Old factory, new product line

Take the rutted roads of Burma and the bomb craters of the Mekong Delta rice paddies and you’ve got Cambodia’s Highway One. Almost immediately, rural Cambodia looks poorer than Vietnam. The dogs are skinny. The paddies are brown. One market seemed to sell nothing but green bananas. The huts are mud and thatch, a leading indicator in my Three Little Pigs school of comparative economics.

The only Khmer on the minibus was a middle-aged man who wore aviator glasses and a comfortable paunch. He translated the driver’s instructions when we all had to get off the bus in order to push it through a particularly bad stretch. I sat with him at the lunch stop. He was a civil engineer from Phnom Penh, and was coming back from a medical checkup in Saigon. His 22-year-old son lived in New Zealand now; the 18-year old in France.
   “But I tell him to take English lessons there!”
He himself hadn’t learned English until the 1980s; at school they had studied French. He spoke well, but admitted he didn’t enjoy language study. He liked maths and science, but one had to speak English on all the major construction projects now. He read the Cambodia Daily for practice.

He was courtly but self-contained, and I wondered how to ask how on earth he had survived a regime famous for liquidating urban, educated professionals. Finally I asked if he’d had to give up his job in that time.
    “Oh yes. We were all given a day to leave the city. We were forced to do hard labor in the countryside, and every month I had to provide a written curriculum vitae saying what I had done before. They checked it every month. ‘Civil engineer.’ But I was not singled out.”

I was relieved, and felt bolder. He talked about the bad years in a general way, and mentioned that his 12-year-old refused to believe the stories.
    “Twelve? Your son is very young.”
He hesitated. “My first four children were killed. Age six, four, three, and a baby less than one year. The youngest, the breast milk dried up, and…”
His eyes welled up. I hadn’t yet seen the tree on which the Khmer Rouge bashed babies’ brains out, but I knew the stories. He took a bite of steak, this man whose child had starved. He blew his nose on a napkin. After a while he smiled.

    “Now we have three more children. Oldest born in 1980. My wife and I, we have a joke together. We say, ‘Old factory, new product line.’ “