Putsata Reang’s mother fled Cambodia in 1975.
Reang was an infant desperately clinging to life. Her mother held her daughter as she fought to escape Cambodia's killing fields and survived, creating a new life in America.
"She wanted to be on that reality show Survivor, because she was getting frustrated watching the stupid Americans not know how to make a fire, or catch fish or even know how to make their own hut," she says. "She's like, I know how to do all that because that was my life!"
Reang was a loyal daughter, grateful for her immigrant mother's strength and sacrifices. Until one day:
"The breach between my mom and I happened the moment I told her I was getting married and that the person I was married was a woman."
That breach forced a reckoning:
"This was so important for me to really look at this question about debts that we owe and specifically debts we owe to the people who gave us life and the people, in my case, who saved our lives."
Today, On Point: Duty, devotion and freedom. An immigrant daughter's story.
How old were you when you become aware of the story of how your mother and you made it to the United States?
“I was pretty young. I'm sure I was a kid at Wilson Elementary School there in Corvallis. Go, Wilson Wildcats. ... I can picture the when, I know I was quite young and still in grade school. I was actually just already really trying to figure out the where. And it would have had to be in one of either two places.
"In the Strawberry fields. ... It used to be off of Highway 99 there. ... Or it would have been in our family room with my mom. Competing to tell her stories with the Diff'rent Strokes on in the background. And as kids, wanting to watch our sitcoms, but then also me being absolutely struck by these other stories I was hearing that had nothing to do with what we were seeing on TV.
"In fact, a completely different world. And so I knew I was quite young when I first heard this. I won't say the whole story, but certainly the stirrings of the story, the basic outline of the story. Didn't really have all the details.”
On why so many Cambodians had to flee in 1975
“To this day, a lot of people still don't know that there were actually two kinds of boat people, two varieties of boat people in 1975. Indeed, many, many Vietnamese boat people, but also Cambodian people. And the Cambodian people are what is less known. And that's because there were fewer of us. But what had happened then in 1975, of course, the war in neighboring Vietnam had spilled over into Cambodia.
"And that led to a deeply destabilized Cambodia, which allowed the communist Khmer Rouge regime to take over. My father, he worked for the U.S. backed ... government in Cambodia at the time. He understood and was deeply aware of the dangers of staying in Cambodia if the communists took over our country. In his mind, it had always been an if. It was never a when, he felt strongly that with the help of the U.S., there would be no way Cambodia would descend into war.
"There would just be no way. That was his greatest hope. And yet his greatest fear came true, which is that indeed the Khmer Rouge did take over. In 1975, we happened to be very well positioned on the southern coast of Cambodia where we could escape by sea. Unfortunately, so many of my relatives, both on my mother's side and my father's side, who were inland there, mostly rice farmers, my relatives. There was no way out.
"And it's a story that haunts me. Because part of me thinks, my God, in a situation of war so much depends on fate. When just where you happen to be at a certain particular time, and if you're lucky enough you have a way out. And if you're not, you get really snaggled into a pretty brutal situation.”
On debt and duty to her mother, and herself
“That is really what the framing underneath this memoir is, this question of debt. And the question of what, if anything, do we owe our mothers for giving us life? But there was this other added dimension that sort of complicated my question, which was not only what do we owe our mothers for giving us life? What do I owe my mother for saving my life?
"And it's that second piece that was really sort of troublesome to me growing up. And then becoming a teenager, and then becoming an adult and eventually getting to the place of where I am now. I had always believed that I owed my mother everything for not throwing me overboard. I've come to realize something different. That, in fact what we owe our mothers is really something so simple. It is, in fact, to just live the very best life that we can.
"I didn't have that understanding up until the point that I met my wife, my partner, who became my wife. And a shift happened where I understood that I had a real dilemma here. I knew that if I married a woman, it would cause great distress to my parents, especially my mother. And yet, How could I say no to love? And that was a difficult thing. The love for one's mother, and debt and duty to one's mother. Versus the love to oneself. What did I owe myself in this story?”
