Escaping Cambodia, chef settles in town

At Whitmans’, over the clang and clatter of kitchen utensils against grills and pans, one sound seems to rise above the rest – the giggle of sous-chef Tha Poeuk. Poeuk can often be seen greeting students with high fives and somewhat heartier portions of their entrées, always chatting with the many students he manages to recognize. Poeuk’s enthusiasm is obvious to all, but the Cambodian immigrant hasn’t always led such a carefree life.

“When I was only 15 years old, I escaped Cambodia to get away from the communists,” Poeuk said. “I did not leave peacefully – I escaped. I just could not live there with the way that [the communists] were treating people.”

At the time, Poeuk, along with 28 other civilians, were fleeing from a country ridden with conflict, oppression and even genocide. “I had wanted to escape for many months, but I had no way to get to Thailand,” Poeuk said. “Then I heard my two brothers and a group of other people making plans to leave, and I decided to come along with them. I had to say goodbye to my family – all of them cried. My mother didn’t want me to leave because I was so young, but my dad let me. He said that if I was lucky, I would come back some day.”

Under communist rule, a guerilla movement led by the Khmer Rouge was ravaging the country, with over 700,000 fighters scouring Cambodia to eliminate dissidents to the new communist regime. Over 150,000 people were estimated to have been killed during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of subjugation – two of Poeuk’s brothers were among the fatalities.

“As we were fleeing, two of my brothers were captured [by the communists]. My brothers were then shot and killed. There was a big group of us who were trying to escape – like 29 people – but only nine of us survived,” he said.

Poeuk’s father was right. In the end, he was lucky, and eventually did make his way back home. However, once he was back home, Poeuk realized that, “there was still a war in Cambodia. There was no food, nothing to eat. It was no way to live.”

Shattered by the years of turmoil, the country Poeuk had grown up in was no longer a place he could call home. As a result, Poeuk fled back to Thailand where he lived in a refugee camp with others who had run away from their homes, their lives and everything they knew. “I lived in a refugee camp, but it was still better than [living under] the communists,” Poeuk said. “The UN supplied us mostly with what we needed. There still wasn’t enough, but it was something.”

Although the conditions at the refugee camp could have been better, Poeuk doesn’t regret leaving home to live in the camp. After all, it was where he met his wife. “[My wife] came to find food at the camp, and that was how we met. She had escaped when Vietnam invaded Cambodia. We asked our parents, and then we got married. Now we have three children.”
Not only was the refugee camp in Thailand where Poeuk started his family, but it also provided him with opportunities that eventually allowed Poeuk and his family to immigrate to the United States. During his stay in the camp, Poeuk learned numerous languages including English, Thai and Lao, working as a translator in the immigration office. It was through this job that Poeuk found a sponsor to help him come to the Berkshires.

However, before Poeuk and his family could leave for the United States, they had to move to the Philippines for a year of culture training. “We went there to learn about American culture,” Poeuk said. “They showed us videos and we were taught how to act when we met people – how to shake hands and greet people. We learned how to shop and all the other things we would have to know to live in the U.S. so that we would not be surprised when we got here.”

For most, Williamstown is certainly not a sprawling metropolis, but when Poeuk and his family first arrived in the Purple Valley, they were instantly in awe. “It was very different for me the first day I was here. Compared to my past, this was like heaven. It was a big change for me. There were cars and lots of people – it shocked me. I was like, ‘Wow, this is a big place and a great place to live.’”

It can be difficult to acclimate to the changes of a completely new country, but Poeuk never really had trouble adjusting. The community he found in Williamstown was extremely hospitable, even hosting a cookout for Poeuk and his family upon their arrival.

“Everyone was so welcoming,” Poeuk said. “I know I owe a lot to all of them for their help. Without them, I would still be stuck in Thailand. Once I was here, [my sponsors] showed me how to shop, found a babysitter for my son and even found me a job here as a dishwasher part-time so that I could still go to school in the morning.”

At his job, Poeuk continued to encounter friendly coworkers willing to help him get accustomed to his new surroundings. “[The other staff members] are all good people. They treated me like I was one of them. At first, it was only me who was [an immigrant] – I was isolated from the community – but they were very nice to me. A lot of people talk about racism here, but I don’t see it. They all treated me like I was their friend or family,” he said.

The staff members of Dining Services are not the only ones who Pouek has grown close to over the years. Always a student favorite, Poeuk has been working in Dining Services for years now, but he has yet to get tired of his work environment. “I enjoy every minute here. Everyone here treats me very well, especially the students. I think I have become close friends with many of them. I’d like to think that I treat these kids like one of my own,” he said.

Working as a chef on campus is where Poeuk wants to be, and it’s all because of those he serves everyday. “The reason why I love it is because of you guys. It’s great when students all know me so well. You guys give me energy, just like this drink,” Poeuk said jokingly as he pointed to his bottle of Vitamin Water.

For someone who has traveled widely and experienced numerous cultures, life in rural Williamstown would seem to be boring and uneventful at best. But Poeuk has settled into life in the Purple Valley, and he doesn’t intend on leaving anytime soon. That means students can expect to see his bright face in Whitmans’, greeting them with his gusto and trademark giggle.