The First Generation Immigrant from Cambodia
September 20, 2007, 3:49 am
Filed under: Travel Stories

The First Generation Immigrant from Cambodia

by Sokhavuddh Moeun (Vina), Saint Paul, Minnesota


Vina (center) with her newly found friends in Minnesota




he past centuries, in Southeast Asia, Cambodia was known as the ‘ Khmer Empire’, which was ruled by the Kings. She was a beautiful country. According to Cambodian history, ‘Cambodia’ was compared to “A young beautiful lady”.

Because of the natural resources available, there was only a small percent of Cambodians that had left the country. Most of them migrated just because of business. Unfortunately in the late twentieth century, the Cambodian government had led Cambodia and its people to the lowest level, especially, in the Khmer Rouge regime. The evil government forced people to work hard without having enough food to eat. Almost two million people were killed or died of starvation at that time. From that time Cambodians started to migrate to the U.S. and other countries in order to survive themselves.

In my family, I was the first person who immigrated to the United States. On the 23rd of October 1996, I decided to leave my country and family for the U.S. for my own safety. It is hard to believe that I came here alone without knowing where to go or having a relative to depend on. I just knew that as long as I got to the U.S., I would survive.

On the plane, I made friend with a lady who had a cousin in Minnesota. She asked me where I was going. I looked at her and told her: “United States”. She kept asking me what State in the United States and I kept giving her the same answer: “United States”. She was very surprised when she found out that I came to the U.S. without having any relatives or friends here.

She was very kind and asked me if I was interested in coming to Minnesota with her. I said ‘yes’ right a way without thinking too long. I was very excited when she told me that Minnesota is a state that has a lot of snow and is very cold. I really wanted to see snow. This was the first time in my life that I had a chance to see real snow.

I came to Minneapolis on the1st of November 1996, the day that the snow started to drop. For nine days I had stayed in the U.S. for the visit with another Cambodian family in L.A., whom I met on the plane.

On the way from the airport, I was wondering why every house had closed doors. It seemed, for me, there was nobody living in the houses. Because in Cambodia people open the doors during the day time in order to get fresh air. We close the doors at night and when we are not at home.

I looked at the trees along the road without leaves. I thought that they were dead trees. Actually the trees had changed with weather. People here close the doors because of the cold weather and because of the customs of the country.

During the five months I lived with her cousin, I helped with housework and took care of their children when their parents went to work. From six to eight o’clock at night, I went to ESL class at the Neighborhood House where I found a lawyer to help me apply for asylum.

During the process I needed an interpreter to help with the English. Frankly, I had learned some English in Cambodia too, but every word that I heard here sounded new to me all the time.

In 1997 Cindy, my former lawyer, who has now become my good friend, found a new place for me to live. It was Sarah’s house, which is sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph. I struggled very hard to adapt to a new style of life. I learned to eat American food, I like pizza the best, but I am still not used to the ones that have too much cheese yet.

Living with the Sisters of St. Joseph was the best way to help me to learn and understand English. There were many things that I had to learn every day, even right now.

I have learned that Americans do not express their relationship between the same sexes in the public as Cambodians do. Because they will be judged as gays or lesbians if they hold hands or show their friendship in front of the others. It is very different from Cambodian culture. People would judge women and men who are not married and walk or do thing together in the wrong way. The relationships between the same sexes are fine for Cambodians.

I recalled one day one of the Sisters asked me that: “How are you doing Vina?” I thought that she meant what I was doing. I told her I did not do any thing at all. After she found out that I might not understand what she meant, she changed the question and tried to ask me another way: “How are you Vina?” I understood this question very well.

From day to day, I have learned new words, sentences and tried to listen and speak carefully in order to follow the American way. I still have a difficult time with my pronunciations, especially the words that start with ‘y’ such as; yellow, yarn, yawn etc…

I still remember the day that I was looking for yarn in one store close to Cub Foods on University Avenue. I asked a lady who was a seller for yarns but she did not understand what I really wanted. First, she thought that I wanted to go to the restroom. Second, she thought that I asked for the man named John who worked there, because the way that I pronounced the word ‘yarn’ sounded like “John”. Finally, I pulled out a piece of yarn from my purse to show her and told her what I was looking for.

However, I have learned and done a lot of things since I came here. I got my asylum in 1998 and started to work as a seamstress at ‘Sew What’ alteration shop in downtown Minneapolis after I got my work permit at the end of 1998.

I would like to tell you a bit more about my experience in the U.S. After I looked for advertisements in the newspaper and made a call for an appointment for the job interview, I took the bus the next day from Snelling Avenue to Downtown Minneapolis.

On the bus, I tried to look for the skyway because the lady that gave me directions on the phone had mentioned the word Skyway. I thought that Skyway was a name of the shop. Luckily, when the bus turned on Hennepin Avenue I saw the word Skyway on the big sign; I rang the bell and got of from the bus.

I asked a couple of people on the street to show me which way would take me to the place I wanted. I got lost many times by taking the wrong bus, but I never gave up.

Working for Sew What for nine months, I applied for another job at Dayton’s. I was working two jobs and went to school two nights a week to get my GED. In 1999, I passed the GED.

With a lot of help from the Sisters of St. Joseph, I took the test at St. Catherine and started my first day of college in April 2000. In the year 2000 I had done three big things: I began Sociology class at St. Catherine; I sponsored my two children; and I bought a house.

Right now I cannot work two jobs any more, because I feel that I do not have enough energy to do so. I just keep working for Dayton’s, which is called Marshall Field’s now and going to school.

Even though I sometimes feel tired of struggling with my life, I still encourage myself to keep moving forward to finish my father’s will and my dream to be an educated person in the Western country.


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