THE SPIRIT OF A FIGHTER is a story about a person who was born in one of the poorest countries in the world, Cambodia. In fact, since the very first day of his life, he was not only condemned to be a kid living with a poor family in a poor country, but a kid who was victim of the cold war of the World Powers, the civil war and the genocide perpetrated by his own people, the Khmers Rouges in their famous Killing Fields. In this respect, in 1978 when he was only 20 years old, he was the sole survivor of his loving family of seven. But he, himself escaped from Cambodia and went to France in 1981 with his wife and 6 month-old baby boy. He became citizen of his new adopted Mother Land and started working there, first as a gardener, then as an engineer, and in 2004 he immigrated to the United States of America. In his new land of freedom and dreams, he continued to work as Engineer while his wife operated a Donut shop as the principal investor.
In fact, the book provides details about the personality of a boy who did not want to accept his unlucky destiny by being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. As such, by this book, he wants to show the whole world how such a very poor kid could fight and manage his life from being bullied by his peers in his home country, and how he could survive the Killing Fields of the Khmers Rouges.
Certainly by his own discipline, and aided by a sense of freedom’s joy, he sought not only to succeed, but to excel by getting a Master’s degree in engineering while in France. A degree he used and helped his three children to understand, love and work hard to be awarded the same degree.
In such a spirit, I, Vannead HORN, the author of this book who has lived in three different continents, would just like to share my story in which I thoroughly describe how love from my family, despite different and tragic experiences, encouraged me to grow, survive and excel in life and built in me a character that was joyous and successful. This power can be found in any family which is nourished in love.
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The Spirit of a Fighter
From Cambodia, Victim of the Khmer Rouge Genocide, to France Then USA
By Vannead Horn
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 Vannead Horn
All rights reserved.
Childhood in the French Company
My first childhood memory dates to December 1961, the best month of the year in Cambodia. At this time of the year, the monsoon brings a cooling breeze from the north, rendering the usually hot and humid air much more pleasant for just a few months. I was born almost four years earlier, but this is the first time I can recall, and it felt as though it was the first day of my life.
On that beautiful moment, I sat with my parents on a bamboo bed under a tree that decorated the front of my house. Our favorite tree offered us shade and the delightful smell of its flowers' perfume. My mother was telling me a story while sewing our old clothes to repair them. She smiled tenderly and talked endlessly to my dad who, with a cigar in his mouth, was making and fixing cabinetry on his day off. My father was a cabinet worker and carpenter by trade, working for a French company that produced natural rubber in the districts of Chup and Peam Chieang in the province of Kampong Cham.
My Parents' Strange Union
At the end of 1961, I was only four years old, my mom was twenty-two, and my dad was thirty-two. I learned that my mom was a very smart girl from a family of eight children — four girls and four boys. Like all Cambodian young people at that time, her marriage with my dad had been arranged by her parents and my father's sisters. My father had lost his dad when he was only one year old and had lost his mother when he was nineteen. My parents told me that, before they were married, they had never talked to or touched each other. Such was our tradition; it was a sign of respect toward their parents' decision. Almost all elderly Cambodian people consider themselves to have enough life experience for younger generations to be able to trust their opinions and not question the goodness of their intentions. This tendency is especially true when the time comes for their children to start new families. Each side scrutinized the present and past of the potential bride and groom. The examination applied equally to their immediate family and sometimes even their entire extended relations. A Cambodian proverb is "Tuk dak kon chow, meul phow sondan." This expression means, "Before you allow your children to marry, explore the roots of your future in-law." Parents always think they are right about who will be the perfect spouse for their daughter or son. My parents could not escape our cultural traditions.
Back then, Cambodian people cared only about things that were tangible, things they could see. They didn't know that genetics could affect health and well-being. If they had known about it, they surely would have asked for blood tests before every marital arrangement. If my maternal grandparents had examined my poor father this closely, they would have discovered that both of his parents had died naturally at relatively young ages, and I am certain they would have judged my father unfit for my mother. But a lot of good things on my father's side probably overshadowed the little doubt about his longevity, which was shortened anyway by something else, something more horrible than his genes.
