I recently had a conversation with Banyan Blogger Mitty Steele. A Cambodian-born American, Mitty is a writer, photographer, and communicator. This is an unedited email interview.
It’s a great honor that she accepted my request for this exclusive interview. If you, readers, want to drop her a line, please send it to banyanblog [@] gmail [.] com. You can also follow her on Twitter, @banyanblog.
Tharum: Is Mitty Steele your birth name? Or do you have a Cambodian name? What is it?
Mitty: Mitty Steele is not my birth name. I was born in a makeshift camp the Khmer Rouge set up in an area they called Oak-a-bao in Battambang Province, December 1975. I didn’t have a formal name when I was born because my parents didn’t think I would survive. A woman at the camp nicknamed me Kley, which means “short” in Khmer because I was a malnourished child who didn’t seem to grow.
We suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime for four years until the Vietnamese came in 1979. We evacuated the camp and fled to the Thai border and stayed at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp. After a few months, my father had a friend who lived in Virginia who agreed to sponsor us to the U.S. As he was preparing the paperwork my father realized he didn’t have a formal name for me yet. Together with his friends they named me Mittpheap (which means friendship) as a way for them to stay friends. Therefore, my formal name became Mittpheap You (Steele is my married name).
We settled down in Arlington, VA in 1981. When I was in elementary school teachers couldn’t pronounce my name and some kids would make fun of it. One of my friends nicknamed me Mitty, which was easier for her to say, and the name has stuck with me ever since. My family and Khmer community I grew up with still call me Kley, however, my American friends, colleagues at work, and people I meet now call me Mitty.
How did the Khmer Rouge impact you personally?
The Khmer Rouge changed the course of my life. I often wonder what my life would have been like had there been no Khmer Rouge. Like my brothers and sisters, I would have been born in a hospital instead of a hut in the woods. Our family would have had enough food to eat. Instead, I had one brother who died of starvation, and another executed for trying to steal rice for my mother who was dying of starvation. Both of whom I never had the chance to know, as well as the countless family members who were killed during that time. Life was so fragile and meaningless back then and I often wonder why I survived, as a baby, with little food and no medical care when so many people who were stronger than me perished.
The Khmer Rouge not only changed the trajectory of my life but the entire trajectory of the country. Much like my life, I often think about what Cambodia would have been like with no Khmer Rouge. The brain trust of the country was systematically executed or fled, institutions were destroyed, our beautiful culture was defaced and the respect we had for parents and elders and the institution of family diminished.
Without the Khmer Rouge, I wonder if we could have been a middle-income country by now, or would have the same problems such as extreme poverty, land grabbing, deforestation, sex trafficking, weak rule of law, and corruption. These problems exist in other countries too, but I wonder if it had not been for the Khmer Rouge, who destroyed the social and economic fabric of the country, if these things wouldn’t be as pervasive.
The Khmer Rouge modus operandi was to have Cambodia start over from year zero. In some ways they succeeded. When the regime fell in 1979 Cambodia started over with nothing. It has been 38 years since the Khmer Rouge and the country is still trying to rebuild what was lost in those years. Cambodia has come a long way since then, much progress has been made, but much more needs to be done.
Since when did you think of taking this journey back to your home country?
Growing up, my parent’s always told me stories of the hard times our family went through during the Khmer Rouge, but it was always bits and pieces of stories I’ve heard throughout the years. As such, I’ve always been interested in learning more about our life during that time and what their lives were like before the war.
To get a better understanding, I started interviewing my parents in 2003. These interviews helped me to get a more complete picture of our family story and Cambodia’s history. They told me about their childhood living in Takeo Province in the 1940s, how they met in the late 1950s, getting married and starting a family in the 1960s and finally the Khmer Rouge era in 1975-1979. Through these stories, I wanted to see the places they described and experience for the first time, a country I never had the chance to know. With these interviews and through a process of self-discovery and appreciating that my culture and heritage made my life richer, I realized I was ready for the trip back.
During the past 30 years, what/how did you learn about Cambodia? And tell me what you see and think about the reality of this country, comparing to what you read, heard, and were told?
Most of what I had learned about Cambodia was from my parents, and the stories they shared about life’s difficulties during the Khmer Rouge regime and a little about their lives before the war. As I grew older, I learned of the many problems Cambodia faced after the Khmer Rouge (civil war, political problems, landmines, extreme poverty, trafficking, land grabbing, deforestation, and more). I always had the impression that it was an unstable country and too unsafe to visit.
My parents returned to the country in 1996. They said it was a chaotic experience. After living in the U.S. for 20 years they were not used to being back. They were not used to being asked for money at the airport, trash piled high in the street, poor or little infrastructure such as unpaved roads, makeshift bridges, poor phone connection, and unreliable energy. Things we took for granted in the U.S. Most of all, they were not used to seeing so much poverty and so many landmine victims. It was not the Cambodia they remembered before the war.
