“I cannot and will not complain”
His name was Samdang Sam and he was my brother. He died of starvation a little before his second birthday. I never met him, but he’s probably the person who has most impacted my life.
My mother always had unique – and often creative – ways for disciplining me. She followed the tradition of strict and harsh discipline such as physical beatings, found in most Cambodian households, with horrific stories of the struggles she and my father endured to make it to America. My parents are survivors of one the most gruesome genocides known to man. Approximately two million people were brutally murdered in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, a communist regime led by Pol Pot. Once Pot was in power and gained control of Cambodia, my parents and Samdang, like all of the other citizens, were forced into a life of slavery.
They were sent to labor camps and their sole purpose was to harvest rice that fed the regime. My parents were led to work at sun-up and my brother was given to caretakers in the camp. I use the term caretakers loosely because care meant leaving the kids of the camp in a fenced area, guarded by soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, to wait for their parents. If they were disrespectful or fought amongst themselves, they were immediately executed. My mother told me how she cried every waking moment, not from working like a mule in the rice fields, being whipped and beaten for resting because of exhaustion, or being fed one spoon of rice a day, but from the fear that she might not see her child when she returned.
Samdang was an energetic and playful child. My mother spoke of how he always smiled, even in the midst of the tragedy that unfolded. However, as time passed his playfulness and smiles dissipated because he just didn’t have the energy. Needless to say, one spoonful of rice is nowhere nutritionally adequate for grown adults, let alone a developing infant. He grew weaker and weaker.
One story in particular that my mother shared stuck with me. One day my father was working in the rice fields and by accident stepped on a baby crab. He immediately used his weight to hold it captive until the coast was clear for him to reach down and grab it. My father tucked the crab in the inner lining of his pant uniform and continued to work. Once he returned to the camp, he waited until nightfall to make his move. There were bon fires ignited throughout the camp and my father walked by one, threw the crab in, and came back for it a few minutes later. He then returned to Samdang with this crab, its shell burnt to a crisp, but with the meat cooked enough to eat. My mother explained how hard it was for them to see their weak child slowly eat this small crab while they, too, were starving. Shortly after, Samdang died in my mother’s arms.
I don’t know if she knew at the time, or even realizes today, how this story continues to directly and indirectly guide how I live my life. Through her stories I learned the meaning of sacrifice, courage, and love. I learned that I have absolutely nothing to complain about and everything to appreciate. I cannot and will not complain because complaining focuses only on the negative, and my parents taught me that their survival depended on their optimism and the fierce fighting spirit of love for their family. I cannot and will not complain because I’ve learned that the true measure of human worthiness is not what we gain, but in the sacrifices we are willing to make for the people we love and the ideals we believe. I cannot and will not complain because I come from strong and proud people who through the worst time in their history maintained their identity, their culture, and their overwhelming love for life. I cannot and will not complain because I am the next generation of a great family that passed on their hopes, dreams, vision, and strength to me so their loving spirit may survive for many years to come, and serve as a clear and shining example of human dignity and character.
Most importantly, I cannot and will never complain or ever take anything in my life for granted because until his last moment my brother never did.
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