Khmer Rouge was supported by the Communists, the Vietcong from Vietnam. The Vietnam over there, the Vietnam fight each other… same thing, you know red and blue… whatever, something like that. The government fought with Vietcong and Vietcong wanted to invade all of Asia, which include Cambodia too.
I was a pilot, and then I came to Thailand to train to fight, to be a fighter and to be a observation forward air controller pilot. And at the time, the Americans, I think in 72 or 74…
They signed that they won’t have a uniformed American anywhere to fight, but we tried to do the best we could. We take pictures, and I got shot.
But behind me, an American fly with me, but he was an innocent civilian.
He, friend of mine, he used to be my instructor too, but he fly. We both flew together. He behind me and I in front. And what happened was the airplane, we took off early in the morning around five o’clock in the morning, and I believe August 1973. And then go up to the coast to take the picture, and make sure that you know how advantage of our troop, our moving troop, moving troops the red and the fighting. And then I got shot down, and then my leg couldn’t move no more, but the airplane okay. The airplane we can fly so we land in next to the airfield over there, this small airfield. I think Gokkunspu. We land in there and they took me back in helicopter to the hospital. What happened is the doctor, he was a French doctor. He wanted to cut my leg. He said that there’s no way he survive because we gotta get the gangrene on his leg. We gotta cut it. The friend of mine, he’s sitting there, he never leave me. He say that without me he die, either or because the bullet miss him about two seconds.
He told me that after that, he told me that I can not leave you alone. I have to go with you everywhere you go. We shot down; I maybe have to carry you and run.
He cannot fly no more, but he wanted to see what happened over there so he had to put the civilian to fly with us. I was the one who take him around over there when we got shot down, and then the doctor wanted to cut my leg. And the guy’s like you fix it. You don’t fix it, I kill you.
He pull a gun, and he point it to… he told him you better fix his leg because I don’t want to see him on a crutch. I don’t want to see him cannot walk and you will fix it. If you don’t fix it, I will kill you. You cannot cut his leg. The job is not done, I am still here. He actually worked for the CIA, I didn’t know at the time, now… just 30 years later find out that this happened. He told me the story because I pass out. You know, lose a lot of blood and pass out. I don’t even know myself. So, eight months later
I get better. He’s fine. That’s a story that we have… very very very… what is that a sad story… he’s very very close to me.
After that, I never stayed with my family. I got married in 1972 I think. I never stayed with family because of the mission. Going on and on from place to place because of the military. We separated around that time. I was in Thailand in 1975 when Communists took over the country, and then they pulled out at that time. My wife and my kid, my older daughter… you know the story already… My older daughter, we had one daughter at that time. She grow up, and she have chicken pox… You read [the news article] and you’ll understand. I stay in Thailand. She stay in Cambodia, and at that time we separated. We don’t know where the other… I don’t know where she is. And I had to make decision. They asked me, do you want to go back to Cambodia, you want to come to the United States? I was in Thailand and I worked with Americans at that time, and I told you that. Let me think about it because if I go back, I maybe die. Never see my family, don’t see my family at all, maybe die so I take a chance and come to the United States, and that’s when I come to the United States. At that time in 1975, April or May, and I don’t know what happen to my family.
Coming to America
The Khmer Rouge don’t take over yet so Americans still help us and still on our side. They took me you know officially by paper saying that you go to Thailand to help out to work… You know, you do that, and then when Americans moved out in April 1975, then the place just shut down.
I came to Camp Willerton. I stayed there a while, and a friend of mine, he’s a pilot, remember that he flew with me. He sponsored me. I go to Florida.
You know you have a lot in mind. You almost go crazy because your family’s apart so it’s just tough situation for a long time. Years and years and years… Really you don’t know what to do. You just go crazy. You know, but just, you tried to find a job to keep you busy, try to go to school to keep you busy.
