Gliding into Phnom Penh on a rainy Saturday afternoon, Andy and Mao leaned in their airplane seats to peer out at the rapidly advancing ground of Cambodia. Exotic coconut trees and the chocolate brown water of the Tonle Sap reflected their earthward stares.
Former refugees of war, they returned to Cambodia last month for the first time since the Khmer Rouge forced them to flee to the US with their families. Like others who had made the return journey before, they were eager to match the pictures in their imagination with the scene unfolding below their descending plane.
That’s one picture of their return, of them eagerly awaiting a reunion with Cambodia, and it has a story of its own.
If someone could have peered back into their airplane, another picture would have told a second story. Both men wore metal handcuffs. They carried nothing that could be used as a weapon, not even shoelaces. They were escorted by guards from the US who did not speak Khmer, and who warned Andy and Mao not to speak to each other in the Cambodian language.
Their crimes, committed at different times and in different places, took them to prison, where they served their full sentence, then to an immigration judge who revoked their right to stay in the US. Neither of them had full US citizenship, which would have shielded them from the judge’s decision.
On June 22, they were among the first six Cambodians to fly into Pochentong Airport under an agreement reached in March that orders the return of 1,400 Cambodians living in the US who have been convicted of a felony.
Today, Andy and Mao find themselves at the center of much confusion. No one here understands what life is like in the US, they say. Most people just think of it as the promised land, where life is easy and everyone is rich. Sure, there are no land mines or malaria, but there are other things waiting to drag you down, Mao said.
At the same time, Cambodians in the US have no idea what life is like here now, Andy said.
Everyone warned them about land mines, about shootings, about violence in the streets. No one talked about the peaceful walks he would take along streets in Phnom Penh, or the friendly people he would meet at the markets.
More than anything both men just want jobs and the chance to start over again. They both feel like they’ve served their debt to society and want to put their old lives behind them.
Andy, especially, said he wants to celebrate Khmer New Year.
“This is going to be my first one over here. I missed eight of them over there,” he says, referring to the time he served in prison and then seven months in detention with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
His life has the dimensions of the Cambodian tragedy. He lost his father, a battalion leader, to war in the early 1970’s. Survivors said his father had gone too far into enemy territory before running out of ammunition. He was stabbed and shot to death.
Andy lived in a Khmer Rouge camp for a few years during the revolution, picking leaves to use for fertilizer, before his family fled to Thailand in late 1979. They arrived at the camps just in time to see his mother die from poor health and malnutrition.
With help from an uncle, he and his brother and grandmother flew to Los Angeles, and then on to Dallas, in the US state of Texas, where Andy grew up. His older brother still lives there today. His neighborhood wasn’t too violent at first, and his older brother started out on a stable life. But by the mid-1980s the neighborhood was more violent and Andy’s friends were either friends of gang members or spending time with them.
Andy said he never joined a gang, but he was living in their midst. His connections to his Khmer culture came through his grandmother, though he speaks Khmer fluently.
“She was like a mother to me,” he said.
He dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, already years older than his classmates because he was started late in the public education system there.
A few years later, his girlfriend needed money, their daughter was sick. Three friends were talking about robbing someone and Andy said they should rob a rich person, someone who wouldn’t miss money as much as a poor person.
The night of the robbery Andy held the gun and even tied up the victim. He boarded a bus to California, where police tracked him down.
He’s heard people say he deserves to be kicked out of the US for his mistake, but he thinks there’s another side to the story. Life was hard in Texas for him, he said. He had no parents and jobs never paid enough to cover his bills.
At the same time he doesn’t want to make up excuses. Now, he just wants to get a job and settle into Cambodian life.
“I don’t want to be the old person again,” he said.
He learned just one day before he was sent to Cambodia that he was being deported. He tried to call his brother before he left but his brother was at work.
When the group landed in Phnom Penh they were nervous that people would attack them. They had heard plenty of warnings from Cambodians living in the US that this was still the land of Pol Pot.
Everyone thinks he has US citizenship and can return whenever he wants, so he has to be careful to explain that to people close to him. For now, Andy has just five other people in Cambodia who understand what his life is like today. Mao is one.
Mao, 27, who spent some of his first years of life in a Malaysian refugee camp, moved to the US state of Virginia at 8 years old where he grew up with his parents, six sisters and one brother. He later moved to Seattle, in the US state of Washington.
He was convicted of robbing a bank. The conviction came before he applied for US citizenship.
Unlike most of the other Cambodians scheduled for deportation, he was released from INS detention and for two months lived on his own. He checked in with an INS officer every month. On his second check he was told his freedom had been revoked. That was June 7. He was held at an INS facility.
“I thought I was going back by myself and then I saw the three others,” he said. “That was better. I would have someone to talk to. The problem was we were talking about what they [Cambodian authorities] would do with us.”
A Seattle newspaper had written a story saying they would be sent to Prey Sar prison when they landed. The father of one Cambodian scheduled to be deported told a newspaper they would probably be shot the second they stepped off of the plane at Pochentong.
“Mama didn’t want me to come,” Mao said. “Mama didn’t know what was going to happen.”
He thought the chances were pretty high that he would be attacked when he landed at Pochentong. Instead, Mao, who has tattoos running along both arms that he gave himself while in prison, found people were nervous around him.
“They look at me and they see my tattoo and they look down. People are getting paranoid, but as soon as they know us they will back off,” he said.
He said he was a bit spooked when he saw a truck full of police, AK-47s in plain sight. Police in the US do not usually carry big weapons like the AK-47, he said.
Mao has worked as a landscaper for four years and as a welder, and he wants work. He speaks some 25 percent of the Khmer vocabulary.
Every time I open my mouth and say, ‘I want one’ the price goes shhhh,” he says, rising his finger at the end of the sentence to show how the price climbs quickly.
“They know I’m not from around here. Then when I walk around no one says anything until two steps later they go blah blah.”
For the remaining 1,400 or so Cambodians scheduled for deportation, Mao has some advice: Don’t be scared. Taking you to Prey Sar is just a lie. People here are friendly, just be careful with your money.
He wants to speak Khmer but he doesn’t know which words to use to be friendly. Some words mean different things and he’s nervous about using the right words.
“It’s a new life,” he says. “No record, no nothing. I’m like a newborn baby.”