What are you doing here in Cambodia?

When someone asks me that I honestly want to say, “I don’t know.” I got deported here so it’s not my choice to be here. But if someone asks instead “What I want to do here in Cambodia” then I would say: I’m working and trying to make a living, trying to be successful, and at the same time trying to make a difference simply by sharing my story and being a positive influence to those around me.

You speak really good English, where did you learn it?

In the states, California.

How's your Khmer?

I can understand more than I can speak. 

What do you love most about Cambodia?

The People, hard working always have the smile and always living in the present. 

What do you hate most about Cambodia?

Obvious class differences and getting ripped off because of appearing different. I don’t like the caste system here. It’s so visible. The class disparity can be seen can see with a big mansion right next to a rundown shack where 8 people are sleeping in one room. 

So you were really in prison…in America?

Yes 

What crime did you commit?

Attempted murder. I was guilty by association. 

How much time did you serve?

14 years plus 1 year in ICE (Immigration Custody Enforcement) 

How old were you when you were locked up?

16 years old. 

Do you feel sorry for what you did?

I feel sorry for the choices that I made and what had happened. I made poor choices. I feel sorry for the life that I chose to live. I chose to run with a gang and that ultimately led to being in prison. I just wanted to belong to something, to feel like I was part of something. There was such a big gap between me and my family. 

How many prisons were you in?

9 Different prisons: Tehachapi, CMC (California men’s colony), New Folsom, Corcoran, Chino, CRC (California rehabilitation center), Arizona Eloy, and Centinella. 

Do you think justice was served in your case?

No. There was no compassion. It was my first offense and I had never been arrested for anything else. I was only 16. I was tried as an adult and treated like a monster – like I couldn’t be reformed because it would be too late for me and I would get my “life sentence” in the system. I was given a 16 year sentence with 85% and 2 strikes. 

What do you mean by 85% and 2 strikes?

It’s part of my plea bargain. 85% refers to the percentage of time I have to do based on my entire sentence. I was automatically given 2 strikes against me for that one crime. One more strike and I would automatically get a life sentence. 

What was the worst thing you had to deal with in the prison system?

The riot that happened in Corcoran State Prison where the Mexican inmates started stabbing all the white American inmates. A Mexican inmate was passing out knives in a bucket to all the other Mexicans. We, the Asians and Blacks, were told to get out of the way and that it didn’t concern us. Gas cannisters and rubber bullets were being shot into the crowd from the gun tower. People were running scared and screaming. No one could get out because the doors were all locked by the corrections officer who ran out immediately before the violence.

But the most degrading moment was when we were woken up at 2AM at Corcoran. We were stripped down to our boxers and filed outside in the middle of the night. We were told to bend over and take off our boxers. Then we were sent into a cage and stayed there for 3 hours until the officers were done “searching”. We were treated like animals not humans. 

Horrible. Its breaking up families and there is no re-integration and a complete lack of understanding by the American government towards us. As refugees, we weren’t even integrated to the US, providing us with very little resources and information.

I am disgusted how the US government is able to give us permanent residency but all of the sudden that “permanence” is no longer permanent. Why wasn’t I told or made aware to get my citizenship or the importance of doing so? How can they break families apart? I did my time and paid my debt to society and I was suppose to be set free. I went through the American judicial system as an American and after doing all that time I am not considered “American” anymore. Where is the justice in that? And what about the definition of a refugee? I was offered asylum here and now I am thrown away and cast away. No longer American after growing up nearly my entire life here. 

Do you think the US Justice system is fair?

No. Not at all. It’s racially and economically biased. And now more than ever, it is so economically bias. If you have money you can buy your way out. If you come from a poor background and poor education you are considered garbage – easily disposable. 

How did you discover poetry/ spoken word?

I learned from a war veteran by the name of Marty Williams who was also an inmate. I met him in New Folsom. He ran a weekly poetry program. 

Why spoken word? What's so compelling about it?

What I knew of poetry was that it had a format and you just read it. But when I heard Marty Williams…he spoke what he wrote down and it was amazing. It had passion and life. And there was love underlying all the hurt, pain, and anger. It was the core base of love in the poetry that pulled me in. 

