Chapters about Meiyeng's childhood (Jennifer's mother) that were deleted from Beautiful Hero: How We Survived the Khmer Rouge.
MAMA'S CHILDHOOD (1947-1970)
Then only eight years old, Meiyeng ran home from school crying. She tore through the roads and side-streets of Moung feeling all at once enraged, confused, worried, and perhaps most characteristic, righteously indignant. That morning the monks saw fit to fill her young spirit with dread and doubt, and she was not willing to abide it. Meiyeng, from the outset, was a perceptive individual. And for her, this preternatural mode of seeing and problem-solving started at a young age. But she was more than just astute. She possessed a kind of impregnable, sometimes frightening fortitude—the kind of steely resolve reserved for superheroes. Hers was a rare strength, learned also in youth. Her early life prepared her for unthinkable hardship. Her name literally means Beautiful (Mei) Hero (Yeng) in Chinese. Hence the title of this recollection. And she truly was our beautiful hero. In retrospect it seems as though her sole purpose was to save us from the hell of the Khmer Rouge.
Moung was a small town in southwestern Cambodia, formerly known as Kampuchea. In the almost exclusively ethnically Chinese community, everyone knew each other by name. People such as my grandparents and their fellow citizens brought with them three thousand years of tradition from China to Cambodia. They kept to themselves and seldom interacted with the native Khmer.
My grandparents immersed themselves in the frenzy of the local Chinese market in Cambodia, operating a butcher shop and a congee stand selling rice porridge made with pork and chives.
Each morning my paternal grandfather, along with a couple of his children, wheeled a wagon laden with blocks of pork to the market. When the shop closed for the day, they took the leftover meat back home to make congee stew and sausage links. Those preparations consumed their entire evening.
My grandparents seasoned and stuffed the leftover meat into the lining of the pig intestines to make Chinese delicacies that left customers hungry for more. The links hung parallel to the clotheslines to shrink and cure under the sun for more intense flavor. Above, flocks of crows circled the house. They hovered and cawed. They gathered, ready to swoop in for an easy meal at any given opportunity. Many times, adults chased away these crows with a slingshot, but since their second child was eager to help, they assigned Meiyeng the duty of human scarecrow. The novelty wore off after a few days of tirelessly waving the broomstick.
Meiyeng’s cleverness surfaced, for the record, at the age of five, one afternoon while her brother Jo, the third born, slept in his cradle. The rocking cradle squeaked as it swayed back and forth by the effort of the firstborn sister Lan, who was barely seven. Meiyeng jumped up and down in the back yard waving a broomstick to chase the birds away from the sausage links.
The five-year-old dropped the broom to catch her breath. There had to be a more efficient way, she reasoned. Her eyes surveyed her surroundings, noting the crib inside the house and the clothesline outside. The cradle swung sideways, and the clothes hung in stillness next to the sausages. With her young eyes darting across the yard, she stood there for a moment assessing the variables. Then a wide smile and, struck suddenly with inspiration, she got to work on a new idea. Always a quick thinker. Five steps ahead of everyone around her.
The little girl dashed inside, took a long rope, tied one end to the crib, and tossed the other end through the window. She walked out to pull on the rope before tying the opposite end to the clotheslines. When the firstborn rocked baby Jo, the rope tugged and pulled, back and forth, causing the shirts and pants to perform a ghostly macabre dancing in the breeze. This was enough to shoo the birds away.
The girl stood in the middle of the back yard amidst the thrashing of garments and contentedly smiled at her own brilliance, nodding in satisfaction. Then she went back inside, puffed a pillow, and plopped her head down for an afternoon nap. One sister diligently worked, while the other dreamed.
When she turned eight, Meiyeng assisted her mother, whom I called Grandma, with her breakfast business, selling pork stew and doing dishes for the morning crowd.
