Golden Bones: An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America

Overview

While the United States battled the Communists of North Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s, the neighbouring country of Cambodia was attacked from within by dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge imprisoned, enslaved, and murdered the educated and intellectual members of the population, resulting in the harrowing "killing fields"–rice paddies where the harvest yielded nothing but millions of skulls.

Young Sichan Siv–a target since he was a university graduate–was told ...

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Golden Bones: An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America

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Overview

While the United States battled the Communists of North Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s, the neighbouring country of Cambodia was attacked from within by dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge imprisoned, enslaved, and murdered the educated and intellectual members of the population, resulting in the harrowing "killing fields"–rice paddies where the harvest yielded nothing but millions of skulls.

Young Sichan Siv–a target since he was a university graduate–was told by his mother to run and "never give up hope!" Captured and put to work in a slave labor camp, Siv knew it was only a matter of time before he would be worked to death–or killed. With a daring escape from a logging truck and a desperate run for freedom through the jungle, including falling into a dreaded pungi pit, Siv finally came upon a colorfully dressed farmer who said, "Welcome to Thailand."

He spent months teaching English in a refugee camp in Thailand while regaining his strength, eventually Siv was allowed entry into the United States. Upon his arrival in the U.S., Siv kept striving. Eventually rising to become a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Siv returned with great trepidation to the killing fields of Cambodia in 1992 as a senior representative of the U.S. government. It was an emotionally overwhelming visit.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Slave labor. Death marches. Refugee camps. Not the path most diplomats follow to the corridors of power. But that's just the road Siv traveled in this mostly gripping firsthand account of pain, perseverance and survival. In 1975, Siv, scion of a middle-class Cambodian family, got caught up in the murderous campaign of social re-engineering unleashed on that Southeast Asian country in the wake of the Vietnam War. "We saw decomposing bodies with arms tied behind their backs. One had the throat slit open. One had a big black mark on the back of the neck. A woman had a baby still at her breast," Siv writes of the scene following the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh. Later, forced to leave his beloved family behind in a labor camp, he sets out to find freedom. "I was the loneliest person on earth," Siv writes. "Not knowing what had happened to Mae [his mother], my sister, and my brother was torturing me. But I had to move onward." Siv survives countless brushes with death, but makes it to Thailand and eventually the U.S. At times, incidents, people and places pile on top of each other without much space for the reader to reflect on or make sense of them. Still, the story is always compelling, and Siv moves the narrative forward by raw force of will. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
The uplifting saga of a man who escaped genocidal Cambodia, became a U.S. citizen, then served in the Bush I and Bush II administrations. After recounting his privileged childhood and adolescence, Siv chronicles six years of "life under the sword" as the fledgling Cambodian republic battled first the North Vietnamese and then the murderous Khmer Rouge. After this communist faction took Phnom Penh in April 1975, the author, a college graduate and teacher, was relegated to grueling slave labor. In 1976, he worked up the courage to escape, crossing the border into Thailand on foot. Sponsored by an American family in Wallingford, Conn., Siv immigrated at age 28 to the United States, where the second half of his memoir takes place. After menial employment in restaurants and a stint as a New York City cab driver, he gained admission to the Columbia School of International Affairs and graduated into white-collar jobs. Eventually, Siv's intelligence and ambition brought him to the attention of prominent Republicans, who recruited him into the administration of George H.W. Bush as a deputy assistant for public liaison, charged with informing Americans from various organized constituencies, including uprooted Cambodians and other Southeast Asians, about the president's policies. He was able to return to Cambodia on official missions, and he shares his understandably strong emotions as well as his findings of fact while observing his native country's struggles to return to a civilized state. Writing in his adopted language of English, Siv relies heavily on cliches and oversimplified scenarios, proclaiming his love for America in chapter after chapter. His chatty prose is easy to absorb, but hiseditor ought to have insisted on logical transitions between scene shifts. After George W. Bush entered the White House, Siv returned to politics, this time as a deputy ambassador to the United Nations, serving until 2006. Occasionally tedious, but often moving and frequently educational.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061340680
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/1/2008
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 631,502
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Sichan Siv served as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2001 to 2006, and as deputy assistant to the president for public liaison and deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia from 1989 to 1993. Ambassador Siv holds a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University. He and his wife spend their time in San Antonio, New York, and beyond.

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Read an Excerpt

Golden Bones

Chapter One

Pochentong

At the end of World War II, Pochentong, Cambodia, was a small sleepy village of about 100 people. The lush and tranquil world of my boyhood was also the district headquarters of Phnom Penh and the kingdom's major airport. Cambodia was divided into provinces (khet), districts (srok), communes (khum), and villages (phum). The civilian chiefs of our district usually became governors of Kandal (to which the district belonged) and later members of the king's cabinet. Some of them ended up as prime ministers. Assignments to Phnom Penh and Kandal were the route to ultimate power in Cambodia in the 1940s and 1950s.

