It took the San Antonio resident thirty years to write the memoir Golden Bones—a reasonable time, perhaps, to appraise a life that includes an escape from Cambodia’s killing fields and stints as both a New York City cabbie and an ambassador to the United Nations. Diplomatic to the core, Siv recounts even his grimmest memories with grace and humor.
What does “golden bones” mean?
Cambodians refer to somebody who is blessed and lucky as a person “of golden bones.” When people from my father’s village learned that I had not only survived the genocide but had gone to America and was working for the president, they told me that I was truly a man of golden bones!
Describe the horrors that took place in Cambodia in the seventies.
The Vietnam War spilled over into neutral Cambodia. The 1973 Paris Peace Accords ended the war, but in 1975 the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, became unexpectedly victorious and killed anybody they considered an enemy of their “revolution.” About two million people died of summary executions, exhaustion, and starvation.
How did you escape?
I was working for [the relief agency] CARE and was to be airlifted out by the U.S. embassy. I missed the last helicopter by thirty minutes. I survived one year of forced labor, and in February 1976 I jumped off a logging truck and made a three-day trek to Thailand. That June I arrived in Wallingford, Connecticut, with $2 in my pocket.
After thirty years in your adopted country, does it affect your feelings for Cambodia?
What is the most satisfying position you’ve held since arriving in the United States, and how did it come about?
The White House position is it. I became the first American of Asian ancestry to be appointed deputy assistant to the president of the United States [former president George H.W. Bush], only thirteen years after I began my escape from a genocidal regime. This was simply awesome. I was an early volunteer in the campaign of Bush in order to better understand the presidential electoral process. The thought never crossed my mind that I would end up working for him at the White House. It was a combination of luck and fate!