Throughout the years, Meiyeng had various Buddhist monks as teachers, and many of them unjustly punished her for not knowing subjects taught in the morning. Though they knew she attended school only part-time, it didn’t stop them from asking her questions pertaining to subjects taught in her absence. When she couldn’t answer, their bamboo sticks would strike swiftly before she had the chance to defend herself. Only after the stick bounced back, and after seeing her grimace with pain and anger, did they recall that she was only a part-time student. That was when an apology came forth in the form of an empathetic question. “Child, why don’t you save the dishes until after school?”
Meiyeng’s rebuttal flew like daggers at the sage. “Weren’t you my first non-paying customer ordering pork-liver congee this morning? And when you were there, Teacher, may I ask . . . did you ever see me lift my hands out of the dish water? . . . Don’t you see . . . I’m needed in the morning?”
The teacher flushed with embarrassment, having been exposed as a meat eater in front of the whole class. He couldn’t find the words to discredit this unlearned child. The wise one rolled his eyes upward as though seeking enlightenment, scrambling and searching for wisdom to impart to the young one. Finally came the same generic advice, which she’d heard before from various bald men in saffron robes, from the monk’s mouth.
“Child, tell your parents not to get involved in a business that kills animals. Tell them it’s sinful. Karma will get them. You don’t want them to be reincarnated as pigs in their next lives . . . Do you?”
Meiyeng ran home in tears and begged her parents to stop their business. She cited the Buddhist sutras of compassion. She quoted the monk’s prose that killing pigs was cruel and unnecessary. All creatures deserved a chance to live. “Do something else like everyone else!” She implored her parents, kneeling in a desperate attempt to convince them as tears trickled down her face.
Her parents dismissed her plea, saying, “Tell your monk that your parents said killing pigs isn’t sinful because people eat them. We don’t kill for joy! Somebody’s got to do the dirty work.”
At the age of ten Meiyeng took charge of building her family’s dream home, working with the designer, selecting the marble flooring, purchasing construction materials, and paying bills.
Once the construction of their much-anticipated home started, her parents modified the floor plan to add a third story. They didn’t foresee the poor soil conditions and, as a result, additional money was needed to stabilize the foundation. Their entire savings were depleted three-fourths of the way into construction.
Her father, my grandfather, prided himself as a debt-free man, but with construction trades lining at his front door for money, he faced a new reality. His anxiety intensified. It took only one comment to bring down their world. Someone blatantly said to him, “If you don’t have the money, you shouldn’t have purchased the land, let alone build a house on it!” This remark pained him; he turned to drinking to calm his nerves.
What was initially meant to calm his nerves, ultimately became his vice. It got so bad, he sometimes made side deals with his customers for money to buy another day of alcohol-induced numbness. One day during his intoxication, he ranted about an incident that happened a few weeks prior. “Mon shoved me and I fell down! He refused to give me the money he owed on the pork.” He continued to agonize over this humiliation, which further compounded his feeling of worthlessness. He dealt with the chagrin the only way he knew how, for this newfound vice helped him blunt reality.
Everyone conspired to keep the strong-willed child in the dark, until now. It was clear that her father was in bad shape. After hearing this, she immediately went searching for the debtor. She found him at a gambling hall surrounded by more than one hundred people. Standing amidst the smoke-filled room, this girl sought the man who bullied her father. Upon seeing him, she hollered his name.
“Mon, let me ask you!” she declared as though speaking to a subordinate, even though this man was thirty years her senior. Her harsh tone silenced the crowd. All eyes shifted to her, but hers were on the debtor. With her finger, she gestured for him to come forward. The man hesitantly got out of his chair to walk to her.
“Do you owe my father money or does he owe you? Answer me truthfully!”
“I owe him,” Mon said demurely.
“If you owe my father money, then why did you push him down when he came to collect on the debt?”
The debtor remained quiet while the crowd jeered at him.
“I’m not leaving until you pay!” she thrust out her palm.
“I don’t have the money with me. Let me go home and get it,” he replied sheepishly.
“Do what you must!” she snapped.
The man left the building with his tail between his legs.
