Unlocking family history in 'Before Me' : Code Switch It wasn't until Lisa Phu had her own child that she started unlocking her mother's history. In her new 5-part series called Before Me, Lisa asks her mother, Lan, the questions she should have asked years ago. Lisa tells us what she learned in getting to know Lan in this way.

Unlocking family history in 'Before Me'

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, y'all? You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. And today, I want to ask a question I've been thinking about a lot lately. And that's how well do we know our parents - like, who they were before and outside of being our parents? We know the broad biographical details of their lives, like when and where they were born, where they went to school, how they met each other. But a lot of their lives before us can be kind of opaque. Maybe we just never really got around to asking them about it. Maybe they didn't get around to telling us about it. Or maybe they didn't tell us a lot of stuff about themselves because talking about those things is just so hard.

All those dynamics were true for Lisa Phu and her mother, Lan. There were so many things Lisa didn't know about her mother's life before her mother moved to the U.S. when she was fleeing the war in Cambodia, which meant there were a whole bunch of things that Lisa didn't know about herself, like the fact that Lisa is ethnically Chinese. Lisa didn't find that out until she was in her 20s. It was like one of those big-deal things that they just never got around to talking about for some reason. That's probably something a lot of us can relate to, like not having a lot of practice being open and gracious with our parents. But a few years ago, Lisa gave birth to her first daughter, Acacia, and her mother came to meet her first grandchild but also to take care of Lisa for a little while.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BEFORE ME")

LAN PHU: Yes.

LISA PHU: Isn't she cute, though?

LAN PHU: Yes, she's cute. Yes. She's adorable (laughter).

LISA PHU: Your first grandkid.

LAN PHU: First grandkid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: And that time wasn't exactly easy. Like, a lot of their old points of tension still resurfaced. They were still there. But the two of them started talking - like, really talking about motherhood and about Lan's life before she was Lisa's mother, back in Cambodia, when she left her oldest daughter behind to escape a civil war and the genocide. And that turned out to be the beginning of a conversation they kept having for years. And Lisa, being a journalist, was like, all right, I should report out my mother's story. And the result of all of that reporting is a moving new podcast called, appropriately, "Before Me." We caught up with Lisa Phu to talk about her podcast, her mom and herself.

LISA PHU: I would write about my family's past, my family's story at various points in my life, and I knew I had all these holes and gaps in the story. It was like, OK, I need to get this right sometime.

DEMBY: So you were getting the details, like, in dribs and drabs but not as, like, the story-story.

LISA PHU: Yeah. I mean, you know, I grew up with only a fragmented understanding of my mom and my family's story before I was born. They first came to America two months before I was born. My mom was pregnant with me during her escape, her time in the refugee camp and her coming to America. So I grew up knowing some things, you know - that they were refugees from Cambodia, that they escaped by boat, that my dad wasn't around because he was arrested at some point during the escape.

DEMBY: Wow.

LISA PHU: So I knew these, like, little things and grew up. You know, the years passed. But I always had this, like, child understanding of their story. So, yeah, I mean, it was just - I loved writing. It just - it always seemed to me, at some point, I would find out what happened and write about it.

DEMBY: Why did you decide to tell the story now, in this moment?

LISA PHU: I discovered that I loved audio storytelling and got my first job in public radio. And so I figured that the story ought to be told in an audio format. And then I had my first daughter. And she was going to come visit for three weeks. And just logistically, it was like, we're together for three weeks. So I'm going to start this interview.

DEMBY: Right. If this is what is going to happen, if it's going to happen, it's going to happen now.

LISA PHU: Yes. Yeah. And I think for my mom, that was a big turning point for her sharing the stories. And it's because she thought that because I was becoming a parent that I could start to understand. So I think for my mom, it was like me becoming a parent was part of the key to, like, unlocking things.

DEMBY: When my wife became a mother, she said that her own mother became way more legible to her, right? Like, just all of the stuff that they had in common and didn't have in common, it became much easier to see, like, how her mom made certain decisions, like, what her mom's motivations were. And that was, like, sort of an unspoken thing. They didn't have a testy relationship at all, but I think her mother just, like, made more sense to her. You know what I mean?

LISA PHU: Yeah.

DEMBY: And, like, they have this giant thing in common now. They have motherhood in common.

