Sotie Heidt, wife of incoming US ambassador William Heidt, has accompanied her husband on postings ‘all around the world and back’ from Indonesia, to Poland, to the US – the country where Sotie arrived as a Cambodian refugee in the early 1980s. Over tea at the Ambassador’s Residence, Sotie spoke to Harriet Fitch Little about her childhood, her life abroad and how ‘fate’ bought the couple back to her home country last month
What do you remember of your childhood in Cambodia?
My life started in a small town called Kroko between Kampong Chhnang and Pursat. My father was a meteorologist. We used to have farmers coming to our house and he taught us from a very young age to always be respectful, no matter what the status of someone is. I remember the house I grew up in. It came up in my dreams a lot. But unfortunately, being born in the ’60s, the country was already at war. We were already very careful about travelling. In 1975, we were in Kroko when the Khmer Rouge came into town. In Khmer, Khmer Rouge means Red Khmer, so in my head I was thinking these people must be red. I remember running to my mum and saying, “They’re not red, they’re just like us!” That’s how innocent I was.
Did you stay in the country between 1975 and 1979?
Yes. They came for my dad before we even went anywhere. He disappeared then and we never saw him again. The rest of the family went with the whole exodus of people leaving the town. I was the youngest, so I was just swallowing whatever I was told. Where to go, what to do. It was a very difficult time. All of us went through it.
What did you do once the regime fell?
Under Pol Pot, my mum died too, so that just left myself and my older sister. The country was in complete chaos. Everyone was just trying to survive. We heard that two of our uncles had made it out – one to France and the other to the US – and they were looking for us. Then one day we got a letter folded up in a small piece sent through somebody to my sister – it didn’t even have an address – and it read “This is your uncle, we made it to France and we’re looking to see how many of you guys are left.”
You ended up going to live with your uncle in America via the Chonburi refugee camp. What was it like arriving there?
It was like the best day of my life. We arrived and my uncle lived in this apartment with his wife and an adopted daughter. But after three months, I came down from cloud nine and started to settle in. I realised then we weren’t doing very well – I followed my aunt to the grocery store and realised she was using food stamps. I realised then that even among the Cambodian-Americans in that town, we were at the bottom of the totem pole. The situation was tough. My uncle basically turned to alcohol.
I got a good job at Burger King. It actually turned out to be a good thing, because I learned a lot about American teenagers. To me, it felt like I had already lived a whole life before I got there – probably more experienced than an 80-year-old woman – and here were kids who were so free and careless. It was a good experience to start working there, not knowing which one was ketchup and which was mustard.
How did you manage your education?
By the time I got to America, I was already 18, which was kind of old for high school, but I needed to get a high school degree. They put me in half a day in the English as a Second Language programme, and in the morning in regular high school. By my second year in America, I got myself into college. I got my first job in San Francisco and my second in Washington DC, then I applied for graduate school at Cornell University.
How did you end up back in Cambodia?
I actually went to graduate school to do international development. But I needed money fast to pay off all the student loans I had accrued, and a guy from the Intercontinental Miami came to Cornell – because Cornell’s known as a hotel school. I had just happened to take one management course and he recruited me because I spoke Cambodian. They had a property here that was just opening and needed someone to do PR and be a business liaison. It was 1997. Everything was still very basic. I remember trying to train staff who had never even seen flush toilets to do front office work. Imagine trying to train someone from basically zero.
How did you meet your husband?
Through friends of friends. He was assigned here to work for the US Embassy as an economics officer. By the time I met him, there were stories that some ladies around town had been left broken-hearted by him already. Back then he was quite a dashingly handsome man! We served a two-year term here, and by that time we had already got engaged, so we went back to the States and got married.
Where have you been since?
I knew that living a diplomat’s life I was going to end up I don’t know where. As you can imagine, I spent a lot of time being the only Cambodian somewhere. The only Cambodian in Indonesia, the only Cambodian in Poland. I felt like I was getting further and further away from Cambodia. For the last three years, we were in Washington DC. It was time to bid again for a new assignment and Cambodia came open. It was always in the back of my mind to come back to Cambodia. I never imagined it would be as an ambassador’s wife.
Does being from the country that your husband is posted to change the experience?
It’s more fun here. Much more fun. People are very receptive and happy to see that the US ambassador’s wife is someone from here. But the role of the ambassador’s wife, there’s a lot to do. I have to stay flexible, according to his schedule. There’s events happening at the house all the time.
In Washington, you were employed as a government contractor. Are you planning to work during your time here?
Here, I’m not really looking to work for money because fate brought us here – I want to do something meaningful for Cambodia. I’ve always had a passion for working with children, needy children who are not able to change their circumstances. That’s the stuff I’m hoping to do. To me, it’s not work. I get something out of it and they get something out of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity