Bunkong Tuon
Graduate Student  in Comparative Literature
   University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Locating "Cambodian" in Cambodian American Youth

What is it like to be born in a place,

to stay and live there,

To know that you are of it, more or less for ever?

Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile”


I. Introduction

In the summer of 2001, I was invited by Professor Sunaina Maira, an Assistant Professor of the English Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to assist in her research project on Cambodian American youth and their experiences in Western Massachusetts.  One of my duties as assistant to this project was conducting interviews with Cambodian American youth in the area.  As I began listening to my interviewees relate their life experiences, I was immediately struck by the commonalities that we shared as second-generation Cambodian Americans.  Specifically, we were having difficulty negotiating our identity between the Cambodian and American cultures.  One specific interviewee nearly broke down when she could not answer, as she put it, the “identity question,” as if she had been grappling this identity issue long before her encounter with this research project.  Another interviewee reflecting on his generation confessed, “I guess we’re Khmer too but we’re confused.  ...  We’re in the middle between like...  what’s it called?  Custom clashes, you know, with the American and with the Khmer.”

As scholars on nation and identity have reminded us, specifically Homi Bhabha in his seminal work The Location of Culture, it is on the periphery, on the margins of the metropolis, between the “temporal,” liminal borders of culture, where the notions of nation, community, and identity are contested and constructed (140).  However, it must be noted that this liminal space that provides for the construction of identity also allows for the policing of identity, with such fixed notions as authenticity, tradition, and origin.  One interviewee, for example, was criticized by other Cambodian Americans as being “too white” because of the way he dressed and talked.  Another was afraid to question the gender-bias of certain Cambodian values for fear of losing the Cambodian tradition altogether.  Drawing from my personal experiences as a second-generation Cambodian as well as from the research interviews, this paper addresses some of the sites — cultural, linguistic, economic, music, fashion, and cuisine — in which second-generation Cambodian American youth in Western Massachusetts negotiate their identity.  Furthermore, by reflecting upon my own shifting subject position as a “native ethnographer,” this paper also reconfigures the debate of insider-versus-outsider perspective in ethnographic research and methodology.

II. Theoretical Issues in Ethnography

and the Insider-versus-Outsider Debate

Before discussing some of the concerns that both the interviewees and myself face as second-generation Cambodian Americans, I would like to address a number of theoretical issues and ethical dilemmas that I encountered in this research.  One of the central problems that plague any ethical ethnographer is the issue of power and authority interwoven in her subject position as ethnographer.  As an individual whose native country was once under the colonial control of France, I was very critical of my own subject position in relation to the object position of my interviewees.  I did not want to perpetuate the colonial practice of anthropology and travel writing by producing the “Cambodian Other” to be consumed for the academic reader.  However, the task of eradicating the authorial nature of the ethnographer seems difficult.  As Johannes Fabian reminds us in Time and Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, crucial to the rhetoric of colonialism is the existential and temporal relation between the ethnographer and her subject.  After finishing her fieldwork, the ethnographer returns to her space and time, sits at her table, selects certain events while omitting others, and produces “findings” for her academic circle.  The position of privilege, power, and authority is evident in this example.   Silenced in the ethnographer’s narration/interpretation is the voice of her informant.

By definition, however, the ethnographer cannot escape complicity in her own narration.  Existentially and linguistically, the relation of any binary opposition is one of co-dependence and reciprocity.  Both the self and the other need one another for existence and meaning.  In our case, both the ethnographer and her informant need one another to maintain the paradigm of ethnographer and informant.  Historically and politically, however, where power is involved, this relation is not one of equilibrium, but of oppression and domination.  In this context, the question that must be raised is: For whom does this paradigm of ethnographer and information serve?  Who will reap the benefit of this research?  These questions will be explored further in this paper.  However, I want to point out that it is this relation of power, authority, and oppression that I was afraid of when working on this research.  Not wanting the voices of the Cambodian youth with whom I am working to be silenced, I asked each informant at the end of our interview whether or not she would like to read my research before it is presented in the public.  Half of my interviewees were interested in reading my research.  I told them that I would not publicly present any part of my work without their consent, without them recognizing themselves in my representation of them.

