Although I was born in Cambodia, I was not exactly Cambodian. I was Chinese Cambodian, meaning that I was Cambodian of Chinese descent. My identity as Chinese Cambodian originated when my grandparents migrated from China to Vietnam and Cambodia, where my mom and dad were born, respectively. My grandparents spoke a Chinese dialect and passed their culture onto my parents, who passed it on to me through oral tradition. I felt proud of my heritage.
I grew up speaking both a Chinese dialect and Cambodian, celebrating both Chinese and Cambodian festivals, and enjoying both Chinese and Cambodian food. I grew up living both cultures. My Cambodian people treated me with respect. They too celebrated both Cambodian and Chinese festivals. I was part of them. They were part of me. I felt proud of my culture.
In Cambodia, my family always had lunch and dinner together. We would not begin eating until the six of us arrived to the table. We, the children, would respect the elderly by telling them to eat before us. My paternal grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who lived just a few minutes away from our home, could come to join us anytime, and they welcomed us too. I had cousins to hang out with. I had my Chinese and Cambodian friends with me. I had a community.
I was always surrounded by my family and friends. We were engaged in each other’s lives, stayed close together, and supported each other. We were a close-knit community. I was never alone. I had a place, one I called home.
At the age of twelve, I left my home. I tried to keep this home with me, but it slowly disappeared as I tried to find a new home in the United States. But I couldn’t.
There were some white people who treated me as if I existed on two opposite ends of one negative spectrum.
On one end, they treated me like an incompetent. They bullied me for speaking inadequate English; they told me to go back to my country for speaking my native tongues; and they made me feel ashamed for being an Asian.
Could I make the United States my home?
On the other end, they treated me like a model minority. They expected me to be smart and work hard, to excel academically, and to come from a highly educated and high-income family background; they placed me into the not-so-minority group and divided me from African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans; and they made my struggles invisible.
Could I make the United States my home?
In the process of finding my home, my authentic “I” became the Americanized “He”, who viewed himself not only through his own eyes and the eyes of others, but also through the eyes of the “I”. The “He” attempted to free himself from the “I” to become more American, but he couldn’t do so without erasing the “I”. The “I” attempted to free itself from the “He” to maintain its identity, but it couldn’t do so without erasing the “He”. The “I” and the “He” could not find self-liberation without self-disregard.
I thought if I became more like the “He”, I could make the United States my home. But I was wrong.
In middle school, I was alone, isolated. In the vibrant, crowded cafeteria, with a sudden burst of laughter, there was a lonely soul, who was bullied, allowing the laughter to fill the room. Thus, the “He” took over, strived to survive at the expense of losing his culture, bit by bit. He, for the first time, sat alone for lunch, without his family and friends, with people who made him ashamed of his identity, with isolation. He strived to assimilate, to the point that he chose to rebel against his parents and betray his identity, slowly, painfully, losing the “I”.
He became less Chinese Cambodian or less “Asian” and became more American or more “Asian American”. But Cambodian Americans felt that he was more Chinese than Cambodian. Chinese Americans felt that he was more Cambodian than Chinese. First-generation Asian Americans and Asians felt that he was too American. And second-generation Asian Americans and Americans felt that he was too Asian, not American enough. Where was his home?
His unified identity, the “I”, had split into several fragments: Chinese, Cambodian, American, Chinese Cambodian, Chinese American, Cambodian American, Chinese Cambodian American, Asian, and Asian American. To many white Americans, it did not matter. Some of them were interested in learning where he was from, but it did not matter what he told them who he was. He was a manifestation of what they wanted him to be. He was a manifestation of what their ancestors had done to his ancestors. His home was a manifestation of the oppression they placed upon him, his people, culture, and history, more specifically, the history of the U.S. bombing over Cambodia, and ultimately, the history of the Cambodian genocide.
While he tried to make the United States his new home, it was not, and he lost a place in Cambodia, which he had once called home.
In the end, this became a dialogue between the fragmented identities:
“Where is your home?” he asked me.
I told him, my home is far, far away, full of warmth and joy.
He then told me, it did not exist anymore.
I nodded and asked him, “Where is your home?”
He told me, his home is here, so close to him and me.
I told him, it feels so cold … isolated.
Originally written for HECUA. Republished with permission from the author.