Chanthol: The Good of Growth

June 18, 2011 4 min read

“Why do you keep saying the house is so big?” Chanthol asks with an air of exasperation. “There are much bigger houses in America. Yes, this is big in Cambodia, but nothing like the houses that you have in your country.”

“When we have guests or family visiting it is nice to have so much room. But at night, my wife and I often sleep in our daughter’s room. So we can all be close to each other. So that we can be a family.”

“This is just the way that the world works. As you get older you have more and more things. When you go to the villages, you see that the older people have more things. They give them to their children. That is the way that the world is supposed to work.” Chanthol is unapologetic as he continues.

“Most of my financial success in life has just happened to me. In fact, when I was younger – when I first went to the United States – material wealth meant nothing to me. I came from a poor family. My older brother was a hippie who went to the US in the 1970s and lived in a small, dirty studio apartment in the suburbs of Washington DC. My parents were afraid of what was happening in Cambodia, so they sent me to live with him as a teenager. When I arrived, his only furniture in the apartment was a guitar. But he still lived better than my family in Cambodia. Looking around at my new surroundings, I couldn’t understand why Americans needed so much wealth.”

“When the Khmer Rouge took over the country, I was still in Washington DC.  My brother and I were granted refugee status. That meant I could work legally and I got a job in a seafood restaurant. That job paid for my college education. It didn’t pay for much else, but it did pay for tuition.”

“I shared my brother’s hippie attitudes about capitalism and the need for money. Perhaps, my attitude about money would have remained throughout my life, but my family’s situation changed my mind. My family was being held by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the days of the Killing Fields. There was a growing refugee community in Virginia and sometimes I would hear reports that some of my family members had been seen alive. Then I heard stories that there were “guides” who could bring whole families out of Cambodia for a price. The price was generally more than a hundred thousand dollars – and it had to be delivered in gold.”

“I was nearing graduation and I looked for the job that would give me as much money as quickly as possible. I went to work for the finance group in GE Capital. This was the high growth period of that organization. Soon, I was travelling around the world as an auditor for them. My salary was high, but my yearly bonuses were more than I had thought one person could earn in a whole lifetime. My official address was still that little apartment with my brother, but I was travelling constantly so my usual home was hotel rooms around the world. I had no living expenses, so it didn’t take me long to earn the money needed to get my family out.” 

“On one of my trips to Thailand, I delivered a pouch full of gold bricks to a man in the refugee camps on the border of Cambodia. A friend of my family vouched for this man, but I could only hope that I would ever hear from him – or my family members – again.”

“Six months later, my whole family was with me in Virginia. They all lived in the one room apartment with my brother for a while until I was able to find a three bedroom place. I was never there because I was travelling. They couldn’t speak English so they couldn’t find work. I supported the whole family financially for years.”

“Without money, my family would have died an awful death in Cambodia. Without money, they would have suffered in terrible poverty in the US. My whole life has been in finance and in economic development in government; I’ve seen the importance of money in building companies, nations and personal lives. My family would not have the chances that they’ve had without the money I was able to earn.”

Chanthol – tall, handsome, and impeccably dressed – glances over a family portrait with his strikingly beautiful wife and three daughters. His oldest two daughters have made it into Ivy League universities and his youngest is still only in elementary school. All have very bright futures.

“If I hadn’t earned so much early in my career, I couldn’t have turned my attention to government service – with an almost negligible salary. It is wrong to say out loud, but many people think it: Without money, life can be almost impossible. I probably do have more money than I really need now. But I’m glad to continue doing government work for little pay and giving to charities and villages in Cambodia. I can help a lot of people with the good fortune that I’ve been given.”