     Another issue that concerns me is the insider-versus-outsider debate in ethnography, which I find problematic in its simplification and generalization.  The debate centers on issues of trust and knowledge (Vo 17-18).  The insider ethnographer, one who is doing research in her own community, is supposedly someone whom the community trusts more than the outsider or non-native ethnographer.  On the other hand, when knowledge is an issue, the outsider ethnographer has the advantage over the native ethnographer: Since every event is new to the outsider ethnographer, she is more acutely aware of them than the native ethnographer.  As Linda Trinh Vo points out in her article on her ethnographic experiences with Asian American communities, the dichotomy of insider-versus-outsider “reinforces essentialized conceptions of racial and cultural groups” (19).  Vo suggests a move beyond this dichotomy where consideration is also paid to class, gender, ethnicity, politics, and generation, in addition to race and ethnicity.

In my own experiences of ethnographic “homework,” I share similar views with Vo.  I find myself repeatedly negotiating identity as I built relation with my individual informants and my subject position shifting between observer and participant.  At first, I naively reasoned that this job of interviewing Cambodian American youth would be an easy task.   After all, not only are we in the same race category, we also share the same ethnicity.  We are “Cambodians,” and Cambodians understand one another.  Of course, after several interviews, I found this essentialist reasoning problematic, when other factors such as gender, education, generation, and individual experiences complicated the insider-versus-outsider dichotomy.  When making phone calls and explaining to my prospective interviewees who I was and what the research project was about, I realized that my subject position was located between their parents and them.  I was not exactly one of the elders, whom the parents could trust when letting a complete stranger enter their homes and interview their children; on the other hand, I was not exactly in the same age group as the youth themselves, who could possibly place me in the category of elders, whom they generally mistrust due to generation conflict.  Thus, on occasions, parents asked me to help “teach” their troubled children the “right way.”  Issues of gender further complicated the relation between ethnographer and her informants.  For example, it was awkward for me, as a strange man, to ask these parents if I could interview their daughters concerning private and sensitive issues such as dating, sexuality, and interracial marriage.

Individual experiences and education were also important factors when assessing the insider-versus-outsider dichotomy.  I did not grow up in the communities that I conducted this fieldwork.  Therefore, there were experiences and views that I did not share with members of the communities.  When I was growing up, I did not have a Cambodian teacher, let alone a class on Cambodian history, culture and literature, as the youth in Amherst had.  Rather, we had one English-as-a-Second-Language class in Malden High School that students from all grade levels had to attend.  The students in this E.S.L. class were from Southeast Asia as well as South America, Eastern Europe, and Africa.  Furthermore, there were occasions when my education and political position shifted between observer and participant.  As mentioned earlier in this paper, one interviewee lamented that he did not want to problematize the gender relation in Cambodian culture because he did not want to lose the Cambodian tradition altogether.  I suggested to him about the art of compromise, losing one value and gaining another, although I did resist “lecturing” to him about some of my own criticism about the gender inequality in our culture.

These above examples highlight some of the issues concerning the debate of insider-versus-outsider ethnography.  As illustrated in these examples, I strongly agree with Vo in her critique of the insider-versus-outsider dichotomy as a tool of perpetuating essentialist discourse on race and ethnicity.  However, it must be noted too that these were barriers that I first initially encountered during this research.  Other issues — especially the ethnographer’s agenda, which shapes the process as well as the product of the research — should and will be addressed in the following section entitled “The Research, the Ethnographer(s), the Communities and their Members.”

III. The Research, the Ethnographer(s)

the Communities and their Members

The initial pilot study on Cambodian American youth in Western Massachusetts was conducted the previous academic year by Professor Sunaina Maira and Ms. Heang Ly, a Cambodian American woman who grew up in the local area who was at the time an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts.  One of the aims for this study was to find out some of the general concerns of Cambodian American youth who grew up in this western part of Massachusetts[1].  Ly interviewed six Cambodian American young adults, three men and three women, between 18 to 22 years old.  After Ly graduated and moved to Boston, Professor Maira asked me if I would like to resume the project.  I had just finished a graduate seminar under her guidance that Spring called “Documenting Asian Americans.”  I took up the offer because I needed summer work to pay the rent and because, at the time, I thought I could do the interviews during the afternoon and dedicate my time to writing during the evening.  By the end of the summer, I ended up also interviewing six Cambodian American young adults, three men and three women, between 18 to 23 years old.

