“I want my kids to know who they are and where they come from.”
Chhovy Pich is a pop singer who was born in Tonle Bati, a farming village in Cambodia. During the Khmer Rogue, she was sent away by her family to flee the country, was adopted by a government embassy worker, and immigrated to Long Beach, California.
Chhovy Pich still remembers the horrors of the Khmer Rogue, which she witnessed as a young girl in the Cambodian countryside, and the pain of being separated from her family.
Born in 1965 , she was the fifth child of seven. Her parents, who were farmers , were loving, warm and peaceful. But once the Khmer Rogue’s reign of terror began, everything changed — and death and destruction became the norm. There were school days when students would have to duck under their desks as bombs dropped daily. When the bombings ceased, class would resume as usual.
“I saw people get killed every day,” Chhovy said. “I saw dead bodies floating down the Bangkok river. It was normal for us.” She’s never forgotten the sight of those corpses.
After being forced to flee the countryside to the city, Chhovy’s family did whatever they could to survive. With resources scarce, however, it was hard to even put enough food on the table. In a desperate attempt to save at least one of her children, her mother hatched a plan with a government employee who worked at the embassy. The then-10-year-old Chhovy was sent with him to escape Cambodia, to Vietnam and then the United States. “My mom said she wanted me to have a better life,” Chhovy remembers. “I missed my mom. I missed my dad. I cried every night and just went to sleep.”
Upon arriving in Vietnam, her adopted father tried to pass her off as his biological daughter born of an affair with a mistress. The plan worked, fooling his parents, his wife and his son. However, the lie only served to aggravate the ire of Chhovy’s stepmother. So Chhovy grew up facing verbal and physical abuse from both parents: her stepmother, who truly believed Chhovy to be the daughter of a mistress, and her adopted father, who strictly enforced traditional expectations. To this day, no one in the family, least of all Chhovy, understands the reason for why he lied about her true parentage.
After arriving in Long Beach on the bottom of a warship, the family settled in their new country, where her adopted father was instrumental in establishing Little Cambodia. And Chhovy, despite the strange lie she was forced to live, thrived here. She met her loving husband, with whom she raised a beautiful family, and joined protests and awareness efforts to fight for her home country’s true independence and success.
The one thing that Chhovy was able to hold onto from her old life was her passion for singing — both she and her husband are professional pop singers — and it proved to be a way back home for her. After the couple recorded a singing tape, it somehow found its way into her birth mother’s hands back in Cambodia.
Chhovy’s mother instantly recognized her voice, even after decades of separation. “She was like, ‘That’s my daughter! That’s my daughter’s voice!’” Chhovy recalled. Through the contact information on the tape, she was able to reunite with her mother. And much to Chhovy’s delight, she found that all of her sisters were still alive, having managed to survive both the war and the Khmer Rouge.
“I am very proud to be Cambodian,” she said. “I want my kids to know who they are and where they come from. Even when I’m gone, I want [my kids] to tell their kids.”