I’ve had polio since I was about five or six. One day I just fell down, broke my front teeth and fell into fever. After that, half of my body just collapsed. I never had any medical treatment, and as a result, I always limped badly. Then, when I was 8, war broke out in Cambodia.
The war was really, really hard. You wake up, it’s not even light, but you can hear the bullets and the bombs, and everybody just runs for their life in different directions. My family was separated many times, but we always found each other again. Mum and Dad told us, ‘If anything happens, whenever you get a chance, you must come back to where you were born.’
The Khmer Rouge put us children into forced labour on farms. They made me work with an axe as I couldn’t use my leg. But as a kid, you never think of hardship – all you think is that you want to escape from war, from bullets, from the sounds of bombs, and to have plenty to eat. All my mind basically knew was, ‘I’m hungry, I need to catch a frog to eat.’ If you were to get caught escaping from the camps to go home, they executed you or tortured you. But a lot of people took that risk.
I met my parents for a short time between 1980 and 1981, and at that time, our neighbours said they were going to try to make their way to Thailand. My parents didn’t want me to go, but finally they agreed. It took three months for us to get there, and all that time, I had to walk by picking up one leg with my hand and dragging it.
After 6 months of being in a refugee camp, one day, an Australian couple came in with an interpreter and pointed at me. The interpreter asked, ‘Would you like to go to Australia?’ I remember I was hungry and shaking, and I said, ‘I don’t care if I can just go to some place that’s safe.’
A few months after that, my name went up on the board to say I was moving to a second stage refugee camp. At that camp, they checked your health, and that was when I found out that I had polio. They wanted to operate on my leg there, but finally it was decided that it would happen in Australia.
By then I knew I should call the Australian couple Mum and Dad.
When I arrived in Sydney, I was 15. I had to stay at the East Hills Hostel rather than with my new Mum and Dad, because it would have been impossible for us to communicate if I lived with them. At that time, I felt very lonely, as I couldn’t speak a word of English. I hadn’t even mastered my own language, let alone another, and going to school was really hard. Then, luckily I met my sister here, at church. I didn’t know who she was, but she knew me!
A year later, I went for my operation. When I came out, I thought my leg was worse, because it was very, very floppy, and I had to use crutches all the time. Then, a month later, I got my caliper done, and I was able to stand up straight. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m wearing a shoe!’. I was so, so happy. I said to myself, ‘I’m a new person. I’m born again!’ The doctor told me to exercise, so every morning I put my caliper on and I just walked and walked and walked. 2 years later, I could walk with a normal shoe like everyone else.
In year 11, I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to make it in school’, so I dropped out and got 2 jobs, working five days in K-mart and six nights in a restaurant washing dishes. I did that for 3 years. Later, I trained as a chef. Then, just as I finished, I found out my dad was in Thailand and my mum was in Cambodia. First, I sponsored Dad to come to Australia, and as soon as he got his citizenship, he sponsored my mum to come over too.
Later, I fell in love with a Thai lady and we got married, and opened a Thai restaurant. Unfortunately, we separated not long after, which made things financially difficult for me. As a result, I decided to move to Queensland.
One day, I heard about some work picking tomatoes in Gatton, and while I was working there, I decided to rent a room at a pub called the Federal Hotel. They had a vacant kitchen there, and finally, I asked the owner if I could rent it, and he said yes. Back then, Thai food wasn’t that well known, so it was a bit tough at first, but eventually I was successful. Four years later, the pub was going to be sold, so I moved to another place in Gatton. And finally, I ended up here, at the restaurant in the Gatton golf club, where I’ve been cooking for the locals for 15 years.
I met my beautiful wife in the Cambodian temple 15 years ago. She already had 2 children of her own, and we have had one child together. I’m very happy now, and I must say I owe my life to Australia, and to Mr and Mrs Way, who are like my second Mum and Dad.
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