My name is Vanthay Hong. I was born in Siem Reap, Cambodia to Leth and Kim Hong. I have three siblings - two sisters and one brother. I am the second child of the family. I played division soccer for a year at University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. After I obtained a knee injury, I transferred to Augsburg University and graduated from there with a biology degree. Now, I work at Deloitte & Touche and run a nonprofit called Spam FC Scholarship Foundation that helps students pay for college.
It was a bright sunny day. My maternal grandfather was napping under the shade of only tree in the field. I was playing soldier, hiding behind cows and shooting bad guys with my pretend gun, a branch.
All of a sudden, thunder roared across the sky, ripping it apart.
But the strange thing was, there was no cloud in the sky,, there was no lightning. My grandfather ran to me, grabbed my arm and we went to find my parents. The next thing I knew, we were riding six deep on a little moped heading somewhere.
That day the Khmer Rouge came through my village and burned it to ashes. That was also the last time I saw my grandfather.
After being left homeless for several months, my parents moved us to Tonle Sap. For the first few years, we lived in a little shack. The three walls were enclosed by scrap wood with a thatch roof. Whenever it rained, water would find its way in.
My older sister I used to go to school on a floating school, but once we got settled in Tonle Sap, my parents wanted to send us into the city to go to a better school. At first, Jenny and I used to wake up at 4 in the morning, hop on our little green bike, and peg each other to school. However the travel proved to be too much for me, so my parents sent to me to live with a family friend. They too, were poor, but they took care of me like I was one of their own children. About after a year, I went to live in the Buddhist temple with the monks so I could just wake up and walk to school. I did chores into exchange for food and housing.
Looking back, I am extremely grateful that I had to suffer through these experiences because it explains why I always took school very seriously when we moved to the United States.
My family is like a Southeast Asian mutt - a mixture of many different ethnic backgrounds. On my father’s side, we're mostly Khmer (and who knows what else), and on my mother's side, my grandfather was Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Chinese. This mixed identity made my maternal grandfather a target because he was Vietnamese and had very fair skin. In the middle of the night, at the time of his scheduled execution, my grandfather and five other detainees escaped their executioners, the Khmer Rouge. Dodging landmines and sleeping in trees to avoid unforeseen danger, they fought to reach a refugee camp in Thailand.
There, in the refugee camp, even though he had survived, he felt a piece of him had died. The decision to escape meant he had to abandon his wife and four daughters. He felt alone, which gave way to depression and drove him to consider suicide. However, he clung to a sliver of hope that his family had somehow survived as well, and this gave him the necessary strength to overcome his melancholy heart and stay alive so that one day, they might all be reunited.
After being forced into a malnourished state and suffering months of sleeping on the floor of his hut in the refugee camp, my grandfather was sponsored to immigrate to St. Paul, Minnesota. Arriving in the U.S. as a 5’8” man weighing 90 pounds with no foothold in the culture and no knowledge of English, he enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class, and soon afterward started a cleaning service to make money so he could fund the search for his family.
My grandfather gained a powerful ally in this search when he married my step-grandmother, a smart and resourceful ESL teacher. At the time, it was dangerous for Cambodian migrants like my grandfather to return to Cambodia. This added a layer of complexity to the search because my grandfather could not conduct it directly. As a proxy, my step-grandmother sent stacks of police sketches of my grandfather’s family, along with her and my grandfather’s U.S. telephone number, with an American friend traveling to Cambodia.
When the friend returned to the US, he had the burden of telling them that he had not found my grandfather’s family. As a last-ditch effort, he had left the sketches in all of the cities that he had visited in Cambodia, like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Batambong.
Months passed and on an evening like any other, my step-grandmother answered her landline when the phone rang. The person calling was the wife my grandfather had to leave in Cambodia. Because it was before the time of caller ID, my step-grandmother did not know who was calling and had just assumed that it was a Cambodian friend in the U.S. She casually handed my grandfather the telephone, listened intently, and waited for the first exchange of words between the estranged survivors.
There were no words, just a long, painful silence.
Eventually, my grandfather broke the silence with tears and uttered, "Are my children alive? How are they?"
To his surprise, his four girls were alive and had families of their own!
Within months, my grandfather and step-grandmother began to sponsor his family to the U.S. They were only able to sponsor one family member at a time.
In 1998, my family immigrated to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
It was tough growing up in St. Louis Park, MN, initially, especially since I did not know the language and the culture... This wasn’t unique to my family and me, as I’m sure many immigrant families face similar changes.
We were poor. My parents often held three or four jobs to ensure my siblings and I had the best opportunity to do well in school.
We got really lucky to be located in St. Louis Park. Right away, I fell in love with sports, especially soccer, and that became my community, my second family. Not long after, my coaches and teammates’ parents took me in like I was their own. From that point on, I had a much easier time assimilating and acclimating into American culture.
I grew up around White and Black kids. Besides two other Khmer families in the area and our own extended family, we didn’t have too many close interactions with other Khmer families. The only time we would run into them was when we went to lunch as a family on the weekend or at the Wat (Buddhist Temple) for Khmer New Years or other big events.
From a racial/ethnic standpoint, I had a hard time identifying who I was as a kid. Because I excelled in sports (soccer and basketball), I was lucky that I didn’t face too many bullies. But I struggled to identify who I was as a person.
