This story goes to all my fellow Southeast Asian college students and graduates:
I just graduated college at the age of 20. I got a B.S. in Sociology with a focus in policy analysis, and minors in Asian American Studies; Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies; and Comparative Race and Ethnicity in the U.S. I basically majored in “consciousness”; as Yuri Kochiyama describes, “Remember that consciousness is power. Consciousness is education and knowledge. Consciousness is becoming aware. It is the perfect vehicle for students.” College was such a strange journey with so much personal growth. There are so many people I would like to thank that helped me on my way: All my friends who were there for me during my tough nights, my SOY (Shades of Yellow) family who loved me unconditionally, my professors who put so much labor, energy, and time into me, and my parents who got me this far. I feel like I really wouldn’t have been able to survive at the white school that is the University of Minnesota without the Asian American Studies program. Asian American Studies has prompted my current life path. Everyone in the program helped me become the activist-scholar that I am today.
Post-graduation has been one of the hardest moments of my short adult life. My whole life was oriented around school and getting a degree. My parents said that college was always my elevator to success -- education is the great equalizer. My parents are refugees from “The Killing Fields,” and they feel as if their children are their only legacy. America has made us a lot of false promises like freedom, life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Why is that I am supposed to be their last legacy on Earth? They don’t see their vast impact on the world just by living and surviving as refugees - to me, their legacy is life itself. Why does it feel like, for children of refugees, that all of our parents’ aspirations for the world are placed on our own shoulders? You don’t walk the path of life as a singular individual, but proceed with plurality. Your life, hopes, dreams, and successes are not only your own, but also of your ancestors.
I invested so much hope in the Ivory Tower that I couldn’t see life around me. During my time at the University of Minnesota, I began to have tunnel vision. I would move from undergrad to a job or graduate school, but in the end I will be productive! Education would be my ticket to be assimilated into America. My degree would allow me to not to be like my parents. I would not have a life struggle like them; would not work in the factory on an assembly line; not have to keep two full-time jobs to support my family; not be spoken down by a sixteen-year-old white cashier at the local grocery store; not be a refugee. Only 14% of all Cambodian Americans have a four-year degree, and I had joined this small and exclusive club. For many of us first-generation Southeast Asian students, and students of color at large, thought education would liberate us from white supremacy.
“The University” will never be my savior. Yet, my time at the University of Minnesota felt so trifling, it was like I was stuck in a never-ending blizzard. I got my diploma, unlike many who had to leave from the financial burden, sexual assault, mental health, and so much more. I call into the fact I survived the storm. But, these past couple of weeks I have felt the most depressed ever in my life -- my “senioritis” shifted into “post-graduation blues.” The Ivory Tower is not a utopia, but rather a dystopia where we students of color have to fight for resources to survive. Where leaders of educational institutions allow white supremacy to be plastered on our school walls. Where dissent is quitely and neatly covered up. Where the myth of multiculturalism states that we have “diversity,” we will take your picture for our website, but never give you support for your labor. I, as a student at the University of Minnesota, learn and live off of the labor of prisoners. As students of color, we struggle to find each other and to hold space with this dystopian reality.
I didn’t have the chance to walk at graduation, which is something I was really regretting. I had oriented my existence around being able to cross the stage at the end of college. My 20 years of life has been about getting a college degree and to not walk was perplexing, but I had the amazing opportunity to visit my ancestral homeland of Cambodia. It has been over ten years since I’ve walked in the land of my people. My life has changed dramatically in the last ten years. For one thing, I am getting an academic paper published with one of my oldest high school friends. I have never thought of myself as a writer. As a first generation Southeast Asian American, I have constantly struggled with the colonial project that is the English language. In school, I never felt my writing would ever be on par with my white counterparts. I struggle to translate those racing thoughts in my mind to the paper. I could never be your “model minority.” But, with the help of so many people, I persevered.
Yet, at the beginning of the trip, I felt a lot of dissonance for dropping my whole life in Minnesota to go. All these feelings of melancholy went away when I visited Angkor Wat. But entering the ancient site was anxiety-inducing. I had the most diasporic encounter in my life at the temple. The Khmer tourist police didn’t believe I was Khmer. Speaking in Khmer, they asked to see my ticket. I responded back to them in Khmer, “What? I am Khmer!” Surprised by my response, they started barraging me with questions, “Where are you from? Who are your parents? Show us proof! Show me your passport!” I was eventually let in, but I was shaking. My anxiety went from 1 to 100. Why would I pay to see my own holy sites? The U.S. empire displaced me from my home and had erased my people from seeing me. My losses from diaspora were never more present than in this moment. Only I was questioned for my ethnic authenticity. My heart dropped in that moment. I pray that in the spirit world, I will be reunited with my ancestors.
