S2: Episode 27 - Sichan

Episode Information

[Intro Music]

Narrator:  Welcome to Hunger and Resilience, narrative histories about the complexity and experiences of hunger. A traveling exhibition and weekly podcast edited and hosted by Michael Nye, supported by the San Antonio Food Bank, Eric Cooper, executive director. We are grateful for the honesty and eloquence of every voice. Episode 27, Sichan.

Sichan: I grew up in the fifties and sixties in Cambodia, and um, it was a peaceful, uh, land. Uh, it was a time when I had a very happy family. My mother realized that I would be the one to carry the family’s name forward, and she did everything to help me, uh, go all the way to college. I could, I could still hear her voice, and I could still imagine her face and her smile, and her compassion and her love. The Khmer Rouge came to power unexpectedly. In 1973. They went to this extreme situation where they force everybody out of their houses, cities, and they force people to work 18 hours a day. They killed anybody who wore glasses, anybody who had been to school, to teachers, students, government officials, doctors, merchants, or anybody who disagreed with them. So you counted everyone except the Khmer Rouge where we made a mistake by, uh, going to, uh, my father’s village because everybody there knew what we did in the past. My mother realized that I was in danger, so she told me to run. And again, like she had been telling me all my life, to never give up hope, never give up hope, and make it to freedom. I saw coops with their arms time and their backs. I saw coops, uh, with their throat cut. This in a sense, was more scary and created more fear than witnessing the killings, because making mistakes carried death sentence.

I do know hunger very well. Hunger is a calamity because when you don’t have enough food to eat, you, you can face the ability to think straight. You lose your self respect, you can become disillusioned. But in my situation, on the kruge, hunger was secondary. It was the ability to survive and, uh, hard labor, forced labor, and the constant threat of death. I ate a lot of leaves, uh, the insects, uh, rats, uh, snakes, uh, lizards. You ate everything that moved. Human beings, I believe, can absorb so much pain and so much suffering. After that limit. It doesn’t make any difference. So to me, my mother’s wisdom to never give up hope was the one that kept me alive.

It was February the 13th. I was alone in the back of the timber truck, and I knew it was now or never. So I jumped off that truck. My shirt was caught in a piece of lumber, and I was dragged for a few hundred yards before I was flung off. Then I, uh, got up and began to run. I went three days without drinking or eating. I was exhausted, uh, one night that I just lied down. Then I look at the moon, I look at the stars. I was trying to find my mother’s face on the moon. Then I fell asleep. Uh, suddenly I was awakened by something very heavy on my stomach. I opened my eyes very slowly. I saw the light of the moon reflected on scales. I did not breathe for a moment, I waited until I saw the tail of the snake becoming smaller, smaller and disappeared for three days. I told myself that if I were going to die hungry or not, I would die as a free person. But as fate would have it, I made it to Thailand and to freedom. There’s a Buddhist concept that nothing is permanent except change. But the only constant that I carried with me without knowing it was this concept of faith, family, friends, and freedom. I did not know then until I arrived in America that this has been with me since I was a child and probably my mother. She instilled these in me without telling me that those are the most important elements of your life. Keep them with you.

[Outro Music]

Host: Sichan Siv has a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. He’s a public speaker, an advocate, and author of two books, Golden Bones and Golden State, Love and Conflict in Hostile Lands, Siv is passionate and his story takes him beyond hunger to the very nature and meaning of survival. The question Siv asked himself was, what is valuable in my life that I will never let go of? It was his family, his faith, his friends, and his freedom, and the voice of his mother telling him, never give up. Thank you Siv, for sharing your voice, your presence, and your remarkable story. I’m Michael Nye. You can go to my website, michaelnye.org/podcast for photographs and transcripts. Thank you so much for listening.