June 17, 2019

A refugee's pride

It’s not what you leave behind, it’s what you accomplish in your new country

By Channy Chhi Laux(’87) | Entrepreneur
Author of Short Hair Detention and owner of Angkor Cambodian Food

Exactly 40 years ago, when I was 17, I narrowly escaped the wrath of a devil who killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians in four short years (1975-79). Many of my family and friends perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge; all for the sake of redistributing wealth and wiping out capitalism. And while for some it was the end of their story, for me it was just the beginning.

After four years in forced labor camps, starving and enduring physical and emotional torture, I escaped and arrived in Lincoln as a refugee. Weeks later, I was told to go to school. “It is not possible,” I protested to my mother. The thought of returning to school after four years with nothing to read nor even a pencil in my hand was nauseating, not to mention I didn’t speak any English. I thought to myself, nothing good is going to come of this, except humiliation. However, it was the law of the land: all teenagers must go to school. Having survived a communist dictatorship, I never questioned authority.

In my first semester at Lincoln High School, I was enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, typing and algebra. Three years later I graduated with two scholarships. I was happy to finish high school, but I was not proud. I told myself the only reason for my success was leniency in the education system, treating me different than my true American classmates.

To my disappointment, upon high school graduation I was accepted into the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I would have preferred to be rejected initially, rather than eventually having to drop out, which I was certain was my fate. My very first class was ESL with Professor Sally Stoddard in the basement of Andrews Hall. In this class I met students from all over the world, not just refugees. One of the students was a Ph.D. candidate from Japan who was studying biology. Having a Ph.D. student in that class boosted my confidence and gave me a better understanding of how each one of us had the opportunity to improve on our weaknesses. Professor Stoddard greeted us every day as she walked into the classroom, “What is the most important thing about writing?” she would ask, and we were to reply, “Know your audience.” Even as I am writing this, I feel her guidance.

After passing ESL, I was allowed to signup for other classes. At the time, I remember thinking: Thank goodness, I will never have to write again! I spent the rest of the year focusing on computer and math classes. Not because I was passionate about sciences, but because they were the most promising subjects for obtaining a job after college. A job that would allow me to free my mother from working as a janitor at Lincoln General hospital. It was not easy to be in those classes; countless late nights in Ferguson’s computer lab where I constantly reminded myself that this is nothing compared to the time I spent in the Khmer Rouge labor camps.

At the time, there were hardly any Cambodian students at UNL. So, I did not have a choice but to speak English when I needed something. Many times, I would mumble English words and my friends would correct me. They were very supportive and offered up a lot of patience, which was also the case with my professors, and many others that I met on campus. I remember, after an unsuccessful attempt to try and understand the word “random” in a dictionary, I asked a teaching assistant to explain it to me. Some may think that I should have never been accepted in computer sciences if I did not understand the word “random,” but this was not the case at UNL. I never felt unwelcome. Soon I realized that my spoken English was much better than my reading or writing. You could say I talked my way through college. However, my persistent effort in speaking English allowed me to be engaging and become Americanized faster than most of my Vietnamese friends.

Perhaps I adapted too quickly. Against traditional Cambodian custom, I began dating. After about a year, the young man told me he had asked someone else to marry him. Even my experience with the Khmer Rouge did not make me strong enough to withstand a broken heart. I allowed my feelings to deflate me and to take away all my drive. I took off from my troubled world, and did not return to UNL the following year.

Fortunately, after a year of soul searching I came back. This time around I was more introverted. I found myself spending the day on campus not speaking to anyone. I let nothing distract me from school, except Husker games. On game days, I would go to Ferguson Hall early in the morning, and study there until the game started. I felt content walking alone to the game and sitting by fans that I did not know. I always had a seat waiting for me and I saw myself no differently than the rest of the fans, especially after touchdowns. I never missed a game, except when the Sooners came to town, when I would scalp my ticket to pay for the whole season.

I was told to my face that I should look up and not at my shoes when I walked around campus. I did not care what others thought of me. What still bothered me, however, was overhearing some international students brag about their old country and culture. Perhaps, because I did not have much to brag about, or maybe I felt proud of what I had, not what I have left behind. By then, I no longer identified myself as refugee, but as an American. I found myself kindly defending America, and bragging to my American friends that I was more American than they were because I was like their ancestors that came from other countries. America was perfect in my view. I loved everything about it, the friendliness, respect for each other, football games, the ribeye and T-bone steaks and the prime rib; only to learn later on that those were mostly unique to Nebraska. How unfortunate.

In 1987 I received my bachelor of science degrees in computer sciences and mathematics, then spent the following 30 years working as an engineer in defense and biotech industries in the Silicon Valley. In 2017, after my children had completed school, I decided to work on my bucket list: I published my memoir — Short Hair Detention — of how my family and I survived the Cambodian genocide. Last year, the book received two awards: one from The Nebraska Center for the Book and another from Best Indie Book. I also started a food manufacturing business (Angkor Cambodian Food), which won a SOFI (specialty outstanding food innovation) award at the 2018 Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City.

Upon reflection, I realize how lucky I was. Not all refugees had the opportunity to experience America the way I did by being relocated to Nebraska. I will forever be grateful to the UNL community for its support and encouragement toward someone who looked different and spoke differently. Thank you for welcoming me into the community and giving me the opportunity to succeed and live beyond my American dream.

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