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Survival Lessons From The Cambodian Civil War

With Dr. Sokhom Pin

Published on: Jun 7, 2019

The effects of war vary from psychological trauma to mass destruction. Dr. Sokhom Pin is considered to be one of the lucky ones who survived the Khmer Rouge’s genocide that lasted from 1975 to 1979. Surviving the war has taught him to treasure life and to welcome any opportunity to prove himself that he’s worth the second chance in life. Head of In Vitro Neuropharmacology for Alkermes, Inc., Dr. Pin walks us through his journey from the war to the United States for a new life with his family. As he drops knowledge bombs about survival, find out how his parenting style has been influenced by experience. On top of that, discover the top five surviving skills and the difference between conscious and unconscious bias.

Survival Lessons From The Cambodian Civil War with Dr. Sokhom Pin

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Dr. Sokhom Pin is considered to be the lucky one who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide from 1975 to 1979. During this four-year war, 25% of the Cambodian population was killed. This experience has taught him to treasure life, to welcome any opportunity so that he can improve himself that he’s worth the second chance in his life. Dr. Pin won multiple awards from 2009 to 2013 while working for Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research. He also published two dozen research papers which focus on diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration. Now, he is the Head of In Vitro Neuropharmacology/Cell Biology for Alkermes, Inc. He resides in Massachusetts with his wife and three college-age children. Welcome to the show, Dr. Sokhom.

Thank you for having me.

You’re welcome. Dr. Sokhom Pin, what was your childhood like before 1975?

Before 1975, I would say my childhood would be very similar to a typical child here in the US. I came from a wealthy family living in the city. We were having fun. I was a kid.

How old were you?

I was born in 1967.

Ten years old?

I would say eight.

What did your parents do at that time? What’s their occupation?

At that time, they were actually business people. They were in the real estate business.

How many siblings did you have?

I have seven total including me.

The seven of you have a great time. You’re living in a comfortable family, nothing to be worried about, and then 1975 came when the Khmer Rouge invaded Cambodia. What happened to your family at that time?

At that time, we were immediately forced out of the city to go to the farm. From one farm, we were then forced to go to the jungle this time, at Battambang, which is another province closer to Thailand. They basically put us in a jungle away from civilization, away from any town. It was due to my father’s military background and they wanted us to be isolated and starved to death.

Basically, their intention is not to shoot people, but they force people out of their house and send them somewhere with no food and no water so that they can starve to death. Was that the intention?

At least for my family and a few others who came along with my family. They basically punished people based on their background. My dad had a military background, so that was something that they had to punish us for.

What did they do in the city when they kicked people out of the city? What did they do in the city?

They forced us to get out right away and if you refused, they will shoot you or kill you.

The big shot, the man in charge, are they going to stay in that house that they took over and they stay there?

No. I remember seeing a lot of Khmer Rouge soldiers in their black uniform standing on a street with their guns making an announcement that everybody must get out and go and leave the city.

You probably won’t know what happened to your home at that time afterward. Did you ever come back and see what’s happened to your home?

Since I left, I never went back.

How did your family survive that war for four years?

The main reason why our family survived is that we were not purely city people. My dad also used to be a farmer and because of that, we were able to survive because the Khmer Rouge only want farmers and laborer. They didn’t want educated people. They wanted to kill educated people, basically. They want everybody to be farmers and because we used to be farmers, that helped us a lot.

How? Is it because you have some skill?

My dad has this skill set that allowed him to make the blades for plowing the rice field. When they found out that he had the skill, that’s how we survived. Otherwise, they would have left us in that camp to die from starvation because our whole family was already close to dying.

The seven children, your mom, and dad, so nine people in total. At that time, you were still together, correct?


Survival: The Khmer Rouge only wanted farmers and laborers. They didn’t want educated people. They wanted to kill educated people, basically.

What were you thinking at that time? Did you ever hope and pray that Khmer Rouge someday will be defeated?

Yes, I did pray all the time. I knew that it’s not going to be forever, that something is going to change. I prayed for what I was hoping for. I was only hoping to be able to get something to eat like I used to before 1975.

I’ve gone through similar things, but not like what you experienced here. How did you get out of Cambodia and come to the USA?