Meanwhile, she lingered and socialized with the crowd. They all knew her. Most were her breakfast customers and neighbors—they all knew that she wasn’t to be trifled with. Many had bartered and haggled with her as if she were their equal since she was eight years old. She would oversee the rotary money, a form of raising capital for mom-and-pop shops. The principal and interest varied from month to month. At such an age, she was able to calculate interest rates and net out the balance. This child, able to grasp the borrowing and lending concept, was awe-inspiring. Many pined for her to be their future daughter-in-law.
Back at the gambling and a short while later, the debtor returned. He walked up to the child and handed her the money, avoiding her gaze. He was shamed by his own disgrace, but more importantly, shamed by the mouth of a babe.
After that night, Mon’s restaurant suffered as the rumors spread of his lack of integrity and trustworthiness. He suffered because the community was small, and character and integrity constituted everything.
Grandma turned a blind eye to her husband’s drinking, loving him unconditionally and focusing on the man he was before his misfortune found its way to their door. She never once complained to him of the family’s misery, even when she was pregnant with their sixth child during the construction of the house. Since she never voiced her discontent, no one knew if she even blamed him for what they had become. It was also in her nature to tolerate fate and accept its design no matter how daunting. As such, she wouldn’t permit any of her children disrespecting their father.
Meiyeng, who hadn’t yet reached her teenage years, picked up her father’s responsibility by working overtime and attending school less than part-time. Her siblings all helped to the best of their ability, and they even insisted on quitting school to help with the family’s burden. Through sheer force of will, she ensured her younger siblings continue their education full-time. After three years of waking up at five o’clock to feed the pigs and slaughter them, haul water, and sell breakfast stew, their house was complete and paid off. Not a penny owed.
Their father’s drinking eventually reached a critical stage, though he managed to sire two additional children before leaving this earthly realm. He died in his mid-fifties from complications caused by alcoholism. He was survived by five daughters, three sons, and his wife.
Their new home was said to be cursed. Lightning had struck there once and it was rumored that the bolt may have killed a family before they’d purchased the land. It wasn’t until one fateful, paranormal encounter that these rumors seemed true
Meiyeng, who was not typically superstitious, and her elder sister had encountered something terrifying. They saw two faceless apparitions in black cloaks levitating slightly off the ground outside their new home. This incident so spooked them that whenever they turned a dark corner, they held their breaths.
Whatever it was, the family believed the house absorbed negative feng shui. Harmony never aligned itself with nature to protect them. The monks were right. Too many innocent lives were cut short and karma had indeed caught up to them.
Their newly-built home stood next a neighbor who raised birds. Friction started to brew the day Tek mastered the use of his slingshot. Meiyeng had turned fourteen, and her second younger brother Tek was seven when the family moved into the new house. The tension started when Tek killed a bird. While Meiyeng was away, the neighbor, Mr. Poi, rapped on their front door and started cussing at Grandma. She cowered in tears behind a sofa as the man berated her and her children with harsh words.
Everyone kept this conflict from Meiyeng, including the neighbors who witnessed the scene. A few days later, Tek’s loose lips caught her attention when she asked him why he’d stopped playing with his slingshot
This time she pounded on the neighbor’s door.
The door creaked slightly open and Mr. Poi stuck out his head. Upon seeing Meiyeng’s furious face, her eyes and nostrils flared, he recoiled and instinctively shut the door.
The ruckus drew people out of their homes to witness a girl putting this man in his place.
“How dare you yell at my mother! You think you own the sky? What right do you have to demand my brother stop playing his slingshot? Show me the permit that you are allowed to raise birds at home!”
Mr. Poi, a man of middle age, continued to hide from her verbal assault
“You don’t have one, do you? You’re in violation of the law! Stay away from my family, or I’ll report you to the authority!”
Mr. Poi didn’t leave his house that day. In fact, he never bothered the family again while Tek continued to aim for any birds in the sky.
