My name is Vanessa, and I identify as Khmer American. I received my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Denver and worked at the University of Oregon in the Division of Equity Inclusion for a year after graduating. I am currently in Bloomington, Indiana, where I am in the first year of my PhD program. I’m also very lucky to be married to wonderful partner who supports me in all my endeavors and am a new puppy mom.
Both of my parents are from Cambodia, but I’m much more familiar with the journey of my family on my mother’s side. They’re from a small town called Phnom Thom. After escaping from Cambodia, my family was in the Khao Dang Refugee Camp in Thailand for about a month, transferred to a camp in the Philippines for four months, and after close to a year and a half in the refugee camps, finally sponsored to Ohio in 1981. Eventually, they relocated to Denver, Colorado, the place I was born and call home.
I was very fortunate to have gone to the Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS) for high school, a magnet school that grew out of another high school in Denver Public Schools. Perhaps by fate, my aunts and uncles had also gone to school in the high school that used to house this program. The accidental structure of my family - in which my mom is the oldest - allowed me to witness six of my aunts and uncles find their way through the education system. I know that this has had a huge impact on my educational trajectory. I have always had someone to look up to and get advice from, a privilege that many others may not have. While at DCIS, I took a class called Passages, similar to a thesis class, in which my teacher (shoutout to Munoz) challenged us to do a project that was meaningful to us and our community. I decided it would be interesting to learn more about Cambodia because up until then, I had always known that my family was from Cambodia and had been refugees, but I didn’t truly know or understand what that meant. So getting the opportunity to trace where my family came from was significant because for awhile, it was just generally “Cambodia,” a place on a map to me. Throughout this entire process, I didn’t ask my family questions because I was worried that bringing all this up would be too traumatic. Researching for this project was such a weird experience because as I read all these articles and saw all of these statistics, I realized that my family was a part of these numbers, that I was a result of this data. I got to present my findings to a committee, and I invited my family to the event. It was a moment I will never forget because they got to see what I had been working on and also witness how historians wrote about Cambodia (the good and the bad). That experience inspired me to become more invested in understanding my identity as a Khmer American and Southeast Asian American womxn.
In conjunction with helping me learn about my identity, my Passages teacher also taught me about equity and social justice. He is someone I’m so very very grateful to and someone I hope to model my pedagogy after.
I’m glad that I’ve had a lot of time and resources to reflect on this now - I guarantee that if I were not in a higher education program, I would not understand my experience in the same way because only now do I have the language to describe what I was going through. I think part of the reason why my family stayed in Denver was because there weren’t that many Cambodian Americans there. My mom, the oldest of seven, was the first to graduate high school, which completely changed the trajectories for everyone else in the family. Simultaneously, my grandparents were receiving implicit messages that if we were in heavily Cambodian communities, we might face a lot of the challenges that other Cambodian communities face - all these stereotypes that are actually a result of bigger systemic issues. They believed that they were doing more good for us than harm by making sure that we weren’t exposed to these perceived dangers. I understand now that the decision was very complicated and influenced by a multitude of oppressions…but it was also rooted in the struggle for survival. Of course, I didn’t understand why I wasn’t living in a place with more Khmer folks and instead lived in Denver where I didn’t have many Khmer friends or have access to a lot of Khmer culture.
Throughout my schooling, I was in a predominantly Latinx school and as more of my family earned their degrees, we started moving closer to the suburbs where the schools were more White and East Asian; I went from being the only Asian American in school to the only Southeast Asian American. I’ve had to take a lot of time to kind of unlearn a lot of whiteness that I had internalized during that period in my life.
To me, the “powerful matriarchs” part is the most important because for most of my life, I was raised by a single mother. The narrative I was getting externally was that this was a deficit, especially since many Asian Americans and Southeast Asians have very traditional ideas of what a family looks like, and since I didn’t have that, I felt like my mom was often blacklisted from a lot of communities. Even though I was so proud of her for getting a divorce because it’s a decision that takes a lot of courage, people would say things like, “Oh, you divorced your husband; that’s not what a good woman does” or “Your kids are going to be messed up because they don’t have two parents.” But my mom kept pushing through. She was always the primary supporter of our family, and everything I know about equity and justice and feminism are all things I learned from her, my first teacher. She taught me what all these concepts were before I knew there were words for them, because she had always modeled them for me.
