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You and me: teen sweethearts on a wild 20 years together in the Kingdom

Luke and Lorelie Young at their home in Phnom Penh. The couple, who are both American, first met as five-year-olds and sparked a romance in their late teens.
Luke and Lorelie Young at their home in Phnom Penh. The couple, who are both American, first met as five-year-olds and sparked a romance in their late teens. Charlotte Pert

You and me: teen sweethearts on a wild 20 years together in the Kingdom

Luke and Lorelie Young’s families both moved to Cambodia – separately – when they were five years old in 1992, just before the arrival of UNTAC. Luke initially lived with his parents in a multi-denominational aid and development “commune” in Phnom Penh while Lorelie’s parents came as Assemblies of God missionaries to run an orphanage in Sihanoukville. The couple, both now 27, say their shared experiences growing up during this wild and often dangerous time – listening to gunfire at bedtime, encountering rogue Khmer Rouge soldiers, eating UN rations, avoiding land mines – made it impossible for them to be with anyone else and inevitable they would end up together. Will Jackson heard their stories.

LUKE

Back in ’92 the foreign community was so small, and there were so few kids, my parents made sure I spent time with them. Loralie has an older brother, so he and I were childhood friends. That’s how I met her. I just remember her as a little girl – my friend’s sister, I guess, who always wore pretty dresses. It wasn’t love at first sight or anything. Not at all.

I travelled the country quite a bit – my dad spent a lot of time in the countryside. Once I remember really clearly, I was in the back of this truck my dad was driving full of Cambodian people. I think we were going to Kampot. We were going down the highway and a Khmer Rouge soldier was in the middle of the road. He was really drunk, with another soldier on the side of the road who had a rocket-propelled grenade on his shoulder, and was yelling and demanding money from my dad. When the soldier turned away, my dad floored the accelerator and we went flying down the road. He said the whole time he was hoping that the man with the RPG decided not to shoot at us, not to waste a round.

My family moved back to the US in ’95 until just before the coup of ’97. I didn’t see Loralie again, probably until I was a teenager. I think when we were 15 or 16, Loralie and I had become friends again. I went to the UK for a summer working with juvenile delinquents and when I came back, I think I was 17, there was just that spark [when we met], like, “wow, this person’s really interesting”. But one of my best friends was going to ask her out on a date because he felt bad for her. He didn’t like her in that sense at all. And I said no, I’m going to do it first. And that’s how it started.

We got married in Kirirom National Park in 2006. We found a very beautiful bamboo grove and I filled it full of orchid flowers.

Our shared history goes quite deep. We remember odd things that were part of both of our lives as kids that we didn’t necessarily share together, but we had them as our own experiences. You know, like eating UN MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) which they gave us when the UN left Cambodia. We remember on trips down to Sihanoukville, stopping on the side of the road to go to the bathroom and then the next time we would make that trip we’d see all these “danger land mine” signs at the same spot. And so these memories that we share together are not necessarily us doing them together but they create a deep connection.

LORELIE

I don’t remember the exact time I met Luke. If we would go back to Phnom Penh we would see as many people with kids as possible and if they came to Sihanoukville we would let them stay with us because there weren’t that many hotels back then.

So we met them at some point there.

The Khmer Rouge were a big part of life. When we would go back and forth between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, we actually had to have police escorts because of the Khmer Rouge, especially during a really bad time. We have a picture of my brother standing in front of a temple at Angkor Wat holding an AK-47 when he was eight. A Khmer Rouge soldier there thought it would be funny for the little white boy to hold the AK-47 and pose for a photo.

We went back to the US when I was about 10 for a year. It was really weird and hard to adjust. So much of what is indoctrinated into children, you don’t even realise. Like fashion sense. My favourite outfit was a pair of green stirrup pants and a green turtle neck and the greens didn’t match. So it was really hard to fit in and care about things the kids there cared about.

After we came back from the States we were in Phnom Penh instead of Sihanoukville. That’s when we started to hang out with Luke a lot more. But I was still the irritating little sister who wanted to play too.

One day I was complaining to our friend Joey that no one had ever asked me out on a date. Just having a moment. I didn’t have any close girlfriends so Joey got my rant. And what does Joey do? “Oh, I’d better ask her out.” Like a sympathy date. But he happened to tell Luke beforehand and Luke took the opportunity.

We got married when we had just turned 19. I can’t imagine marrying a normal American guy. Or someone from anywhere else really. The culture is so different. So I feel so lucky to have found someone who grew up in the same situation as me, during the same time, with lots of the same experiences. Different but the same. I feel really lucky that we like each other.

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