Do you only write & perform in English?

Yes I do but I do want to learn more Khmer so I could go multi lingual on their ass. 

What's the process involved in your writing and performance?

I hear a line then it creates a line and then it becomes a story/ a poem and then when I perform I can connect words with emotions and connect it to my body. 

What do you write about? Do you see some recurring ideas/themes in your work?

Loneliness, anger, frustration…moments of confusement and clarity. It’s about my life and the poems capture certain emotions and periods of time in my life. All my pieces are different in a way that reflect different parts of my life. There is always hope at the end, that this will be all right. Overall there is love and hope – the poetry helps me find a way out of everything I am going through. 

Is there a message behind your words?

Love. Poetry is God, love, family and compassion wrapped in a warm blanket. 

Who are your favorite poets & performers?

Rainer Maria Rilke, Ethridge Knight, Tupac, Eminem. 

Where did you get all those tattoos?

I got this while doing time. 

Which is your favorite tattoo? What's the story behind it?

I have a line tattooed on my stomach “Until the last daisy dies” – it’s my favorite line because daisies are considered weeds that have to be uprooted but they are so resilient and they grow in packs and easily adapt. 

Do you see yourself as a role model?

I don’t want to be one. I already feel like I am carrying too many burdens from my father, mother, and family I left in America – I feel the weight of it all – I cannot be a role model – who am I to be one – look at the life I lived.  It’s a lot of responsibility. I can only be the best person I can be – it’s flawed and I am not perfect. 

What kind of music do you like?

Hiphop, Jazz, R&B. 

What's your favorite color? Favorite food? Favorite musician?

Lavender, fried chicken, and Tupac. 

What are your dreams for your future?

Wife. Kids. Family – it’s been a life long search for family. I want to make an impact on the younger generation. I want to see the world. I want to travel, seeing landmarks and places throughout history. 

Do you miss your life in America? What do you miss most?

I was so young before I went into the prison system. I remember being a kid. I remember playing basketball, handball, just being a kid. 

What does your family think of your life now?

They wish I was with them in California. They are proud of my accomplishments. They feel stronger knowing what I am trying to do here in Cambodia as a spoken word artist. My older brother has recently told me he admires me, and that is the most beautiful feeling. 

Who do you admire most?

I admire how things can go so bad, how you can hit rock bottom and you could feel the worst but in that moment when you realize you can’t sink any further down, you realize this is it, you have a choice: you can stay down there or rise back up and pick up the pieces and rise.  I admire people who can do that: to come back and challenge life. To tell life, “you know what you ain’t done with me yet.” In a lot of ways, I am saying that to America: you cast me out but you are not done with me yet. And I am not done with America yet. 

How is freedom?

Amazing. Invigorating. Sad in many ways.

The freedom that was given to me was not the freedom I imagined. I imagined being free to play with my nephews and nieces in America – being free to be with my family outside of prison. The freedom given to me however ended up being in Cambodia – shipped out to a birth country, which is not even my birth country but my supposed “nationality” – shipped off here to Cambodia not greeted by family members but by ICE officers. My adaptability has mutated. I can adapt to Cambodia. This isn’t the freedom I wanted but this is what has been given to me. 

2 Comments

  1. Soma Norodom
    January 4, 2012

    Hello Kosal,
    I saw you speak at Java Cafe last month and was impressed. My friend said you need to be on PUC Radio Talk Show. I would like for you to be a guest speaker, but most important of all, I wanted to meet someone who is a die-hard Lakers fan, as I am known as “Lakergirl in Cambodia”, and so hard to talk to people here about the Lakers.

    Reply
  2. Elisabeth Le Guin
    May 24, 2012

    Hello Kosal,
    I’m a University professor here in California, and a movement & Yoga student of Sukha’s and that’s how I learned about you and your work and i just want to say how much I deplore what our ‘justice’ system has put you through, and how I admire you and the work you are doing.
    Peace,
    Elisabeth

    Reply

Leave a Reply