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Diaspora & Journey: Bunthoeun, « I'd rather live than regret, try rather than doubt »

Dear Cambodge Mag readers, today's portrait is probably the most difficult I've had to transcribe, because it's so emotional. Bunthoeun Steven Outh, known to many through the Facebook forum "Khmers d'ici et d'ailleurs", has generously agreed to share with us his tragic life under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Bunthoeun Steven Outh
Bunthoeun Steven Outh

Now the first Khmer to take part in the prestigious Mondial de la Coiffure show, he is now a WELLA franchise partner and brand ambassador around the world, and the man who once heard on his arrival in France "You savages will never do anything with your life" is now a highly committed trainer for the NGO Pour un Sourire d'Enfant (PSE) and a true role model in his profession.

This is his story.

Born in the province of Battambang, you lived a rather peaceful existence until the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. Your father being a soldier, your mother found a subterfuge to keep you alive. Which one was it?

My mother - sensing the danger - and having lived for a long time in a military environment - pretended we were peasants. This meant we were no longer considered a threat. Throughout our years of survival, we adopted an extremely docile attitude, taking care never to mention our past (so as not to be found out).

With the regime's cruelty having few equals, what happens to you that reminds you of Angelina jolie's film "First they kill my father"?

The day the Khmer Rouge tore me from my mother's arms to go and work in the camps is still a real heartbreak; after that, I knew nothing but hunger and fear on a daily basis. I was only 7 years old.

"Later I also ran away three times to join my mother. But each time I was found, tortured and returned to the camps.''

Around fifty families suffered the same fate; every day brought its share of deaths, including that of my nephew, from famine and malaria.

My existence consisted of forced labor and corpses to bury every morning. I hid these moments of extreme torture and suffering from my family and friends - including my mother - for years.

Could you tell us about some of the other ordeals you endured under the dictatorship?

To this day, I can't find the right words to describe the suffering we endured.

"But I still have this feeling of great mistrust towards everyone, and this will lead me to become like a deaf-mute."

Perhaps a mechanical act whose importance I understood later: one evening my mother (returning from the work camp) took some rice balls out of her pocket, which I quickly gobbled up. I realized later that I had received her only portion of food at the time.

Then, when the regime fell, your mother made a decision that also convinced no less than a dozen other families.

At the time, no one thought they would have to rebuild their lives abroad, but rather go into hiding to wait for better days. So we went to Thailand.

You spent two years living on the borders, under the protection of the Red Cross. Do you have any special memories of these years?

My first thought would be of a place where we could finally eat. Then going back to school and maybe the restrictions imposed by the Thai military or being surrounded by barbed wire. But all in all, a small step towards freedom.

Tell us about your vision of the French political regime at the time

Having suffered the biggest genocide in human history under a Communist regime, we obviously didn't understand the meaning of the French Communist position at the time.

The decision to move to France was finally made, followed by the move to Marseille. Do you have any vivid memories of those early years?

The shock is undeniable! It's both cultural (the way of life, the language and above all the food) and climatic (like the length of daylight, for example)... and of course, that exhilarating feeling of freedom. And this rage to show the others that I'd be able to fit in despite the daily jibes.

Then a friend suggests you try your hand at professional hairdressing. What happens next?

After trying my hand at several trades with little success, a friend suggested hairdressing, as I'd always unconsciously done it on others. I enrolled at a hairdressing school in Marseille, where I lived at the time, then knocked on the door of a salon for an internship... three hours after my trial, they'd have me sign the contract!

During a show
During a show

Where would you eventually turn after graduating and the seven years that followed?

I'd become a "manager" in a salon, this time in Montélimar. And I would spend the next seven years perfecting my skills in every way I could in this profession.

Your personal life then took you to Avignon in 1999, and what did you do there for the first few years?

I finally had the opportunity to buy my own salon. I'd bring my own personal vision of hairdressing to it, starting with one employee and ending with seven, two make-up artists and a receptionist.

Tell us about your first hairdressing show and what followed

Spotted six months earlier by the SCHWARZKOPF team, I was invited to demonstrate my skills at a hairdressing show.

"It was a total success! I was then invited to take part in the World Hair Show.

Becoming the first Khmer in history to take part, the real ''hairdressing adventure began.''

Now that you're back in Khmer Srok, how do you feel about this adventure?

I haven't been able to speak Khmer at all since I started hairdressing, so my return was a real emotional shock.

At the Srok Khmer
At the Srok Khmer

I can no longer pronounce a single word in my mother tongue. The blockage is total and incomprehensible.

Back in France, you embarked on a long period of reflection. What were your conclusions?

It took me two years to take stock of my life, and then something clicked: the time had come to put this extremely painful past behind me. I'm still a Khmer by blood and I have to help my people.

Can you describe it for us and tell us how you felt about it?

I met Serge Contesse from PSE at a show. I called him up and offered to help out for two weeks; it all made sense when I started passing on my knowledge.

Since then, you've invested a great deal in the cause. Can you tell us about a typical stay at PSE?

  • Passing on my love for my job

  • Listening to the apprentices

  • Getting to know each other's backgrounds

  • Remaining dignified and neutral in the face of extremely harsh stories

  • Of course, teaching them as many working methods as possible

With the students of PSE
With the students of PSE

What are your fondest memories of PSE?

  • The joy of the children on my first day

  • An indescribable feeling of peace

  • Being called "Dad

  • The solidarity

What are your plans for the future?

  • To return ideally three times a year

  • To devote myself to the hairdressing school in Phnom Penh as a trainer.

  • Train the PSE hairdressing teachers there too

  • Continue to do a day at PSE

What are your career plans?

In relation to PSE, for example, children are so pampered that they don't know how to function in the real world. So bringing the two worlds together to make them stronger remains one of my projects.

Bunthoeun Steven Outh's salon
Bunthoeun Steven Outh's salon

Finally, you remain a remarkable example of someone who has overcome severe war trauma, and you approach life with great philosophy and a certain joviality. Do you have any advice for our peers who find it more difficult to overcome this kind of ordeal?

First of all, I'd like Khmer hairdressers to be more humble and sharing, because it's up to us Cambodians to set an example for other Cambodians.


"I'd rather live than regret. Try rather than doubt. To accept who we are in order to move forward and continue to give without expecting anything, and to give 100% to everything."

Interview by CHANTHA R (Françoise Framboise)

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