Photos by Paolo Vescia
The monsoon season is nearly over, Puon Penn ’92 thinks as he travels south on Highway 1 from Phnom Penh, looking out at the swollen Mekong. But with the rains beginning to subside, the river probably won’t breach its banks.
It is Sunday, and Puon, an executive at Wells Fargo, is taking a day off from the work he has come to oversee in the crowded Cambodian capital. About 20 kilometers away is Kien Svay, a serene village where picturesque shacks rise out of the river, supported on stilts. In one of these is a restaurant where just the memory of the rotisserie chicken makes his mouth water.
Puon enters the restaurant and takes a seat on a mat at the edge of the deck. He orders his meal and, reaching over the deck, trails his hand through the river. Boat merchants move steadily past, offering homemade gifts, snack foods, and flowers. A small boat approaches with an old woman in the bow cradling a woven basket. As Puon looks into the basket, he recoils. It is filled with fried grasshoppers. The wake from the boat laps against the deck, and Puon is transported back to a time when you could be shot for eating locusts.
Puon was four years old in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia. At first, people in his village of Don Noy were overjoyed that the long civil war—during which his father and two siblings died—was finally at an end. But the nightmare was just beginning. Newspapers, radio, and television stations were shut down. Money, private ownership, and religion were banned. City dwellers were forced to become agricultural laborers. You could be punished for wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language.
Droves of urban refugees began pouring into Don Noy with no idea of how to survive in the countryside, what to eat, or how to farm.
Angka (“The Organization”) controlled what people wore, what they ate, how they spent their waking hours. Puon was placed in a camp designed to transform children into fanatic communists. He silently watched other children being rewarded for revealing that their parents were only posing as peasants and were thus enemies of the state.
As the Cambodian economy collapsed, food became scarce. Sustenance was limited to a daily bowl of rice gruel. Soon people were dying from starvation. Although foraging for food was a capital offense, Puon and his family hunted for anything they could eat—even grasshoppers.
“At some point,” Puon says, “your hunger takes over any fear of consequences.”
In December 1978, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and steamrolled across the country. Within months it reached one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds, the province of Banteay Meanchey, where the Penn family lived. As the Khmer army retreated, people fled into the jungle. One night Puon’s uncle, who lived in Thailand, sneaked across the border and told Mrs. Penn that the chaos was making it difficult for the Khmer Rouge to control movements. This was her opportunity to get out of Cambodia.
“My mother had to make a difficult decision,” Puon remembers. Her elderly father was too frail to make the journey and might not survive for long without her. But her children had no future in Cambodia. “It was heartrending,” he says. “But she made the decision to leave.”
Fighting back tears and taking care to avoid land mines and Khmer Rouge patrols, the family crossed the border under cover of darkness. They were immediately picked up by Thai border guards, who held them for weeks in an open field without shelter until a refugee camp could be staged. They were transferred to a camp in Bangkok for six months, where Puon first touched a book, probably an illustrated Bible. Years later, he realized that the illustration he used to gaze at depicted Daniel in the lion’s den.
The Penns were selected for a lottery that placed refugees in a variety of countries, and by luck of the draw were chosen to go to Linden, Michigan (population 2,861), about a half hour from Flint, where a local church sponsored them. On a freezing October day, well-meaning Christians in thick quilted jackets met them at the airport. The Penns didn’t speak English, and the Americans in their down-filled coats seemed like aliens. But Puon says his family received their new blessings “like manna from heaven.”
Puon’s elder siblings worked to support themselves from the time they arrived in the United States. To support her two younger children, his mother depended on welfare and food stamps. “In spite of the fact that my mother never had a chance to go to school, she is probably the wisest person I know,” he says. “She is an excellent leader with a killer instinct to survive. I learned all of that from her.”
In 1983 they moved to Stockton, California. In high school, Puon showed an aptitude for biology and chemistry. He got a summer job at the University of the Pacific as a research assistant to Michael Minch, a chemistry professor who suggested he apply to Reed College because it had one of the strongest undergraduate biology and chemistry departments in the country.
Puon could barely afford the application fee and wondered how he would pay for an education at Reed. But Minch’s encouragement helped overcome his reluctance, and he applied.
“After submitting my application I was overcome with fear, more of getting in than not,” Puon says. “I had the sinking feeling that Dr. Minch or any of the great teachers I had in high school would do something foolish like raid their family savings to help a completely unproven nobody.”