Pochentong had no running water or electricity. Water was fetched from a nearby pond and sometimes delivered by tanker trucks. We used candles and kerosene lamps at night.

My father, Siv Chham (Cambodians put their family name, or surname, first), was born in 1909 in Tonle Bati, a srok in the southern province of Takeo. He was the chief of police, known at the time as garde provinciale, of srok Phnom Penh. My mother, Chea Aun, was born on the Cambodian new year (April 13), 1913. Her father, Sok Chea, my grandfather, was the chauvay khet (governor) of Kampong Som. She recalled that when he was transferred to another post, they would travel for days by elephants. She was of medium height, wore her hair short, and had a serene look on her face, which reflected a lot of love and compassion. My parents, for some reason, decided to give their children names beginning with the Khmer letter saw, or S in English. The practice was laterfollowed by the younger generations.

Our family was small by Cambodian standards. I was the youngest of four. The elder of my two sisters, Sarin, was born on March 21, 1933. I do not remember my second sister Sarun's birthday in 1935. My brother, Sichhun, was born on October 31, 1941. It was the year that eighteen-year-old Prince Sihanouk was crowned king of Cambodia; he would eventually become the most famous Cambodian of the twentieth century. Incidentally, the king and my brother shared a birthday. I was born in the Cambodian Year of the Boar, 2490. Because our traditional year usually goes from April 13 to April 12, I was born on March 1, 1948, on the western calendar.

In 1953 I was sent to Pochentong Primary School. That year, my second sister, Sarun, at age eighteen, was married to an official at the finance ministry. Two years later, Sarin, at age twenty-two, was married to an army officer. Both marriages were arranged...a practice that is still going on, although to a lesser extent.

Life in Pochentong seemed like paradise. With protective parents and a loving upper-middle-class family, I simply had no worries. School and play always went hand in hand. I grew up with children from all walks of life: their parents were peasants, merchants, military people, police, and civil servants. My grade-school pals and I went swimming in ponds, chasing ducks near the railroad station or the airport runway. The one who caught the duck was the winner, until the duck got away. I remember that one day, I got the duck and began to run, naked and barefoot, down the dusty road, followed by screaming children. I came on my brother, who was playing soccer in a nearby field with his friends. "Hey, Kanee! Where are you going with your little friend dangling between your legs?" I immediately stopped to look down at what was dangling, and the duck got away. My brother was one of the few people who called me by my nickname, which had no meaning but sounded cute in Khmer. The others included my parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, uncles, and aunts. I would not respond to any voices other than theirs when I heard my nickname.

My friends and I created our own toys. We used clay to make animals (elephants and horses), fruits (bananas, oranges, mangoes, and pumpkins), buses, trucks, and slingshot bullets. We made our own slingshots from the fork of a guava branch and practiced shooting at trees and stray animals, before getting into a real good-versus-evil fight. We play jor-kinh (thief and detective) games, the Cambodian version of cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. As the son of a police chief, I naturally wanted to play the detective...the good guy. But my friends wanted me to be the bad guy, the ugly barbarian, on the wrong side of the law and society, who had to run and hide behind big trees and bushes. When found, he would have to defend himself, in a slingshot war with the good guys, until he ran out of clay bullets and surrendered. Somehow, I usually managed to evade the pursuers until they gave up.

We competed in flying kites. As we grew older, the kites became more complicated to build. We stopped short of trying to produce kalaeng aek, the enormous musical kites that take a few adult males to fly. Once airborne, they fly at very high altitude for hours, sometimes all night, and produce a smooth, soothing sound from the vibrations of a very thin "tongue" of bamboo attached to the head of the kite. The sound was carried far away from one village to another, depending on the direction of the wind.

In the evening, we listened to the national radio, which broadcast news and music a few hours a day.

During the 1950s, Cambodia received many world leaders who were coming to visit this newly independent kingdom, and especially the architectural wonders of its former royal capital Angkor: Dag Hammarskjöld, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sukarno, Zhou Enlai, and others. Each time there was a state visit, the boys and girls of my school were herded to the airport. We were usually among the first to welcome the foreign dignitaries. We wore our standard uniforms: khaki pants and white shirts for boys; navy blue skirts and white blouses for girls. We were at the airport and along the road from the terminal to our village to wave flags, clap our hands, shout greetings, and hold banners. It was always fun to be away from the classroom.

