Originally published May 10, 2016
I know not all the details of how it all happened, I just know what it is today.
Forty-eight years ago, in a humble yet elaborate traditional Khmer ceremony in Cambodia, Nary Ream took Khen Top's last name in a show of mutual commitment to something greater than themselves. With Cambodia mired at the time in a bloody civil war, they nurtured my brother Siha through his first five years, shielding him from the ever-present unrest and pervasive threat of death by surrounding him with love, discipline, and respect. At some point I came to be, first one cell dividing into two, then two into four, and so on. And in the midst of my incubation, my father, serving on the Cambodian Air Force as a T-28 fighter-bomber pilot, caught wind of the communist regime's plan to invade the capital city of Phnom Penh, and he took desperate measures to try to save his family and closest friends from almost certain death.
He formulated a plan with his closest friend and our respective families to escape across the Thai-Cambodian border on the eve of the invasion--and in the process abandon all they'd ever known, loved, and understood in order to give us all a chance at the life and liberty we'd mistakenly assumed was our birthright. His friend was ground crew, unable to join my father in the air on account of a physical disqualification and thus not with him at the time of the escape, and at some point they lost radio contact with each other altogether. He'd told my father beforehand that if anything ever happened to him, my father was to continue the escape and bring his friend's wife and two young children along with our family to safe haven, and that's exactly what he did. No one ever heard from my father's best friend again, and it's illogical to assume anything other than that he'd perished sometime during the ensuing conflict. More than a few members of my parents' immediate and extended family met with the same unfortunate fate. I know not all the details of how it all happened, I just know, sadly, what it is today.
Eventually they--my and my dad's best friend's family--made their way to America. My family had planned to stay just their first six months with our lovely and gracious sponsors Mardi and Ted and their two young boys Edward and Dirk, but anticipating the incredible challenge of my impending arrival within that very time frame and all the while still trying to learn the tangled ropes of a new landscape, a new language, and an utterly alien culture, Mardi and Ted generously convinced my parents to stay with them for a full year. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for them--for ALL of them, but especially for my parents--to forge ahead under such challenging circumstances and lay a foundation for a new beginning, all the while never abandoning the core of their cultural heritage and instead choosing to adopt the best that two distinct worldviews had to offer. I know not all the details of how it all happened, I just know what it is today.
And that's what formed the underpinning of my childhood...and by natural extension my adult life. From the old country: deference to others, and especially one's elders; primacy of family; and respect and appreciation for the natural world. And from the new: opportunity; education; and personal success in homage to one's heritage. In raising me, my parents (and my brother) applied force only when force was absolutely necessary. Mainly, though, through sheer dedication, persistence, perspiration, patience, guidance, example, and unwavering love and support, they planted seeds in the richest soil they could till and in the sunniest spot they could find, watered them every day without fail, and watched them grow. And somehow, someway, they've ushered me through illness, injuries, and growing pains...aloofness and disobedience and rebelliousness...misjudgments, missteps, and misguided failures...toothaches, tummy aches, and heartaches...all the things inherent in the progression of infant to toddler, of toddler to child, of child to adolescent, of adolescent to young adult, and of young adult to man. I know not all the details of how it all happened, I just know what I am today.
Never once did they force or try to influence me to become a doctor--they let me come to that conclusion on my own. Never once did they force or try to influence me with who I chose to date--even when they knew well before I did that it would never work out--and the fruit borne by all that trust, frustration, and patience (40 years, hey!) was Ashley...and by now you should be pretty well-versed on exactly how I feel about her (my parents feel the exact same way about her, as well!). And never once did they force or try to influence me to capture this photo, to write these words, or to share them with all of you today. No, all they've ever striven to do, at every opportunity and every arduous step of the way, is empower and encourage me to follow my heart. And when I look back on where I came from and how I came to be where I am now, I know not all the details of how it all happened, I just know who I am today.
And I know, above all, who I have to thank for it.
Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad. I love you and thank you more than words can ever say.