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Becoming a butter bar

Army mechanic-turned-officer finds joy in bridging cultures

U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Pauline Heng pours tea at her home while wearing a sweatshirt from Officer Candidate School, where she graduated in March 2021. Photo credit: Courtesy of 2nd Lt. Pauline Heng

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD - The clang of tools and parts reverberated around the motor pool like church bells as the mechanics of the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment dutifully turned their wrenches. For them, their temple is a bay and their holy day a Monday, a weekly regularity that neither God nor General can interrupt.

Yet as Pauline Heng - a newly minted U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant - walked through the bay doors, the hum of engines died and mechanics sheathed their screwdrivers. Most squinted in disbelief, unsure of what they were seeing.

And then an eruption:

"Heng - I mean ma'am, you're back!"

"Wow look at that butter bar!"

"I'm never going to salute you," someone said in jest. Ribs were elbowed, backs slapped, hugs all around for a familiar face who had returned different, yet unchanged all at once. A hero's welcome.

This was March 2021. Heng had just returned from Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, where she had earned top marks and a new rank.

Just a few short months prior - she was a wrench-turner, too, roughing it with her friends in the Holy Church of Motor Pool Monday. Specifically, she was a wheeled vehicle mechanic, a 91B assigned to the forward support troop in 1-14 Cav., 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Heng's story is that of joie de vivre, a phrase she used to describe her outlook, meaning the "cheerful enjoyment of life" and an allusion to the fact that she is at least conversational in five languages.

At face value, the phrase sounds flowery and relatively universal. As you learn her story, it is everything but that. It is a poetic illustration of her true purpose in life: to build bridges.

That was clear as she walked into the interview wielding a tea set under her arm like a knight's lance. It said, "I'm here, let's talk."

Heng is the daughter of two refugees of the 1970s Cambodian genocide, an event that blinked away 21 percent of the country's population, roughly 1.7 million people killed under the Khmer Rouge regime in just four years.

"Eventually, (my parents) had to relocate to refugee camps," she said. Her mother's family moved to France and her father's moved to the United States. "My parents were neighbors when they were children. So as an adult, my mother decided to look for my father's family just to see if they still survived. Or if they didn't get killed."

Finding a Community

In the midst of the intercontinental chaos, her parents found each other and relocated to Seattle, Washington, where a community of Cambodian refugee families began to blossom.

"The community was like me, Southeast Asian," she said. "A lot of my friends, we have very similar stories of like, ‘my parents or grandparents aren't alive anymore.' I don't want to call them broken families. If you are being raised by just your grandparents or only one parent, or an aunt and uncle who brought you in, that is still your family."

Heng's joie was born of her parents' experience.

"Some people, they search for opportunities here because their own home countries don't have them. Mine were forced to relocate because their home country was unlivable," she said. "And they work hard. Incredibly, incredibly hard."

She laid out the tea set. Five porcelain pieces and a metal thermos with hot water. One cup had a koi fish superimposed into the bottom; it swam in loose leaf black tea.

"By being born in the United States, I got this incredible opportunity just by way of being born here, not doing anything of my own accord. I got a free compulsory education from elementary through high school which is free for us in the United States."

This was not something afforded to her parents; her father's formal education stopped at a U.S. equivalency of eighth grade.

"And because of how well I did in high school, I got to go to college without much debt," Heng said.

She was able to repay that debt within a year and received a full ride for her master's degree.

"This is all just by way of birth in the United States," she said.

Connecting Cultures

Though humble in her retelling, Heng's academic path was impressive. She attended The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where, during her junior year, she was selected for a competitive study abroad program at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts in Beijing.

Heng flourished there. A 20-minute walk from one of northern China's largest tea districts, Maliandao, she refined her love of tea and its conversational opportunities. She polished her skills on the yueqin, a traditional Chinese four-stringed, moon-shaped guitar.

But perhaps most importantly, she fell in love with language.

"It changed the entire trajectory of my life," she said. "The first few months were really lonely because the only people I could really speak to were my peers from Evergreen, but I am someone who takes solace in company."

"So I really wanted to talk to our teachers, I wanted to talk to our Chinese peers. They were super, super cool people who could sing incredibly well or play this instrument on a professional level. And I was just awed by the amount of passion I saw ... I wanted to speak to them."

In three months, Heng became conversational in Mandarin. In eight months she was fluent.

Already, her parents and grandparents spoke many languages at home to include French and English, but also a very rare Chinese dialect called Teochew. To her, the rare language represented a unique cultural thread that tied her to family going back several generations.

It also centered her cultural identity.

"I have a bunch of different cultures, and trying to balance was difficult. Do I feel more Cambodian? Do I feel more American? Am I excluded from both because I'm too American to be this or too Cambodian to do that?

"Or do I get to be in all of them, because I am?"

