A few weeks ago when Sienna Dice met her grandmother for the first time, the older woman began sniffing her. Big sniffs. Audible sniffs. The kind of sniffs one might expect to receive after not washing for a while.

But her grandmother was in no way upset or even mildly concerned with Sienna’s grooming habits. She was merely welcoming her granddaughter back home, after 10 years, in traditional Cambodian custom.

Sienna had left Cambodia and this village in the Kampong Cham province located three and a half hours outside of Phnom Penh, the capital, when she was just five months old. She was sick, her mother and father both deceased, and it was unclear whether she would survive. In the 10 years that has passed Sienna has not had any communication with her relatives in Cambodia. Neither side knew the status of each other.

And status here does not mean whether one has lost a tooth or grown a few inches in the last year. Status here refers to the very existence of one another.

Sienna is now 11 years old, a poised and somewhat shy sixth grader at the Tisbury School. Her hair is quite short, the result of a haircut she gave herself, a complete makeover of her once-long hair, upon returning home from her trip to Cambodia. When asked why she decided to suddenly cut her hair Sienna shrugs and says, “I have no idea.”

Sienna’s mother, Dee Dice, smiles and accepts her daughter’s assessment of things. After all, Sienna has enough to process after the trip without her mother interpreting her every action for her. And besides, Dee, a Vineyarder for the past 28 years who has owned and operated Eden Market and Garden Center in Vineyard Haven for 25 of those years, has a lot to process herself.

Eleven years ago, when she was considering adopting a child, Dee discovered an agency that worked out of Cambodia. “It was a new program run by a doctor,” she said. “It wasn’t a big agency so it felt more personal. And it was a place where single people could adopt easily.”

Dee spent some time in Cambodia during the adoption process but the focus of that visit and the emotions surrounding it centered mainly on the event of becoming a mother.

“This trip was about identity,” she said. “Figuring out who you are.”

Sienna Eng
Sienna and her sister, Eng, get to know each other. — unspecified


This sentiment is shared both by Sienna, born in Cambodia, and Dee, blond-haired, blue-eyed and raised in Connecticut.

The trip was organized by the Ties Program. “They do what’s called homeland journeys,” Dee said. “They organize a group of people who all have children born in the same country and they do a cultural trip.”

There were 12 families on this trip, each with varying degrees of information about their children’s birth and the status of their relatives.

Dee and Sienna arrived in Cambodia with very little idea of what to expect. They knew the name of the village where Sienna had been born and that there were some relatives living there. They had also discovered Sienna had a 19-year-old sister. But they had little hope of actually finding her.

“The only information we had about her was that she worked in Phnom Penh,” Dee said. Phnom Penh is a city of over two million people.

Their arrival in Cambodia was auspicious, though. Not that they received any new information. It was just the way they were received.

Eng Sienna
Grandmother eyes Eng and Sienna together. — unspecified

“When we got to customs you have to pay a $25 fee,” Dee explained. “But then they looked at Sienna and said, ‘You are Cambodian. You are free. Welcome to your country. Welcome back. You can come and go anytime.’”

For the next few days Dee and Sienna along with the other families on the trip explored the city. They visited Angkor Wat and some schools, including Vineyard School, which was created by Vineyarders Todd Alexander and his wife, Kara Gelinas. Dee was amazed at the change that had taken place since she visited the country 10 years ago during the adoption process.

“When I went before there weren’t any cars and just a few motorcycles. Mostly just tuk-tuks [a sort of motorized rickshaw] and bicycles.”

Cambodia has a truly horrific recent past. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge seized power. In a four-year genocide, the Khmer Rouge killed, by some estimates, one quarter of the entire population.

“But now it was definitely flourishing,” Dee continued. “There were so many NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] everywhere you turned. There was a restaurant that had street kids in training. There was Daughters of Cambodia, an organization for girls from the sex trade who were transitioning. And the schools had a lot of support too.”

After a few days in the city, it was finally time to travel to Kampong Cham where Sienna was born. A driver had been arranged but there was one looming problem.

“Here we are, it’s the big day and we still don’t have a phone number for anyone in the family.” Dee said. “The guy in charge of the trip, his nickname was Elephant, said, ‘You guys can just show up.’”

“But what if they’re not there?” Dee said.

“Trust me,” Elephant said. “They will be there.”

That didn’t feel right to Dee. “After 11 years, we’re not going to just show up,” she said to Elephant. She pleaded with him to find a phone number. At the very last moment he succeeded.

When Dee and Sienna finally arrived at the village the entire community had assembled to greet them.

“Everyone was crying,” Sienna recalled. “It was a bit scary and hot and weird. All these people crowding around us, strangers we didn’t know and they were crying and hugging us.”

But of course these people were not really strangers. They were family.

“Almost everyone was related to her,” Dee said. “Her grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and some great-uncles on her father’s side of the family were there.”

The village, according to Sienna, was a step back in time. “They have stick roofs and mud houses,” she said.

But what the village lacked in western-style resources they more than made up for in hospitality.

“We walked on a very narrow path and at the end, just like in any culture, you could tell they were having company,” Dee said. “They found a table and a brand new tablecloth and matching chairs. And the first thing they did was give us a coconut with a straw in it. There were also three or four whole fishes. Then Sienna’s aunt took a big spoon and reached all the way over and spoon-fed Sienna.”

Most importantly, Sienna’s sister was there too. The family had finally located her and she had made it to the village in time for the celebration. Her name, Sienna and Dee finally learned, is Eng.

“Eng greeted Sienna and hugged her and cried and clung to her the whole time,” Dee remembered.

None of the relatives, including Eng, speak English and neither Dee nor Sienna speak Khmer. They had a translator. Mostly, though they communicated through emotion.

“It was about being appreciative,” Dee said.

After visiting with the extended family, Dee and Sienna drove back to Phnom Penh with Eng. At first Sienna and her sister had a hard time bridging the years and the language barrier.

“We didn’t talk,” Sienna said. “We were very shy.”

Back at the hotel Dee decided it might be better for the girls to communicate without the translators.

“It was great for us to get details, but at some point it gets in the way,” she said. “Especially for two fairly shy girls. We had two translators who were guys in their twenties.”

The girls went for a swim at the hotel pool. Eng had never been swimming before.

“She would not go in for about an hour,” Dee said. “But finally she jumped in and started splashing Sienna and then it really became sister and sister.”

Dee and Sienna spent two and a half weeks in Cambodia. During that time Sienna and Eng became close. On the last day of the trip another member of the group remarked how she was ready to go home.

“I could stay,” Sienna said.

“I could stay, too,” Dee said.

But staying was not really an option. In addition to her business, Dee has another daughter, Louisa, also adopted, from Guatemala. Louisa is six years old and was very interested in her big sister’s trip.

“The first thing Lu said [upon their return] was, ‘Mom, do you have three girls now?’” Dee said.

“I thought, well, I don’t know. Maybe I do. It enlarges the whole concept of family. We have family in Cambodia. That’s one of the cool things about adoption. It makes the whole world smaller.”

And the most memorable thing for Sienna about the journey?

“My sister and how she was so happy. And then how sad she was when we left.”