Snow still falls on the equator. White tourists come to colonize our last legacy. While waiting to take a photo at the temple, I noticed a loud and obnoxious group of American tourists, all around the estimated age of sixty, I would say, because of their pruney skin and white hair. I suddenly felt a slight nudge, not accidental, but an act of aggression. This crusty old white women really had the audacity to push me. With my face of utter disgust, I still attempted to ascend to take my photo. Abruptly I heard the woman say to her friend, “Honey, the natives here are getting unruly!” Unruly. U-N-R-U-L-Y. Merriam-Webster defines “unruly” as: not readily ruled, disciplined, or managed. I was about to shit a brick and cause an international crisis. You entitled colonizers will SEE unruly. I really was gonna brawl a geriatrics patient, and if you knew me, you know I really would, in one of the more sacred sites in Southeast Asia. Who comes to someone else’s home to admire the architecture, yet shit on the owners? Who travels to another country with such a sense of claim? It was quite clear, though, that from this brief encounter she thought 1) I didn’t know English, 2) I was uncultured, 3) I was born in Cambodia.
And yet, once I entered, just walking through a sacred site was so healing. I felt so blessed to have the chance just to see the legacy that my ancestors have had on this plane. Flowing through Angkor Wat beat walking at graduation any day. To journey through Angkor Wat is to be a ten-year-old child again. This may only be my second trip back to Cambodia, yet these encounters still came with their own trials and tribulations -- each brought new insights on myself and the world.
To be born in the Southeast Asian diaspora, I am both invisible and hypervisible. Asia can only see what is lost and America can only see what is foreign. The legacy of U.S. imperialism proliferates with every action I take. Whether it is my desires in life or my responses and interactions with other people, I will be forever marked as a refugee. I mean not to claim myself as a refugee in an attempt to trivialize the experience of those seeking asylum, but rather question the ways in which we, as diaspora Southeast Asians (and specifically children of refugees), have never truly been gifted the promises of freedom.
To be a refugee is to suffer tremendous loss; it is to be seen as abject to order itself. Yet, it is also aspiring for a world of full of security, safety, love, and, fundamentally, life. I am still seeking a space of refuge. Refuge from the U.S. empire. Refuge from white supremacy. Refuge from cis-hetero-patriarchy. Refuge as in home. Home within the diaspora. This recent return to Cambodia gave me the epiphany that home is not geographic, not a territorized space within borders. Home is an ephemeral feeling.
I felt the most at home while being blessed by the monks. To be blessed by Buddhist monks at the largest temple in the world is surreal. I got my fortune told by the monks. Then they proceeded to douse me with holy water and tie a red string (the blessing) around my wrist. They said to me, “In my early life many people will try to bring me down. People will attempt to curse me with negative energy, but I will persevere because I am resilient.” My spirit felt so full. I felt the burn of the bright tropical sun on my skin. I could feel the pull of the light bring out the melanin in my skin. My brownness was beginning to blossom. I felt rivers of sweat forming on every crevice on my body from the 108° heat. I smelled the low burn of incense that was full of hopes, dreams, and letters to loved ones so far gone. It was as if during this thirty-second interaction, my body was begging to be aligned with my spirit. I was transported home.
I don’t know what the full future has in store for me. I am currently joining many of my peers in unemployment, which is quite frightening. I cannot truly say that life gets better after graduating since I have only lived so little of it, but the realities and possibilities of the worlds just seem crisper. My advice to you is don’t assimilate. Refuse the narrative. Be unruly. Slow down! I felt like I was never really present when I was a college student. I did everything like I’d just had three shots of espresso and a redbull. Things that seem the most mundane will be the most influential on your life. It won’t be your GPA, but the time you and your friends cried in your favorite Vietnamese coffee shop during finals week talking about love. It is screaming your lungs out in the middle of campus. It is dancing with strangers on the sidewalk while going to class. Embrace these small gestures, because they are not only a means for survival, but it is the universe sending you love.
Soon, I will be going to UCLA. In the fall, I will have the opportunity to connect with other radical Asian American students from across the United States. I will have the chance to be mentored by some of the most influential minds. Leaving the place that I have sought refuge in (Minnesota) for the last 20 years is going to be a quest. I only hope to stay grounded. Although I am returning to the Ivory Tower, I hope to remember the people who got me here: the community and the lives that are thriving outside of academia. Just because I am learning in a formal classroom does not mean the knowledge I have is more important. We, as researchers, easily theorize from within our laboratories, but we must also do. What is the point of a book if it’s stuck sitting on a shelf collecting dust? To reiterate and finish Yuri Kochiyama’s statement from earlier, “Consciousness-raising is pertinent for power, and be sure that power will not be abusively used, but used for building trust and goodwill domestically and internationally. Tomorrow’s world is yours to build.” I hope to keep building power with comrades, because we make our own future and worlds in which liberation is a reality.