The interview questions were divided into the following subcategories: biographical information, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, class and education, and youth and popular culture.  Professor Maira gave us leeway in conducting these interviews, which I took up as an opportunity to explore some of the issues that concern me as a second-generation Cambodian American.  When comparatively studying the transcripts of the interviews conducted by Ly and myself and reflecting on the process of the interviews, I noticed that certain issues were uniquely important to each of us.  Ly was interested in issues of gender, sexuality, and youth culture.  Ly told Professor Maira that she took up the research because she wanted to “make sense” of her own experience[2].  Similarly, I was also trying to make sense of my own identity.  As an interviewee reminded me, “the root of myself, you know, just to learn that.  That’s like the basic meaning of life: to learn who you really are.”  My own agenda, whether consciously or unconsciously, played a significant role in shaping the ways this portion of the study was conducted.  Through the process of selecting and omitting certain issues, of stressing certain questions while downplaying others, in both the fieldwork and the academic work, my own subject position is undoubtedly complicit.

  Before I venture any further, I am compelled to talk about myself.  After all, “the heart has its reasons” (Hall 704).

  I was born in Cambodia in the early ‘70s.  My mother passed away when I was very young.  As a consequence, my grandmother, uncles and aunts adopted me.  When the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in ’79, the family fled to the border of Thailand and lived in refugee camps for several years until ’82, when a Christian family in Malden, Massachusetts sponsored us.  Having difficulty adjusting to the culture and language in the new environment, I did poorly in school, socially as well as academically.  In my junior year of high school, I almost got dismissed from school because of poor grades and attendance.  I did not find any meaning in attending school or joining any social group in the community.  Certainly, there was a gap, a detachment of sort, between “this new world” and me.  After high school graduation, I moved to California and worked at several odd jobs.  One day, out of boredom, I went to the library, picked up a book or two, and began reading.

  The reading made some sense of my own life.  In suffering, I was not alone — so the books told me.  I felt comfortable, at ease, at HOME, with books and language, with the strangers, exiles, and outsiders in literary landscape.  The majority of the works I read during that time were by Russian writers, mainly Fyodor Dostoevsky and Maxim “the Bitter” Gorky.

  Then I enrolled at Long Beach Community College, transferred to Long Beach State, and am presently pursuing a graduate degree in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

  The purpose of this biographical sketch is to situate myself in relation to this research project on Cambodian youth.  Some of the interviewees may identify with the events in my life; some may not.  Some may relate to the issues that I am grappling with; again, some may not.  Who am I, Cambodian or American?  To be honest, I do not feel particularly at home with either group.  Anyway, what does it mean to be Cambodian?  What does it mean to be Cambodian in the United States?  I do not like the way my uncle treats my aunt, am I still Cambodian?  I do not listen to Cambodian music.  I listen to British rock bands, like the Who, the Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division.  I remember crying on numerous occasions while listening to Pink Floyd’s album, The Wall, because the narrative talks about my story of alienation, madness, and freedom.  Am I still Cambodian even though I listen to these “white” bands?  I love fish and rice, staples of Cambodian food.  However, I know very little of Cambodian history and its literary tradition.  Am I still Cambodian?  I have a better grasp of the English language than the Khmer language, but I abhor Cambodian politics.  Am I still Cambodian?  What are the criteria of being Cambodian?  From where does this criteria come?  For what purpose and for whom does it serve?  If I visit Cambodia today, do the Cambodians there recognize me as Cambodian?  Is the Cambodian in Cambodia the same as the Cambodian in the United States?  Is the Cambodian in the United States the same as other Cambodians in Canada, France, Australia and other countries that took us in as refugees?  Which is the authentic one?  Can I possibly be both, an American and a Cambodian, or is this an oxymoron in concept, ideology, and history?

