Deportees

This Former Gang-Banger Is Banging Out Delicious Cubans in Cambodia

“In America I never would have owned my own business,” says Ry Mam, a Cambodian-American who was deported from the US due to his criminal record. In Cambodia, deportees like him are often stigmatised by locals, but Mam has found success in his small...

by Brent Crane
08 September 2016, 11:00am
All photos by the author.

Ry Mam. All photos by the author.

Six years ago, Ry Mam boarded an international flight from LAX with three other Cambodians and two US marshals. "If any of you try to run, we'll shoot you," one of the marshals told the Cambodians. Mam thought that was strange—they were on an airplane and, anyway, he could have run a long time ago.

Mam, 40, is one of nearly 500 Khmer-Americans (Khmer is the dominant ethnicity in Cambodia) without citizenship who, starting in the early 2000s, were deported to Cambodia after having accrued criminal records in the US. Many had left Cambodia as young children during the mid or late 70s—prior to or directly following the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79—and came to America as refugees with their families. Here in Cambodia they are known as "the deportees" (though they call themselves "Khmericans") and while all are Cambodian by blood, many returned knowing little to nothing about their homeland. Predictably, their integration into Cambodian society has been mixed. Stigmatised by locals for their criminal backgrounds and/or inner-city dress code, many struggle to adapt. Some turn to drugs and alcohol. At least six have committed suicide since deportations began in 2002.

I've written about immigrants to America who have used food to achieve some level of the American Dream. Mam's story is kind of the opposite of that. For Mam, who runs a popular eatery in Battambang, a drowsy city in northeastern Cambodia, food has been a way to stabilise what, by all accounts, sounds like a nightmare of a distinctly American making.

As a youth, home for Mam was "the projects of Los Angeles," where he lived with a father, two brothers, and a sister before moving to Bakersfield in middle school. "I grew up around tough stuff. Mainly my dad had to work odd jobs to pay the bills. We couldn't live in nice neighbourhoods. Too expensive," Mam told me. His father, a soldier in the Cambodian national army before the Khmer Rouge came to power, could not speak English. It was a rough childhood. "Even if you tried to do good, you'd get picked on," he remembered.

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We spoke at a table inside his small open-aired eatery, Ry's Kitchen, which opened in June. Mam, Buddha-bald with inky eyes, wore a white button-down opened to an electric blue tanktop and fingered an unlit cigarette. On a desk in front of him was his Playstation 4. And it was not just his many tattoos that made him stick out from other Cambodians, but also his size—you'd be hard-pressed to find a countryman of his immensity. His English reflected his upbringing: suburban Californian with a spritz of street drawl. His Khmer (also the name of the national tongue) was peppered with English and, according to one Cambodian colleague, occasionally difficult to understand. But he spoke softly and, though always with a furrowed brow, without a trace of malice. His friendliness was good for business; nearly everyone who came by the restaurant shot him a warm hello.

Between seventh and eighth grade, Mam fell into the gang life. In Bakersfield, the Cambodian and Laotian kids had always stuck together, he said, but after confrontations with other race-based groups charged by adolescent aggression, they made their tribe official and gave themselves a title: the Oriental Troops. At first it was just black eyes and bruises. The Troops claimed one corner; the Hispanics another; the Blacks another. But the violence escalated, and soon it was all guns and knives. "You had to either put up with it, you know, or become a victim," Mam said.

"Desert E's?" I asked.

"Hah—that's nothin'," Mam said. "Just imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger during the Commando days."

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Mam began racking up prison terms: for carjacking, burglary, drug dealing. He spent a total of 11-and-a-half years behind bars over three different sentences. He doesn't remember the names of the prisons.

After Mam got out of his last lock-up, an agent from ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, warned him that they would try to deport him. It wasn't until years later, when the Cambodian government agreed to take in deportees in 2002, that he got the official call. The agent said to show up immediately, but Mam waited a few days—what was the rush? He thought about going on the lam but eventually decided against it. "You can run, but then you can't get a job nowhere. I figured there's no point, you know," he told me. I asked him why he never tried to get citizenship as a younger man. "We didn't understand too much. We didn't know the importance of citizenship. But we grew up as Americans, like any other," he said. Mam had fallen into all the wrong systems: the gang system, the criminal justice system, and, finally, the post-9/11 immigration system.

After the call, Mam told his family the bad news. He gave away most of his stuff. He quit his two jobs. His brothers drove him to the ICE office. "I just went in. They said, 'Come on in.' They wouldn't let my brothers pass a certain line." He waited in a detention centre for two months before they put him on that LAX flight with the threatening marshals. He reached Phnom Penh in the early morning and immediately hopped a bus to Battambang, where he had relatives.

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He lived with them in the countryside for two months, where days are slow, hot, and monotonous. "I couldn't handle it there. It was just too country for me," he said. Mam found a cheap apartment in Battambang and tried to make a new life, but he struggled to find direction.

One day, an American friend who ran a restaurant in town asked if he wanted to set up a food cart outside of his restaurant. Mam, who had always cooked for himself, had developed a reputation among the expat community for making delicious Cuban sandwiches. "I had nothing else to do, so I said yes."

Word got around. His sandwiches became popular, mostly with the expats and other Khmericans in town. Mam found that he enjoyed the work. In the kitchen he liked to experiment—he sometimes makes poutine with amok, a Cambodian fish coconut curry. He soon decided to open up his own place. It is attached to a hostel called Ganesha and, two months in, business is good. "I have lots of support," Mam said with a grin.

Though he would not have before, Mam now refers to his deportation as a "favour" that led to a more satisfying life. "Really, man, it was a stressful life over there. Here I get lots of time," he said. Then, "I think in America I never would have owned my own business."

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As we spoke, another Khmerican came into Mam's restaurant. Wearing baggy basketball shorts and a white tank over tattooed arms, he looked upset. "Ah man, my cellphone ain't workin'—muthafucker!" Mam took the man's phone and fidgeted with it. "But it looks like it's workin' cause you got the bars," he said, handing it back to take an order from a group of Americans sitting at a sidewalk table.

"Hey, man, long time no see!" one of them quipped to Mam. "We're here to have some of your famous sandwiches!"

Soon my own order arrived, the chicken Cuban. The bread was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and the peppery chicken, tomatoes, and pickle slices were tinged with shades of lime and apple cider vinegar from Mam's homemade mayo. I took another bite and relished the taste of the first great sandwich I'd had in more than a year of living in this faraway country.

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The sunlight spilling through the doorway had that white glow to it that sends the rice farmers inside at this time of the day, and as I chewed I couldn't help but notice that it tasted just like home.