LISA PHU: Yeah. You know, aside from this project of, like, hearing all these stories and trying to, like, figure out who I am by understanding my past more, you know, by understanding my mom's story, there are, like, so many little things about my mom that I understand more by being a parent, even stuff like, as a parent, you hide things for your - from your kids for, like, various reasons, right? Like, you don't want to have them eat a snack or, like, a present. And I'm, like, totally - so my mom would, like, forget where she hid things. And we'd be like, Mom, how could you forget? You know? And now it's like...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

LISA PHU: ...You know, the holiday season, and I'm, like, slowly buying stuff, and I'm like, where did I put all of that stuff?

(LAUGHTER)

LISA PHU: So I mean, those are, like, totally small things that I'm understanding more about my mom that really have nothing to do with the podcast. But...

(LAUGHTER)

LISA PHU: It's helpful nonetheless, you know?

DEMBY: Absolutely. There's this moment early on in the podcast where your mom is telling this really difficult story. She's remembering her oldest daughter. And she's clearly crying. And as I was listening, I was just really curious about what you were feeling in that moment as she was sharing this story and this emotion with you. Had you heard that story before?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LISA PHU: No, I never had heard that story before. You know, I - growing up, I knew that my mom had another daughter. And, you know, in my mind, I was like, oh, she died during the war of illness. Like, it was just like, I filled in the holes myself. And so when I asked my mom what happened, like, I had no idea, no idea of any of the details of that. So it was really hard to hear her tell it and to hear her get emotional. I mean, growing up, I think I heard my mom cry once ever. She's, like, such a strong woman. And so during this interview process, she did it a few times. And that was really hard, to know that me asking these questions was bringing up this pain.

And even now, like, as the story is coming out into the world, I wonder if I'm being responsible with the stories and her feelings. And, you know, she listened to the first episode and - when it came out. And she sent me a text just like, great job, you know, this was good. And I was kind of like, phew, you know? Like, I felt OK. But when we talked the other night, she thanked me, which I was not expecting at all. But she said that, you know, the stories had been in her. And they were kind of, like, burning, and that to get them out was like, you know, a release. And so that was just - that was amazing for me to hear.

DEMBY: You say that the two of you both missed just a lot of opportunities to talk about her past. Your mother would mention something about her life. And, like, neither of you would really dwell on it, even when it was a pretty powerful sort of remark.

LISA PHU: Yeah.

DEMBY: You said that, like, you didn't even know you were ethnically Chinese until you were an adult, until you were around 20. Like, what did you - (laughter) what did you think you were before then? Like, what did you think your family story was before then in terms of, like, how they identified ethnically?

LISA PHU: You know, I had heard a lot about Cambodia, obviously, and Vietnam. And I thought I was part one of those.

DEMBY: Right.

LISA PHU: It's, like, ridiculous to be like, I didn't know which part of one of those I thought I was.

(LAUGHTER)

LISA PHU: But I...

DEMBY: Sure.

LISA PHU: The summer after my sophomore year in college, I went on my first backpacking trip - and, you know, a total tourist backpacker, went through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand. And when I came home and told my mom that, like, oh, it was so cool to be in Vietnam and feel so connected, you know, to our family and our culture. And my mom kind of, like, turns to me, looks at me and was like, you are Chinese. You are 100% Chinese blood.

DEMBY: Wow.

LISA PHU: And I was like, oh.

(LAUGHTER)

LISA PHU: And that was seriously the first time I ever realized that.

DEMBY: Wow.

LISA PHU: It's weird to think that I didn't ask questions. But I think that was just my, like, default mode growing up and a lot of my early adulthood.

DEMBY: How did the way you think about your identity change once you learn that you were Chinese? Like, I imagine you don't suddenly feel, like, Chinese. But, like, how did you feel after you had this information?

LISA PHU: So it's not like I didn't know I was Chinese. I just didn't know that was all I was, right? And I don't know. Like, it was - I think it was more that, like, when she told me that, it was, like, such a, like, wakeup call to, like, how much I did not know. But yeah, I've always struggled being Chinese, so it wasn't like that made that struggle more.

DEMBY: You said you always struggled with being Chinese? Can you say a little bit more about that?

LISA PHU: You know, my family was sponsored over by the Chappaqua Friends Meeting house. And, you know, it was - we had a great upbringing. And I was raised in Chappaqua, N.Y., which is - you know, it's - there's all kinds of people who live there. But it's quite affluent. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

LISA PHU: So I grew up in that environment and grew up with - around whiteness and would say that that was my primary association when it came to friends, culture - and a lot of pushing away from being different and being Chinese. And...

