From the Introduction in On Earth Beneath Sky:
I was born Uy Buon Tern in Cambodia in 1970. I came to the United States in 1981 with the name Thouen Bou (known in high school as T-Bo) as a refugee, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide in which political fanatics killed millions of innocent people in my home country. Alongside American soldiers in the Vietnam War, my father fought against the Vietcong, the guerrilla forces opposing the armies of the United States and South Vietnam. He was killed in a battle against the Vietcong when I was two years old.
The Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia when I was five. In three years, eight months, and twenty days under their rule, the Khmer Rouge turned the country into Year Zero, full of “Killing Fields” and torture prisons. Their goal was to make a new agrarian society, copying the Maoist Cultural Revolution in China. There, as in Cambodia, vast numbers of people were driven out of their cities and villages to work in the rice fields and dig irrigation canals. During this time, I was not allowed to attend school. Along with other children my age, I was put to work in a labor camp and given little or nothing to eat.
By 1979, with the Americans out of Vietnam, the Vietcong invaded Cambodia and drove the Khmer Rouge into the frontier. My family was freed to search for separated members. We returned to our home village, where my oldest brother was smuggling people out of Cambodia into a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. That’s how I fled. My brother took his wife first, and then he came for my second-oldest sister and me. We lived in the camp for one year before our application to settle in the United States was accepted and processed.
The U.S. adopted, raised, and educated me. In America, I was able to attend school for the first time. I became literate in English
instead of Khmer, my maternal tongue. I can speak Khmer, but I cannot read and write the language. I lived first in Boulder and then Denver, Colorado, until I completed high school.
My American education provided the historical, social, and cultural contexts in which I learned to understand life as a journey. In the sixth grade, I became comfortable using English. I read as many books as possible and memorized as many words from the dictionary that I thought I could use. I had a teacher and a homeroom of classmates and friends. I was pulled out of class every day for special help in reading and writing, one-on-one tutoring with someone who was patient and kind. She taught me sounds and rhymes. We read fairy tales and played word games.
Before landing in America, I was not aware of this country or any others beyond neighboring Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. I grew up in a small rural village near the Thai-Cambodian border. I hadn’t seen planes or cars. I hadn’t been in a home or an apartment with indoor plumbing. I hadn’t been on an escalator or elevator. The toilet in an airplane scared me the first time I used it because of the loud, sucking sound it made when flushed. Cities, airports, cars, and moving things, objects, and billboards mesmerized me when I rode in a car. Boulder was clean and full of big beautiful houses. There were mountains and forests where I roamed looking for wild fruit and berries like I did back in Cambodia.
Life as a newcomer wasn’t easy because we started from scratch, working toward the American Dream of a better neighborhood, acceptance, and a home of our own. My brother and his wife worked in a ribbon factory seven days a week to save money and buy a house. After the security of a friendly homeroom in the sixth grade, my school experience went downhill. Bullying by other children made me fearful and insecure, but I adapted and got through the trouble.
Whenever I felt sad, nervous, or angry, I thought of the experience I had left behind in Cambodia. My U.S. situation was better than war, better than slaving in the labor camp with nothing to eat. No matter how poor, we could afford to eat. My mother died during the ongoing Khmer Rouge incursions and poverty that war had rendered. She fell ill and passed when I was twelve years old in America.
When I turned eighteen, I studied and took my citizenship test and became a naturalized American citizen. I changed my name to Chath pierSath, which means the temple of the nation. I graduated from World College West, in Petaluma, California. I then moved to San Francisco for a year before returning to Cambodia to work as a volunteer in the human rights field in 1994.
When I returned to Cambodia for the first time in thirteen years, I reunited with some of my family members: an older brother and two sisters and an uncle whom I met for the first time. One older brother had died of AIDS, which I write about in this book (“Kampuchea”).
I returned to America in 1996 and lived in Lowell, Massachusetts, for seven years. This was when I started to read the work of Jack Kerouac and understand the city through the prism of his life experience and spirituality. Lowell has the second-largest Cambodian community outside of Cambodia, only Long Beach in Southern California has more Cambodians and Cambodian Americans. Today in Lowell, sixty-one percent of Cambodians are foreign-born while thirty-nine percent are U.S. citizens by birth.
While working full time in the city, I would paint and write before and after work, inspired by poets and other writers and painters I had read about and the lives they had lived. I tried to live my own life, as free as Walt Whitman, by jotting down memories, celebrating my own body electric, journaling, documenting, reflecting on the road—the journey, all the sorrow and pain of a life and the world, the nostalgia for home and country, the people I met, what their lives would and could have been, the poverty and riches of man, the war and violence within nature, the wars and conflicts we fight, the battle for survival, the joy and sadness of life, its loneliness—my loneliness, laying down its own leaves of grass, the beautiful and ugly all in view, all within reach as other writers have paved the way, both to human torment and despair as well as to joy and human resilience.
Now, I live between countries as a native and adopted son. I travel the world to learn about and be in new cultures like I had done when I first arrived in the mountains of Colorado. History and people fascinate me. Visiting other places around the world, I learn about myself and what it’s like to be a free global citizen.
I am the son of two countries. I know Cambodia by birth and America by the life I’ve lived, by the books I’ve read. In English, I channel my understanding of human expression. I write this way, from the vegetable-and-fruit farm in Bolton, Massachusetts, where I live, and sometimes from Paris or Phnom Penh. I write while torn by confusion about where home is, the risk of stagnation, and the danger of being a body in stasis, writing with a mind in constant grief and a heart often too heavy to carry around.
Chath takes the reader of his poetry and the viewer of his art on a journey that uncovers one layer of truth at a time, about a country, two countries, more, people he’s known and loved, others he knows are finding ways of being amidst life’s ceaseless turnings of tragedy, hope and joy. The images cannot be casually viewed … they compel a thoughtful lingering presence, sensing their inspirations. The poetry insists on the reader wondering where the poet was when he was composing, what was he seeing, whose voices heard. Chath is a person of the world, not only of the places of his birth, his exile, and his return but of the world of intention to be aware, to care, to be passionate and compassionate. – Daffodil Lane
The fruit and vegetable farm in Bolton, Massachusetts allows Chath pierSath to practice his respect for nature and the sweat labor that unites his homeland with America.