Ultimately, where is my home?

Maybe Rosemary Marangoly George is correct when she writes that all fiction is symptomatic of the author’s longing for home.  It is possible that all of my intellectual activity — reading, writing, and teaching — stem from a desire to find home.  After all, I did feel comfortable, at ease, at home, rather than dis-ease and estranged, with the literary texts I borrowed from that local branch of the public library in Long Beach, California.  Subconsciously, it is possible that I agreed to resume this research project because I longed to discover that space where I could feel comfortable, at ease, at home.

Before I venture to explore these personal and difficult questions, I will situate my interviewees by describing the Cambodian communities in Western Massachusetts.

In 1982, with the assistance of church organizations and concerned individuals, over 100 Cambodian refugees settled in Hampshire County, about two hours west of Boston, in the towns of Amherst, South Hadley, Northampton and Easthampton (Burton 29).  According to Peter Pond, who was oversaw the “cluster resettlement” plan for these Cambodian refugees, the idea was to create a “Khmer community” where Cambodian families live in close proximity to one another.  Over the years, these Cambodian refugees sponsored relatives from Cambodia, and other friends and relatives migrated into the area from other parts of America.

Amherst and Easthampton are the towns in which my interviewees presently live.  According to them, Amherst was the town in the area that Cambodian refugees first settled.  More importantly, Amherst has a larger Cambodian population than Easthampton, which is a predominately Caucasian town that neither has a Cambodian club nor an E.S.L. program.  The parents of these youth were born and raised in Cambodia.  Like the majority of Cambodians who came to the United States in the 1980s, most of them were farmers from the countryside and had little or no education.  After all, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime slaughtered rich, educated city folks during their cultural revolution.  After surviving the Killing Fields and the refugee camps on the border of Thailand and Cambodia, they now face a new challenge: America.  With its new language, culture, customs and values, America can be a frightening reality to these Cambodian immigrants.  Some adamantly try to hold on to specters of the old world and criticize their children for the way they dress and behave.  Some successfully make compromises between the “traditional” way and the “American” way of doing things.  Always, the children are caught in between.

This is the situation of the second-generation Americans: they are caught in between two worlds.  Below are some comments by second-generation Cambodian American youths' concerning this hyphenated condition:

Rith[3]:  Of course, they always criticize.  You need to go through at least one criticism a day.  ...  You know you’re not supposed to date and stuff until you’re like 18.  If you have a girlfriend when you’re fourteen, they’d go crazy.  Girls in your room, stuff like that.  The white kids can do it, you know.


Billy:  But I always feel that they [the elders] are always trying to hold on to how everything was when they were growing up.  And they’re the first to realize that everything is changing and it’s too fast for them to accept.  So they don’t have other ways to have their voices heard other than to be negative about it.

For these youth, where is Cambodia located?  What does Cambodia mean to them?  Where are they situated ethnically, nationally, and globally?  What does it mean to live in the hyphen?  Is the hyphenated condition ontological or epistemological?  Is this condition a curse, a mark of privileged, or neither?

IV. Locating Cambodian in Cambodian American

Youth in Western Massachusetts

In exploring the identity issue, I asked my interviewees the following questions: How do you identify yourself, ethnically and nationally?  Are you “Cambodian,” “Cambodian American,” “Asian,” “Asian American,” “American,” “Person of Color,” or “Other”?  What aspects of being Cambodian do you identify with?  What does being of Cambodian origin mean to you?  Which language do you speak at home to your parents?  Which language do you speak to your friends?  Do you identify with other Asian Americans and youth of color?  Why or why not?

