I am a Khmer-American woman. I was the first child in my family to be born in the United States, and I’m the “first” everything: first-generation college student, first-generation graduate student, and potentially the first Ph.D in my family in the U.S. Education is a very important part of my personal identity. It was first stressed by my refugee family as critical for my success and I also found a home in it. I found it to be a space where I’m learning about myself and where I fit in the world and its systems, and it has been really trying at times, especially as a child who is in between - being the first daughter bound to traditional gender roles while simultaneously living in the U.S. where you’re judged on your individual accomplishments and achievements. I did--do--the best I can.
My educational journey has been all over the place - in terms of my professional academic and personal journeys - and the best word I can use to describe it all is “wandering.” Whereas many students have a map or guides who can direct them on their options, I was not provided with one. If anything, I had to learn to put the pieces together. I was blessed to earn a scholarship, the Gates Millennium Scholarship, and that has been a pivotal opportunity for me and I wouldn’t be here today without it. But even with it, I fumbled around in my educational journey and finally found higher education as a passion. I have been “in college” for 12 years and my family often asked, “Why don’t you get a job?” and I try to explain that I do work, but what I do is outside the norm for them. My family are survivors, having gone through the genocide, the war, the refugee camps, and so many other trials, and their thinking revolves around survival - work, make money, feed the family. But I like to think that because they are who they are and I am who I am - both child and representative of the future of our family - it is my right and duty to push to advance further for us. As a young woman in a traditional Cambodian family, there was a lot of barrier-breaking that created some tense moments, but I have to give credit to my family for sticking through and learning to adapt.
My mom passed away when I was about ten and my grandmother raised me from that point on, and so she and my aunt are really big role models in my life. It is interesting because when people talk about role models, the ones we are provided are typically white men, and I wasn’t taught to think of family members or the people around me as role models. It wasn’t until the last few years that I realized how the strong women in my life impacted and guided me.
My grandmother experienced so much loss but she was the ultimate survivor. Despite battling so many health issues - a brain tumor, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney failure - she was the toughest fighter I knew. To make it to the U.S. after all that devastation, to have to deal with illness, and then to have to inherit grandchildren, just surviving these experiences - that’s a big accomplishment. In some ways, it’s a reminder to us that sometimes our biggest heroes are the everyday heroes; she didn’t cure cancer, but despite the odds she continued to survive. So while she was such an incredible part of my life, it wasn’t until recently that I really started giving her the credit she deserved, because when you’re young and growing up, you take the people in your life for granted.
My aunt is also made of the same tough stuff. She inherited four more children when she had her own three to look after. She made the best of it. All this goes back to the idea of what you do for family, what you do for each other. While it could not have been easy for her or her family, she took responsibility. I cannot thank her enough for what she sacrificed for us. People always talk about what you lose when you don’t have a mother-father, nuclear family unit, but I gained many more important figures in my life, more siblings to laugh and fight with, and new perspectives about what family entails.
My family is originally from Phnom Penh, Cambodia and my parents met in a refugee camp. That’s about as much as I know, since my family doesn't really talk too much about their lives prior to coming to the U.S., which is pretty normal in our community. Everything I’ve gathered comes from the few times my grandmother would tell stories to her friends, but it wasn’t always a situation where she would say “Come and gather around everyone! Grandma’s going to tell us a story!” Much of what I learned came later in life and putting together the pieces of what was shared over my lifetime.
As the first child, I was taught to speak and understand Khmer, which is a great skill, but as we all grew up and there were more and more grandchildren, I think the effort dwindled. I was often the translator so I developed the skill pretty well. I am very proud to be connected to my language but it’s hard to maintain it. I always wanted to learn how to read and write in Khmer but my grandmother was a very traditional woman and wanted me to stay home. At the time, most of the Khmer language classes were at the temple and even though we went to the temple, I also grew up separated from the Khmer community. That has been an interesting part of my identity development because a lot of the messaging I was receiving was that a lot of the Khmer people in the Khmer community were not good - gangsters, teen pregnancy. On top of that, there is the added level of comparison - I was the one who other children were being compared to. So the other kids would say that I was whitewashed and because I was good at school than I thought I was better than them. Then I internalized these comments and began to believe in negative thoughts about others. Those were impactful moments of my development, and stayed with me. Even as I share this, it makes me feel shame and guilt but I am still in that process of unlearning and de-internalizing. It’s painful, shameful, and scary to admit these things about yourself but it’s necessary to confront in order to reject and reconstruct your views and feelings. Overall, I am in the process of rediscovery and reawakening of my Khmer culture and identity.
Modesto's Cambodian population isn't as big as the one in Long Beach, but there were about a couple hundred Cambodians around me growing up. There was a high concentration of Cambodian people in West Modesto, and I lived in the South side and later the East side. I wasn't really allowed to engage with the community because of the stigma of the West side. I had friends who were daughters of my family's friends, but I didn't actively choose to have Cambodian friends until college. The only Cambodian students at my school were my siblings and my cousins, because we all went to the same schools, and in high school, I was typically the only Cambodian student in my classes.
While I probably didn’t have the language to call it the Model Minority Myth early on in my life, it was something that definitely impacted me. Often I was the only Asian in my AP classes, and so a lot of people attributed my intellect to my genetics. But because education was where I felt most comfortable, I accepted the generalizations. I would always get comments like, “Oh, you’re Asian, you’re smart, so you must be good at this.” I got good grades because I worked hard, and I had to learn just like everyone else. It did not necessarily come easy. The impact of the MMM on my life goes back to my socialization as a Khmer woman who doesn’t rock the boat or bring attention to myself. I would never ask questions in class because I was afraid that people would think that I was dumb or I didn’t want to bring attention to myself. I had to put on this perception of myself to protect myself.
