By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
This divide in lifestyles is vital to explaining the problems Johnny has had with other villagers. He can't understand them, whether economically or culturally. And though Johnny won't say it outright, he thinks the Cambodians are somewhat backward. You can hear it in his voice as he climbs into his Mitsubishi Fuso delivery truck: contempt. "I'm hated by half the people here," he says, puttering down the dirt road. "Maybe I'm smarter than all o' them. Or maybe they stupider than me. I don' know which. I don' want to say."
Or perhaps it isn't a matter of intelligence or hatred, but distrust. Whispers follow Johnny. Some people don't believe his stories. Johnny says he grew up trolling Chinatowns on both coasts, dealing drugs. Johnny says he used to run a whorehouse in New York for a gang called the Ghost Shadows. Johnny says he's killed people. But like almost everything involving Johnny — where he really comes from, how much money he makes — these claims are impossible to verify. His public record is immaculate, his financial reports insubstantial.
"Mok agrah," villager Sameth Nget calls him — two-faced. Johnny says he first came here in 2006, but even that's disputed. Numerous people, like trucker Dy Pham, said he's been around much longer, maybe even 15 years. Johnny told Nget, who harvests the most water spinach in The Village, that he once spent ten years in prison — another lie. He's never been incarcerated. Johnny says he generates more than $1 million a year in revenue, but his mobile home — though nice — is still a mobile home.
If there is one thing, however, that everyone does agree on about Johnny, it's that he was the one who called the local authorities three years ago after his bid to take control of The Village failed. Out of spite and frustration, he reported everyone for growing water spinach illegally, bringing in the regulators. "Does that make me a tattle?" Johnny said. "I guess so." He later added: "This isn't my retirement, and I don't take government hel' like them. This is my life, my profession. I got my family to take care of. And they sell withou' permits and mess up the price.
"How is that fair for me?"
Three of Johnny's workers are stooped over water spinach. Butcher knives shimmer in their hands. Boxes and boxes of water spinach are arrayed before them. Neither Johnny nor any of the workers knows how the weed first got to the United States, but Chinese historian Ji Han first mentioned it in 304 AD while describing the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.
A member of the morning glory genus, ipomoea aquatica soon crept into Southeast Asia and India, along the way showing how it's become one of the most prolific invasive species in the world. Capable of incredible growth — four inches per day — ipomoea can blanket waterways in a matter of days with a thick tangle of vegetation. The Philippine government calls water spinach its second most problematic plant. But unlike other invasives, this weed carries powerful medicinal properties.
Ipomoea can treat constipation, ringworm, fever, arsenic or opium poisoning, and high blood pressure, and produces a chemical similar to insulin, environmental research has shown. Even more amazing, the vegetable can purify water, even ponds contaminated with heavy metals, by absorbing pollutants found in farm drainage and construction waste.
And, oh, yeah: It also tastes pretty good. In the Vietnam War, Vietcong carried dried water spinach with them on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and even when food was at its scarcest during the Khmer Rouge famines that swept Cambodia in the 1970s, water spinach was accessible, etching an indelible memory in the genocide's survivors. "We didn't have meat," said Born Kea, 74, black-toothed and uncertain on his feet. "We didn't have other vegetables, but we did have trakuon."
In all, as many as 2 million people — one-fifth of Cambodia's population — died during the Khmer Rouge's reign, either of starvation or by execution, in quite possibly the most radical social experiment in history. The cities were emptied and everyone was cast into agrarian slavery in the countryside to reclaim an identity leaders called "pure Khmer." Anyone suspected of education or subterfuge was killed, leaving a profoundly traumatized and unskilled population to rebuild the county after Pol Pot's fall in 1979. Today Cambodia is still decades behind its neighbors Vietnam and Thailand in terms of development and international prestige.
More than 150,000 Cambodians eventually came as refugees to the United States, part of a broader trend that has remade American demographics. Roughly 10 million Asians have immigrated here since 1965, and today, more Asians arrive than any other ethnic group — even Hispanics, according to a study by the Pew Research Center in June. The Cambodians in Houston began what they thought would be a happier life, and in virtually every way, it was. But the complexities of modern America are many. Laws and taxes lurk everywhere, both infinitesimal and convoluted, and were impossibly difficult for the refugees to comprehend. Cambodia is bereft of regulation. So the refugees fled Houston, and America, and made their own Cambodia in the countryside.