"When a few Cambodians moved in, it wasn't bad. Now there's just too many of them. People have a nickname for this street. It used to be Highland Street. Now it's 'Thailand Street.' Everybody from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, they get the world handed to them on a platter."
—a white neighbor of Samath Chap
"Many years ago we all came from immigrant families—Italians, Jews, Irish. But there's a difference, because those were still considered Western, civilized types of living."
—Catherine Penn, who represents the Cambodians' district in the Revere City Council
Cambodian refugee Samath Chap, exhausted from his work on the night shift, was fast asleep at 3:30 one afternoon last July, when his mother-in-law frantically rousted him from bed. Flames were racing up the rear of the three-story wood-frame apartment house in which he and 36 other Cambodians lived. The old building was dry as tinder, and the fire was spreading rapidly. As he scrambled to safety through the acrid smoke with his children and neighbors, Chap grabbed his stereo, but virtually everything else he owned—from T-shirts to TV—was destroyed in the blaze. And so, for the second time in two years, Samath Chap, 33, and his family had to start over from scratch in the United States.
No proof of arson has been found, but Chap suspects the fire was set, as do state civil rights officials. There have been other suspicious fires at the homes of Cambodians nearby, including one that led to the arson conviction of a white man last year. Just a month earlier, a group of teenagers had hurled bricks and rocks at Chap's house. Young toughs have thrown beer bottles at him. His car has been vandalized nine times at the curb in front of his home. And last August Chap's friend Bun Vong, 35, a Bunker Hill Community College student and factory worker who had settled in Revere with his wife and two young daughters four years ago, died after a fight with two white men. There had been a minor traffic argument; one of the men had allegedly punched Vong, who fell to the pavement and fractured his skull. (The two men are free on bail awaiting trial for homicide.)
Still, Chap counts himself fortunate to be a resident of Revere, Mass., a working-class, overwhelmingly white city of 42,000 just northeast of Boston. He is one of more than 400,000 Southeast Asian refugees who have reached the U.S. in the past five years. Some 1,200 Cambodians have settled in Revere, crammed into a decaying neighborhood already festering with the frustrations of the poor. All of the Cambodians, like Chap, are survivors of the genocidal reign of the Communist Khmer Rouge, which killed as many as three million of the nation's seven million people. Two of those who died were Chap's children. Five others were his father and brother and his wife's father, brother and sister.
What follows is an account of a day in the life of Chap and his family in Revere, a glimpse at the struggles and triumphs of these newest Americans.
At 10 p.m., a couple of hours before his wife, Chanta, 30, gets home from her 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. factory shift, Chap is awakened by rock music from his clock radio. He bundles up in a corduroy parka and goes downstairs to the dark and silent street. He glances warily up and down the block as he walks to his car, afraid that the local hoods who often curse at him will be waiting to jump him. "All the time they say bad words to my people," Chap says in his melodic voice. "They don't like my people at all."
He climbs into his charcoal-gray '83 Bonneville and drives 18 miles through the chill New England night to his job manufacturing computer chips at Analog Devices Inc., Semiconductor Division. In Cambodia, before Pol Pot's revolution, Chap led a comfortable middle-class life as an official of a government gem-trading corporation. His first job in America—two months off the plane—had been as a night cleaner in a Boston hotel. The money was all right but there was no job security, so he went alone to Texas to try shrimp fishing. But that work frightened him: "Ocean too big, boat too small," he recalls. He returned to Massachusetts and worked at a plastics factory until friends referred him to this hi-tech job six months ago.
Chap exchanges friendly greetings with 11 other night workers, all of them white, who go to their widely separated work stations in a coldly lit, 180-foot-long room. He wraps a baby-blue Velcro band around his wrist and snaps on a coiled ground wire, attaching himself to a million-dollar computerized laser trimming machine. Standing, he stares into an eye-level television monitor at what appears to be a black-on-green aerial view of a city block. In fact, it is a magnified, pinhead-size circuit on a silicon wafer. Chap had never seen a computer in Cambodia, but now he deftly runs one as though playing a video game, maneuvering a toggle switch with his left hand while punching eight buttons with his right. He scans a cross-hair sight up and down the streets, then zooms in on a rooftop, fixing the cross-hairs on a chimney. After he punches some more buttons, the screen goes blank as the laser burns away resistor material.
