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Before and after the wall: Cambodian recalls life in Germany

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Dr Ngoun Phann Pheakday teaches his students about Cambodian architecture. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Before and after the wall: Cambodian recalls life in Germany

Dr Nguon Phann Pheakday grew up in the GDR and returned to unified Germany to receive his doctorate

When Dr Nguon Phann Pheakday recalls his childhood in the 1980s while living in East Berlin, the first thing he remembers is the smooth and creamy taste of yoghurt.

“Still to this day, I remember how yoghurt tasted the first time,” Pheakday says. “It was the most delicious food, and I will never forget that first try.”

Pheakday, who now teaches at the Royal University of Phnom Penh as a professor of architecture and engineering, had a far different upbringing than most Cambodians.

In 1980, while Cambodia was still suffering from the disastrous repercussions of the Khmer Rouge, Pheakday remembers when his father returned to teaching Khmer literature at the University of Phnom Penh, barely making enough to feed his family.

Before the Khmer Rouge, his father educated university students. This time, however, he was in charge of current and aspiring government officials.

“I think there was a good amount of time in my life where I had to eat rice every day just to feel full,” Pheakday recalled.

Then, in late 1980, his father received an offer to teach in Germany that would change the family’s lives forever.

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Touring the famous temples of Angkor Wat with architecture students. PHOTO SUPPLIED

From 1981 to 1988, Pheakday resided in East Berlin alongside his father, who, at the time, was still making a very low salary of around $100. However, the German government had provided them with housing and living expenses. For Pheakday’s family, although money was still tight, the experience was priceless.

“I remember I was about eight-years-old, and it was a great time for our family after we survived the dark era of the Pol Pot regime,” he said, adding that he and his three siblings took a one-year intensive German language class before being permitted to join classes with German children.

In 1988, when Pheakday was 16 and his father ended his tenure as a professor at a German university, he returned to Cambodia with his parents while his older siblings stayed to continue their studies.

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall collapsed, Pheakdey recalls the trepidation he felt. During that time, his older sister had gone missing and in attempt to locate her, his older brother, who was living 100 kilometres away, searched for her without success.

Pheakday recalls opening the letters sent from his older brother describing the anxiety and trouble he faced.

Finally, his older sister was located and the family breathed a sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, back in Cambodia, Pheakday continued his studies and eventually received a bachelor’s degree in architecture at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.

After graduation, Pheakday received a scholarship from the German government to pursue a doctorate degree in 1999, allowing him to revisit the country of his childhood.

However, the Germany he remembered had dramatically changed over the last 10 years.

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Dr Nguon Phann Pheakday with his son. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“I could barely even recognise the place I had grown up, called ‘Marzanh’,” he recalls. “I was confused the first time I passed it.”

In some of his earliest memories, Marzanh was a quiet neighbourhood with one small shop and a close-knit community of people. By the time he returned, Marzanh was full of noise, modern shopping stores and new unrecognisable buildings.

However, there was still one thing that hadn’t changed for Pheakday.

“There was plenty of delicious food,” he said. “I still remember the bread and my favorite sweet, special yoghurt.”

Reflecting upon his childhood, Pheakday believes that the experiences he gained living and travelling abroad not only strengthened his family, but also taught him to be a better member of society.

“With this experience, I think that each family should spend vacation time or tour together as much as possible,” he says. “It helps build harmony in the family and it is a part of the peace building of a society.”


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