Golden Bones. Copyright © by Sichan Siv. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Map of Cambodia xi

Preface xiii

Two Thousand Six i

First Episode: Cambodia

Part I Dreams and Hope, 1948-1970

1 Pochentong 7

2 Paradise Lost 14

3 Angkor 20

4 Four B's 27

5 The Sixties 36

6 The Moon 59

Part II War and Peace, 1970-1976

7 Life Under the Sword 71

8 Caring and Sharing 83

9 Year of the Bloody Peace 95

10 Friday the Thirteenth 140

Second Episode: America

Part III Freedom and Survival

11 New England 169

12 New York 188

13 Texas 219

Part IV On Behalf of the President

14 41 and 41 233

15 The White House 242

16 Americans First 250

17 Return to Cambodia 265

Part V On Behalf of the United States

18 The Principles 279

19 The Good, the Bad, the Ugly 288

20 The Ambassadors 293

21 The Caravan 297

22 Two Thousand Six 303

Acknowledgments 319

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 5 of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 19, 2009

    About the Author

    I had the immense pleasure this week of meeting the author and hearing him speak. If you meet this man, you would know that he is anything but arrogant and self-centered. He is a man that has overcome amazing odds, and is a shining example of what a person can still accomplish in the United States IF they are willing to work hard and make necessary sacrifices. Every child should have the privilege of hearing his story.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    From Taxi Driver to Ambassador: The Cambodian-American Dream

    My latest literary journey back to Cambodia, my mother country, was through Sichan Siv's book Golden Bones. To fully illustrate the miracle of this story, I must preface this review with an introduction of the extraordinary man that is Sichan Siv. While every Cambodian citizen was in peril during the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime, the educated social classes were the initial victims of elimination. Mr. Sichan Siv personified all that the KR sought to eradicate. Even in pre-war Cambodia, as the young Siv suffered the untimely passing of his father, he persevered to attain the highest level of education possible in his country. As a gangly youth learning French, and then a tall, spectacled college student, Siv doggedly followed his academic pursuits while also bringing in money to help his newly widowed mother provide the basics for a large family reeling from tremendous loss.

    Sichan Siv's intense curiosity, dedication to self-advancement, and ambition laid the foundation for a stratospheric career that has taken him from being a teacher and taxi driver to the White House as deputy assistant to former President George H. W. Bush and ultimately to the U.N. as a U.S. ambassador. He is a pioneer in every facet of his life, redefining the concept of self-actualization and imbuing it with a super human quality. Ironically, as you will learn from reading his story, it was this very level of accomplishment that marked him for critical extermination according to the KR doctrine.

    Siv begins his book with the early history of Cambodia, an especially important perspective given the recent destruction of ancient literature and other tangible aspects of Khmer culture during the KR's "purification" process. The KR's attempt to erase an entire era of living and written record is met with Siv's typically understated, elegant prose as he educates the reader on Cambodia's past.

    Siv then describes his experiences during the KR regime. Once he fully understood their malicious intentions, Siv threw away his eye glasses, rewrote his past, and refrained from speaking, fearful that a slip into French would bring death. His most heart-wrenching act of sacrifice was leaving his beloved family behind in his native village in an effort to ensure their survival.

    Despite eluding execution on more than one occasion with the help of his devout Buddhist faith, a razor-sharp intellect, and a guardian angel in the form of a truck driver, Siv knew his time was limited under the murderous regime. The circumstances that provided him opportunity for escape were nothing short of a series of miracles, precipitated by a benevolent and omnipotent protective force.

    Siv expands his account beyond his arrival in America, revealing his struggles to acculturate and weave a new life from an unraveled tapestry. His honesty, humility, and sense of humor grace every passage of this memoir. Siv holds nothing back, baring his battered flesh and "golden bones." Through his courage we can all gain empowerment, healing, and a deeper understanding for the wisdom of a generation lost. I cried, I despised, I laughed, but mostly, I was captivated, unable to peel this book from my tired eyes well into the late hours of the evening. Get this book. Golden Bones is a must-read testimony of the resilience, endurance, and infinite heights that can be reached by the human spirit.

    To learn more about the author, please visit his website:

    http://www.sichansiv.com/

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2009

    Save your money.

    I don't know the author but egotistical he is. He is the wise one and everyone else is stupid. I have been around the block enough to know this isn't always the case.

    I frankly tried several times to finish the book. I even tried starting in different places. I know some of the facts are absolutely incorrect, and there are a couple places I labored through where the story line looks vaguely similar to another fiction book. But hey, stuff happens over and over.

    Buy a good fiction novel instead. At least you know what is in there is made up.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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