On Friday, October 12, former United Nations ambassador Sichan Siv visited Yale to speak at an event hosted by the Alliance for Southeast Asian Students (ALSEAS) and the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) in Linsly Chittendon Hall. Born in Cambodia, Ambassador Sichan Siv escaped the nation’s Pol Pot regime in 1976, arriving in the United States with nothing but, in his words, “his mother’s scarf, an empty rice bag and two US dollars.” After holding a series of menial jobs, Siv earned a Master’s degree from Columbia University and embarking on a political career which included serving as deputy assistant to President George H.W. Bush ’48 and making history by becoming the first Asian-American deputy assistant Secretary of State under President George W. Bush ’68. In 2001, Ambassador Siv was appointed by President George W. Bush as an ambassador to the U.N., a position he held until 2006. His memoir, “Golden Bones,” is an international best-seller. WEEKEND spoke to Ambassador Siv about his homeland, what the United States means to him and why the Bush Presidents hold a special place in his heart.
Q. Tell us a bit about your Yale visit.
A. I was really happy to return to Yale, because when I arrived in 1976, it was the first university I visited. I mentioned Yale a couple times in my memoir, “Golden Bones.” It has a special place in my heart. Two of my former bosses, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, are both Yalies. I always enjoy interacting with young people. The event at Yale was very well-organized by student leaders. You all came from different parts of the world and you represent our future.
Q. At the talk and in your book, you have discussed your transition from being a Cambodian refugee to a U.N. ambassador. Can you tell us about that evolution? What were the particularly important moments in your journey?
A. The initial months [in the U.S.] were quite a cultural shock for me, because I had just arrived in the most modern society from a refugee camp in Thailand. Before that, I was in Cambodia’s killing fields for a year. In Cambodia, you boil water and keep it in a bottle to drink. I’m talking about the mid-’70s. Here, at [the home of] my host family in Wallingford, Conn., they drink from the faucet. Everything was so big, so fast for me. But I was determined to adapt to America so that America would adopt me. I did everything that came my way to the best of my ability. I picked apples in Connecticut and moved to New York to drive a taxi. I applied to a lot of schools because I felt that it was important for me to get an American education since I grew up in the French system. I got a scholarship to Columbia, got my Master’s of International Affairs, went to work on Wall Street. I did a few other things before I ended up at the White House, working under President George H. W. Bush. In a sense, I made it from the killing fields to the White House in 13 years, thanks to the American dream.
Q. As a Cambodian immigrant, when did you first begin to feel that the U.S. became your new home and that you wanted to represent it on the world stage?
A. I felt that America would be my new home the minute I saw the Statue of Liberty from the plane when I was flying into Kennedy. I suddenly felt I was a free man. And that America was going to be my new home. I never thought I’d represent the United States. I moved around in my life, then I got to the White House. I was truly blessed to be able to represent the President and the United States of America.
Q. Can you talk about a few great moments when you worked in the White House or at the U.N.?
A. At the White House, I think the most exciting moment was when the President’s veto on a Congressional resolution on China was sustained.
At the United Nations, we won every [committee] election that we ran for. When I walked in, my colleagues from 191 countries looked at me and they saw America, her strength and her greatness. The proudest moment was each time I said, “On behalf of the President and people of the United States…”
Q. You left Cambodia at a time of violence, uncertainty and terror. What is your personal perspective on the country today?
A. I returned to Cambodia for the first time in 1992, while I was still at the White House. That was quite an emotional return for me. I left Cambodia on foot, running through the jungle for my life. I went back as an assistant to the President of the United States, in a government aircraft. I did not recognize anything, so for a long time I was simply numb. Since 1994, when I took my wife for her first visit, we try to go there once a year. There have been a lot of changes. The country is more stable, despite the domestic problems such as corruption, impunity, injustice. They have had elections every 5 years since 1993. The future of Cambodia is with the next generation. They are going to want more political freedom, more justice and more economic opportunities.
Q. How do you see these domestic problems being solved by the government or the people?
A. I cannot speak for the Cambodian government. I know it is trying its best, but they need to incorporate opposing views into governance, because it is comprised of Cambodians and they want the best for their country.
Q. You’ve received numerous awards and honors, civilian, cultural and military. Could you tell us which have meant the most to you and why?
A. I think it’s the George H. W. Bush Award, because it represents everything that is great about America … That you are able to serve other people, do well and do good.
Q. If you could tell young Cambodians or young students one thing, what would you say?
A. Be well, be wise, be worthy. Be flexible and be able to adapt to different circumstances. Follow your passion, and, when you do well, don’t forget to do good.