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Friday, January 13, 2012

Back Home in Cambodia With Food as Comfort

By Seth Mydans

PHNOM PENH — The really challenging thing is trying to teach his countrymen how to eat a hamburger — a culture clash that is more than culinary as he tries to fit himself, like a lost piece in a puzzle, back into the land of his birth.

His Cambodian name is Chenda Im, but after more than 30 years as a refugee in the United States, he goes by Mike, and he is the founder, owner, manager, cook and pitchman of Mike’s Burger House, which he opened on the lot of a gas station here after his return four years ago.

“I’m American, and I already know how to handle burgers,” he said, as a salsa tune played in his restaurant. “The Cambodians, they eat the bun and then a little bit here and a little bit there. I say, ‘No, you just press down on the bun and eat it.’ And sometimes they say, ‘Don’t tell me how to eat. I’ll eat it my way.”’

Mike’s experience pitching hamburgers in Phnom Penh offers a look at the particular kind of culture shock experienced by people returning to their own culture.

He is a truly hybrid Cambodian-American — a survivor of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge period, when 1.7 million people died by execution, forced labor and starvation from 1975 to 1979; then a mail carrier for 22 years near Long Beach, California; and now one of a trickle of refugees who continue to return to restart life in the land they once fled.

It is not a large number. Over the years some have returned to enter politics and some to try their hands at businesses. Many leave after a while. One group that does not have the option of returning to the United States is made up of Cambodian-born U.S. citizens who were convicted of felonies in their adopted country and sent back here under a special deportation law.

Mike, who left at the age of 19 and is now 51, said he planned to stay. Among others who have returned and stayed are Ou Virak and Theary Seng, prominent advocates of a U.S. brand of human rights and civil society, which at this point fits a little awkwardly with Cambodia’s strong-arm form of government.

Mike is a champion of the juicy all-beef hamburger, another import that is struggling to graft itself onto the local culture. There are no international hamburger chains in Cambodia, and Americans who live here say Mike makes the only truly American burgers in Phnom Penh.

“Let me show them the way Americans eat,” Mike said, describing the training of his staff. “Show them it’s clean, safe, how to wash, really clean, from the bathroom to the kitchen. That’s the way Americans handle food. The more you keep clean, the healthier you are.”

Mike’s Burger House has been open for about six months, and with its sign advertising “I’m a Crazy Burger!” it is an almost perfect replica of any hamburger hangout attached to a gas station in the United States.

Its front counter displays packets of Americana: Pringles potato chips, Slim Jim meat snacks, Rip Rolls and Reese’s candy, Red Vine licorice, Ritz Crackers, Oreo cookies and Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies.

Americans who live here say Mike’s offers a little taste of home. But for many Cambodians, hamburgers remain a challenge.

“Sometimes the Cambodian people think I look down on them — ‘They don’t know how to eat’ — so I’ve got to step back and say, ‘O.K., you do it your way,”’ he said.

Mike himself seems a little uncertain about his place between the two worlds. “I have a warm feeling here, just a warm feeling,” he said. “Everywhere I go, I feel like I’m at home.”

But he also said, “My heart is still American,” and he speaks of his fellow Cambodians with some of the bafflement of an outsider.

“On the street I don’t feel it’s hard to fit in,” he said. “The only difference is the way we talk in the United States. You say something straight, and they think you’re saying something bad.”

But like Mike, all those of a certain age are children of the killing fields, when most lost relatives, and many continue to live with trauma.

“I’ve seen a lot of murdering,” Mike said.

“It’s just terrible when you see the bodies,” he said, describing one atrocity, “people screaming for help, women delivering babies on the ground. I thought, ‘How am I going to get through this? I’m going to die, I’m going to die.”’

Like many survivors of the Khmer Rouge, he also carries with him a lingering memory of hunger. “Since then, I just love to eat,” Mike said.

“Me and my dad and my sister, we ate a lot of bamboo shoots,” he recalled. “Even now I can still do a chicken soup with bamboo shoots.”

The memory spurred a panegyric to the joys of bamboo shoots.

“You can do a soup, you can do a curry,” he said. “You can dry it out and do sweet brown rice with pork. Then there’s bamboo shoots with water and salt, and along the road there’s lemon grass. You can eat it with a little rice or noodles.”

Food was an entry point for many Cambodian refugees into the U.S. economy. Hundreds opened donut shops and virtually took over the donut industry in Southern California. The Cambodian donut shop became as common locally as the Chinese laundry and the Vietnamese nail salon.

Mike took another path, and after graduating from Long Beach Community College, he landed what he said was a dream job as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.

“I was so excited!” he said, growing excited again. “Are you kidding me? The post office! They started me at $10.75 an hour — I’m a rich man!”

“I tell you, I love the job, I love the job,” he said. “You just go out there delivering the mail, you put the right mail to the houses, I was running, boom, boom, boom, boom.”

There was rain, there were dogs, there were long days, but he was happy.

“If you compare this with the killing field, it was heaven,” he said. “What are those guys complaining about? It was easy for me.”

But as his marriage collapsed and his personal life came apart, he decided to take a look at Cambodia, where he met and married a young woman, Borey Mean, who is now 29 and works side by side with him at the burger house.

It was love at first sight. “My heart just came out — boom — like popcorn!” she said, throwing her arms into the air. As for her effect on Mike, “She pulled me from the U.S.A. to here,” he said.

After returning from a visit with him to the United States, where they sampled every kind of fast food, Ms. Borey Mean said, she told her husband, “I miss hamburgers!” So, he said, “I made hamburgers, just to please her.”

“I got a kilogram of meat and brought it home,” he said. “I chopped it and pounded it. You make the meatball first, make it into a patty, and I fried it for her and put on the sauce, and she said, ‘This is it! Oh my goodness, this is it!”’

When Mike instructs his Cambodian customers on the right way to eat a hamburger, his all-American enthusiasm bursts through.

“When you bite into it, you’ve got to feel it from top to bottom,” he says he tells them. “You’ve got to sink your teeth into the soft bun, and when you hit the meat, the sauce, the crunchy iceberg lettuce, all the way down, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. Your body is going to crave it. You’ll call for more.”

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