Envoy is now at home in S.A.
By Elaine Ayala, San Antonio Express-News, Friday, January 27, 2012, page B1
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Sichan Siv signs copies of his book, "Golden Bones," after speaking at an Optimist Club Luncheon. Siv is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and is now residing in San Antonio. He arrived in the U.S. in 1976 with his mother’s scarf, an empty rice sack and $2. Photo: Jerry Lara © 2012 San Antonio Express-News
Even in a room full of Optimists meeting at a Luby's Cafeteria this week, Sichan Siv's irrepressible hopefulness filled the room. Optimists might be cheery, but Siv's optimism has been called “relentless.”
Now retired from Washington, Siv, 63, has settled in San Antonio. He's the city's most prominent person of Asian descent, said May Lam, founder of San Antonio's annual Asian Festival. Siv will be part of the event — which is celebrating its 25th anniversary Saturday — talking to festival goers about the new Cambodia. He also will sign copies of his 2008 book “Golden Bones: An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America.” His wife, Martha Pattillo Siv, will be there, too, promoting handicrafts made by women in Asia.
Siv has embraced his new home, telling Optimists the oft-told adage that he wasn't born in Texas but got here as soon as he could. “He's such a patriot,” said his wife. “He's an American, No. 1. But he's a Texan second.”
Besides a busy speaking schedule, he serves in the Volunteers in Airport Policing at San Antonio International Airport and as a pilot in the Bexar County Senior Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol. Siv also is an honorary commander of the 433rd Airlift Wing at Lackland AFB.
And he continues to travel to Cambodia to monitor its progress, making two trips last year.
“Each time we go we see more changes for the better,” he said. “The country has become more stable. There's still injustice and corruption, but economic progress has been steady.”
Siv notes, with pride, his native land's vibrant culture and resilience. “I've been to over 100 countries, and I would still say that the Cambodian people have the most extraordinary smiles.”
His own smile, one the Optimist Club saw over and over again, is “instilled in my cultural background and in the Buddhist faith.” It's also part of his mother's lasting message: “No matter what happens, never give up hope.”
“She was the pre-eminent force in his life,” his wife said.
She was killed by the Khmer Rouge, a communist group that eradicated millions of Cambodians, along with other members of his family, except for a sister now living in Boston.
Being educated and tall (he stands 6 feet) put him at risk, he said, because the Khmer Rouge equated physical stature with the bourgeoisie.
Siv changed his identity and got rid of his glasses, which were linked with intelligence.
“I pretended to know nothing,” he said.
Captured as he was trying to bicycle to the Thai border, Siv was forced into labor. He watched for an opportunity and volunteered to operate a crane, reading instructions by night, because the crew was headed to the border.
At the opportune moment, he jumped off the back of a truck and ran, walked and swam for three days.
He fell into a pungi pit filled with sharp bamboo sticks that would have killed a shorter man. It injured his legs and feet instead. “My height saved my life,” he said.
In a refugee camp, he volunteered to teach English. Siv speaks several languages, including French, Spanish, Japanese and German.
On June 4, 1976, he arrived in the United States with his mother's scarf, an empty rice sack and $2. He picked apples in Connecticut and drove a cab in New York.
He got into Columbia University and earned a master's degree.
He always had an interest in U.S. politics. He remembered watching the Republican and Democratic Party conventions with his host family.
Siv volunteered in the first Bush's campaign and got noticed. On Feb. 13, 1989, 13 years after he began his escape, he went to the White House as a deputy assistant to the president. Thirteen is a recurring number in his life and one he regards as lucky, he said.
In 2005, he represented the United States at the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. “Truman spoke in 1945. Eisenhower spoke in 1955. In 1965, it was Johnson. In 1985, it was George Shultz; '95, Clinton, and, in 2005, it was me — little me.”
The Sivs made San Antonio home in 2006 after ruling out Houston, Dallas and Austin.
San Antonio's diversity and history — especially its Spanish colonial missions, which Siv visits on his motorcycle — won them over. So did the ease with which they can get to the airport from their home. It's 15 minutes from front door to terminal.
Siv, a Buddhist who attends a Presbyterian church in San Antonio, does not miss a sunrise or a sunset. “I pray in front of my mother's scarf every day,” he said. “I'm thankful for all the blessings I have, especially to be with Martha and to be in Texas.”