Like it or not, I believe my maternal grandparents and my paternal aunts were right to approve of the arrangement of my parents' union. I believe this first of all because my parents conceived me as a result of their marriage, and, of course, I will always be thankful for that. And secondly, from the first day I can remember, I have never seen my parents argue or disrespect each other. On the contrary, they were deeply in love with each other. Each always cared deeply for the other, and to this day, I rarely have seen such a beautiful and pure love. They were also devoted parents and took care of my siblings and me until the day they died. I miss them terribly. I am proud to be their son. They would have had a long, beautiful life together, but their time on earth was tragically cut short in August 1978. Together they were savagely killed by the men of the Khmers Rouges, led by Pol Pot. And, as if this weren't tragic enough, all of my siblings were massacred, as were millions of other innocent Cambodian people. I was left to survive, miserable and alone in an incomprehensible world.
An Absent Sister
Back in 1961, I was like a small child waking up from a very long sleep as my brain began to understand my surroundings better and better, and I felt as if I were the only child of my parents. But when I was four, I actually had a six-year-old sister who did not live with me. She lived with my maternal grandparents in Kampong Cham, which was twenty-four kilometers away from where my parents lived. This distance wasn't considered very great in a developing country where people commonly used cars. But with only an old bicycle as a means of transportation, my dad could not afford the two daily round-trips to bring my sister to Kampong Cham for school, which was the closest school to us. For this reason, my sister lived with my grandparents. Because I saw her only occasionally, I had only distant, vague memories of her, and it took me some time to realize who she was to me. My three brothers did not come along until later, and thus, for a while, I lived a simple and quiet life with my parents as their "only" child.
Luckless Lady, the Hero of My Life, My Lovely Mother
Growing up, little by little, I found that my mental abilities were cultivated by the extraordinary manner in which my parents had defied their circumstances. At some point, I learned from my mother that she sometimes resented being a smart person in the skin of a woman living in a male-chauvinist environment. My grandparents put all of their boys in school. But following the Cambodian culture of their time, they did not allow their daughters, except for my mom, their youngest daughter, to attend school. She had the privilege of getting an education until she reached the age at which my grandparents thought she could use her knowledge to flirt and establish relationships with boys. It was very common for Cambodians to think that way, and as a result of this awful belief, my poor mom was forced to quit school and stay at home just before she finished middle school.
All of my mom's brothers finished their studies and later in life secured highly ranked government jobs. All of them acknowledged my mother's intelligence and said that if my mother had finished school as they did, she would have been at least as successful as — or more so — than they were. But she was stuck at home with her parents. However, as she was a smart, young girl, she helped them run their businesses and got to interact with people with different backgrounds from all over Asia. She dealt with the Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, and the Khmer-Islam communities and became fluent in all of their languages.
I always found it horribly unfair that my very intelligent mother was not able to use her full potential just because she was born a female. However, had she gone to school and found work with the government, as her brothers did, she probably would not have married my father. But unlike many other Cambodian women who did not question their gender roles at that time, and even though she was always deeply in love with my dad, my mom also found the fact that she was supposed to stay home completely ridiculous. As she raised me, she proved to be such a strong and opinionated woman. She always believed she was as capable as any man; her conviction meant she was quite ahead of her time in Cambodia. To make up for the injustice she suffered as a little girl and for the poor judgment of her parents when they did not allow her to finish school, my mother began by sacrificing the presence of my sister. She forced my grandparents to take care of their granddaughter. In this way, her little girl could attend school at Kampong Cham town and, she hoped, have more opportunities in the future than she did.
