San Francisco resident Sieu Sean Do’s new memoir describes his life as a youngster in Cambodia. (Courtesy photo)

Cambodian survivor tells dramatic story of ‘Good Fortune’

Sieu Sean Do recalls life before, during reign of terror

Sieu Sean Do says his new book “A Cloak of Good Fortune” is different from other memoirs by people who survived atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.

“I believe my story is very unique. Many Cambodian writers only talk about the killing fields. Other Cambodian books don’t talk about traditional culture,” says Do, 56. “I’m publishing to help a generation to understand, to share a beautiful traditional culture that was uprooted by war and disappeared.”

Do, who lives in The City and has worked for 21 years in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office assisting fraud victims, released his book, subtitled “A Cambodian boy’s journey from paradise through a kingdom of terror,” in November, and is slated to speak on Friday at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

The book’s title comes from its prologue, one of many stories he tells about his family and their strong beliefs in the supernatural and tenets of Buddhism.

When he was born (in 1963) he came out of his mother’s body still enclosed in the amniotic sac, and the midwife exclaimed, “You have a clean child. He has been protected by a cloak of good fortune. That’s a good omen!”

“My grandma boasted about my story; she was so proud. She said, ‘You are a special child, you were announced in front of the midwife, you were born without sin,’” says Do, who starts the book with charming descriptions of a peaceful life in the rural town of Kampong Speu, surrounded by loving parents and grandparents who regaled him with folk tales and instilled in him a strong moral compass.

In 1969, the family moved to Phnom Penh, where it took him awhile to adjust to city life, but he enjoyed learning new languages — something that ultimately (and ironically) served him well as his life took especially dramatic turns.

He recalls the day in 1975 when teen Khmer Rouge soldiers wielding weapons banged on the door of his home, ordering his family to leave. Taking few belongings, they did, beginning a journey into the unknown. They wandered, starved and survived months in a jungle labor camp before escaping into Vietnam.

“A Cloak of Good Fortune” doesn’t have lots of dates and facts about politics and the war in which some 2 million people perished. And while its fascinating episodes in 48 short chapters include images of brutality, hard labor, torture and death, the book also has lessons about doing the right thing despite dire circumstances.

“We believe in karma, in kindness, no matter how hard life is,” says Do.

Animals play a big part in the book. Do gleefully describes how his grandmother in the country adopted a baby elephant that was stuck in a mud hole, and how starving and in search of food, he had a tussle with a wild piglet, but let it go.

“All the living beings just want to be safe like us. At the end, I saw him cry,” says Do, adding, “I was so happy that I didn’t kill that little pig.”

After settling in the U.S., Do first considered writing a book about 25 years ago, as he began to tell people about his experiences, and they urged him to write them down.

He started carrying notebooks in which he’d jot down memories as they randomly came to him: “I walk through Golden Gate Park, the smell of fresh grass brings me back to the forest or jungle,” says Do, adding that his notes were in Cambodian: “If I go straight to English, I will lose the flavor, the kind of crazy, interesting Asian style.”

Knowing today that he was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, he says the process of writing proved therapeutic: “Sharing the story helps to open your mind and to allow people to understand what you have gone through.”

The real work of putting the material he transferred to floppy disks into a cohesive memoir began at home in 2012, when he was taking care of his sick, elderly parents, who shared their memories with him.

After sending an initial draft of the book to a New York publisher, who immediately liked it but wanted him to add a romance, to which he said no (“I was 12!”), he found Bay Area supporters who helped him publish locally.

Now working on a follow-up book (or books) about years in a Thai refugee camp — where Louis Braile, a doctor from Seattle, trained him to be a physician’s assistant — Do calls writing the second volume a different experience from writing the first — perhaps less intense.

“I became so sensitive, my tears were like a river flowing,” thanking Dr. Nang Du, his psychiatrist who assured him crying would lighten the burden he carried for so long.

Do, who has been back to Cambodia, calls it a huge problem that today’s young people learn about their country’s history in woefully insufficient lessons at school.

“They think this is annoying; they want to let go of the past,” he says, adding, “This is the war that ruined your country. How could you let it go?”

Calling his book appropriate for teens as well as adults, he also offers a thought to anyone who may be in need of healing: “If you have a story to share, it doesn’t have to be published. Just write it down.”

BOOK NOTES: A Cloak of Good Fortune

Written by: Sieu Sean Do

Published by: Hibiscus Press

Pages: 315

Price: $19.95

Note: Do appears appears at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20 at Oakland Asian Cultural Center, 388 Ninth St., Suite 290, Oakland, in “The Southeast Asian Diaspora,” a free talk with Laotian poet Krysada Phounsiri; visit https://oacc.cc/oacc-events/ for details.

Literature

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