On how her mother’s decisions impacted her life path in America
“I will say that was the key motivator for me to succeed. Of course, when we're loaded down with these stories and when I say loaded, of course, it's two things. I describe it as a burden. But of course, the other part of me is that it's a burden, and at the same time, it's both a burden and a fire. A fire that lit my way through so much of my life to get to where I am today.
"And so much of me just was driven to do everything I possibly could to make my mother proud and to make my mother happy, both in the sense of it was my duty to do that as a daughter. In as much as it was a very deep feeling I had watching her in Corvallis, make sacrifice upon sacrifice upon sacrifice. My mom worked as a janitor on the night shift early on in 1976 ... about a year after we arrived in Corvallis. My dad couldn't quite cut it at the time.
"He was washing dishes at Burtons Diner downtown. I don't know if you remember Burtons, they're mainstay in downtown Corvallis. And my mom did something that was I won't say taboo. That's not quite the word. But she crossed a cultural boundary that wouldn't have been possible or wouldn't have been acceptable to her in Cambodia, which is that she went out of the home to find work. And in this case, she found work as a janitor. And, you know, she was scrubbing toilets. She was dusting and mopping.
"And all the while, I remember growing up and hearing her tell me how all the pretty things on the desks of the doctors. She was a janitor at Oregon State University's Health Center. And that just sat with me, those stories. Because I wanted that. I wanted to have that life. Where it was her daughter. It was her kid, who had those pretty things on the desks. Those things, you know, they can be so hard to reach because part of me wanted that, and yet this other part of me wanted to live a very different life.
"I wanted to live for me. You know, my mom pushed me, you know, really not just myself, but my siblings, too. She really wanted us to go down the road of, you know, the doctors ... and the lawyers and business people. And most of my siblings did. I was kind of the outlier in the sense that I went into journalism and went into writing. And so I sort of knew when I made that decision at some point that there would be disappointment.”
On coming out to her mother
“There were a lot of tears. There were a lot of tears and a deep, deep grief. When I made the decision to marry my wife ... I really avoided going down to Oregon. I was living in Seattle with April at the time, and I did everything I absolutely could to procrastinate and avoid telling my parents until the absolute last minute. As we were already sending out RSVP's and having people get hotels and airplane reservations and whatnot.
"I knew I needed and wanted to tell her in person. And by then my parents, my folks had retired and moved to a suburb outside of Salem in Keizer. And I'll be honest, I almost chickened out. There was a part of me that was filled with a particular cowardice of, I can't do it. I cannot break her heart. And there was a moment where you know you're stuck.
"And that goes back to the crocodile and the tiger. If I were to say those words out loud, Mom, I'm getting married to a woman. It would change my life completely. If I were to not say those words out loud and continue to live for her, that would have been its own prison in my mind. And so two hard choices. What are you going to do? When I told her, I'll never forget that moment. She cried and she took it personally and she said, What did I do to raise you that you turned out so differently from your siblings?
"And I stood at the top of the stairs of my parent's home. And I told myself, go back and hold her. Tell her it's not her fault. Tell her she did everything right. Tell her it was a mistake. You're not going to get married. And the other part of me, my foot hesitated to take the first step down. Because I knew once I took that step down and out the front door, I likely would never come home again. That is a reality that I faced, and it was true for many years, after I did marry April. Neither choice was easy to make.
"One choice would have broken my heart and the other did break hers. And yet we in our lives, we're confronted with these choices all the time. We have to be ready to live with the consequences. And those can be really bitter pills to swallow.”
On the current phase of her relationship with her mother
“It’s not easy. But my wife, she really encouraged me all along the way. And she just kept encouraging me to just go. Just be there. And, you know, an interesting thing happened along the way. I kept showing up for the family reunions. We kept coming. And after a while, we, as a gay married couple, become part of the family landscape. And it's as if the fighting between my mom and I had never happened. Because, you know, now we've just kind of merged in with everybody else.”
Excerpt from 'Ma and Me' by Putsata Reang. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
This program aired on May 17, 2022.