An Ingenious Mother Homeschools Her Unique Child
I had practically no other kids my age to call playmates. Every evening and anytime my mother had some free time, she was the one who played with me. She was truly my best friend as I was growing up. As I grew older, on the wonderful occasions we had time together, she taught me everything she knew, from the Cambodian and French alphabets to solving small algebra problems. I did not care that our playtime did not actually consist of games. One of the things I enjoyed most was drawing the strange things she made me trace, letters and numbers, guiding me with her hand. Her instruction helped me to memorize them so that later I could redo them when she asked me. She teased me with her big laugh when I could not remember what she had previously shown me. She treated me like a king with her big kisses and immense admiration when I won the game. Her teaching methods were extremely efficient. I never really felt like a student. Instead, I liked to consider her my best and inseparable partner for games.
By nature, I was a stubborn little boy when I could not perform correctly what my mom taught me. I had a bad attitude. I always asked her to give me more exercises until I could find the correct solution. And I did so, because every time my answer was correct, I received her kiss and praises under the proud glance of my father, who was never far away from us during each of our games. I hated hearing my mother say I was wrong. But she always reassured me that it was okay to make mistakes and that I was already doing great for my age. Thanks to my mother's methods, when I was five-and-a-half years old, I was already able to understand, read, and write in Cambodian and also read in French. A few months later, I could do basic arithmetic calculations. I don't feel I missed anything by being homeschooled at that age.
Underage Registration for School
Then, miraculously, in September 1963, when I was only five years and nine month old, our village opened its school, which had only one classroom — for first grade. Unfortunately for my sister, she was starting the second grade that year, which meant that she had to stay with my grandparents to go to school in Kampong Cham town. As for me, even though I was younger than six years old and thus not old enough to be registered, my mother was dying to put me in our village's school because she believed my aptitudes could even surpass those of a first grader. But she had to fight for it. The schoolteacher said that I looked much too young and he had already turned down children that looked bigger and thus older than I was. He explained it that way because the first classroom was supposed to be open for children aged seven and eight, and at that time, many families that wanted their children to attend the school did not have birth certificates to prove the children's age. Therefore, in an effort to estimate their age, the teacher asked them to try to reach their left ear with their right hand, arm overhead. If they did not succeed, they were considered younger than seven years old and were not allowed to attend school. In comparison with the other non-admissible kids, the fingers of my right hand were even farther away from my left ear, and it was even more obvious that I was not seven yet. But my mother insisted that I already knew how to read and write and that I deserved to attend his class. When he heard my mom's contention, the teacher laughed out loud with a trace of contempt. But when my mother didn't back down, he asked her to accompany him inside the classroom, along with me, while the crowd waited for him outside. He then held out a book to me and asked me to read the first page. With the courageous attitude my mother always taught me to have when confronting difficult situations, I took the book and opened it. The letters on the page were so big and easy to read, as the book was written for first graders. When I finished, he asked me to turn the page and continue. Effortlessly, I continued to read. The teacher looked at my mom, smiled at her, and nodded his head with astonishment. In spite of this, he did not stop there. He went to his desk and grabbed a book. This time, it was a big romance book of around three hundred pages. He asked me to open it randomly in the middle and read one page. I did as he asked and began to read fluently again. I was not afraid at all to read such a book, as I had just finished a series of twenty-seven short books. The series was about a war story, and my mom had bought the series before I was born. She told me that I was named Vannak after the audacious and ingenious military chief in the story.
At my fourth line, the teacher asked me to stop reading. He then asked me to go to the blackboard and to write in Cambodian "I enjoy studying at school": "Khgnom Chang Rean Naov Sala." As I was writing, he watched me with approval, and when I finished, he invited us to leave the classroom with him. He said nothing while walking toward the door. We stopped in front of the folks who were waiting for the teacher while I was reading and writing inside the classroom. He explained to the parents whose children could not be enrolled that he had to give priority to older children first because he did not have enough room for everybody in the classroom. He also explained to the parents that their children could reenroll once they reached the age of seven. But then he said he was making an exception. He had decided that he was going to take in the youngest and smallest boy there, and he proceeded to point his finger in my direction. Immediately, the parents started complaining as they looked at me and waited for an explanation from the teacher. He replied that I was an exceptional kid who possessed all the knowledge he would teach his students this whole school year. He then made up another excuse on the spot, something my mother did not say at all. He said he had to take me in because my mom needed him to make official the knowledge of my homeschooling. The crowd believed the teacher right away because he instantly became a trustworthy figure of authority as a teacher in this small village. They also watched me with admiration as the teacher spoke, and after the explanation, they began to leave.