If I have family at that time, because if my family come in that time with me, I might be better than I am now. The reason that I say that is because when you have family together, and you have your family… Our customs are different a little bit different, because you support each other, real real supportive… Lets say you want to be… Lets say you want to be… Lets say I have a family and I maybe go to school full time, at that time I was not that old. I might be in the thirties when I came to the United States. Thirty… something like that, and I came to school to have more opportunity to grow up, maybe to be a businessman or something like that. That’s what I’m trying to say, but anyways, I’m happy where I am right now, doing well, and look out for my family to do better.
And then I would start finding jobs just like everyone else. I cut the grass, I clean the yard, I just earn a living. That’s all. In Florida, they pay you about two dollars and ten cents an hour. It’s too cheap. Anything you told me to do, I will do it because I got a job around apartment, complex apartment, and he said, he told me, the guy told me, just take a relax. Don’t do to do much. And I said what, it makes me feel better that the place is clean. He said oh that’s just, take it easy. The place is clean like a modern, and I made two dollars and ten cents. It’s part time.
A friend of mine he called me from California and said that we have an opening in a factory so I came to California to join them, to Southern California, to factory to make a chair. So you know, that started pretty good about four dollars an hour, very good yeah. At that time, my paycheck every week to week is about eighty dollars a week, but you know everything is not that bad because gas was only thirty-five cents a gallon.
When I came over here it’s hard for me. It’s not that hard to work, I don’t, I mean the work is okay for me, but it’s hard. How do you find a job, how did you put application, and let them accept it? I tried a lot when I was in early. I worked in factory and I saw newspaper. Oh, they try to get, what is it, agent for selling life insurance? I put application in. They called me, I so happy. I take a bus. I don’t even have a car. I take a bus from Gardena, Gardena far, to Hollywood, to LA over there. Then get the bus go straight down to the guy, I told you I need to get a job because I want to be better than I am doing. He say that no I cannot take you. Oh my God. It broke my heart. I said please train me. Please train me to be whatever you want me to be. I will do, less money. I’m you know, just train me. The guy wouldn’t accept. I told him, I speak French. I told him I speak Cambodian, English I can learn from you now or I can learn. I can pick it up later on. I will be somebody, but please. They dropped me. They won’t let me go.
You see bad sometimes. We have bad people around here that Cambodia came in here the United States. Sometimes, it’s a bad kid, you see that too. You see that right? In Stockton, you see that already. Some people go to jail, go to gang, go participate in… what’s it called… gangs… gang group or something. Do something, sell drugs something like that. The reason is when you come here to the United States, the United States forgot when you sponsor people come in here, you cannot just leave them. Go.
I keep telling the kid who work with me when I was in mailroom somehow, some employee kind of not pay attention, not do good, but is around my age, maybe a little bit older. I said you lucky. You live here, you lucky. But over there, you pass away. You die. Okay, I’m here. I’m real lucky like you, but I’m not going to do it like you because I have to push myself a little better, because I have to push myself a little better. When I push myself a little better, I enjoy what I’m doing too. They can see that.
Finding Lost Love
Four year, three months and eight days or something like that. Then the Khmer Rouge disappear because they fighting over there, and they took over, and the Khmer Rouge disappear, then my wife still alive. And they walk across the border with nothing to Thailand, came to Thailand. They came over there for refugee come and stay in the camps and people sponsor them to come to the States.
My wife was alone by herself trying to struggle across the border to come to Thailand, and stay in Thailand. And then somehow someway she lucky. Someone sponsored her to come to the United States and come to Stockton in 1989, 1990. I found her in Stockton. From 75 to 90, you can imagine, that many years, long years. Do you think I would walk away from her? No.
The Pol Pot regime, I mean the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, he wanted to take over because he wanted to control the people that was born now and came over, and eliminated the people because of the old idea. The old ideas, they say that, this old idea is corruption has some bad thing so my idea good. You cannot make judgment like that so they tried to eliminate them one by one, one by one. They ask you if you can read, yes I can read. Okay, go to another side. Say what you doing before. Oh, I was farmer. Oh, I don’t know. Oh I don’t read. Okay, go another side. They keep that. They get education. You can’t read. They saw you with watch or glass. They say you educated already. How could you make a judgment because he wears the glasses. Because he cannot see he wears the glasses.
