Running late for a meeting in Wellington yesterday courtesy of Jetstar (Why God, WHY?!) I was grumpy and tempted to busy myself with my iPhone for the short journey into the CBD. But I didn’t. I reluctantly put it down and struck up a conversation with my friendly cab driver – Young.
Young is Cambodian and has lived in Wellington for more than 30 years.
He was in his first year of a science degree in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took power and began their radical social reforms that were designed to create a purely agrarian-based Communist society. Being a student, the son of a teacher, and a city-dweller were enough to earn Young and his family a one-way ride to the countryside. For four years they were forced to work long hours in the paddy fields, for no pay and very little food. They spent most of that time close to starvation and trying their best to avoid attention, which usually came in the form of beatings.
As tensions in the country escalated, Young’s father and brother were killed in front of the family – no reason was given. Fortunately the distraction of having to engage with Vietnamese forces delayed the Khmer Rouge programme and Young and his wife were able to escape into the forest. They spent six months wandering around northern Cambodia before making it across the border to Vietnam and then on to New Zealand as refugees.
In all, 50 members of Young’s extended family were killed in the genocide. Fifty. Three remained. His English was not good enough to continue studies here, so he worked in a textiles factory and took evening language classes. He was able to bring his mother and the other two relatives out some years later and they opened a successful Cambodian restaurant. After twenty years, he sold it on for the slightly less relentless hours of cab driving.
It was quite a 15-minute ride. We discovered we both have only one daughter – mine 10 weeks; his 28 years. We discovered that we both like Cambodian food! A few times we laughed out loud – more than a few times I almost cried. Suffice to say my Jetstar Why-God-Why questions had been replaced by other ones.
I visited Cambodia eight years ago and knew something of the Killing Fields history – but here, driving me around Wellington, was a man who had lived through it all. Even more humbling was that, having done so, he was able to tell me with a gentle smile how grateful he was that he had made it here – a peaceful country he is now very proud to call home.
I think I’m going to put my phone down and talk to cabbies more often.