We actually escaped after the Vietnamese took over and took control and the Khmer Rouge went into hiding in the jungle. We escaped the border into Thailand to become refugees in Thailand. We came to the US as refugees.

Did you get to Thailand by walking?

By walking and crossing the border at nighttime.

They had a Thai camp before and then the US comes there to rescue everybody there.

Yes, then we put in an application to apply for the US.

At that time, did anybody in your family know how to speak English?

No. My oldest sister knew some because she used to learn French, but very limited English.

How old were you when you came to the United States?

By the time I got to the US, I was fourteen.

What was your family’s number one goal when your family came to the USA? When you arrived in America, the land of freedom, what were you thinking? What was your number one goal?

They told us that they put a lot of effort to try to get us here to the US and now they cannot help us anymore, that we are on our own. The only thing that we want us to do is to be educated, to get the highest level of education, to be doctors and lawyers, typical Asian parents.

They think that doctors and lawyers will make money. Anything else doesn’t make money.

Also, they think about the highest level of education, that’s all this is about, doctors and lawyers.

All of your siblings, seven of you, did you graduate with a doctoral degree?

Only me and my oldest sister have a doctoral degree, but the rest still had college degrees.

That’s well-educated. That’s a great job. How did this experience shape you?

It’s shaped me to be persistent, to work hard and complain less because I already know what I did not have, what I had to go through, and to have such a great opportunity to be here and be the best I could be. There’s not much to complain about.

Is that your driving force for your success in your career? Just work and no play?

I worked hard for only one year. That was actually during my freshman year of college. After that, I tried to enjoy life. I tried to have fun just like other college kids.

What changed?

What’s changed was I was studying so hard that I found a method for myself to be able to study and still do well in school without having to spend so much time and enjoy life.

Is that a secret, your method or are you going to share someday by writing a book or something?

Actually, it’s not a secret. The only secret when I am studying is I said, “If I was a professor teaching this course, teaching this lesson, what will I want my students to learn and what question would I ask to see if they learned the concept?” That’s basically my secret.

Thank you for that tip. If I go back to school, I probably would be able to use that tip, but no school is not on me anymore. Have you ever wondered how your life would turn out if the Khmer Rouge did not invade Cambodia?

I think that being from a wealthy family, my parents could afford my education. I think that I would still be educated, probably from the US or from France, but we’ll probably be back in Cambodia working.

The common goal is for Cambodia. If it’s a wealthy family, they send the kid to offshore to study and maybe their kid comes back when they’re finished. Don’t you think that you would be a spoiled kid or will be a rock and roll star or something?

I’ll probably be spoiled, I think.

Sometimes experience teaches us to be humble and to really treasure what we have. Otherwise, we will be spoiled. For me too, I was a spoiled kid who doesn’t know how to do a lot of things in Vietnam when I grew up, until the communists took over and I have learned a lesson. Let’s talk about your parenting style. I heard that you are not as strict as your father. How and why?

I remember that my father used to be so strict and he would tell me not to do this, not to do that, but I will do that behind his back anyway.

Here in the United States?

The United States and back home and along the way here. I decided to raise my kids differently. I’d want them to be more open, to be able to communicate with me and not be afraid to share the truth, so that this way, they wouldn’t have to do anything behind my back. They will share anything with me, so I can trust them more than they can trust me more.

Can you give an example, like the thing that you did that went behind his back?

He said, “You’ve got to focus on school only. That’s all you’ve got to do and do not have any girlfriend.” I had a girlfriend behind their back.

Is that all?

That’s the main thing or even going out with friends. I would sneak out to go out with friends.

It’s great that you recognize that it’s better to have open communication with children and they can come to you with their interests. They might be mad at you, but actually, they will appreciate you that you listen to them. You can explain to them the reason you don’t want them to do certain things rather than say, “No, this is the way. It’s my way or the highway.” How do you teach your children to appreciate what they have now?

Survival: Be more open and communicate and not afraid to share the truth.

Sometimes I try to teach them to appreciate what they have by telling them my background, what I used to not have, but then I realized that didn’t work too well either because they will say, “Daddy, we’re here now. We don’t have to be like you, we don’t have to suffer like you.” They’ve got a point, but at least some kind of reminder also would get them to appreciate life more, even without compared to what I could not have. Just compare with other kids living in the US who don’t have what they have. That also was very helpful to remind them.