Giving Back

Heng earned her master's degree in linguistics and wrote her dissertation on Teochew, but she longed for more connection to her American identity.

"I was actually on track to graduate early and decided I want to find some way to come back to the United States," she said. "I am quite patriotic, especially for what opportunities (America) afforded me."

One of those opportunities came in the form of a State Department program that taught leadership and language training to select high school students. That's when military service entered her mind.

"It is what led me to the Army. I thought ‘this would be a really great way to give back to do something that I feel is really worthy.' And, you know, it just fit."

In 2017, Heng enlisted under a 35P military occupational specialty contract - cryptolinguist. The seemingly perfect fit was hampered in her final week of basic training when she was told that the security clearance required for that MOS was delayed, likely because of her education in China and numerous foreign contacts during her efforts to find friends and family displaced after the Cambodian genocide.

The delay took so long that Heng fell into "the needs of the Army." No matter her MOS, she was now a soldier. And in 2017, the Army needed mechanics.

"I don't want to say I was devastated, but really disheartened," she said. "This totally derailed all of my career plans because I didn't have exactly a clear idea of where I was going. I realized I bottlenecked all the things I wanted to do; if I wanted to work for the NSA or Department of Homeland Security, I needed a top secret security clearance and didn't get one. I thought ‘what am I gonna do?'"

As it turns out, Heng already knew the answer: joie de vivre.

"I tried really hard at being a 91 Bravo. I love my peers. If you go to the motor pool, these guys are my guys. I'm so lucky to have come to this place where everyone feels the hardship of being a mechanic. They're so supportive."

Then-Specialist Heng, a self-proclaimed board game enthusiast, started a club within her troop where they played games like Cosmic Encounter, Codenames and Spyfall.

"They were like my mechanic family," she said. "We get together on the weekdays after work, and we break bread together. They were super willing to help me learn what to do and how to do it. I can't ever say that I was a good 91 Bravo. I'm pretty sure I'm still a pretty bad mechanic. But I got to be part of this amazing community."

She had made herself a critical part of the troop family, well beyond her games group and positive attitude.

As an Asian woman, Heng represents a very small portion of the Army's population - less than five percent, according to the Army's 2020 demographic report. Growing up in a predominantly Asian community, Heng was not a "minority" in the literal sense of the word until she attended college - even more so in the military.

"For many of them in my games group and my friends in the motor pool, I was the first Asian friend that they had. The only concept of Asians they ever had was from TV or what they have seen in the news lately, a caricature."

Finding a Voice

In 2019, Heng had seen hate crimes rise in the U.S. to their highest levels in over a decade, with targeted anti-Asian attacks over the last year.

"It makes me so angry," she said as she steadied the final drops of hot water into a cup. "And here, for people who are very passive, especially for the Asian community, you're taught to keep your head down as low as possible. You do your best not to go to the police because it's just more trouble for your community, for yourself, or your family, whatever that might mean."

"But to have elderly Asians be targets, or like the shooting in Georgia, Asian women - they are targeting the caricature."

Having grown up in the U.S., Heng has been able to use her intersectionality to her advantage.

"I wish for the Asian American community here more audacity," she said. "I'm so glad that there are so many more people now who have a voice, who are willing to be the loud, audacious American. My wife says I am just so obnoxious and loud, but I know that it's a good thing."

And yet, through it all, Heng has found a safe harbor in her mechanic family.

"I have my friends who I spend time outside of work with, so it's not just ‘oh, this is someone I see at work, but I don't know who they are,'" Heng said. "I am their friend. And they are my friends. We are a kind of family and I invite questions. People are allowed to ask me questions, and they're allowed to make jokes. And if something upsets me, we can have a real discussion."

Looking Forward

Now an Army officer, Heng has already seized on her new sense of responsibility to help lead one of those discussions during I Corps' monthly Readiness Day to address equal opportunity.

The Readiness Day program helps soldiers and leaders tackle critical topics like sexual assault, extremism, racism, and overall ethics.

Her troop held a barbeque after the conversations, where Heng broke bread with her family once more - one of the last times as she prepared to head out for Basic Officer Leader Course.

It was and is bittersweet, Heng said. She was dining with them in a new context, with new responsibilities.

The faces that whipped around in the bay to witness her new rank reflected not just treasured friendships, memories of board games and shared toil in the motor pool. Now, they were the faces of those for whom she would soon be responsible.

Heng's hero's welcome made sense. Her soldiers' reverence for her is clear - the ribbing aside.

Now, she looks forward.

"I am a butter bar. I'm the lowest ranking officer. I am ‘lost in the sauce.' I don't know what I'm doing yet. I don't have any power to lord over anyone," she said.

But she remembers where she came from, and she knows where she is going.

"To be able to treat people with the basic dignity and respect and say that I, too, was in your position once before," Heng said.

Once again, she found her joie de vivre.

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