They just got the people concentrated and separated. Okay, you have wife. Your wife live over here. You live over here, far away from each other. They don’t like you, and then at nighttime, they go around, listen while you’re talking, you know. They spy on you, you know while at the time when you sleep, when you’re talking. Maybe you complain about the regime or something like that, the next day, you get killed.
You go, go to sleep at night, late, sleep maybe two hours, then wake up, go to work. When you eat, maybe a bowl of rice, put inside, maybe some congee. Some for you to eat, and some for the other people and have no meat or nothing, no… malnutrition.
You had to be careful, but we’re lucky we’re still here. We have right. We have a lot of rights. The right to say, the right to act, the right to do everything that you want to be. And that right you cannot take away, and that’s the beautiful, the beauty of the United States right there.
She just barely survived. Somehow, she’s strong. That’s why she survived until now. If she not strong, maybe she die already, but she strong. And she hide out from place to place until the time come, and she escape, but luckily the time come. Because no matter what, I recognized this one in the world. You try to eliminate a race. You try to eliminate people you don’t like. You can’t, you can’t change it. Like Jews, they tried to eliminate all Jews. Kill them all. You can’t you cannot do that. It does not matter. They gonna come back to you.
You pick up the phone and dial and call her. And then find out what, you know. She say that I just leave you alone. I don’t want you to disturb because you already have family. I remarried again. I didn’t know that she was alive so I just remarried again. I do the best I could. I write a paper. Send everything to Red Cross, but I couldn’t find and four or five year. I cannot just wait. I just try to establish my life. And then, luckily, well, it’s not luckily, the time come, somehow someway. My second wife over there she walked away from me. We broke up. I’m clean. When I heard that she’s alive, and I’m clean at that time. I’m no longer married.
I’m a single man with one kid in LA named Michael with the second wife. And then I pick up the phone and dial talk to her and she say well I don’t want to bother you because the reason is you already have family.
And then we made decision to have Marlin. I say I gotta have a kid, I told her that, but see, her health not that good, not that good my wife. Because going through all that, I have to take her to the doctor a lot of time. Go to the doctor. Check make sure everything okay. Her teeth okay, all that. But, everything fine.
My friend told me that this phone number, this is the phone number of your wife. She live in Stockton. She just moved to Stockton. Actually just moved from another state to Stockton, and a friend of mine he was, happened. And he stay here, but he go to LA for wedding party, and he let me know.
So I come over here, and we started over. I’m still young, not old yet, but I still you know fighting. Go out there fighting for life. Fighting or good fight, you can say, but you know. You come over here then go over there because you go over there, you have bad memories. Maybe your ex come give a hard time so you stay away. It’s a good idea, and I move my job over here right away.
I just stay alone, that be alright, but I told her that I don’t have family no more. I’m alone. Would you accept me as it is, or just throw me away? And she say that you still my husband. You still my husband. And I say okay then I go to see you now. Get in the car prepare myself, go to Stockton.
I just moved into Stockton for a month at that time when he was born. Yes, he was born at Dameron. The nurse, talk to me. I didn’t sleep, I stand up all night. I stand up on the wall like that watching my wife, try to help her if she has labor. And the doctor just come to visit for a little bit, and then walk away. He say that wow, it take long to come out, you know. I just stay there, and the nurse see my like that she ask me a question. And I emotionally answered the question and everything just come out, telling the story. Next thing I know, the Record come with a camera and they say we would like you to put in the front page of the newspaper. Can we do that?
Because, sometimes you have faith. Sometimes, you need to believe that if you have life, you have the gut to do something. I mean, the force to help you to do something. If you run out the life, you know what if I make a decision something wrong decision to go to Cambodia. I’m shot down you know, I mean I die. So how do you do it? So that’s why it’s important that you have life because life gives you some effort. Some good thing to say that okay, today may be bad day but tomorrow may be good day.
Images of Mareth Chan:
Mareth Chan while serving duty in uniform (Left); Mareth Chan with fellow pilot comrades (Right)
Mareth Chan and his Wife
Newspaper Article on Mareth Chan’s Story