Just remind them but they say, “We are here. We’re not over there anymore, so don’t compare.” What is the purpose of your life right now?

The purpose of my life is to put my three kids in college, get into college. Right now, I have three kids in college at the same time. Once they’ve all become independent and I retire and maybe enjoy some vacation and I’ll be done.

When was the last time you took a vacation?

Every year, I take a vacation every summer.

The whole family?

Yes, the whole family. We go on vacation.

How long have you been in the United States?

I’ve been in the United States since 1981, so it’s been a while. It’s 40 years now.

You’ve never been back to Cambodia. Why not?

First of all, my parents and my close relatives or my immediate family are all here and also the bad memories that I had. For me, there’s no rush to go back, but one day I will still go back, but probably after I retire.

Do you have any relative there still?

Yes, uncles and cousin.

Are you communicating with them?

My oldest sister does more frequently. I used to communicate with them infrequently through Facebook, just a quick note.

What do you do for fun?

I enjoy fly fishing.

What else?

I also enjoy working out, getting myself in good physical shape, weight lifting, running and punching bags to keep myself in shape and stay young a little longer.

That’s not to be vain. That’s to protect yourself. That’s very good actually to stay healthy by working out. What is your idea of success?

For me, success is being independent, financially independent and not only that, but I prefer to make a living using my brain rather than physical labor. As a kid, in my teenage years, I did a lot of labor job. It was hard on my body and I knew that I could not continue to do this very long. I’d rather be educated and use my brain for a living. That’s what we got success.

Were you always smart? Were you always intelligent and smart when you were young?

No. I don’t think that I was very smart at all until I went to college. At one point in high school, I did not understand math at all. No matter how many tutors I have, no matter how many people tried to teach me my brother, sister, my parents, I didn’t understand. As soon as I started college, everything changed. Math became my strength then.

You don’t know why?

The main reason was that at one point, I was sitting, staring at books and stare at an example. See how people solve problems step-by-step, over and over, doing it over and overlook at as many examples that I could and then on, I got it. I think being smart is not being smart all your life. It also depends on what stage of your life you are in. We all can develop our intelligence at different stages of our life. That’s also another thing that I learned is that you cannot judge your kids or any children too early because they might be not too bright at one stage, but then all of a sudden at a certain age, they change.

Your example is you bloomed in college. That’s a late bloomer. You basically observed how people solve it. You asked them, “How did you approach this problem and how did you solve it?” You were practicing it and eventually, you got it.

Yeah, eventually I got it.

You are a very observant person. That’s a good trait. What message do you have for Asian Americans to remind them of the most important things in life?

The most important thing in life for Asian Americans is that they should realize that unlike a typical Asian way of trying to tell them to work hard in school, get good grades, it is not good enough. As a matter of fact, I think that not only is it not good enough, it’s not the number one priority. The number one priority is to network. As Asian Americans, we should know that there are two things. There are conscious bias and unconscious bias and I’ve gone through that throughout my life. Sometimes people are biased against me consciously because I’m different or because they don’t think that I’m smart enough. There’s also the concept of unconscious bias. Sometimes I would be at a meeting with a lot of my co-workers. I was actually the boss. I was the decision-maker, but then vendors on the customer or the other collaborative talk, the eye contact was towards my coworkers who happen to be white and not towards me. They didn’t know I was the boss. I was the decision-maker. That’s an example of unconscious bias.

I think that’s important in the workplace and career growth. It’s also important in terms of finding a job. I find that there are a lot of Asian Americans who get a good college degree that comes out being unemployed. The main reason for that is they don’t have enough social intelligence. That means going back to my points of networking, while you’re in college, don’t focus on getting good grades. Interact with other kids. Go out, have fun, make new friends and keep in touch with all your friends through LinkedIn or Facebook. You might need those people ten years from now, you never know. This way, you can have a contact when you look for a job. You realize, “Some of my alumni actually work here, maybe I can contact them.” Social intelligence is extremely important.

Survival: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. No one wants to help anybody who doesn’t seem to want to help themselves.