DEMBY: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LISA PHU: You know, where my mom was trying to force it on me, it largely was not who I was.

DEMBY: Right.

LISA PHU: But then, like, me trying to, in my 20s, in my early adulthood, try to, like, embody that more and realizing that, like, it was so hard. And it's something that I still struggle with as a parent. And, you know, like, I know, like, you became a parent in the past few years, right?

DEMBY: Last year, yeah.

LISA PHU: Yeah. So it's just like - I'm married to a white man. So, like, having mixed kids - there's just a lot. There's a lot there.

DEMBY: Yeah. Yeah, as I'm learning.

LISA PHU: Yeah.

DEMBY: My wife is Indian, and so we're raising a child who is Black and Indian, not half Black, half Indian, but Black and Indian. How do you think through these things? Like, how do you build community around the child so that they feel that they have purchase and, you know, and belonging in these very different spaces?

LISA PHU: Yeah. Do you think you're doing it correctly?

DEMBY: Oh, I have no idea.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: I have no idea. I hope so. I want to shift gears a bit. Speaking of assimilation, you know immigration can be a really traumatic experience, even for people who move to a new country of their own volition. But it's especially traumatic for refugee and asylum-seekers like your mom, where the precipitating event for them moving is often some kind of catastrophe. So I wanted to ask you, how do you think her trauma showed up in your life as you were growing up?

LISA PHU: You know, the impetus for wanting to do this was knowing that, like, yeah, my family, they were refugees and that they survived this horrific thing. And, like, what was that horrific thing? Like, I wanted to know, right? Like, I wanted to know the stories and the details. And when she told them to me, I was - like, it's impossible for me to process and understand. But, like, what the series does - it goes, like, beyond the Khmer Rouge and the genocide. She shares so much about her childhood and growing up and how much she loved Cambodia. And, like, she talks so longingly about the food that she had there. And she says this thing, which surprised me, which was that, like, oh, I never wanted to come here, you know? I didn't want to come to America. I knew it was going to be cold. (Laughter) Like, she was like, I wanted to stay in Cambodia.

DEMBY: Right.

LISA PHU: It was so amazing for me to hear that side of her and, I think, for her to, like, go back to that place because a lot of it, obviously, is sad and tragic.

DEMBY: What do you think you would have told your children about your mother if your mother had never opened up to you for this project?

LISA PHU: You know, instead of me trying to answer your question, which is, like, what I would have said if I didn't get these - hadn't done this project - I mean, that was my goal, was to record her voice, her laughter, her talking about her past and have that be something that I can directly pass down to them. So that was just really important for me to give to them.

DEMBY: So many of us are really unpracticed in having, like, really intimate conversations with our parents, right? Like, that seems so weird because, you know, we spend our whole - or most of our early lives, like, in their care. We live with them. But, like, our parents are like these giant cyphers in a lot of ways, right? Like, I want to have a conversation with my mom, like you had with yours. And the thought of all of the stuff we'd have to get through to do that is so scary. It's just, like, so daunting and so frustrating. Like, I'm already annoyed, and I haven't even asked a question yet, you know?

LISA PHU: (Laughter) Yeah. No, I totally feel that. And I went through all of that as well. The thing, OK, that I can use as, like, the carrot, like, the motivation - right? - besides getting the answers and the stories - right? - is that, like, when I pressed record, our relationship transformed. Like, there wasn't the typical mother-daughter tension that's normally there because, you know, maybe the informal act of sitting down and doing this really foreign thing actually brings out the real people of who you two are, you know, because you're not doing the same thing, the same routine, that same relationship. It's like you're doing something brand new. And it was the best times of that visit. You know, like, I remember - I interviewed her during a few different times, but, like, that first trip, her last night, there was almost an urgency from both of us to share what she could, for me to ask those, like, questions.

DEMBY: Because she knew she was leaving.

LISA PHU: Yeah. So as hard and as - or just, like, challenging or, like, emotionally fraught, it is, like, it's just, like, totally worth it. And almost - it's like those things, like, just fall away when you're in this, like, dynamic of the recorder's on, and I care about you and want to hear these questions. And she's caring about me and trusting me with her answers and her stories. She knew I truly cared, and I was making space for it. We're still the same people. She'll still nag me, and I'll still get annoyed (laughter).

DEMBY: Yep. Yep.

LISA PHU: But I'm, like, so grateful for her. I always have been. And I think this just gives me, like, another layer of gratitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Coming up, Lisa and her mother, Lan, sit down for an intimate conversation in the first episode of "Before Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BEFORE ME")

LISA PHU: Well, you know, just ask you some questions about your life.

LAN PHU: My life? Oh, my god. It's a long story.

DEMBY: Stay with us.

Gene - just Gene this week - CODE SWITCH. We've been talking to the journalist Lisa Phu about her new podcast, which is called "Before Me." It's from Self Evident Media, and it's a five-part story that follows the life of Lisa's mother, Lan, as she fled the war and genocide in Cambodia. And you're about to hear the first installment of Lisa's podcast, where she and Lan talk about everything from motherhood to immigration to loss. Just a note that this episode includes descriptions of death during war, acts of genocide and family separation. And with that, I'll turn it over to Lisa and Lan.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BEFORE ME")

LISA PHU: Hi, Mom.

LAN PHU: Hi.

LISA PHU: Welcome.

LAN PHU: Oh, wow. She's very good size. She's beautiful. Yes (laughter).

LISA PHU: This was the first time my mom met my daughter, Acacia, five days after she was born. It was early October 2016, and my mom had just flown from New York to my home in Juneau, Alaska.

LAN PHU: More beautiful than pictures.

LISA PHU: Isn't she?

LAN PHU: This photo, yeah. Can you see her?

LISA PHU: Yeah. He'll do another one.

SCOTT: Does she look more like me, Lan, or like Lisa?

LAN PHU: Oh, I think she definitely looks more like you.

LISA PHU: I think it's the case for many grandparents, but my mom would transform with Acacia. She laughed differently, and she laughed a lot. I was convinced she was having more fun with Acacia than I was.

LAN PHU: Look at her forehead. Look at that forehead. Everyone said that's her daddy's forehead (laughter).

LISA PHU: But the...

LAN PHU: She's half and half, yeah.

LISA PHU: Half and half.

LAN PHU: Yes.

LISA PHU: Isn't she cute, though?

LAN PHU: Yes, she's cute. Yes. She's adorable.

LISA PHU: Your first grandkid.

LAN PHU: First grandkid.

LISA PHU: It was amazing to see my mom act this way. But it was also mixed with a lot of stress for me. My mom is a small woman who might be easily overlooked, but she loves starting up conversations with strangers. She can be brutally honest with restaurant waitstaff when they ask her how the food is, and she knows how to make an impression.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LISA PHU: This is what I wrote in my journal after our first full day together. (Reading) Day 1 with Mom makes me feel like it's going to be a long three weeks. But I also have to remind myself to be appreciative and enjoy the time and try not to argue with her.

But we had epic fights, fights where we both shouted and screamed and made each other cry, the kind of fights where you just keep pushing and pushing, wanting to hurt the other. At one point I even told her maybe she should leave a week early because I knew that would crush her. This sounds crazy now, but I resented her helping me, telling me to nap when Acacia was sleeping, scolding me for lifting something heavy, offering to fold laundry. In my everyday life, I do fine without my mom's help. So I thought, why should this time be any different? I wasn't able to accept her assistance happily.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LISA PHU: Of course, she was a mother, too. And in the middle of all this, she told me what happened after she gave birth to her first baby in her home country of Cambodia.

LAN PHU: I kind of moved to my mom just for a few months so she could take care of me because the Chinese tradition that within 100 days you're not allowed to lift, to do anything, to cook. You know, for a woman, it's the only luxurious time, only vacation time, when you have the baby. Usually they give you a hundred days.

LISA PHU: Luxurious? Vacation? Didn't she have to get up at all hours of the night?

LAN PHU: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I was breastfeeding. I mean, it's the same thing. The baby's hungry. You had to feed. I changed her diaper. I don't think we have diaper before. So we did use a cloth. And my mom the one have to wash all the cloth, deal with the poops, you know? She take care of my - all my laundry by hand. We didn't have a machine then. That's a big thing for woman, you know? They don't expect us to do laundry within that hundred days. And she cook - she make - you know, she cook for me. And the tradition - I tell you, very spicy pork with a lot of peppercorn - teriyaki style, add a little peppercorn. That's one way. And another way is the pork slice thin and slow fry with ginger and scallion. We always eat that, pretty much every single day because they believe that will strengthen the baby's stomach.

LISA PHU: She had tried to tell me about the pork, and I had brushed it off as crazy talk. But it was all important. She had been trying to tell me all along.

This is likely obvious to everyone else, but my mom wasn't visiting me at one of the hardest times of my life to make it even harder. She wasn't offering to help because she thought I couldn't handle it or because she thought I was doing it wrong. She wasn't even there just to help. She was fulfilling a tradition. This is just what a Chinese mom does. She takes care of her daughter after she gives birth. This was a revelation to me. And afterward, I started accepting her help without resentment. I was able to nap and appreciate waking up to her cooking in the kitchen. The sounds and smells of someone else making dinner all of a sudden became miraculous. It did feel luxurious. And by accepting her help, I was simply fulfilling my role as a Chinese daughter. I can't say the rest of the visit was argument-free, but there was a lot more room for patience and understanding.

My whole life, I've grown up knowing there was so much I didn't know about my family's past. Not just cultural traditions, but things like, what did happen to my mom's first daughter? I remember writing a story when I was 6 or 7 about meeting this sister on a magic carpet ride. I've always had a narrative about what came before me, but it was something I put together from bits and pieces that I had overheard. At various points of my life, when I tried writing about it, I always got something wrong. My mom would issue the corrections and edits after the school essay had been turned in or the magazine story published. For instance, I didn't know I was ethnically Chinese until I was 20 years old. Up until then, I thought I was also part Cambodian or Vietnamese, since these were the countries I heard most about growing up. I never asked my mom the most basic questions, but us being in the same location together for three weeks was my opportunity to finally do just that.

Well, you know, just ask you some questions about your life.

LAN PHU: My life. Oh, my God. It's long story.

LISA PHU: I'm Lisa Phu, and you're listening to "Before Me," the five-part story that follows my mom's journey from Cambodia to America and the long overdue conversation that helped us connect over our family's history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LISA PHU: In the years before my mom had her first child, her life was filled with uncertainty. She lived in Kampot in the southern part of the country. When she was a teenager, the Vietnam War was going on next door, seeping into Cambodia. In 1969, the U.S. began bombing Cambodia in hopes of destroying Vietnamese communist camps and supply bases.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: Attacks are being launched this week to clean out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border. This is the decision I have made.

LISA PHU: At the same time, Cambodia was having its own war between the Cambodian Republic and the domestic communist group called the Khmer Rouge.

In the midst of all this, my mom got married. She was 17. My dad, Ky Song, was 26. Both my mom and dad are Chinese and come from families who immigrated to Cambodia. After getting married, my mom immediately moved in with his family. And soon after, they had their first child. Her name was Ah Lee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAN PHU: Your father - he had nothing to do with the baby. He did not wake up at night. He did not know how to change diapers. You know, it's not part of the man's responsibility in the Chinese culture.

LISA PHU: When they had their first kid, my mom and Ky Song still lived in Kampot. By the way, I didn't grow up with my dad, so I sometimes refer to him as Ky Song. He fixed watches and clocks for a living, and my mom ran a small business at the market, selling stuff like candy and laundry detergent. My parents and Ah Lee lived with Ky Song's parents and his brother's family. Ky Song's brother was Ky Jok. And Ky Jok had six children. Living with extended family, growing up with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, that was the norm. My mom said Ah Lee was a lovable baby. She even won the affection of Ky Song's father, who normally didn't care for girls. He didn't like his own daughter and didn't pay attention to his other granddaughters.

LAN PHU: However, he liked my daughter very much. Yeah. So he asked me come to take a peek of her when she sleep. And he stare at her, you know? He just love her (laughter). Very unusual.

LISA PHU: You don't know why?

LAN PHU: I don't know why. But she's so easy. She's very easy baby. She's so cute. She is so cute (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LISA PHU: Life was relatively normal - normal for wartime, that is. My mom said bombings had been going on for a few years already. So even though my mom and her family were surrounded by war, it was still manageable. But that changed quickly. By 1974, Cambodia's civil war had more than doubled in intensity. The Khmer Rouge had gained control of most of the countryside, and their leader, Pol Pot, was terrorizing the cities, including where my family lived. It was becoming more and more apparent that, in order to stay safe, they'd have to leave.

LAN PHU: We were sitting in the living room talking, discussing when we're going to escape, when we're going to leave the house. And there's a bomb dropped on the street, and - and a thousand fragments went into the house. And one fragment just came right here - right here.

LISA PHU: A piece of shrapnel landed right next to my mom.

LAN PHU: When we heard the bomb, we all leaned down to the floor. I was with your sister, holding your sister, leaning down, and all the sudden, I feel wet. I got wet. And then I smell blood. I knew somebody died.

LISA PHU: Ah Lee was all right, but the shrapnel had hit Ky Jok, my dad's brother, through the temple.

LAN PHU: Oh, my God. All the brain, all the blood, just the whole entire body's blood just completely soaked the living room. And of course, we all sob, and we know there's a death in the house now. Now everybody takes it serious. After we did his funeral, then that's the time that we decided to take the whole family, leave, leave the land.

LISA PHU: What killed Ky Jok, my mom's brother-in-law, my uncle, was a Khmer Rouge rocket. The Khmer Rouge were using rockets more and more in the early to mid-'70s. They would fire the rockets into the city without having a specific target, and the shrapnel would kill and injure people. The number of casualties per rocket was small, but it caused terror and chaos. After my uncle was killed, my mom, Ah Lee, Ky Song and his parents left their home in Kampot, took a boat and fled toward the Vietnam border.

LAN PHU: When we lived on the border, we did not have a house. We lived with someone we know. And, oh, my God, the water was filthy. Everything was filthy, nasty living - very, very, very, very bad. Then the grandfather, Ky Song's father, he was - he's old, and he's so used to his own place. He say, you know what? I cannot live in a place like this, you know? It's too complicated. So he insists to go back. So grandmother say, you know what? I think I'm going to bring your little one back home.

LISA PHU: At that point, they'd been living along the border for a few months. My mom says violence in Kampot had quieted down, so my dad's parents took Ah Lee back home while my parents got their bearings at the border.

LAN PHU: At that time, nobody know what the future bring, and nobody know what the road in front of us is, was so misty - nobody knows. And we came to the Cambodia border just for temporary. That was the plan until stop bombing. They still bomb, but Kampot was little safer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LISA PHU: After my grandparents and Ah Lee left, my mom and dad moved into a different house, which they converted into a business during the day and sold clothes out of. Ky Song went back and forth to Kampot a couple of times to bring my grandparents money and baby formula. My mom made the journey once to help out and spend time with Ah Lee.

Do you remember what she was wearing when you last saw her?

LAN PHU: Yeah. She was wearing - let me try to remember what she's wearing. My - the favorite color I gave her was a little pinkish, a pinkish - yeah. Yeah, she's so cute. You know, when I went out, she always sit in the door. A year and a half, she'd sit in the door, and she'd wait for me to come home. Too bad Grandfather, Grandmother did not want to stay with us. Grandfather was very difficult, otherwise we will have them stay, you know, but they did not want to stay. But where we are is not safe either. It's the Cambodia border. That's where the Khmer Rouge live. They can come by bicycle. They can slaughter everybody, you know.

LISA PHU: You can probably hear that my mom's trying to explain why they made the decisions they did, why they let Ky Song's parents take Ah Lee. But you have to realize, there was no right or wrong thing to do. There was no playbook for war. My parents remained in that house for as long as they could.

LAN PHU: The reason we stayed there - because we are hoping to see your sister. We're hoping she'll come one day. We were hoping that somebody would take her out. Somebody would bring grandmother and her out. Every single day, every single day, we're hoping to see her.

LISA PHU: The plan was for everybody to be together again eventually. But my mom and dad were forced to leave the border. During one of Ky Song's visits to Kampot, Khmer Rouge soldiers came to the area. My mom was all alone, and she heard gunshots. She called it a slaughtering.

LAN PHU: They know you're not part of them. They just shot people - gun, and they kill people. You know, even the civilians - so what? - they kill you because they know you're not one of them. And they also want the territory. You know, they kill you so you get scared, so you leave. Your father wasn't with me, but, oh, my God, now I had to take myself and whatever I can take in bicycle, and I move myself toward Vietnam. He was lucky somehow. He took the boat and then get himself to Vietnam. And that time, that was the end of our residence, our business in that border.

LISA PHU: Once my parents settled in Vietnam, they tried to go back to Kampot to get Ah Lee and Ky Song's parents and bring them over the border.

