My name is Sophia and I currently live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was raised in a small town called Holland, Michigan but was born in Redmond, Washington. I am Chinese, Cambodian, and Thai but culturally identify as Cambodian. My ethnic mix has brought on some interesting experiences as an Asian-American, which led me to devoting a lot of my time in college to working in Asian-American organizations. Nowadays my passions and work focus around social and cultural issues across all populations. In my spare time, I like watching TV (I’m addicted to crime and medical shows), doing escape rooms, eating, going to shows/events, and hanging out with my cat.
My parents are both from Battambang, Cambodia. My mom stayed in a refugee camp in Thailand and my dad was in one in the Philippines. They both came to the United States as teenagers in 1981, a few years after Khmer Rouge rule ended, and they both ended up in Chicago, eventually meeting each other through the Cambodian community. They got married and ran a small fast food place in South Side Chicago.
Growing up as a Khmer American in Michigan — specifically West Michigan — was hard. Before moving to Michigan, I lived around the Seattle area where it was much more diverse. I didn’t even realize I was a “minority” until I made the move, because suddenly I looked different compared to everyone else. In West Michigan (this is where Betsy DeVos is from, by the way), there are not a lot of Asians, but the Asians who are around are of Southeast Asian descent because there are a lot of factories and blue collar work available. Growing up in a predominantly white, Christian, and conservative area was very tough for me. Being non-white, non-Christian, and liberal always made me feel like an outsider looking in. I worked really hard so one day I could go to college somewhere else and move away to a more diverse area.
At one point during my childhood, I really wanted to fit in with the other SEA around me, but it was hard. I then realized that my parents didn’t really mingle with the Khmer/SEA community and asked them why. This is when the idea of colorism and “mixed blood” was introduced to me. As I mentioned earlier, I am a mix of Chinese/Khmer/Thai. Most of my blood is actually Chinese, but culturally I am Khmer. Because of this, my family’s skin tone is pretty “light” compared to other SEA, especially Khmer people. One thing that I always remembered from this conversation was my mom telling me, “They won’t like you if your skin is lighter than theirs. They think you’re different.” This may be a controversial topic, but it really has shaped my experience as a “half jungle Asian/half fancy Asian,” as Ali Wong says.
For undergrad, I went to the University of Michigan where the Asian demographic was mostly East Asians. This was my first exposure to East Asians, and that’s where I started to experience a lot of the East Asian vs. SEA racism. Although I made many East Asian friends in college and was part of their organizations, I still continued to feel different and like an outsider. Some of these friends even jokingly called me a “dirty Asian” or made comments about my skin color. At this point I was like, “Okay, so I’m too light to be SEA and too dark to embrace my Chinese side — what the hell do you want from me?” It was moments like these in college that honestly made me feel ashamed of being Southeast Asian. Although they were my friends and fellow Asian community members who said these things, some days I wished I could be like them. The majority of them came from wealthy families and had a lot more opportunities than me. Their experience as Asians and Asian-Americans was way different than mine, as their families didn’t survive a genocide and their parents didn’t work in factories. As a SEA, it was a huge accomplishment to even get into a top-tier university like the University of Michigan. But once I was there, it still felt like it wasn’t enough. When hanging out with my peers, I felt like I had to disregard my family’s history and act like something I wasn’t.
I later went to attend grad school at the University of Minnesota, where there’s a much larger SEA population. After my experience in undergrad, it was honestly quite refreshing to be surrounded by people I culturally identify with. My identity as a Khmer American and Asian-American in general was stronger and more defined, and I didn’t feel like an outsider anymore because I was more comfortable in my own skin. My friends now are all POC and many of them are SEA who are aware of the issues that plague our community. Finding this community has helped me be more comfortable and take pride in my cultural background.
After graduating with my Master’s, I took a lot of time to reflect on my experience as a first generation college graduate, a child of refugees, and someone who came from a low-income background. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and strength. I managed to get published four times. I helped create a statewide governmental agency policy on equity. I helped write a report that has started a dialogue on the affordable housing crisis in Minnesota. I know that sounds like a (not so) humble brag, but I earned all of that, god dammit! I overcame unique obstacles that many of my peers didn’t have to face and I learned how to navigate the academic and professional world that my parents are unfamiliar with. I didn't have the luxury of doing unpaid internships, studying abroad, getting a tutor, or working out-of-state during the summer. I didn't grow up in a community with influential people that could help me network later. Some of the policy classes that I took also caused me to reflect on my upbringing and SEA identity as we discussed how immutable characteristics like race and ethnicity, as well as socioeconomic status in general, create obstacles and barriers. Many struggles that I experienced growing up are a result of my Southeast Asian identity, and once upon a time, that led me to loathe that part of myself. However, over time I’ve realized that although Southeast Asians don’t always fit the “model minority” stereotype, the successes and achievements that we do earn are a culmination of hard work and breaking institutional barriers. Nowadays, there are more and more Southeast Asians in white collar professions. Doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, engineers, investment bankers, performers, you name it. We are the agents of change for our SEA community and I couldn’t be more proud of how far we’ve come.
