Honor Whom Honor Deserves / Honor A Quien Honor Merece

Most parents would agree that raising a family is a challenge. Being a family of 1, 2 or 13 children, like mine, parents have a huge task on hand. But, most parents would also agree that seeing their children grow up to become great people is equally rewarding.

The teaching method my parents most often utilized was teaching by example. With 13 children a year and a half apart from each other, my parents did not have much time to sit down with us individually to help with our homework or to read our favorite bedtime story, they were always very busy. Nevertheless, they found ways to teach us the important lessons that would carry us through life, and they did this by example. So, throughout my life, I have been observing people and benefiting a great deal by “experimentar en cabeza ajena”, which means to learn from other’s experiences.

This time, I learned from Savanith, a beautiful Cambodian lady that works with me. She’s this excellent person who, with her actions, has taught me the value of being able to accept and adapt to new circumstances in life with graciousness and happiness.

Savanith was born and raised in Cambodia in a very honorable family. Most people don’t know this but Savanith’s ancestors, on her mother’s side, held the Lordship title which means they were members of the nobility including, in descending order, duke, marquess, earl, viscount, and baron. When this title is given it stays in the family for life, therefore, she feels very proud of her ancestors in general and her family particular. Her grandfather, Mr. Um, was the first Supreme Court Judge in Cambodia and his son, Savanith’s father, was an Ambassador in Laos, Burma, North Korea and a Council in Thailand and Indonesia and in USA (during Kennedy’s Presidency). Savanith and her 3 siblings were raised with honor and privileges enjoyed by the elite but you wouldn’t know this by looking at her because she is an unpretentious and humble person.

She told me that in Cambodia, she used to have a maid just for herself; “I never had to move a finger”, she said. There were many servants who maintained the home as well as chauffeurs, cooks and gardeners but her maid’s job was just to play with her and entertain her. She said people used to tease her by saying she could order her maid to fly and it would happen, but she never gave such order. She used to live on a huge property with several homes for the family and relatives; they had lots of land with rice fields and many peasants that worked for her family. Savanith’s home was a compound of several houses and she lived in the main mansion built by her grandfather. Her father and his siblings, children and many grandchildren were born in that house. Nowadays, her house is one of the most luxurious hotels in Cambodia, The Pavilion Hotel. She showed me pictures of it on the internet and she pointed out a balcony that came off the second floor where her bedroom used to be. The balcony in the hotel is now overlooking the pool which used to be where the main driveway leading to the main entrance was. Her aunts’ houses were to the right and left sides of the mansion. From the balcony, she was able to spot the boys coming to visit her so she had a chance to tidy up before coming down to meet them.

Artifacts from Cambodia and Laos
Some of her siblings were sent to study abroad but it was not customary for girls to be sent abroad to study so she, instead, went to a French-Catholic boarding school by the shoreline in Cambodia - only the rich and famous, and even princesses studied there. The Um family was very prestigious so Savanith was among the selected. She has told me many fascinating stories about her life in Cambodia. She talks about her years in boarding school learning French and other languages (she speaks 5 different languages!). Her favorite part about school was that it was on the shoreline and she had a lot of chances to go swimming. It is not a surprise she became an excellent swimmer, her pool was the open sea. She was also a very joyful and fun-loving girl then and she’s still very funny now. In the office, she is always coming up with the funniest things and expressions to say that make us laugh. I can always count on Savanith to help keep the morale up and she makes my job so much more enjoyable.

Savanith and her family came to the United States in April of 1975 as a result of the falling of her country. She said she left Cambodia on April 10th to go on vacation in Burma where her father was stationed. When the Regime in Cambodia fell on April 17, 1975, the embassy in Burma was closed and the officials were ordered to go to Thailand. This included her father. Shortly after, he made arrangements and sent for the family. Mr. Leng, Savanith’s later-to-be husband, was the pilot who flew them out of Burma to join her father in Thailand. They were in Utapao, a military based where people who escape Cambodia came. They stayed there until the whole family was admitted into the United States as refugees on May 8, 1975. All 13 of them (parents, siblings, aunts and cousins) arrived at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in San Onofre, CA, where they stayed until June 12 of the same year.

Here is Savanith sharing her culture at a recent event in my office
During the time Savanith was in Camp Pendleton, she together with other family members, served as a translator, helping people that did not speak English. The family was assisted by the refugee agency but, because most of them were labor ready, they found jobs and worked for Catholic Charities and for International Rescue Committee as case workers and translators. After holding a part time job as a teacher aid with IOEP and a full time job as case manager with UPAC, Savanith started her career with the County of San Diego on November 28, 1978. She was a translator and she is currently a Health and Human Service Specialist who works in my office, serving refugees. She said sometimes clients recognize her as being the granddaughter of Cambodian Supreme Judge, Mr. Um, and had been told by clients that they had the honor of serving her grandfather and now they feel honored to be served by her.

As with many families, hers was adapting to their new life in the USA. They all got jobs doing whatever necessary to keep the family going. Her siblings graduated from Universities, her sister obtained a PHD in Political Science and is currently a Professor at UC Berkeley. Her brother is a Council for the USA State Department and is currently stationed in Thailand. In addition to fulfilling her job with the County, Savanith married Mr. Leng in 1980 and they raised four kids. She also took care of her elderly parents until they passed away in 1994 and 2003 respectively. For many years she tended to her sick husband who passed away last year. She practices Buddhism as her religion; very often I heard her talking how she needs to go to the temple to serve food for the monks. She is undoubtedly a well respected member of her community.

Celebrating Cambodia and Laos New Year
I know other people from Cambodia and I have heard from them sad stories about the hardships they had to overcome since they were forced to flee their country, and of the difficulties they encounter adapting to their new life in America. Savanith doesn’t talk much about this. She went from having it all to not having much. From leaving the life of a princess to a life of service – I have never heard a complaint from her about this. I met Savanith in 1999 when I came to work for the County. Since then, I have been admiring her ability to adapt to new circumstances. She sometimes looks tired but I have never seen her mad or bitter. She lives her life with gusto and loves to share her Cambodian traditions with others. I love listening to her talking about anything and everything because she always has something interesting to say and she brings humor to her conversations. I asked her if she misses her old life. She stopped to think for a moment and said, “We were always taught to be flexible with life circumstances, maintain your traditions as who you came from but don’t rely on that because now all the doors are open but they can close at any time.” Then she said, “We were always told to be proud of who we are and where we came from and to be proud of the family but, to maintain what’s in the family, you have to work hard. And wherever you are and whatever you do, remember who you are.”

Savanith is obviously proud of her heritage. She shows it every day in the way she conducts herself and when she shares her culture with us in the office, and in the way she teaches by example, to accept and adapt to new ways with grace and happiness. I’m sure her parents would be proud of the great person she is. I feel privileged to have met and work with such a wonderful person.