When she first had me, she named me Vanessa because while she was going to school, she worked as a high school janitor, cleaning up after her peers and classmates. She was bullied a lot because of her name and didn’t want me (and later, my siblings) to have that experience, so she gave me an English name to give me the best chance at being happy. I can’t even fathom the amount of strength she had to have to survive through the war, come to the United States and start all over, be the model for six other siblings, and raise three kids on her own. To me, my mom is the epitome of strength, a true matriarch. Even with this doctoral program and its challenges, I can guarantee it’s nothing compared to what she had to go through and all the sacrifices she had to make.
A lot of it is related to my grandmother too because the two of them are the ones who hold our family up. Even though my grandma may not be your traditional activist or feminist, she is always the one who makes sure we are fed, that everyone is taken care of, that we all have what we need to do what we need to do. This unpaid emotional labor that many women do is often overlooked. Being a daughter of refugees is so important to me, and I want to continue this legacy that my mom and grandma have created.
I don’t know if I was ever ashamed to be Cambodian American, but there was definitely a time in my life when I only identified as Asian American, not making the Khmer part particularly visible. I recognized the privilege that comes with being East Asian-passing, and a lot of people don’t assume that I’m Cambodian or Southeast Asian. For me, it was not necessarily a matter of being proud of being Cambodian American because I didn’t think about it, or think it meant anything important.
I had an experience in undergrad where I went to a conference for Asian American students in the Midwest. There was a workshop presented by some East Asian Americans folks, and they painted Southeast Asian Americans in a patronizing way, talking about how we needed saving. I was sitting there thinking, “What is happening right now?” Do they know that someone from this very community is sitting in the room right now? Ever since, I been trying to understand the complicated relationship of Southeast Asian Americans underneath this Asian American umbrella: how we are talked about in the literature in such deficit ways. I think that the Asian American community does not understand that we have intergenerational resilience, that we have survived a lot and that our communities have created everything from nothing. This workshop experience also made me much more dedicated to making my Khmer American and Southeast Asian American identity visible and apparent because I want to make sure that if spaces like this exist in the future, if I’m in them, people know they need to be better. So I spend a lot of my time in pan-ethnic Asian American spaces so that for example, I can remind people that maybe there’s a bit more to Asian American activism than Asian American representation in the media.
The first time I felt extremely proud of being Cambodian American was when in my junior year of undergrad, I was involved in the Asian Student Alliance and helped plan the campus’s first Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM). I suggested having a program catered to Southeast Asian Americans, and we ended up having a panel with parents from Southeast Asia; I invited my mom to come speak. And because of the reception to that panel, a later APAHM hosted an event with my whole family on a panel - my mom, my aunts, and my uncles. I was so proud of them and proud to be a product of them, and in that moment, I fully embraced my identity. I remember going through a phase where I started trying to support every Khmer American clothing maker ever. I started collecting all these shirts because I wanted to wear these items proudly and make my Khmer American identity more visible. And that was also around the time that I talked about being Khmer American and Southeast Asian all the time. The fact that my family was willing to be vulnerable and put themselves out there in that panel was a big deal because I don’t think they thought that anyone would be interested in what they had to say, or care about their story.
It wasn’t something that happened overnight, but something that was collected and gathered over time until it reached a point where I knew that things had to change. I feel like in a lot of ways, I became an activist because I’m a daughter of refugees. While I was growing up, my mom helped community elders with translations, and even now, she does things like help community members understand their insurance plans or connect them to social services. To me, she is an activist because she is helping people gain access to resources that can be transformative to people. So coming from this service-oriented family and community helped propel me into activism. I started connecting the dots, like how my mom had to spend hours of labor and time providing translation services for folks because the system doesn’t see the Khmer community as important enough to provide documents in Khmer.
