The author’s parents on their wedding day in 1970.

Love lessons: What I’ve learned about relationships from my Cambodian parents

It’s more than public displays of affection and saying, ‘I love you’

The author’s parents on their wedding day in 1970.

Courtesy of Samantha Pak

Words by Samantha Pak

Editor’s note: In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re sharing some sweet stories about love in its many forms.

Here, writer Samantha Pak shares how her parents’ relationship has shaped her views on love and romance.

“Ta! Kandai!” my mom called out to my dad in Khmer.

I turned to see my parents pause before joining the steady river of people flowing through the crosswalk. My dad grabbed one of my mom’s hands as she grasped him with both of hers. It was the first time I’d seen them holding hands—I was 32. And this wasn’t a display of affection. My mom had been having knee issues and needed the extra support.

Like many children of Asian immigrants, displays of affection—public or otherwise—were few and far between in our household. So that moment was a big deal. It was one of the few instances in which I saw my parents as a unit, not as Pa and Ma, but as a couple.

Samantha’s parents at a luau on the Big Island in Hawaii in 2022. From left, Vuthy Pak and Sivorn Lac Tiv.

Courtesy of Samantha Pak

The first time I held hands with a boy was in 2000, when I was 14. He was one of my best friends and my date to the eighth grade dance. Even at that age I knew, as a second-generation Cambodian American, my experiences in love and romance would be different from my parents’. They may not have been big on physical expressions of affection, but among my peers, these were milestones of adolescence: First hand holding, first slow dance, first kiss, first boyfriend or girlfriend and later on, first breakup. And as we hit each one, we often compared our success against our peers: Who did what first? Who still hadn’t been kissed?

But did we ever look to our parents?

I certainly didn’t as a teenager. They didn’t talk about love or relationships, and although it wasn’t an explicit rule, dating was not allowed. Anything that may have happened at the time (not that I’m admitting to anything) happened without my parents’ knowledge. It’s no surprise I was never comfortable discussing romance with them at that age—honestly, 36, I’m still uncomfortable. Instead, I had a support system with other important people in my life, friends and a couple other adults in my life at the time, who I could turn to for romantic advice. And that worked out just fine for me.

Samantha’s parents on a ferry to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Courtesy of Samantha Pak

It’s hard to see my parents as anything beyond the role they play in my life. My parents, Vuthy Pak and Sivorn Lac Tiv, wed in July 1970, when he was 23 and she was 20. And after more than half a century of surviving a genocide, losing almost everyone—including two children—starting over 7,000 miles away from home, building a life together and raising two daughters in a new country, they’re still married.

My parents’ marriage has been a constant in my life but it wasn’t until I stopped and thought about how long they’ve been together that I realized they really are #RelationshipGoals. It’s not a perfect partnership, but they’ve shown me the kind of love and support I should aspire to in a relationship.

Lessons in resilience

Samantha’s parents on celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2020.

Courtesy of Samantha Pak

As a millennial raised on a healthy diet of American media, I’ve been fed very specific images of what couples should look like: They hug or kiss to greet each other, make out when they’re alone and tell each other “I love you.” These are very western ways of showing love. They’re celebrated—as love should be. But in the very white landscape of 1990s broadcast television, I consumed sitcoms like Full House, Boy Meets World and Friends knowing the characters’ experiences rarely reflected mine. Their lives weren’t set against a backdrop of the immigrant experience. So it was easy to separate fiction from my real life—including my views on romantic relationships.

Many of our Asian immigrant parents’ relationships don’t fit the mold mainstream western media presents us with, and they shouldn’t have to. I never wanted my parents to be more like those couples on TV. My parents may have raised me and my sister in the United States, but they also made sure we knew our Cambodian roots. So I never thought being different was a bad thing. It’s just as valid and beautiful as fitting in—and that’s how I’ve viewed my parents’ love. And in a year when the world fell apart, my parents marked their 50th wedding anniversary in 2020.

My parents’ love isn’t momentary like what we see on TV. It has endured unspeakable trauma and loss, and from their example, I’ve learned what it means to be resilient.