Meiyeng went to school not to learn, but to play sports. She desired something fun to offset the regimented severity of her life. Although sports were her passion, the steady stream of knowledge in academics flowed through her effortlessly. Because that flow was limited, whatever droplets graced her, she consumed them greedily. Her education was rudimentary, no more than sixth grade level. She excelled athletically, the school allowed her to join the basketball and ping-pong teams without divulging to the other schools that she wasn’t a full-time student. At times, she wasn’t even registered at all. As team captain, she led the school to many victories. Not only was she considered one of the prettiest girls in school, she was also a hometown hero.
Twice as team captain she shook hands with King Norodom Sihanouk. The school sent its best students to welcome the monarch, who ruled Cambodia from 1953 to 1970. The first time she met King Sihanouk, whom the people revered nearly as a deity, was when he came to break ground for a new school in her hometown. The second time was for the opening of the school. Each time, a sea of people surrounded the ruler. Some traveled from afar just to get a glimpse of him. Some kneeled with food offerings atop their heads, hoping that the monarch would partake of their gifts, and when the ruler reached for a bite, the kneelers would burst into tears and ask the king to bless them.
The scene of people kneeling all day made Meiyeng uncomfortable. She was always a rational person. It was part of her power. She thought, you stupid people, he’s not a god! He’s flesh and blood just like the rest of us. You seek his blessing by kneeling all day—and what do you think you get? A stiff body! Stop kneeling! Get up! You’re hurting my eyes!
Meiyeng was nineteen and completely ignorant of marriage when Grandma accepted a matchmaker’s proposal. The simple reason Grandma approved of Papa, my father-to-be, as her son-in-law was that his mother was no longer living; she had passed away when he was an infant, the youngest of four children, with one brother and two sisters. Grandma didn’t want her strong-willed child to suffer in the same manner as her oldest daughter, who was married into a family whose mother-in-law behaved like a slave driver. Grandma believed that by marrying Mama with no one to breathe down her neck, she would stand a better chance of living a good life—a life governed by her own free-will.
Grandma was sold at the word “motherless”. She hardly cared about her future son-in-law’s personality and physical limitations, his stone stubborn personality and poor eyesight. She didn’t know he was quiet and reticent, born with the genes of an introvert who preferred solitude over social.
The marriage transpired when Mama turned nineteen and Papa twenty-four. It didn’t matter if the bride consented, because tradition at the time, in their upbringing within the Chinese culture and community, allowed parents full autonomy over selecting spouses for their children.
That being said, my parents were fortunate enough to meet twice before their wedding day. Papa was five years older than Mama and certainly a lucky man, for some good mighty forces were at play to pair him up with Mama for the difficult future ahead. He was immediately attracted to her beauty and her larger-than-life reputation. She had a smooth complexion, big smiling eyes, and well-defined lips, all of which helped to draw attention away from her slightly prominent nose.
Unfortunately Mama couldn’t say the same about Papa when she first met him. “My heart sank to the floor,” she said. “He was kind of handsome, but so quiet and a little awkward. I knew oxen with more personality. Prince Charming, he was not.”
Papa was indeed a quiet man. A tinkerer. A dreamer. He was, ironically, the yin to Mama’s yang. And like Mama said, he was kind of handsome in his austere and occasionally tender ways. What Papa seemed to lack in personality, he made up for with spiritual acuity. Time and again, Papa proved that in some way, for some reason, he was favored by the spirits and ancestors.
So Mama was caught between a rock and a hard place. She had dazzled many older women for years. She could have had any bachelor. All of the eligible mothers-in-law envisioned her as their daughter-in-law. Because she was busy running the household and family business, everyone assumed the family wasn’t ready to part with her through betrothal. So they waited by the sideline for an indication that the time was right for her to enter the marriage market. All would be too late, for the rumor reached them that an out-of-town matchmaker had snatched her away.
When news of Mama’s engagement spread through the community, many of Grandma’s lifelong friends were outraged. Many couldn’t sleep that night, and some went so far as to sever all ties with Grandma the next morning.
Thank you for reading the deleted chapters about Jennifer's mother Meiyeng’s childhood from Beautiful Hero: How We Survived the Khmer Rouge. You can read the rest of Jennifer's story from Amazon.