After undergrad, I wanted to learn more about activism and so I applied for this internship in D.C. I found out that the program was sponsored by a large corporation, which was incredibly problematic to me because I couldn’t understand how sponsorship money was being taken from a corporation that was displacing Asian Americans. A public display of protest eventually resulted in myself and two other interns getting terminated. During that time the Southeast Asian American community came out to protect me, and I realized that though the Asian American community is complicated and different in terms of experience and positions of privilege, the Southeast Asian American community had my back. It took me about 2-3 years to come to terms with that termination and my friend and I often refer to it as this process of “struggling to love to struggle with love.” We started thinking about how to integrate radical love into our activism because when we were terminated, we felt as if we had been left by our entire community and that the movement didn’t want us anymore. So I think a lot about what transformation means in my activism now, because when I see younger activists, particularly young Asian American activists, I think we have to be remember to infuse love and support with that anger and passion.
The biggest thing for me is Asian Americans and non-Asians doing research on Southeast Asian Americans without the input of Southeast Asian Americans. It was so frustrating for me to read research on my community not written by people from my community. A lot of articles would say things like “People in the Cambodian community have this dropout rate.” Period. There was no further explanation, which fueled assumptions and stereotypes. And this was coming from Asian American folks who were frustrated by how non-Asian American folks were writing about the Asian American community - how could they not see the connections? It was so hard for me to find pieces that talked about the strengths of my community, and that made me question a lot about whether I should go work in higher education if none of this research and information is validating my experience and identity. In terms of general scholarship and how Cambodian Americans and Southeast Asian Americans are portrayed, I think we have a long way to go. We still have to have conversations about where we fit in data disaggregation and in affirmative action, and how to go beyond listing Cambodian Americans as just percentages.
So many of the spaces I was and am involved in are collective efforts, and I have to give so much credit to all the amazing people who trusted me and worked with me to make all of these things happen.
Project Ava started with myself and two of my friends during undergrad. We were talking in the residence hall and brought up how there are so many good stories on this campus that we could tell, and how the university didn’t do a good job at telling them. For example, the school focused on highly involved students and highly successful students, but not on the students working full time to support their families, or those who are historically marginalized. One of our first successful videos was actually about my mom, which was a huge moment because it told us that there was an audience for content like this, that there was a need for these stories. Since then, Project Ava has evolved to include blogs and podcasts. I am currently still involved in Project Ava on the Board of Directors. I felt that it was time to let other people take the mantle, such as Kimberly Ta, the Executive Director, who has done an amazing job to organize a team of storytellers. I think it’s so cool that Project Ava has shifted into an organization that trains storytellers and provides tools to those who want to tell social justice stories.
In terms of SEAAsterScholars, when I was starting my MA program at the University of Denver, I got a message from my eventual advisor that he wanted to connect me with a student, Varaxy Yi, who was coming to Denver. When I met her, I realized that it was the first time in my entire life that I had met a Cambodian American woman in higher ed, let alone a PhD program, and I thought to myself, “Maybe I can get a PhD too!” I called home and told my mom, “Guess what? I met another Khmer woman and she’s getting a PhD!” I joke with Varaxy about it all the time, but I still don’t think I can fully explain how seeing another Khmer woman in this space had such an impact on me. Through her, I was introduced to other Southeast Asian American women in the field, and after talking to each other, we wanted to find a way to get more people involved and document our experiences; we thought, since all of us want to do research for our communities, why don’t we do it together? And while the scholarship aspect of SEAAsterScholars is really cool, even more significant for me is that it has been such a critical system of support.
SO MANY! First, I have to mention my best friend, Ngoc Phan. As a former teacher, she models what it means to be a caring and critical teacher. We have grown so much together. In addition, a community that has really taken me in is the Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations (UNAVSA). Their conferences use a “family” structure, which speaks to UNAVSA’s ability to create community, trust, and love. I deeply admire the current president, Thoa Nguyen, and she is doing incredible work in trying to integrate more equity work into UNAVSA.
Critical Race Feminism: A Reader (Critical America): I have only come to understand my identity as a Khmer American womxn by also understanding my identity as a womxn of color