Like many Cambodians, my parents became separated after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. They were apart for six years. My dad was in the Khmer Air Force and had to flee to Thailand before coming to the United States, while my mom ended up in the Khmer Rouge labor camps.

My parents’ love isn’t momentary like what we see on TV. It has endured unspeakable trauma and loss, and from their example, I’ve learned what it means to be resilient.

They didn’t find each other again until 1980, a year after the Khmer Rouge fell. My dad had written letters in search of family and sent them to refugee camps along the Cambodian-Thai border. One of my mom’s old neighbors, who knew where she was living at that time, spotted my dad’s letter at one of the camps. The neighbor shared the news about my dad but initially, my grandfather didn’t want my mom going to the United States. He worried my dad had remarried—to which, my stoic Khmer dad literally scoffed. Why would he bother writing letters if he had another wife?

It was a process, but my mom and other relatives finally arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in July 1981, just a few days before my parents’ 11th wedding anniversary.

My parents’ reunion was joyous and happy, but it was also shocking. After all, about 2 million of their fellow Cambodians, including a large portion of their families, had perished in the genocide. What were the odds they would find their way back to each other?

“It sounds simple,” my mom has said. “But the truth is so sad. All my family died.”

Samantha’s parents dancing at a family wedding in 2009.

Courtesy of Samantha Pak

While recounting their story, my parents stuck to the facts—only sharing one-word feelings when I asked. We don’t really talk about our emotions. So it wasn’t surprising that it was easier for me to write about what happened to them than to share how I feel about it. But even if it was an awkward conversation, I was grateful to sit down with my parents and learn their story.

And my dad’s letters are the part of the story a romance novel lover like me would call the grand gesture, the ultimate leap of faith.

“At that time, I didn’t know if they’re still alive or not,” he said about my mom and the rest of our family.

My strength and resilience have never been tested the way my parents’ were. But I guess that’s the point. They struggled so my sister and I wouldn’t have to.

If I were in my parents’ situation, I’d come up short. I don’t think I would’ve been able to hold on to the hope of reuniting with someone I loved after that long and under such dire circumstances. While being the daughter of immigrants came with its challenges, my upbringing was fairly middle-class—complete with a life in the suburbs and all its trappings. It hasn’t prepared me for major hardships. My strength and resilience have never been tested the way my parents’ were. But I guess that’s the point. They struggled so my sister and I wouldn’t have to.

The makings of a good relationship

In high school, my girlfriends and I created lists of qualities for our “perfect” boyfriends. I don’t remember many of my specific “requirements,” but I do know I didn’t dig too deep. My teenage self limited my ideal partner to physical qualities and superficial personality traits like kindness and a sense of humor—all important but I’ve since learned there’s more to love than what a person looks like and whether they can make you laugh. Relationship dynamics and allowing the other person to be themselves are also vital.

For example, even though Cambodian society leans more patriarchal, my mom is the furthest thing from submissive or subservient. She has no qualms about letting my dad know what’s on her mind, and that’s fine with him. He’s never tried to change her. And even though they might argue often, my mom has always said my dad is a good man and that I’d be lucky if I ended up with someone like him.

The Pak family in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada in 2018. From left, Samantha Pak, Sivorn Lac Tiv, Vuthy Pak and Bonna Pak.

Courtesy of Samantha Pak

I’m really grateful this was what she chose to emphasize. She’s never told me or my sister we needed to change who we were in order to be with someone. Society may be post #MeToo and #TimesUp, with more women living their truth, but the patriarchy won’t be smashed in a day. The fact that I was taught, as a young girl, before these social movements, to never lose myself in a relationship is not insignificant.

My views on what makes a good relationship are a reflection of my Cambodian American upbringing. Displays of affection and saying, “I love you” are important, but you also need to back those words with actions. The things you do for another person and how you treat them show how you truly feel about them.

And when I asked my parents what they thought made a good marriage and relationship, they both paused to think about it. My mom was the first to answer.

“Stay fighting,” she said with a laugh.

My dad, chuckling as well, countered with, “Tolerate complaints.”

Published on February 8, 2023

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.