Thirty years of war and civil unrest sent hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees all over the world. Many settled in America, mostly during the 1970s and 80s. As Leonie Sherman reports, some , like Chantha Chuonn, have never been back home - until now.
When Chantha Chuonn, his wife, four daughters and one grandson stepped into the dazzling light and humidity of Pochentong airport after a two-day flight from California, over 30 relatives were waiting to greet them.
The girls take a rest after a long day of ceremonies and celebrations.
Chantha had not seen his older brother or younger sister in 40 years; he and his wife have not set foot in their homeland for over a quarter century, and his four daughters, aged 12 to 24, have never been to Cambodia.
Like many of his countrymen, Chanta fled Cambodia during the late 70s and has gone on to live, marry and raise children in a foreign land. Many of those who once fled are now returning, if only to visit, and introducing their children to a country that necessity once forced them to abandon.
The celebrations started as soon as the family walked through the gate: tearful hugs and a sea of smiles, seven featuring the pearly whites that regular dentistry can buy; their welcoming coterie a bit noticeably blackened and gap-toothed.
The assembled crowd piled into two mini-vans - with several relatives claiming spots on the roof - and proceeded to a hotel near Olympic Stadium. The family booked into two rooms and a riot of bodies filled all available floor and bed space for a marathon catch-up session. The family left the hotel only once in 40 hours.
The Chuonn's homecoming in Takeo province was marked by a party the likes of which the village of Krang Thom has never seen. The presence of Chantha and his family was the first time his extended family could formally honor their ancestors and give thanks for those who survived the Khmer Rouge.
Chantha's link to the United States began in the late 1960s when he fought with the US against the communists in Vietnam. Later, he was a Lon Nol soldier, making him a marked man in the ensuing years of terror under the KR.
He fled village after village, changing his name to evade persecution. ('Chantha' retains one of those aliases but now puts his family name last, in the style of his adopted country.) In 1979, he reached the refugee camps on the Thai border, staying for a year at Kao-I-Dang, where Ratha, one of his daughters was born. He still doesn't know how many relatives and friends died during those turbulent years.
"I lost everything, so many family members," said Chantha, prostrating himself before the elaborate altar. "There was so much sadness."
24-hour party people
The party, however, seemed a world away from those grim times.
Chantha's old house became the epicenter of a village-wide ceremony. The party kicked off with monks chanting, their prayers and lessons amplified by 10 huge loudspeakers. Intricate arrangements of incense and fragrant flower buds, painstakingly prepared by elderly temple assistants, graced the main stage where the monks sat. A psychedelic neon-green altar with 3-D images of Buddha was illuminated by flashing Christmas lights. There were so many guests that people ate in shifts, and meals carried on for hours.
In the evening, the speaker stack began pumping out racy Khmer pop music, and every male under the age of 45 sprang into sweaty gyrations. At 10:30 p.m. the music was replaced by the high-pitched wailing of a five-hour-long Khmer opera. When the heavily made up opera singers left the stage for the last time, around 2 a.m., scratchy disco music erupted and played until 5 a.m., when the monks returned to chant anew. Chantha's family spent much of the festival sprawled on mats on a hardwood floor in the house where he grew up.
"I don't even recognize most of the people here, or my home," Chantha said with tears in his eyes. The house is one of the only buildings from the mid-1950s still standing, and Chantha's face was a tangle of emotions every time he climbs the ladder to enter.
Enter the spirits
In many ways it looked like a standard Khmer hoedown, except there were seven large Americans in attendance.
Early in the day, 4-year-old Dalvin, who is the size of most village 10 year olds, wrested a toy machine gun from his mother Ratha, and ran off to terrorize and delight the gaggle of village children who followed him, amazed at his heft and energy. Crystal, who didn't exactly sulk, but spent hours lying on the floor in front of a fan, was the closest in size to other village women. She is 12 years old.
The teenage daughters, all fluent in Khmer, were unfazed by the chaos around them. "I've been to lots of celebrations like this in the States, like Khmer New Year and marriages" said 18-year-old Anna, who will start San Francisco State in the fall. "Just never in a village before."
Her eyes, impeccably made up despite the heat, misted over as she chewed on her thickly glossed lower lip and contemplated the mayhem around her: the mud, dust, constant blaring music and thrum of a generator, the oxcarts and endless stubbly fields.
"It's crazy to be surrounded by Cambodians," said Anna. "I've never, like, been surrounded by people speaking Khmer."
"And they're all my cousins and stuff," she added with a small laugh. "So I know they've got my back."
"It feels really comfortable," said her 15-year-old sister, Samantha. "It feels sort of ... normal, I guess."
It wasn't all comfort at the family reunion. Some things the American daughters take for granted were decidedly absent. Toilets, for one. Showers. Privacy. Among the throng of villagers attending their every move, they are still not sure which ones are relatives.
But these four sisters from suburban California giggled together as they took icy bucket showers, draped in sarongs, barefoot in the mud. They adapted to the local custom of ducking behind a bush to relive their bladders after a single encounter with the only squat toilet in town. They got down and boogied with distant cousins on the mud and straw dance floor. And they curled together like kittens on the hardwood floor of their father's house when the excitement of the day overtook them and sleep beckoned.
After about 20 hours, as the festival approached its climax, Anna had a small melt down.
"I'm so not feelin' it," she said, stumbling up the ladder to her father's old house, brushing away the outstretched hands of concerned relatives. She collapsed on the floor, where she was quickly surrounded by family members rubbing, poking and tapping at her various body parts.
The monks decided she had been possessed by the spirits of her mother's ancestors, who were angry that a big festival was being held in Chantha's village and not theirs.
"I was so not possessed by spirits," Anna said, a week later. "It was just heat stroke or something. But I don't talk to my dad about that, he's a pure Buddhist and believes what the monks said."
After the festival in Krang Thom and farewells that lasted for hours, the family moved on to another, smaller reunion with the mother's side of the family. Most of them are from Kampuchea Krom in what is now southern Vietnam, but a few now live in Battambang, where the reunion was held.
Before pleasantries had even been exchanged, Chantha started yelling at his wife's relatives for possessing his daughter during the festival.
"They were so confused," admitted Ratha. "They were just like, 'What? What happened?'"
Clean dreamsChuonn and his family footed the bill for the entire extravaganza. After all, they're coming from the States, where their meager monthly welfare checks are more than most of their relatives from the village will make in a year. They didn't fund the trip by saving welfare scraps, but by concerted fund raising among friends in the Cambodian refugee community, who contributed between $10 and $200 each to ensure that the Chuonn family homecoming would be merry indeed.
The reunion in Battambang was followed by a pilgrimage to Angkor Wat and Phnom Kulen, then the Chuonns returned to Phnom Penh for a final week of visiting family and riding bumper cars.
Three of the daughters left for California July 13, and Chantha will follow on July 17 with his wife and youngest daughter.
A few days before their departure, the daughters decided they didn't want to leave.
"I wanna stay longer," said Samantha, flipping her newly straightened hair.
"I don't wanna go home yet," Anna concurred, giving her identical straightened hair style a toss. "I mean I'll probably come back to live here in like ten years."
Anna has already decided that when she returns, she will start a small business sure to turn a handsome profit.
"I wanna open up a laundromat. I mean people here wash clothes the old fashioned way, they just bang clothes on rocks and hella-scrub them together. So a laundromat would be good here - I mean, you have a washing machine and a dryer."