Best-selling Cambodian author Sichan Siv grew up in a small house near Pochetong Airport and came to serve as a US Ambassador to the UN. His mother, a lotus-leaf seller, worked to send him to good schools and he eventually became a pilot, then a charity worker. When the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh in 1975 he was supposed to be on a flight out. He missed it by 30 minutes.
After escaping the killing fields and arriving in America with his mother’s scarf, an empty rice bag, and two dollars, he worked his way up to serve at the White House as deputy assistant to George H. W. Bush. He now lives in San Antonio, Texas and has written a bestselling memoir about his experiences, called Golden Bones. Last week, he released a book of poetry, Golden Words.
Poppy McPherson spoke to him about the White House, his relationship with the King Father, and what prompted him to turn to poetry.
Why did you choose to write a poetry book?
I love watching the sunrise at home in San Antonio and one morning it came to my mind that maybe I should put into words everything that has been in my mind for 36 years. Most of the rules, the etiquettes, and the social law in Cambodia was originally written in poetry. How should a woman behave, how should a man behave. I studied that when I was in school, then it just went away and this is like air – it’s an example of something that is very expensive. You can find air everywhere but you cannot live without it. Poetry was part of my upbringing and then it disappeared under the Khmer Rouge.
When did you first come back to Cambodia and how did you find the experience?
The first time I came back was in 1992 when I was working for the older George Bush, and he had just signed the peace agreement with Paris. The United States decided to send a delegation here and asked me to be part of it. It was quite emotional because I didn’t recognize anything. The house I used to see from the plane because I was a flight attendant but I couldn’t recognize it. From the airport to Phnom Penh I didn’t recognize anything. In 1994 I brought my wife and we have come back every year since. I think that despite the problems of corruption, injustice, impunity and the abuse of power, the country is moving on.
What role do you think the US has in Cambodia?
It is important for the US to remain engaged. They need to put pressure on the government to make sure that they incorporate the opposition’s views and let people speak out.
What sort of experience did you have working for both Bushes?
Two different personalities. I know the father better than the son. I think that he is the most complete person I have ever seen or met. Caring and very altruistic. His son? He tries his best and he wants everything that is good for everybody. I hate to say this but I like the father better. Some of the poems are written for him.
Many of your poems draw comparison between the sun and a rabbit. What is the symbolism behind that motif?
At my high school there were 40 students in my classroom: about half girls, half boys. I had no illusion to spend the rest of my life with any of the girls because to me they were like the moon - and I was like the rabbit. They were the daughters of government ministers, I was riding my bike to school four times a day. I can admire them in silence. This is something like what the Cambodians say: the rabbit can admire the moon but it can never live in the same world. There are two poems written in Khmer in the collection. One bears the name of a pavilion where the King Father hosted me for lunch.
Were you close with the King Father?
Myself and my wife knew him and the Queen Mother very well. He was very very touched when I wrote this poem and sent it to him. Our house in Ashington is called La Forêt Enchantée, enchanted forest – his movie from 1967.
Do you regret missing that helicopter flight in 1975?
No. Maybe fate had it that I missed the helicopter and ended up in the United States. If I didn’t miss the helicopter in those 30 minutes my life would have been totally different.
To contact the reporter on this story: Poppy McPherson at [email protected]
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