Even though it was painful for them to see their country this way, they also spoke fondly of their visit and being able to reunite with long lost family members and friends they hadn’t seen over 20 years, to visit their home village, and to experience being totally immersed in Cambodian culture again. Needless to say, it was an emotional visit for them.
Before I decided to go in 2004, they painted a realistic image of Cambodia, speaking of the good and bad things I would see. I had also read about other issues Cambodia faced beforehand. I felt I was prepared to handle it. Yet, when I finally arrived the reality of what I had been told and read over the years was much more stark when I saw it in person. It was an eye opening experience. Especially meeting my uncle’s family for the first time in Takeo village. Seeing their poverty and life situation of working hard and still being stuck in poverty, made me realize how fortunate we were to have the opportunities we had in the U.S. This could have been my situation, and by the hand of fate we were able to escape it.
What also surprised me is that even though there was a lot of poverty and suffering, I also saw a lot of hope and determination in people to make a better life for themselves and a relentless spirit to survive. The country was also a lot safer that what I had expected, and people were very warm and welcoming.
Things are a lot better than when I first visited in 2004 and that hope and determination is still as strong as it was back then. Yet, what I have noticed is while things have improved, the gap between the rich and poor in Cambodia seems to be widening. I’ve seen more Lexus and Range Rovers in Phnom Penh than I have seen living in the Washington D.C. area for over 30 years. These vehicles cost more than twice as much in Cambodia than they do in the U.S. due to taxes, and most people pay for these high priced items in cash. It’s not something that makes sense to me and it’s hard to reconcile these stark contrasts of extreme wealth and extreme poverty on a daily basis.
Why did you choose this blog to tell your stories? And why name it Banyan Blog?
I chose blogging to tell my stories because it’s my journal of what I am discovering everyday about Cambodia. For me, it is the best form of expression and in the future, my children will have this digital archive of our experience in Cambodia. It’s also a tribute to my father who recently passed away. He loved Cambodia deeply and always wanted to share Cambodia’s story with the world.
A banyan is a large tree with multiple trunks and deep and complex roots. I chose to name it Banyan Blog because that is the story of Cambodia, a country that has a rich culture but complex past. Every day that I am here I am untangling these roots to better understand the country, and our family story.
What made you to come back to rediscover your original roots? Why you think it’s essential? Do you think it’s also the most important missing elements for other Cambodian-Americans of your generation?
After my first visit in 2004, I always knew that at some point in my life, if I had the opportunity, I would live in Cambodia for a few years, to get to know the country in a deeper way than just visiting for a few weeks, and in some way give back. It was miraculous that a few months ago my family and I had a great opportunity to live in Cambodia for a few years.
I think it’s essential for the Cambodian diaspora, particularly my generation, to understand where they come from. The older generation is starting to fade away, and it is up to my generation to continue to tell their story, to pass down these traditions to our children or else it will be lost. For the diaspora, this is extremely difficult to do when you are permeated by the influence of another culture on a daily basis, and the youth just wants to assimilate into the society and identity of another culture. I can understand this because this is what I wanted to do growing up.
If we try to know our history, teach our children our culture, visit Cambodia, understand the issues it faces, it strengthens our identity and our bond to our country. It gives our children a strong legacy and sense of identity. In addition, many of us in the diaspora are fortunate to have the opportunities we are given outside of Cambodia, so if we are able to, we should give back what we can.
What would be the only thing (current or future project) you want to be known for in Cambodia?
I’ve always believed I survived for a reason and part of that was to give back to my country some day. My current project is this blog, but I hope to contribute in other meaningful ways towards the country’s development in the near future once I have a deeper understanding of the country’s strengths and weaknesses, and where my skills could be best utilized to help improve the country.
However, if I were to leave Cambodia tomorrow, I would want to be known as trying to show the world through my writing that Cambodia is much more than the history of the Khmer Rouge, or the everyday political and social problems it faces. Often times, we only read about these issues in the news, and the complete picture of Cambodia is lost, and it creates a perception that Cambodia is an unsafe, unruly country without morals or a conscience.
Yes, there are serious issues Cambodia faces, and serious inequalities. There are many people writing about these everyday, but it seems to me what is missing are the stories in between that are insights into the past, stories of people’s lives of daily struggles and triumphs, stories of celebrating culture, stories of hope for the future. I want to try to give a complete picture of Cambodia as possible by uncovering the past, showing the present, and presenting people’s hopes and dreams. I want to be honest as possible to show the good as well as the bad, all through the eyes of someone who is rediscovering the country again.
For the young Cambodian diaspora in particular, I want to spark their interest in getting to know the country. If I could influence just one person to start thinking about how they could reconnect with their country, to learn about their culture, issues Cambodia faces, and to discover their roots through my blog, then I feel honored to have been part of the start of their journey.