Seven year-old Puon Penn huddled in the dirt hole with his family, hoping the artillery bombardment against their village of Donoy in Banteay Meanchey province near the Thai border would finally come to an end.
The village changed hands back and forth during fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese army in 1978.
“That was a traumatic experience, feeling unable to breathe and with no place to hide. We dug ourselves a little bomb shelter, with our whole family stuck in there and I remember thinking I was going to be buried alive.”
Long after being separated by the Khmer Rouge from his sister, he and his family watched in the moonlight as a frail, thin, figure in black pajamas with ghastly, sunken features lurched toward their village home.
They didn’t know who she was. She came closer and she saw Penn’s mother and opened her mouth and said “Ma”.
Penn suddenly realised it was his sister and they took her into their home and comforted her and gave her what food they had to stabilise her.
He remembers being sent to the boy’s camp by the Khmer Rouge and listening to the brainwashing lectures.
“I remember understanding it was just brainwashing. I was just a non conformist.”
Penn’s older brother joined the Khmer Rouge at age 14. When he was asked by his superiors to take people out and shoot them, he shot himself in the leg to get out of it.
During the traumatic period when the village changed hands between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese army, people started sneaking through the minefields across the border into Thailand.
“The Khmer Rouge control was slipping, so people were sneaking out and most people had relatives on the Thai side. One of my uncles snuck through the line and found us in the forest.”
That’s when Penn’s mother made the difficult decision to cross with the family into Thailand. She had to leave her father behind, who was too frail to make the journey. Penn watched her make that tough choice and even though it was tragic, admired her for it.
“My mother was really freaked out. Having survived starvation, she felt like she had no choice. She knew my father had had a full life. We never saw him again and we knew that he died.”
Even though she had no education, Penn’s mother taught him a simple lesson that he carries to this day.
“A person should get up, comb your hair and stay groomed. Animals lack discipline but people always have the willpower to decide between good and evil, between right and wrong,” he said. “This is a decision to be human; to be thoughtful about decorum, about taste and about judgment,” he said. “Anybody can be a good husband when things are going good. When everybody’s down, that’s the true test and that lesson really stood within me.”
In addition to his mother, his uncle Hom Puon was another hero who saved hundreds of lives helping people cross into Thailand. Penn got to see him after he had been sponsored to live in the US in 1993.
Uncle Hom died a few years ago.
“He was a wonderful man,” Penn said.
Today Penn is the father of four, visiting Cambodia with his wife and family from their home in Los Altos, California, where he serves as a senior vice president at Wells Fargo Bank in charge of financing clean technology. He took time on Monday night at The Blue Pumpkin to remember the vivid events of his childhood.
Penn earned his bachelor’s degree from Reed College and an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Educated, articulate and confident at age 41, Penn remains a family man, here in Cambodia to celebrate he and his Cambodian wife’s 15th wedding anniversary. The couple has with them their four American-Khmer children: Martin Rithisen, 12, Cornelia Soma, 10, Ulysses Sorin, 4, and Sophia Sanjana, 3.
Despite his life’s difficult odyssey from the Khmer Rouge, to the Vietnamese invasion, to adjusting to life in small town America as a young Cambodian in Linden, Michigan, Penn doesn’t get worried.
“Don’t think too much about the future. Think about today. Are you being the best friend you can be? Are you being the best son, brother, sister or employee? I said to my boss he could fire me and I knew I could be a cab driver and be the best cab driver.”
He says he wants his kids to fail often and early, so they’ll learn from their mistakes.
“When I fail, I pick myself up and go at it again. As long as I have a breath of life, I am going to get up and do it better next time. You can control your effort. If you do that, you will do better.”
Penn is an optimist about Cambodia.
“You should measure yourself by your contributions, not by the things you have. The things you have can always be taken away from you. Things you contribute, no matter how small, add up over time,” Penn said.
He thinks there’s a very strong Khmer identity.
“I’m incredibly impressed by the talent of the youngsters around Cambodia, my nephews. Cambodians really define themselves by the people around them. We refer to everybody our parents’ age as auntie. Our specific Khmer linguistics describe exact relationships.
“The circumstances in which you were born don’t need to define you. Cambodia is a large part of my being and what I think.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected]