Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Never give up hope"

I've waited a while to get to read Golden Bones, the story of Sichan Siv's extraordinary story of survival from Cambodia's darkest hour to living the American dream and rising from apple picker and cabbie to represent his adopted country as an Ambassador at the United Nations. It is truly an inspirational story and whilst Sichan makes no bones (sorry but i couldn't resist it) about his love for America and what it has helped him to achieve, he doesn't miss an opportunity to remind us of his golden bones - blessed with incredible luck - roots, whether in the form of his mother's mantra of "never give up hope," a classic Khmer folktale or stories of his return to trace those that helped him on his incredible journey. As a Brit I learnt quite a bit about the American system from Sichan's book, I smiled inwardly when I read of his friendship with one of my all-time favorite thriller writters Eric Van Lustbader and that his father's village is named Hanuman, the name of the company I now work for. In addition, he has a connection through his favourite teacher, Roger Jones to my hometown of Cheltenham in England, and during my own lobbying days in the early '90s, it was Roger's brother Nigel, my local Member of Parliament, who supported my efforts at a national level. It was a pleasure to finally meet Sichan and his wife Martha last year during one of their frequent visits to Phnom Penh and in the flesh, Sichan and Martha are a sincere and down to earth couple, he has a mind like a steel-trap, the memory of an elephant, is not afraid to poke fun at himself and would easily make my top three list to invite to a dinner party - his wealth of experiences would keep everyone engrossed all evening. The style of the book is easy to read, and whilst he skips over his story between working for both of the Bush presidents, there's more than enough in this HaperCollins-published memoir of a classic American immigrant success story to strike a chord with everyone.

I posted a Q&A with Sichan (right) by email in May 2007, almost a year before the memoir was published. Here's what he had to say:
Q. After 30 years in the US, do you think of yourself as Khmer or American? And how do you reconcile one alongside the other?
I am both. I am an ABC: American By Choice or American Born Cambodian! I feel privileged to be an American of Cambodian ancestry, enjoying the blessings of freedom and opportunities, and being able to maintain an ancient cultural heritage.
Q. What was the catalyst for your career at the White House and then at the UN?
I became interested in the US political process while watching TV coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions in the summer of 1976. From my involvement in refugee resettlement and the plight of Cambodia in the 70s and 80s, I became more familiar with how Washington works. In 1988, I volunteered for the Bush campaign to better understand presidential elections. The thought never crossed my mind that I would end up working for two Presidents of the United States.
Q. What has been the rationale and motives behind your successful career?
Adapt and be adopted! I had two dollars in my pocket when I arrived in America in 1976. I worked hard to adapt myself to America, so that America would adopt me. My mother told me when I was a child to “never give up hope, no matter what happens.” Hope kept me alive and helped me move forward in some of the most difficult circumstances.
Q. To be employed by 2 US Presidents is a rare achievement, but what would you consider as your proudest moment...and your greatest achievement?
At the White House, I was proudest when I said “On behalf of the President.” At the United Nations, when I walked in, my colleagues from 190 countries looked at me. Through me, they saw America. They saw its promise. They saw its opportunity. They wanted to hear what I had to say. When I uttered: “On behalf of the President and Government of the United States and the American people,” that was my proudest moment. My greatest achievement has been the ability to implement the President’s policies that help hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Q. Were you able to achieve anything working for the Administration that aided and supported Cambodia and the Khmer people?
My two presidential appointments, at the White House under President George Bush (41) and as an ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush (43), had national and global scope. They were not to work on Cambodia. Yet, at the White House I was able to participate in the peace process that led to the 1991 Paris Accord and organize numerous briefings on Cambodia to maintain awareness and keep the issue front and center. At the UN, the United States has been the leader in all UN development, economic, and humanitarian programs. I am happy that the Khmer people have benefited from them.
Q. Briefly, what did your Ambassadorial role involve over the last 5 years?
The focus was from “cradle to coffin.” My responsibilities ranged from children, to health, HIV/AIDS, economic issues, food crises, humanitarian disasters, human rights, refugees, women, all the way to aging. The United States is the largest donor to all these programs and my office at the US Mission to the UN oversaw some 70% of the U.N. budget.
Q. Have you returned to Cambodia since leaving in the 70s?
I returned to Cambodia the first time in March 1992 while I was still at the White House. It was 16 years after my escape from the Khmer Rouge forced labor camps. It was quite an emotional trip. In 1994 I took my wife to visit. Since then, we have been to Cambodia on a regular basis. Each time, we enjoy staying longer and longer. I am also pleased to support Cambodian communities around the world.
Q. Can you encapsulate the flavour of your memoir to be published early next year?
GOLDEN BONES is a human story. It recounts my journey from humble beginnings in a sleepy village in Cambodia to the corridors of power in Washington, DC. It is about an extraordinary escape from hell in Cambodia; an American journey from apple orchards to the White House; a timeless and universal tale of love, dreams, hope, and freedom. This is the unique history of two lands: opposite sides of the earth; two cultures: ancient and modern; two nations: weak and strong; two societies: poor and rich. It is the true story of one mother’s love and sacrifice, of her son’s hope and struggle for survival, and his life between these different worlds.
Q. Finally, what does the future hold for Sichan Siv?
It is hard to predict the future. I will continue to connect, to share, and to inspire. Hopefully, “the best is yet to come!”

Sichan Siv is due to return to Phnom Penh this week. A book signing has been pencilled in at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard in the capital for Saturday, 29 November at 6pm. If you can get along to listen and meet Sichan, I am sure you won't be disappointed.
Link: website.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We must have read a different book and know a different person. It is full of self serving misrepresentations, including the implication that he was "the" US Ambassador to the UN when he was in fact one of several officals given the rank of Ambassador at the UN mission, in his case with responsibility for the almost invisible Economic and Social Council. Many Cambodians have expressed their concerns about this personal aggrandizement and attempt to profit from his Cambodian legacy while doing little to assist Cambodia or Cambodians. Apart from that he is a relatively pleasant and innocuouse person but I just want to set the record straight.

November 21, 2008 12:29 AM  
Blogger Andy Brouwer said...

Life is about opinions, that's what makes it so diverse, and so appealing. The book is clear about the facts as presented by the author, it doesn't misrepresent them as far as I am aware. It's a life story, like many life stories that have come out that include at their core the survival of the Cambodian holocaust. The author has a unique story to tell, I and many others are keen to hear it.

November 21, 2008 1:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Andy: I accept your point. Perhaps I have had too much exposure in this particular case. But I am not very impressed either by Sichan's intellect or his social conscience. In many ways he strikes me as very similar to the people now running the Cambodian government, with the exception that he is not corrupt so far as I know. But I have yet to hear him say anything very interesting in many years of contact. In fact, in my experience, he avoids discussion about interesting issuess, apparently because he is uncomfortable with complex subjects. His forte is public relations and he clearly excells in that area.

November 21, 2008 2:18 AM  

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