When I was in college, public health wasn’t really a known field yet, but recently it has blown up. I’ve always been interested in the field of medicine/healthcare. My childhood dream was to become a surgeon and in college I was pre-med like everyone else. I thought the only thing in the broad field of healthcare was being a doctor, but when I was taking classes, I noticed I was always drawn to topics around population health. Epidemiology and infectious disease also caught my attention. My extracurricular activities in college all focused on social and cultural advocacy in the Asian-American community. For example, I was on board for the Midwest Asian American Students Union (MAASU), which is the largest midwest Asian-American conference. Social issues have always been an interest of mine, especially because I grew up feeling like such an outsider. We hosted MAASU at Michigan in 2013 which led us to be invited to the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Washington, D.C. During this event, we had the opportunity to go to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to learn about healthcare in the AAPI community. This was around the time that open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act was about to begin, so I learned a lot about health insurance from the public health perspective. I dropped the whole pre-med thing shortly after and had to take a gap year after college and moved back home. I worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant in a long-term care facility in a unit for middle-to late-stage Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. The experience there was awful and really taught me a lot about how broken health systems negatively impact patients, providers, and their families. All of these experiences inspired me to work on improving healthcare from a broader perspective, focusing on populations and systems.
During grad school, I worked various public health jobs that all focused on health equity issues for vulnerable populations. I now work as a healthcare data analyst for an insurance company, where I use our claims data to identify gaps in care for our most vulnerable members. From there, the data is used to help create new programs or provide more community outreach to the populations that need it most. I am a strong believer in using data to drive policy decisions!
I think the biggest public health concern for AAPIs and SEAs is mental health. I’ll just focus on the younger generation of AAPIs and SEAs here. AAPIs have extremely high rates of suicide and suicidal ideation, and talking about mental health is still so stigmatized. AAPI communities have a history of traumatic events, and when these mental health issues go unrecognized and unresolved, it trickles down into new generations. Intergenerational trauma is a real thing! A lot of our mental health issues are evident in those new Facebook groups like “Subtle Asian Traits” and “Subtle Asian Leftovers” where our generation is using memes as a way to laugh at our mental health issues and commiserate with each other over our “model minority” and “tiger mom” Asian upbringing. Many of my peers are interested in starting therapy, but are worried about what their parents might say or they’re worried that their therapists won’t be culturally competent. I experienced these same issues as I was trying to find a therapist for my depression and anxiety. The AAPI and SEA community have a deep need for more mental health professionals and a dialogue needs to be created to help encourage those in need to seek help. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues manifests itself into physical health issues and other problems that make it harder to grow and succeed.
Another issue I am extremely passionate about is the need to disaggregate data as it pertains to “Asians and Pacific Islanders (oriental)” — this is actually how it is labeled in the Census data. Problematic, right? The category of Asians/Pacific Islanders in data is too broad and doesn’t allow us to see the gaps in care for regions like Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia. This was actually a topic at a conference I recently went to where the presenter was talking about the need to disaggregate East Asian and Southeast Asian health data, because that’s where the disparities lie. When looking at this aggregated category, AAPIs are considered one of the healthiest racial groups in the country. However, East Asians tend to be healthier than those of other Asian and Pacific Islander descent, so the data is very skewed. This leads us to totally ignore the health issues of vulnerable populations, like Southeast Asians. This leads to gaps in care and programs that could greatly benefit SEA population health. Southeast Asians have very high rates of chronic conditions and have overall lower health outcomes compared to East Asians. The opportunities for health policy initiatives are lost in skewed data. We are a heterogeneous, not homogenous, continent and the data needs to account for that!
I learned about the concept of intergenerational trauma when I was writing my undergraduate thesis on the mental health crisis in Khmer Rouge survivors. Intergenerational trauma is defined as “the idea that traumatic events such as war, massacres, plagues, forced migrations, and natural disasters can exert an important influence on the descendents of those who experienced the trauma.” For example, 60% of Cambodia’s current population was born after the end of the Khmer Rouge era, but the country today still has a high rate of mental illness, and statistics show that at least 50% of children born into the families of Khmer Rouge reign survivors suffer from PTSD-related symptoms like depression and anxiety even though they were not directly exposed to the Khmer Rouge rule. This topic is also addressed in studies of Holocaust parent-child relationships. From a public health standpoint, a high prevalence of mental illness prevents people from participating in community activities that contribute to the construction of positive social capital because mental disorders weaken the ability to form trust and the mobilization required for collective action. Conversely, it can be said that constructing positive social capital also may prevent future mental illness. It’s an endless cycle.
From a personal standpoint, I have always had issues with anxiety. When I was a child, I wasn’t really aware of it. I thought I was just shy and a perfectionist because I was afraid of being in rooms with other people and because I wanted to make sure the speech I wrote was absolutely perfect before performing it. It wasn’t until after college that I realized I have huge issues with social anxiety which led to depression. Actually, it’s a chicken or the egg question with those two issues. A lot of the mental health symptoms that I have can also be seen in my dad. I have never experienced that much trauma in my own life, so I really do think a lot of it has to deal with the intergenerational trauma.
Honestly, I am not too aware of resources about the Khmer Rouge myself. It’s one of those things where you only hear about it from relatives and the Khmer community, which is unfortunate because it’s definitely an event that should be thoroughly documented. I took Asian Studies courses at Michigan, and even those courses focused a lot on East Asian history. The Southeast Asian-specific classes glossed over most of SEA history, not focusing on anything in particular. I kind of feel like the responsibility lies on my generation of Khmer Americans to be the historians of the Cambodian diaspora. Our parents are always telling us stories to the point where we let it in one ear and out the other. I worry that by the time we realize the importance of our narrative, it will be too late.
The Wilder Foundation in St. Paul is doing incredible work for the Southeast Asian community. They provide a Southeast Asian Services program that was implemented in 1984 as a standalone program in the St. Paul community. St. Paul has a large and growing population of SEA residents (Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian) and the goal of their SEA Services program is to provide culturally appropriate support to the Southeast Asian community. They provide mental health services as well as programs that teach social adjustment, family strengthening, psychosocial education, and school success services. They are a valuable part of the Twin Cities community and have done so much for the large SEA population in St. Paul.