LAN PHU: But you know what? Things happen so fast - boom, boom, boom. The border was blockaded. Yeah. We could not go back, could not go back. And the next thing to know, the Khmer Rouge gathered all the remain people in the city. No matter where you are, they gather you and force you into the countrysides - you heard about it, right? - and turn, oh, everybody - turn them to farmers.

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LISA PHU: What my mom is referring to is April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh and started evacuating all the cities. The regime had won the civil war and would rule over Cambodia for four years. The goal of Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was to institute the ultimate totalitarian system, enforced by violence and mass killing. Historians and researchers estimate that they killed between 1.7 and 3 million people, or close to a quarter of the country's population.

The idea was to develop Cambodia on an agricultural base. The Khmer Rouge forced people from the cities into the countryside and into labor camps, where they died of starvation and illness. Others were brutally murdered. As these evacuations were taking place in 1975, my dad's parents left Kampot and walked to the town of Tuk Meas, where my grandmother is originally from. They were still taking care of Ah Lee, along with my grandmother's relatives. Then my grandmother got really sick.

LAN PHU: So she knows she's going to die. So she give your sister - she hand your sister to her nephew and wife. The couple did not have children. And she said, you know what? I give you Ky Song's daughter. Please take care of her. (Crying) One day, she said, take care of her. One day, when you see the parents, you give her back to her parents.

LISA PHU: My dad's cousins cared for Ah Lee for more than three years, and my mom says they loved her. But one day, Khmer Rouge soldiers came to their house with a list. On the list were the couple's parents, who'd been landlords. The couple themselves were not on the list, neither was Ah Lee. City people, educated people, former business leaders, they were all being targeted by the Khmer Rouge as traitors. But the soldiers said the people on the list would simply be relocated. My mom told me about all of this while holding my daughter, Acacia, in her arms.

LAN PHU: So the couple who had your sister say, oh, the parents are over there now. We have to go where they're going. We'd like to go with them. He didn't know. So he decided to go with them. So they add them on the list and your sister also on the list, and then they killed them all. (Crying) They killed them all. They shot them. She was 7 years old. And people who care about her, who have met her, who had known her, they lived with her, they said she was the nicest little girl. So sad (crying). Oh, it took me so long to able to repeat the story.

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LISA PHU: When Vietnamese soldiers defeated the Khmer Rouge in January 1979, many who survived left Cambodia as soon as they could. My mom says people who had known Ah Lee found her in Vietnam to tell her what happened. Up until then, my mom had always held on to hope that she'd see her firstborn again.

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LISA PHU: When I was 20, my mom and I went to Paris and visited relatives who lived there. I remember walking around the Eiffel Tower. My mom was speaking to one of our relatives in a language I didn't understand. Besides English, my mom speaks at least five other languages. So at one point, she turned to me and said, he knew your oldest sister and says she was very kind. You would have liked her. She said this casually and then started talking to our relative again. I didn't ask her to tell me more. So much of my life was like this - hearing small snippets of a long, complicated story. But now I know who that man was. He was one of my dad's cousins. His brother was the one who took Ah Lee in.

LAN PHU: I probably questioned him a little bit here and there, you know, about what he know. But he and his parents separate, too. So they weren't together, so he wouldn't know that much. All he knew, they were killed. And, you know, all he knew that his brother adopted my daughter. And they were killed together.

LISA PHU: He had met her, though. So what did he say about her?

LAN PHU: She's so cute. Oh, she's - she is so adorable. You know, Ah Lee's got very good nature. When a kid have good nature like this, people like them.

LISA PHU: Do you think about her often?

LAN PHU: Of course. Of course, I think of her often, you know? I think of Ah Lee a lot. You know, life move on. But I still think of her. You never forget your baby - never.

LISA PHU: This episode was written and produced by me. Our editor is Julia Shu. Fact-checked by Harsha Nahata and Tiffany Bui. Production management and sound design by James Boo, and additional help from Cathy Erway. Original theme music by Avery Stewart. Audio engineering by Dave Waldron and Timothy Lou Ly. Thanks to Ben Kiernan for speaking with me about the historical context of what my family experienced. And of course, special thanks to my mom.

If you want to record an oral history interview with someone you love, even if you've never tried it before, check out selfevidentshow.com/history, where you'll find a free toolkit to help you take the next step. "Before Me" is a Self Evident Media production. Our executive producers are James Boo, Ken Ikeda and me. The show also receives support from the Alderworks Alaska Writers and Artists Retreat and the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. I'm Lisa Phu. Thanks for listening.

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