On the other hand, while the MMM has definitely shaped me, my research also looks at the idea of a Deviant Minority Myth. Usually it is attached to people of color, particularly black and brown populations, implying that they don’t care about education, that they don’t try hard enough. Part of my dissertation and my work looks at how [this particular construct] is also attached to Southeast Asians. It is an interesting and impactful dichotomy to experience. One of my earliest memories of experiencing something like this was when I was in junior high in a math and science class and we had a substitute who told me, “Well, you’re smart for a Khmer girl.” And at the time, I thought that was a compliment, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized that that was one of the most backhanded compliments I had ever gotten. It made me sad, and a bit guilty for feeling pride when he was unknowingly demeaning an entire community.
On top of this, my research was fueled by watching my brothers go to school. As siblings, we are all bright and intelligent but I could not understand why there was such disparity within our educational experiences. So I began questioning things: What is it about the school system and the teachers that made it so difficult for them? What messaging is causing people to look at students in deficit ways, as delinquents? What is really pushing students out of school? I began to reject assumptions that the students were the problem and instead start to search for more answers. As a Southeast Asian woman, I learned how to play the game, developing this perception of me as the “good girl,” but because my brothers refused to play the game, they were punished. They attended community college, but it just wasn’t easy for them. Now, instead of questioning their commitment, I realize that there are so many systemic issues that are at play here, that are pushing them out of school. This is not an anomaly, more a trend and I find it troubling. So in short, yes, my life has been impacted by the MMM, but it’s darker side or corollary has created significant issues for my community.
Even now I’m uncomfortable being on the front lines. I like being in the background, and I never liked bringing attention to myself. Yet, I’m taking on a career path that requires me to put my name out there, attaching it to critical work and critical things. I am still trying to come to terms with it. Even with the need for more activism in our society and more people fighting for social justice, I have a very complicated relationship with “activism.” I had always associated activism with being on the front lines and being in someone’s face, but I recognize now that that was an unfair characterization. We all have activist role we can play in our spaces. As for me, I prefer subtle, small acts. In academia, I see my role as connecting with people and touching people, talking, sharing, engaging with them, and hopefully helping to change minds and perceptions. Maybe I’m not overtly rocking the boat but slowly dismantling the problematic parts of it in my areas of influence.
The Roger Salters Writing Institute came into being during my second or third year of college. I wanted to provide an inclusive, welcoming, collectivist, and collaborative space to support students in their writing. I didn’t want this program to be built using a deficit perspective. My primary goal was to create this space where students could talk to each other about their research, which often is related to issues of inequity. It’s such a vulnerable experience, especially when we’re talking about topics like imposter syndrome and shame. Maybe students wouldn’t have the opportunities to talk about these things in classes where there are dominant or majority identities who might not understand the inherent vulnerability that is involved in this type of research. So in this space, we invited faculty and staff who are familiar with, aware of, and doing the same work, and we held retreats. This program has been very successful and is currently in its third year now, and it is one of my biggest pride and joys because I used the opportunity to create a program that I felt I needed and now it’s being used to help so many others.
My dissertation objective is to explore the racialized experiences of Southeast Asian American community college students. Specifically, I’m interested in the narratives of students of the post-Vietnam War era: Hmong, Vietnamese, Lao, and Khmer students. I came about this topic because I was interested in the dichotomy or binary of characterizations of Southeast Asians under the larger category of “Model Minorities” but also as “deviant minorities.” I wanted to explore that experience and how it impacts students. More specifically, I am interested in highlighting their stories of resilience and resistance.
Also, community college is one of the least researched areas in higher education, but it’s where the majority of students of color go. For whatever reason, it’s where a lot of my community went, and it was a good opportunity to explore what is going on at these community colleges, but also to view it through a critical lens: How does being racialized in specific ways impact your educational experience, and how does it potentially impact whether you can earn your degree and what options you have later on?
While research on Southeast Asian student population is increasing, there are so many unheard stories and voices and narratives. I remember the first time I was asked to share my story. I was amazed, “What? Someone wants to listen to my story?” I’m super excited to be able to talk to students who may not have had these opportunities to share, to be asked, what their experiences are. I want them to be heard and seen. On top of that, I want to use my Ph.D and the platform and the spaces that I have access to to elevate Southeast Asian students’ stories and experiences and to make sure that they are visible. This dissertation is my passion project, my culminating activism moment or experience of my Ph.D program. Everyone hopes that their dissertation changes the world and I know that mine won’t necessarily, but if anything, it will contribute to our Southeast Asian community. It’s a personal project for me and I take it very seriously. My sense of responsibility to this project has caused me to go slower than I would like because I want to do it right, to do it justice. Even sending out the Call for Participants made me nervous because I wanted it to be perfect. I’m not doing this just for the edification of the academic community and for me and my academic career, but for my community. It’s to make sure that there is documentation that we exist.
I was not aware of Ethnic Studies in my college journey but if I could do it all over again, I would have either majored in it or taken courses. I think Ethnic Studies is deeply important. It provides students the opportunity to learn more about themselves through their history, which is not accessible in mainstream education. Additionally, it’s a great space for students to connect to really great educators and role models who understand the importance of knowing self.
I also think Ethnic Studies and/or opportunities for students to learn about their own identities early on in life will be an important piece that will help produce a positive future for our Southeast Asian American students. There is already so much to gain by learning about yourself in these ways. I hope for an educational experience that is full of opportunity, affirmation, and validation for our students. I desire for them to be seen as full, whole beings who have inherited their strength, resilience, and power from their families, many of whom came here with nothing but built something for their children to stand on. Ultimately, I want equitable and just access to education and opportunity for our students.
If you are interested in participating in Varaxy's research study, please click here: https://tinyurl.com/seaastudents