Chap unhooks himself from the machine, copies a long series of numbers from a computer display to a chart and from that chart to another chart, walks over to a second machine and begins the identical process. Then he will go to a third machine, and then return to the first. He will do this all night, except for a 10-minute coffee break at 1:30 a.m. and a half-hour lunch at 4:30 a.m. He works amid the cacophony of the rumbling whoosh of computer cooling systems and the persistent high-pitched peeping of what sounds like a hopped-up cricket on a microphone—the machines' way of calling for a technician because something's gone wrong.
Chap takes home $190 a week. His wife takes home $290. She gets a lower hourly wage, but by assembling 45 fluorescent fixtures an hour instead of the expected 30, she earns substantial bonuses. "A lot of people are jealous of her," says Chap.
The elder two of Chap's three children, Kaliyan, 6, and Channara, 5, after a breakfast of rice and fried beef prepared by Chanta, wait at the front door for their father to return from work and drive them the half mile to the James A. Garfield Elementary School. Once there Kaliyan strides confidently into Mrs. Sweeney's first-grade class and hangs up her coat in Dinosaur Land at the back of the room. A natty dresser, she is the only girl in the room with ribbons in her hair, two pink bows to match her pink pants. After pledging allegiance to the flag along with her 27 classmates, 12 of whom are Cambodian, Kaliyan sits down to read about the happy black, white and Hispanic children who inhabit a book called Work and Play. Kaliyan needs only minimal tutoring in English and is expected to be at the top of her class next year. She shows no ill effects from having been born a four-pound baby in a Communist labor camp nor from the ordeal of her escape: When she was still an infant, Samath and Chanta drugged her with a smuggled pill to keep her quiet as they crept 40 miles to the Thai border, crossing fields by night and forests by day, skirting robbers, soldiers, tigers and land mines.
Across the hall in Miss Davis' kindergarten, where 18 of the 28 children are Cambodian, Channara is happily building a house with a blond friend. Yet the tensions in the community occasionally find their way even into this innocent world. "A white kid once said to me, 'My daddy says they have bugs in their hair,' " teacher Marion Davis notes. "I said, 'No, if they had bugs in their hair they couldn't come to school, and if you had bugs in your hair, neither could you.' " How can the children handle hearing that their parents are wrong? "When they're home, their parents are right. When they're here, I'm right," says Miss Davis. "They're five year olds. The world doesn't make sense to them anyway."
Chap sits on the spare bed that serves as the living-room sofa, puzzling over a PTA sign-up form from his children's school. The form emphasizes that it costs only $3 a year to join the PTA, and that the PTA is a very good thing to join, but it doesn't say what PTA stands for. There is also a card advising parents to listen to the radio for snow cancelations. Chap shivers just reading it. "In my country they don't have snow time," he says. "The first winter here was very difficult, because we never heard about the cold. Twenty or 15 degrees, and then 10 degrees—we never heard of this."
Chap's friend Sok Khar, covered with plaster dust from his temporary job as a laborer, comes home for lunch. (Sok Khar is not his real name. He asks not to be identified because he is embarrassed that he has been unable to find full-time work and receives public assistance.) Khar, who fought as a marine for the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime until its collapse, got to know Chap in the camps as they labored under the guns of Pol Pot's soldiers, chopping wood 18 hours a day, seven days a week. In Revere, when the Chaps were burned out of their home, Khar said, "Stay with me. We got enough rice."
Chap, Chanta and their three children share one 10-foot-square bedroom—the kids sleep on blankets on the floor—in the $450-a-month, three-bedroom apartment. Khar, his wife and three small children share the second bedroom, and the third is occupied by a young married couple while they look for a home of their own. Chanta's mother and younger sister, who live in an apartment across the street with her aunt, spend most of their time in Khar's home, helping with the cooking and cleaning and caring for the children.
"I don't like to live like this," says Chap. "It's too crowded. I'd like to live between the town and the country. What do you call it? The suburb. Then we have space for the children."
Chap speaks better English than most of the Cambodians—he learned it working as an assistant to an American administrator during his three-year stay in the Thai refugee camp where his two younger children were born. So he was able to find apartments, in other towns, for three of the families burned out of his building. But he hasn't had any luck finding one for his own family, who have to stay in Revere so Chanta can share a ride to work. "I have newspaper ad with phone number," he recounts. "I call. They say 'rented.' Next week I see in the paper that the apartment is still there. I call again. They say 'rented.' They hear I sound Cambodian."
