Moving to Cambodia Was My Socialist Revolution, And Other Things My Parents Taught Me About Following Your Dreams
It may seem incongruous to say that moving to Cambodia to pursue a writing career is like trying to overthrow the U.S. government, but in my family it wasn’t that different.
In 2011, I gave up my rent-controlled apartment and cushy waitressing gig in California to move across the planet and write a book. I had no funding, no connections, no association with any university or organization, and no real plan of how to support myself other than to freelance. And to teach, if I absolutely had to. I still consider this slightly less absurd than what my parents did in their twenties: fight for a socialist revolution in the United States.
My parents met at a meeting of the Communist Party, which they would later refuse to join because “it wasn’t radical enough.” My dad was a long-haired Yippie and Annapolis drop-out; my mom was an blonde 18-year-old who’d gained scene-cred for taking an illegal trip to China when she was still underage. It was love at first sight.
“You have to remember, it was a different era,” my mom would tell me. “We were on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. You had Women’s Lib and the Panthers and the Stonewall Riots all happening. The anti-war movement played a big role in ending the war in Vietnam. You really felt like things were possible, that maybe this was the moment when real change would happen.”
Politics were their passion, the thing that came first, but my parents weren’t financially reckless. They couldn’t be—without family money to fall back on, my parents always worked. In the midst of organizing protests, leading teach-ins and managing to only get arrested once, my dad became a shop steward and my mom earned a teaching credential, “just in case.” It wasn’t so different, in a lot of ways, to how I approached writing: making zines, performing, blogging, working on local presses, earning a Creative Writing degree, but always holding down a job (or three).
By the mid-80s, my parents found themselves clinging to the crumbling fragments of the New Left. The revolution had failed to materialize and they were broke. My dad’s factory had moved to Mexico while my mom bounced around, substitute teaching and waiting tables. At our lowest moment, all four people in my family were living in a one-bedroom apartment in a sketchy part of Oakland—so many roaches that we’d sneak into the kitchen with lights off, then fling the lights on to watch them scatter. By the time I have any solid memories, my parents’ politicism had been reduced to Mao quotes, drunken bouts of “The Internationale,” and a row of faded Lenin volumes on the bookshelf. It was like growing up in the ruins of a dream.
I never thought my parents’ political past had much effect on me. I went about chasing my own dream—much less grandiose and slightly more attainable. After 10 years of tinkering and publishing and garnering clips, I reached my shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment. My writing career felt like a carrot-and-stick chase and I suspected that if I didn’t really go for it, the what-could-have-been would turn into bitter regret. I spent a few months in Phnom Penh researching a project and felt like I scratched the surface of something much bigger. I wanted to dig in to what I’d glimpsed. I wanted to go balls-out. I wanted to write a book.
But when I sat down with my parents to tell them all this, they didn’t point out the obvious irrationalities in my plan. They didn’t tell me that moving to Cambodia was risky, rash, ill-advised. They just nodded. “Hey, you gotta do it,” my dad said. “This is your socialist revolution.”
When some folks endure failure in their life, they want to protect their loved ones from making similar mistakes. This was never my parents’ approach. They may have spent the best years of their lives fighting for something that never came to be, but they never talked about their revolutionary youth as though it were a failure. “We were young and naïve, and we held on longer than we should have, but we were fighting for what we believed in. And at the end of the day, you just can’t feel that bad about that.” I didn’t realize it, but that ethos had sunken into me. I harbored fantasies of success, sure, but more than anything, I knew I had to move because writing was something I believed in.
It took about six months in Cambodia for me to go broke, even with my sex-worker sister wiring me money every month. I picked up a couple teaching jobs, but mostly I sat in my apartment—under the fan, since I couldn’t afford to run the AC—and waited for editors to respond to my pitches. Meanwhile, my book project led me down an increasingly disturbing rabbit hole. After a couple unsettling experiences, I decided to toss it in—to take my last $400 and what was left of my sanity and moved to neighboring Vietnam, a middle-income country where the teaching jobs paid double.
What happened to me is what happened to my parents: I was broke and didn’t have the luxury of wallowing. When their dream died, my mom became a full-time public school teacher while my dad did stints as a metalworker and late-night security guard, and later applied to the Oakland Fire Department (out of 1,000 applicants, he came out number four on the hiring list). In Hanoi, I took any and every teaching job I could get—cowboy language centers with photocopied textbooks in the city’s dusty outskirts—until eventually I landed a good job at an international kindergarten.
This last year, I’ve worked as a full-time kindergarten teacher. For the first time in my life, I’ve had things like paid holiday and sick time. With a comfortable salary, I’ve also gotten to be a really good literary citizen. Do you know how many Kickstarters I’ve contributed to, how many “donate” buttons I’ve clicked on, how my books I’ve bought? A helluva a lot more than when I was a struggling writer. Beyond that, teaching has given me something than writing never did (and not just a steady paycheck): it’s enabled me to feel like I’m actually contributing something.
When I decided to apply to grad school—not for an MFA, but a master’s in Education—my dad sent me an email. Short, the way Dad emails often are. He told me he knew what it was like to have a dream die. “I used to think of myself as a communist who happened to be a firefighter, then I started to think of myself as a firefighter who happened to be a communist, and slowly, I just became a firefighter.”
Then he told me to grab teaching by the horns. And this is perhaps the biggest thing my parents have taught me, by example, which is always the best way for a parent to teach something: that you follow what you believe in and if it doesn’t work out, you don’t sit around whining. You find something else productive that you can feel good about. You contribute something. You pay your bills and feed your kids and you don’t have to have any regrets. You don’t have to sit around moaning about how you could have been a contender, because you’ve contended. You’ve maybe gotten your ass kicked, but you’ve been in the ring.
I feel for my writer friends that are still fighting the good fight—who have mountains of debt and no health insurance, unpublished books and adjunct professorships and a little stream of cash from freelancing that could at any moment could vanish. But I wouldn’t trade places with them. Sometimes when I read articles about how hard it is to be a writer these days, there’s a whiff of entitlement I hear, as though writers are owed a middle-class lifestyle, as though we should be able to tick all these boxes and take these certain steps and get our just desserts. I wish that were how the world worked, but what can you say? Life is hard and trying to do anything off the beaten path only makes it harder. Watching my parents rebuild their lives taught me that there are no guarantees, but that you fight for your dreams anyway. You do it because you can’t not. And if it all burns down, you pick up the pieces and keep going.
Of course, “picking up the pieces” is a lot easier when you’re white, educated, native-English-speaking and navy-passport-holding. I’m all those things, so I don’t feel cheated out of anything. I feel privileged as hell to have been able to chase an irrational dream around the planet, to have thrown in everything and watched it burn and been able to make it out more or less intact. How many people get to say that, really? It may be no revolution, it may be no published book, but it’s something.