Becoming a Buffalo

USD alumna Hoang Taing '90 (BA)


Hoang K. Taing McWilliams ’90 (BA) was a young girl when she was forced from her home in Phnom Penh, when the capitol city of Cambodia was overtaken.

She walked hundreds of miles in searing heat and torrential storms, foraged and bartered for food, was separated from her parents, thrown in jail, survived invasions by pirates, was marooned on an island after abandoning a ship and lived on the brink of starvation.

This was her life under the rule of the Communist regime known as Khmer Rouge.

Taing shares an unfiltered look at that time in her life in a compelling memoir, Buffalo Girl, My Journey to Freedom.

Once old enough, Taing was forced to contribute to the commune by living with a team of children who cared for a herd of water buffalos. She nearly drowned after being dragged through a swamp by a buffalo, and was later assigned to an albino buffalo, whom she called the Pink Lady.

“I told myself, if I ever had the chance to come to a free country, I would find a pencil and any scrap of paper I could get my hands on to write this story,” she says. “I wanted to give a voice to all the innocent people who were killed by the Khmer Rouge.”

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge claimed the lives of 2 million people, including many members of Taing’s family. “My dad left for Vietnam to prepare for our escape, but war came faster than he planned,” she recalls. “The soldiers carried AK47s. They said we had 15 minutes to leave our homes. My mom was the only one left to take care of seven children.”

Taing escaped from Cambodia to Vietnam. As the war in Vietnam escalated, she gained passage on a ship off the island. At sea, the ship was invaded by pirates. Passengers were left stranded on a tiny island that became a makeshift refugee camp, where Taing and two siblings were sponsored by an American couple who brought them to the U.S. to live near San Antonio, Texas.

There, she attended Catholic school, sang in a church choir and took summer school courses to learn English. She was a member of the National Honor Society, the Math Club and the Speech and Debate Club team. She played on the basketball and volleyball teams, was a cheerleader and part of a theater troupe that performed in New York, London and Paris.

She later moved to a children’s home, graduated as salutatorian of her high school and was featured in a local San Antonio newspaper as one of the top-10 teens of the year. Ray Brandes, a history professor and the university archivist, saw the article, called the children’s home and offered her a full scholarship to the University of San Diego.

At USD, Taing worked part-time jobs, including at the mail center, while earning her bachelor’s degree in international relations and diplomacy. In the classroom, she learned to resolve conflicts through diplomacy. Outside the classroom, she ran on the cross-country team, joined the rowing team, was president of the Chinese Club and joined the Mission Club, where she collected donations for an orphanage in Tijuana, volunteered at a Native American reservation and helped build houses with Habitat for Humanity. She was even granted an audience with Mother Teresa, who visited campus in 1988.

Today, Taing is a motivational speaker and filmmaker and is transforming her book into a stage production. She’s worked with presidential candidates and humanitarians and hopes to be the first native Cambodian to serve as the U.S. Ambassador
to Cambodia.

“It would bring me full circle,” Taing says. “It would be poetic justice to go back to the country where I was born, while representing the country that adopted me, and help bring about peace.”— Krystn Shrieve

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