Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in late 1975
Sydney in late 1975
I lived with my brother and his girlfriend in Paddington, Sydney.
Babysitting and informal teaching of Khmer language as a 15 year old.
Restaurant worker; house cleaner; accounting machine operator at Grace Bros; translator/interpreter at hospitals, schools and courts; social worker for Khmer Community of NSW; lawyer – all located in Sydney.
I came from Cambodia and was born in Phnom Penh. My parents have ten children. Five boys and five girls.
My father came from the province called Battambang, near the Thai border. His parents were the rice farmer. Even though he’s from the rural, he’s a bank director; he’s a very well educated man. My mother, her parents originally from Kampong Thom which is near Siam Reap, Angkor Wat, but my grandfather, he work as an ambassador. They were living in the city, in Phnom Penh. He was the diplomat to France, then went to England and then to America. He passed away when he was in America.
I went to one of the high school that teaching in English. My older brother, second in the family, came to Australia as a student under Colombo Plan around 1970 and my older sister went to study in England. Later she married a Malaysian man. During 1975, when [Khmer Rouge] war starting, my dad said I should go overseas to continue my study but I was still young; I was 15 at that time, Cambodian woman would not think of going away from the parents so young. They said I had to go overseas to join my sister or my brother, but I always say to them, “No, I do not want to go”. I will miss my parents very much.
[My dad] bought the ticket and prepared a passport. You had a waiting list and [it] was two weeks before my turn. I went shopping with Mum and they was trying to find us because somebody cancelling. I had to go on the flight that day. My clothes has always been packed, everything ready because Dad said any time you had to go.
I remembered [the silver trinket] and my stamp collection book. This [trinket] was given by my great-grandmother to my grandmother, and my mother gave it to me when I was very young. Maybe later on I will give it to my daughter because it means a lot to me and pass from generation to generation. It’s very special. My mother told me that in the old day, when the lady feel sick, having a cold, they put menthol inside and sniffed it to feel better.
This stamp album means a lot because it was given by my father and also my uncle. The book was given to me by my uncle, which is my father’s older brother. He was a monk [who] lived in Thailand. He came to visit us every year and he’d bring presents to us. He gave me the book when I was very young, maybe about six, seven, eight years old. Then my father kept giving me stamps to collect. There are a lot of Cambodian stamps from the very early time and there are stamps from different countries because [my] school [had] children from diplomats all over the world because [it] taught in English.
So we went that day on an army jeep right to the airplane stairs because the rocket keep bombing the airport. They said goodbye to me. It was very sad because I never wanted to leave my parents and go overseas.
A few royal families were on the same flight and they said to take care of me because I had to change flight from Bangkok to Malaysia to go to my sister. Later on when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur my sister told me that was the last flight [before Phnom Penh was evacuated by the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge regime]. I think in [my dad’s] mind, he would have known that the situation was really bad and it’s not going to be better. That’s why he want me to go. But for us, as young people, we didn’t know.
I was in Kuala Lumpur about three months. My sister, she’s quite well off so we went shopping and do like usual young teenager do. After about a week, we got the last telegram from my father to say that the situation was very bad. From then we didn’t hear anything from him. I was very sad, but in my mind I always think that I will meet them again. My sister said [we] will never see our parents again, but I said to her, “No, we will see them again”. When a Malaysian family know I couldn’t contact my parents and that Cambodia was under Pol Pot, they want to adopt me, but I said, “No, I’m sorry, I know that my parents one day will meet me”.
After my parents couldn’t be contacted, my older brother told me my father have put some money for me to study. Then I got the visa to study English in Australia.
I felt very sad and lost but thank God I still had my older sister and older brother to take care of me. I really acknowledge the Australian Government for giving me the opportunity to live here and get the permanent resident. I really thank them.
When I came to Sydney, my brother was living in Paddington. I arrived very early in the morning, so after he picked me up he had to go to work. He said [to] explore. I went around and then I got lost. I tried to find a map but I didn’t know how to use a street directory at that time. My English was broken, but manageable. [At] school, we didn’t really have conversation in English, because other students also speak Cambodian. I found out people were very kind, very friendly, very helpful. The lady at the newsagent take me back to my brother’s home. I really appreciate, you know.
My brother lived with his girlfriend and she also came from the same school. Both came on the Colombo Plan. I lived with them for a few years. My brother said because we don’t have parents any more, we cannot keep spending Dad’s money. So I work as a babysitter and taught [a] gentleman to learn Khmer, Cambodian language. I also worked in restaurants which improved my English.
Years passed by. I know that one day I’d meet [my family] but there’s no news. It’s hard because I didn’t know what to do. When I was young I always wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people who are sick. I went to see the Dean of the Sydney University Faculty of Medicine and they said it require a lot of money. Only rich people can actually study that type of study.
Because my brother got married, his friends told me [I] should move out so they can start their own family. I think that is wise because I don’t want to be a burden. So I told my brother I’d like to rent a place. [At that time] there weren’t many Cambodian students, only a few hundred in Australia, so the community was quite small. Fortunately, my sister-in-law also have a younger brother that lived with them, so we both share the rent. The owner of the house in Paddington said if you do some cleaning for the house – it has many rooms he rented out – then he doesn’t charge any rent. So I cleaned the whole house for him every week, just to get some money and did not have to pay rent.