In a past episode, I interviewed the executive from the big company Cisco and he’s also mentioned about the Asian American professionals are least likely to be promoted, first because of our culture. Especially the Chinese, we were trained not to speak up. In an American environment, especially at work, if we don’t speak up, we don’t express ourselves, how would our boss know our ability?

Another thing I noticed also, going back to unconscious bias. Throughout my career, I’ve noticed that sometimes I will speak up in meetings and people are sort of, “Okay. Yeah.” When another person who happened to be white said exactly the same thing, paraphrased what I said, they said, “That’s a great idea. This is awesome.” That’s exactly what I said, but it’s that somehow the perception is different.

As Asian American, we need to learn emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence includes social intelligence as well, how to get along with other people in a different environment and also how to control ourselves. Our emotion, we all have a weakness, but it’s okay to be upset. It’s important to control that upset and not blurt out in front of the group, in front of the important meeting or slam the door or something in front of other people because that will show that we are kids, not adults. Social intelligence is a part of emotional intelligence, which as Asian Americans, we all need to learn about that to advance in our career as well to grow our business. As an owner, we need that more than a professional because we are it. What are the top five surviving skills that you want all people to know?

Number one, I think as students, I will say, “Be social and have fun. Don’t focus too much on your academic record. Straight A doesn’t mean so much when you are looking for a job. Your network is actually more important than having straight As and don’t be a loner. The people that you interact with in college, maybe ten years from now, you will meet them again. Keep in touch through social media and Facebook or sending out a greeting card once a year just to keep in touch. Number two is to learn how to share a conversation. This with anyone, with young people, old people, higher level, lower level, including the janitor or the CEO. It doesn’t matter. Talk to everybody. Be likable. Smile a lot. When you’re likable, you’re approachable and people will want to talk to you more so.

Number four is don’t be afraid to ask for help. People will love to help you if you ask for help. No one wants to help anybody who doesn’t seem to want to help themselves, but if you really need help and you truly want somebody to help you, ask. Anybody would be happy to help you. A lot of times people get stuck and trapped because they are too afraid to ask for help. Number five, don’t be afraid to reach out to people like strangers, where you actually look for jobs. Look through LinkedIn to see who may be responsible for this job that you’re looking for or who may have a connection and ask for introductions or a request. If they reject it, that’s fine. Move on so it doesn’t hurt.

Have you helped people through from LinkedIn?

Yes, every time somebody contacts me through LinkedIn and for example to say, “I think this job is listed at your company. Would you please do me a favor, forward this to the hiring manager?” I do that. Sometimes it’s a job that I post and they’d ask me for advice and I would give them advice. I actually met a few friends through LinkedIn because I was helping them.

How can people reach you?

LinkedIn is the best place.

Reach out to Dr. Sokhom Pin? Do you have any other area that you want to share that I haven’t asked you yet?

I think we covered a lot of it. You should be able to help young people, especially Asian Americans to know and to learn. In conclusion, I want to say be persistent, ask for help and networks are also important in life.

Still, study hard. Not be a playboy, not wasting the time that they are in college. They’d still have to study.

You can still study, get a good grade and still enjoy life at the same time. You don’t need to wait until you’ve finished college to enjoy life.

Life is too short. Thank you so much for being here and sharing your stories. Your insight is very valuable. Thank you so much, Dr. Sokhom. Until next time, live life loud.

Links Mentioned:

Episode Quotes

"They punished people based on the background."

"I was hoping to have something to eat like we used to before 1975."

"It shaped me to be persistent, to work hard, to play less, and to not complain."

"You can develop your intelligence at different stages in your life."

About Dr. Sokhom Pin

Dr. Sokhom Pin is considered to be the lucky one, who survived the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in 1975 – 1979. During these 4 years’ war, 25% of the Cambodian population was killed. This experience has taught him to treasure life, and to welcome any opportunity so that he can prove himself that he’s worth the second chance in his life.

Dr. Pin won multiple awards from 2009 to 2013, while working for Novartis Institute for BioMedical Research (NIBR). He also published two dozen research papers, which focused on diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Today, Dr. Pin is the Head of In Vitro Neuropharmacology/Cell Biology for Alkermes, Inc. Dr. Pin resides in Massachusetts with his wife and three college-aged children.

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