In the kitchen, Chanta's sister Sokhom, 24, and mother Yen Prom, 55, have laid a green-and-white plastic tablecloth on the linoleum floor, and Khar and his three children sit on their haunches around it, eating the pre-served-turnip omelette the women have given them. The tiny kitchen table is used as a sideboard. Meanwhile, Sokhom, wearing an orange-and-black Cambodian sarong decorated with Hindu gods and a red-and-white athletic jersey with pandas on it, sits on the floor with one knee tucked to her chest, chopping chicken on a wooden block. She is preparing the next meal in the endless cycle of cooking and cleaning for the 12 people who live in the apartment and the many relatives and friends who feel at home there. On the stove a pan of fried beef, two pots of rice and a pot of bamboo shoots with fish are already simmering. On the counter are half-empty bottles of First World brand fish sauce and Purity Supreme catsup.
Channara bounds in, back from kindergarten. She presents Chap with her meticulously colored-in lesson of the day—an exercise in shapes and colors. Chap takes out a three-ring binder in which all her papers are kept, but before adding this latest work he shows her how to sign her name to it, guiding her hand as she prints the English letters.
Channara's mother, Chanta, who speaks little English, picks up a blue crayon and asks, "What color?" "Blue," the little girl replies proudly. "What color?" asks Chanta, holding up a red crayon. "Red," says Channara. "What color?" asks Chanta, holding up an orange crayon. "Orange," says Channara. Chanta knits her brow and looks quizzically at Chap. "You don't know!" he says with a smile and gives her a playful shove.
The Chap's youngest, son Pheakdey, 3, never one to miss his share of attention, carries over a battery-operated truck and asks in Cambodian for his dad to manipulate its movable parts until it becomes a walking, machine-gun-shooting robot. (Chap speaks Cambodian at home about half the time, hoping his children will be bilingual.)
"He-man!" Pheakdey exclaims in English. "They watch TV," Chap explains, "and see things and say, 'Oh, buy this! Buy that!' I try to sleep and Pheakdey wakes me up and says, 'Let's go shopping.' "
Chap can't do much shopping. The only things he owns are his smoke-stained stereo and his car. He looks around the apartment, decorated with odd pieces of used furniture that were contributed by Revere church groups, as were the clothes on his back. "I don't have nothing," he says without bitterness. "Everything is burned down."
Chap seems less concerned about his material loss than about the blow to his people's reputation that he fears the fire caused. "They say the fire was an accident. So people say, 'Cambodians very bad, they start fires.' " Chap is an unlikely political activist—"At first I did not report trouble to police because I don't know how. Also I was afraid of police"—but now he is sending a letter to every government official he can think of, arguing that he and his neighbors were the victims of arson, to set the record straight.
Chanta is more prone to depression about the fire. "Every day I tell her, 'Don't be upset. Forget it. We're still alive. When you come to this country, did you have TV? Did you have video? We don't need that.' Sometime I get upset, I buy two or three cans beer, go to sleep and forget it."
Some things are impossible to forget. While in the forced labor camp in Cambodia, Chap and Chanta, subsisting on rice soup, watched helplessly as their 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son died of malnutrition. "But I keep remembering. We didn't know how to help them at all. I get very upset. I try to remember that nobody escapes dying. Some people live 60 years. Some people live one day. But in my country at that time, very bad luck for the people alive. Very good luck for the people who die." Chap's eyes fill with tears. He decides that it's a good time to watch Khar's television.
Chanta's sister is polishing the knobs on the kitchen stove.
Chap turns off MTV, which has been playing quietly in the background, and plunks a cassette, rented by Chanta's brother, who lives downstairs, into Khar's VCR. Sharing the last hours before he goes to sleep and she goes to work, Chap and Chanta sit arm in arm on the spare bed in the living room, with Chanta's mother beside them, to watch Raiders of Buddhist Kung Fu, a Hong Kong-made karate movie dubbed in English. The good guys wear black and the bad guys wear white. Chanta groans at the bloodiest parts, and during lulls in the action repeats English phrases from the dialogue.
As the adults devote their attention to the martial mayhem on the screen, Channara sits with her back to the TV, crayoning on a piece of scrap paper. She is singing quietly to herself: "Red and yellow and blue and green/Purple and orange and brown/I can see a rainbow/I can see a rainbow/All around my town." From time to time she breaks into a different song—Madonna
's Like a Virgin.
Chap beams proudly at his Americanized 5 year old. He longs for the day when his family can become citizens. "In this country we have peace," he says. "Everything is right. Everything is fair." At 5 o'clock he goes to bed. He gets four or five hours of sleep, then steps warily into the night.