My brother told me [of] an Australian gentleman who lived in Melbourne. When the Vietnamese Government overthrown the Pol Pot regime in 1979, the Australia Government opened a milk refinery in Phnom Penh. This gentleman went [there] for working purposes and met my father by coincidence. He was the manager of that refinery because he could speak English. My father said, “Oh you’re from Australia. If you go back can you please look for my children”. And that’s how [the family managed to reunite]. That time the Cambodian Government did not open for people to go back.
That gentleman asked one of the Cambodian associations in Victoria and they gave my brother’s phone number. We both went to Victoria to meet him. Thank God, you know, he even had a photo of my parents and my younger sister and brother.
When that gentleman went back, he told my parents [his] children [are] alive and still in Sydney. Our cousin, he work in the Cambodian army [that] at that time was under Vietnamese authority. One night he told my dad he will pick them all up in an army truck and take them to the Thai border. They escaped during the night to Khao-I-Dang [refugee] camp in Thailand.
My brother went to Khao-I-Dang to sponsor them to come here. My parents come with three brothers and two sisters. I [saw] them when they arrived here in the airport. I couldn’t believe myself. It’s a blessing from God.
My eldest brother and my youngest sister, they both pass away during Pol Pot. My eldest brother, during the evacuation from Phnom Penh, went to Battambang with his family. One or two years after, my sister-in-law said that one day when my brother was at home, the Pol Pot army came and said they wanted to take him to Angkar. She knew that he will never come back.
My mother’s side, my great-grandmother, she’s from China, so because of the skin colour, most probably that’s why my eldest brother was taken away because he’s quite fair in comparison to the Cambodian people and also because of his size, he’s quite big build. My sister-in-law told me they thought he was a policeman or working for the government.
My youngest sister, she’s very close with my eldest brother and she live with him. Since my brother was taken away, she was heartbroken because she’d been waiting and he never come back. She went to look for him but couldn’t find him. She came back, got sick and died after that. They both were very close.
I didn’t have a place for [my family] to stay at that time so they rented in Parramatta. Later on I study at TAFE. A short course, they call it accounting machine operator. I always met good people trying to help me. [Through] my teacher I got a job in Grace Bros. I was so happy I got some money to live on. After that I met my husband [at] one of the parties. We got married and had children.
My dad said, “Look, you have children, you cannot really work full-time but you can work as an interpreter. You always want to be a doctor. At least you can interpret in the hospital”. He inspired me. So then I did some medical terminology course and became health care interpreter for many years. After that there were more Cambodians [in Australia]. Then I worked for telephone interpreter service. Then I realised they are lacking interpreter in the court. My dad said to me, “You should learn more legal terms so you can interpret in court”. Then I did a social worker course at the Western Sydney University. Along the way, people helping me, it’s really good. Because I have high marks lecturers encouraged me [to] do some law subjects as well. Because I have friends that study at Macquarie University, I transferred [there]; it’s convenient and we study together. I really love it.
I start interpreting in courts [and was] a social worker for Khmer Community in New South Wales (KCNSW) for about two years. I really loved it. I always wanted to help people. Our lecturer in Macquarie Uni said to finish off [my] law degree. I was thinking yeah, why not, you know, because I realised there weren’t many Cambodian lawyer in New South Wales.
Most of the Cambodian people that come to this country after Pol Pot do not speak English very well, they do not know the legal system, they got a lot of problem settling in Australia. Most of the educated ones were killed during Pol Pot. I realised there is a need for a Cambodian lawyer to be able to help those people to understand the legal system here, so they can integrate into the mainstream community well. We speak the same language. We understand the same culture, the same background, the issue relating to the Khmer people. I used to be a translator for nearly 20 years: hospital, schools, courts, everywhere and I understand the issue. Then social worker. Now that I become a lawyer, I can even help more. That’s why it’s encouraged me to finish off my study, so I can help my community.
The previous president of KCNSW invited me to the management committee in 2008. Three years after, I was elected president. I feel very honoured and privileged that I’ve been selected to serve the community, be the[ir] voice and help them settl[e] and integrate into the mainstream.
We are very fortunate the Australian Government welcome us to this country and provide all sorts of services. In the ‘70s, it seems [the public] did not understand why refugee people come here, did not have the same culture or behave in a different way to them. Maybe there was some misunderstanding because of language barrier. At that time the Cambodian people just migrated or came here under humanitarian ground. They just started from a war-torn country so they have issue of language, housing, understanding the Australian system.
But slowly this has been addressed because of the help from the Government. After 20 years, most have been settling and their children have education. Most of the Cambodian young people have good employment and some of them are working in a profession but there’s still a need for elderly people [who] do not speak English, like a nursing home [where staff speak Khmer].
I think the mainstream community [is] accepting us very well. I am really thankful for that. It’s a blessing God gave me all these opportunity to come here and then another opportunity for my parents to reunite with us because of the kindness of that gentleman. He went out of his way to help our family.
LINA TJOENG was interviewed on 27 May 2010.
Interview, research, text edit, photography and film production by Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
Film editing by Jessica Tyrrell
Web layout by Annette Loudon, NSW Migration Heritage Centre