I looked up at my mother and smiled at her. She smiled back at me, and I could tell how proud of me she was. Right before we left, I'm not sure why I did this, but I told the teacher that in addition to teaching me how to read and write, my mother had also taught me to count and do some calculations. This time he believed me right away and said that I would have to show him later. My mom expressed her gratitude to him, and I bowed my head with my palms joined to say good-bye. I pulled my mother's hand and walked hurriedly to my house, which was a ten-minute walk from school.
The Happiness with My Father
I could not wait to see my father, who I knew would be back from work. Around 150 yards away from my house, I suddenly left the hand of my mother and ran with the speed of light, yelling and calling loudly for my dad. We lived in a house on stilts about 2.5 meters high, with an empty space on the ground and without any walls. The main structure of the house was supported by twelve wood columns. At first I did not see my dad on his chair under the house where he used to rest instead of staying in the house, which was much hotter than ground level. I continued to run and yell, thinking he would be in the house on the first floor. Then finally, as I was still running, I saw my dad jumping hurriedly out of the house without using the stairway.
He was five foot ten and very muscular, which was tall for people who were born and raised in Cambodia. He was a really strong, athletic man, but in that moment, he looked panicked. After the jump, he ran in my direction and opened his arms to receive me running into them. Once in his arms, I could not talk to him because I was completely out of air after my sprint. He held me firmly in his arms and, in a frightened voice, asked me what had happened. After hearing my screams and seeing me run to him, he assumed that something bad had happened to me. While I still could not speak, he saw my mother walking toward us with a big grin on her face. When he realized how glad my mom was, he pushed me away from him to have a better look at me and saw that I was also smiling from ear to ear. Finally, my mom told him what had happened at school earlier for my registration. He exploded with joy and grabbed me with both arms and lifted me up in the air. He was so happy and told me how much he loved me and how proud he was.
Excerpted from The Spirit of a Fighter by Vannead Horn. Copyright © 2016 Vannead Horn. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Childhood in the French Company, 1,
Chapter 2 New Life in Big Town, 27,
Chapter 3 Hobbies and Problems with Mister Tony, 38,
Chapter 4 Mother and Father, 68,
Chapter 5 The Turning Point of My Life, 85,
Chapter 6 Educational Examination, 89,
Chapter 7 The Closing Chapter with Mr. Tony, My Revenge, 94,
Chapter 8 The Khmers Rouges Attack Kampong Cham, 1973, 109,
Chapter 9 New Life at Phnom Penh, Cambodian Capital, 148,
Chapter 10 Moving Back to Our Hometown, Kampong Cham, 161,
Chapter 11 The End of the Civil War, 169,
Chapter 12 Back to the Origin of My Dad, 173,
Chapter 13 Our First Khmers Rouges Village, Srong Prak, 179,
Chapter 14 The Communist System That Could Not Work, 189,
Chapter 15 Fell in Love, 222,
Chapter 16 Working in the Jungle, 233,
Chapter 17 The Most Precious Gift for My Dad, 242,
Chapter 18 The Suffering and Pain of Our Villagers, 267,
Chapter 19 Confrontation with a Bad Rural Person, 298,
Chapter 20 The Punishment That Devastated My Family, 303,
Chapter 21 The Big Irrigation Channel and Dam, 324,
Chapter 22 The Massacre of My Parents and Siblings, 338,
Chapter 23 My Marriage, 349,
Chapter 24 Leaving Cambodia for Thailand Then France, 356,
Chapter 25 Our New Life in France and Then the United States, 361,
Pictures Vannead Horn's Family, 367,
About the Author, 377,