“In my book, I did not want to focus only on the terror of life under the Khmer Rouge, the starvation, the violence. I wanted to also capture the beauty of the Cambodia I knew as a child; the traditions, the culture and the way of life that was destroyed by the war.”
By Janice Bressler
Sieu Sean Do, author and victim rights advocate, now calls the Richmond District home. But his path started with a childhood in rural Cambodia and led him on a life-or-death struggle through the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Do vividly captures stories of that journey and lessons gleaned from it in a newly published memoir: “A Cloak of Good Fortune.”
“In my book, I did not want to focus only on the terror of life under the Khmer Rouge, the starvation, the violence,” Do said. “I wanted to also capture the beauty of the Cambodia I knew as a child; the traditions, the culture and the way of life that was destroyed by the war.”
Born in 1963, Do spent his early childhood in Kampong Speu, a small town about 50 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh. In his book, Do recounts stories of growing up in a peaceful loving world where children played amid thick groves of mango and guava trees where breezes carried the scent of wild jasmine.
“As kids, we ran around freely,” Do recalled. “It really was a kind of paradise.”
The title of the book itself refers to a story Do tells in the prologue. When Do was born, the midwife announced to the family that because the newborn had come out of his mother’s body still enclosed in the amniotic sac, the baby (Do) would be protected all his life by “a cloak of good fortune.”
Throughout the book, Do weaves in fables and folktales from the Theravada Buddhist culture in which he was raised – tales of ghosts and spirits that inhabit and enchant the world around him.
“These stories were so important to me as I grew up. They taught me how to live, how to be a good person,” Do said. “I want other people, people of all ages, to know these stories.”
Another thread that runs through the book is Do’s love for and sensitivity to animals. There is the story of an orphaned elephant who is adopted by Do’s grandmother and becomes a beloved member of her village for many years. In another short chapter, Do describes his own rescue of a duckling with a deformed beak that had been tossed into the garbage to die. Do nurses the little duck and names him Curly Beak. Do says that such reverence for life is part of the Buddhist tradition that his parents and grandparents passed on to him.
“It is the Buddhist way,” Do said. “Be generous with all beings.”
In 1969, the family moved to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. There, Do’s parents – his mother, a seamstress, and his father, a fabrics merchant – built a thriving businesses. In that bustling urban center, Do was exposed to and showed a ready aptitude for many languages. His knowledge of multiple languages – Khmer, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese, French and English – served him well throughout his years of struggle. He has continued to use that fluency in multiple languages in his victim rights work with the San Francisco district attorney’s office .
In 1975, when Do was 12, Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into Phnom Penh and expelled his family from their home. Forced into labor camps in the jungle, like millions of other Cambodians, the family suffered brutal starvation and witnessed senseless torture and mass executions. But Do’s memoir recounts how even when he was struggling to survive, he held on to his spiritual belief in compassion. In one chapter, Do shares the small ration of rice he has with a starving old man who begs not to die a “hungry ghost.” In another chapter, even though he he was starving, Do frees a wild piglet that he has just trapped.
“I remember holding the little pig and I could feel its little heart beating,” Do recalls. “I had to let it go. To this day, I am happy that I let the little pig go.”
After surviving a year in a labor camp in the Cambodian jungle, Do and his family escaped and fled across the border into Vietnam. But after six years in Vietnam, Do told his parents that he had to seek a better future by escaping to a camp in Thailand. There, Cambodian refugees had the opportunity to apply for resettlement to the United States or Europe. So, at the age of 18, Do again risked his life and made his way to a refugee camp on the Cambodian-Thailand border.
“A Cloak of Good Fortune” ends with Do’s arrival in the Thai refugee camp.
Do is now at work on a second book focused on his life in that camp where he was trained as a physician’s assistant and worked with the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.
Do said he began writing “A Cloak of Good Fortune” 25 years ago.
“I began by writing down memories that would come to me, flashbacks in the middle of the night, little pieces of memory that would come as I was walking,” he said. “I began to carry a notebook and writing these down as they came.”
Do says that the process of writing the book often brought back terrifying experiences.
“Many times I said to myself during the writing, I can’t do this,” he said.
But, in the end, Do said the process of writing his memoir has been “deeply healing.”
“Before, I carried all these stories inside me, many of them painful, moving around, stirring around inside me. Now, my book holds the stories,” he said.
For the past 20 years, Do has worked in the San Francisco district attorney’s office as a victim witness investigator, elder abuse prevention advocate and consumer mediator. He also does trainings for seniors and other community groups to teach them how to protect themselves from consumer fraud.
Do says he loves living in the Richmond District and that he is constantly finding new parts of the neighborhood to explore.
“It is a very unique place,” Do said of the Richmond. “Every corner has a different story to tell.”
A Google search of “A Cloak of Good Fortue” brings up a list of booksellers that carry Do’s work, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target and more.
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