Being Asian wasn’t cool. Having a dad who delivered pizza as one of three jobs wasn’t cool. So as I kid, I spent many hours playing soccer and basketball. I hung around many low-income Black kids, and by default I always saw myself more as a young black kid than an Asian.
When my dad passed last November, my mom forced us to clean out our old stuff and I saw my old baseball, soccer, and basketball card folder, and on the cover there was a drawing I did of myself. I’m laughing as I’m typing this out because that picture looked nothing like me. So I found another sketchbook and all my sketches were the same: me as a man with a tight fade and a goatee...I guess I must have seen myself as a young Michael Vick, the former quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons.
However, as I got older, I became so proud of being a Khmer immigrant. Many people mistake me as a Latino, and sometimes I play along, but most of the time I love telling them about Cambodia.
My unique upbring shaped my identity in a roundabout way. As a young kid I idolized Black athletes, so they certainly helped shape it. However, my parents were the ultimate shapers because they really showed me how to work hard, be resilient, and be grateful.
There wasn’t a specific moment, but it was a battle that I struggled internally. Before I made my mark as an athlete, it sucked being a Khmer immigrant. There were kids who made me feel ashamed of being me. They made fun of my accent, my Goodwill style ;) Now I guess thrift shopping is cool!
It was a prolonged period of struggle, but I guess because of my competitive nature I alway felt like I could do better. I alway felt like I could rise above.
In today’s political climate, twenty years later, I’m extremely proud of being a Khmer American. For example, on March 1st, I got to share my family’s story with about 400 community members. The story made people laugh, moved some people to tears, and at the end it made me really proud to be at the podium representing the six of us.
Below is the video of the speech, which was filmed by my brother:
It was an honor to represent my family and #SpamFC Scholarship Foundation / SPAM Football Club at the Children First Breakfast. Amy Fokuo Kwame was amazing! Thank you Karen Atkinson for the opportunity to share my #Immigrant story and express my love for this community. 😊Posted by Vanthay Hong on Thursday, March 1, 2018
My dad was the smiliest person I know. My dad was a carpenter. In Cambodia, he was a boat builder, while his primary job in the States was making windows. He also had other many other side jobs when we were younger, such as cleaning and delivering pizza. He wasn’t rich, but raised incredibly loving people and supported not just us, but our extended family across the world. He was well respected for his work and well loved. A few days before he passed, a colleague came over to the house and shared with me a picture album that he kept for the last two decades, filled with photos of my dad and his colleagues. This was a big, macho guy, and he broke down and cried as he shared how much my dad meant to his window company.
Soccer was my sanctuary, my happy place. When you can’t understand English, there is only so much Tom and Jerry a person could watch. So instead of watching TV, I used to go dribble in the garage or practice outside. I used to go to two practices with two different teams. Outside of school and the violin, soccer was my life.
I started playing varsity soccer in 8th grade, and became the team captain my sophomore year. We were too poor and too Khmer to take vacations, so soccer was my opportunity to see the country. Outside of high school soccer, I played club year round and traveled a good part of the country, competing in various tournaments.
Within St. Louis Park, my club and high school coaches, Bob Decker and Chato Alvarado, treated me like a son. Especially Bob Decker. He was my youth coach on the original Spam FC team. My parents couldn’t drive me to games because they were always working. So for games that I couldn’t make on my bike, Bob would take me. When we went to faraway places, he’d cover the hotel cost. I was so lucky. Similarly, when I got older and started playing for an elite selecting team and traveling the country, there was a man by the name of Tim Gibbons who played the same role as Bob.
The inception of Spam FC started as a revival among my friends of our childhood team. We started a men’s league team after college and in a few years, climbed the ranks to the highest division. The team started in 2011. The nonprofit started in 2014. One day, after we finished playing pick-up soccer, we went to a local bowling alley/bar. We ended up talking about wanting to do something cool for a few of the kids in our community who played soccer and were about to go to college. So we came up with the idea to host a street soccer tournament to raise some money for them to pay for books, housing, and other college stuff.
"In 2014 a group of friends came up with an idea to give back to the community and "pay it forward". That conversation turned an idea into a nonprofit called Spam FC Scholarship Foundation.
The purpose of the Spam FC Scholarship is to raise and distribute money to help students pay for post-secondary education. The money will be distributed to selected students to cover tuition and other expenses, such as books and housing. The Spam FC Scholarship will also promote graduating high school students’ continued involvement in soccer by, for example, running youth soccer clinics and organizing teams so graduating high school students have the opportunity to continue playing organized soccer after finishing high school."
I think access to education is the biggest problem facing our community. Right now, there’s a false narrative about all Asians doing well in school. If you look at the data at the granular level, SEA students are struggling. This is why the Spam FC Scholarship Foundation is so important to me. I want to make education a top priority for younger people. I hope to continue grow and find ways to significantly impact my American and Asian community.
Since that first tournament, we have donated about $12K between 2014-2017, providing 20 students with scholarships. This year, we are going to double that - we are planning on donating about $15K.
In terms of support, we host a few local events such as a celebration dinner and fundraisers at a local brewery, but if people want to support in other ways, we have two electronic donation platforms:
I think a great organization that could reach out to is UCAMN, the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota. My sister used to work there, and I know that they’ve done a lot to help Cambodian youth and adults.