     Interestingly, the answers given were diverse and therefore not easily categorized.  Some Cambodian American youth identified themselves exclusively as Cambodians.  As mentioned earlier in this paper, one interviewee nearly broke down as she could not answer this identity question.  Billy, a senior at the University of Massachusetts, responded by breaking identity down to the following subdivisions: Biologically, he is Cambodian; psychologically, he is Cambodian with American characteristics; legally, he is one-hundred-percent American since he became a naturalized citizen; linguistically, he is a hybrid as he could speak Khmer, English, and Spanish.  Another interviewee said that the question of race and ethnicity was irrelevant to her because, according to her, individual identity supercedes all other identities.  “I am just Theavy.  I don’t really care what I am.”  The ones who exclusively claimed “Cambodian pride” cited Cambodian food, Cambodian customs such as taking your shoes off when entering someone’s home, and Cambodian parentage as sites for Cambodianness.

Rith from Easthampton chose to identify himself with Asian American rather than Cambodian American.  When asked why, he said the label encompasses more ethnic groups under its umbrella.  However, I do not think his answer is suggestive of a political tool for ethnic solidarity and political activism.  Rather, I read into his answer as a fear to be recognized as Cambodian.  He grew up in Easthampton, a predominately Caucasian town, where in a survey the majority consensus was in favor of getting new Cambodian refugees jobs over E.S.L. classes (Burton).  When asked about his thoughts on his experiences of growing up in the area, he said, “The good is that I have a lot of friends and no one hated us.  The bad thing is that the cop, they harass you.”  Furthermore, when asked about racism, he denied ever having experienced it.  The contradiction became apparent as the interview progressed to the point that I became irritated and found maintaining the observation/participation polarity difficult.  Below is a transcript of the end of this interview:

C:  When I go to the store, sometimes the employees follow me.

BK: The employees follow you?  Why do you think they do that?

C:  They think I’m going to steal something.

BK: Why do they think that?

C:  Because my skin is dark and the same reason why I’m a bad person.

BK: So there’s definitely a lot of racism even though earlier you said there’s not that many.

C:  I don’t really pay attention to it.

BK: You just don’t really let it bother you?  What’d happen if you let it bother you?  I mean when stuffs like these are happening, I don’t know if I could take it when people follow me when I go to the store or just look at me and keep their eyes on me.  I don’t know if I could handle that kind of situation.  Would you want this to be changed?

C:  No, I just say “hi.”  That’s it.

From this transcript, it seems that he is resistant to recognizing racism in the place where he grew up and lived most of his life.  It is possible that this resistance stems from the belief that change is difficult, if not impossible.  However, this is just my speculation.

     Furthermore, it is important to note that the sign “Cambodian” is being played out in the grander narrative of political and racial polarity in the United States.  As Gary Okihiro notes, the identities of Asian American, Native American, and Latino are positioned along the white-or-black polarity that dominates the United States’ racial and political landscape (Maira 22).  I noticed in these interviews that class and social status play an important role in how Cambodian American identities are constructed.  Furthermore, it is at this juncture where race, ethnicity, and class meet in which the notion of authenticity dangerously operates.

     In an interview, Rith, a nineteen-year-old Cambodian American young man, delineates three kinds of Cambodian American identities:

There’re different kinds of Khmer. Khmer kids who think they’re white, who always talk white and talk to white girls.  They just gaze like this.  You know they’re selling out.  They walk around, “Dude, Dude, Dude.”  Like, man, go away!  Then there’re Khmer kids who are real Khmer.  You know, respect the parents, stay home. I respect that.  They listen to their parents, like the way their parents want them to be in their generation, in the way they were raised.  Then there’re us.  We’re the headache.  We give them problems.

Interesting to note is the strong polarity between the “white Khmer” and the “headache Khmer.”  For the “white” Khmer, it seems the notion of authenticity is often used to criticize them.  Because of the ways they dress and talk, their “Cambodian” authenticity becomes questionable.  Their taste in clothes and music fits within mainstream middle-class standard.  For example, Billy, one of the “white Khmers” wears khaki pants and shirts and listens to ‘80s pop music.  Two of the three “white” Cambodian American youth are high academic achievers: Billy is a double major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the other is an incoming freshman at Smith College, with full scholarship.  Some of the labels attached to these “white Khmers” are “oreos,” “bananas,” “white-washed,” just to name a few.  Billy, who said that the first time he ever experienced racism was from fellow Cambodian undergraduates, pointed out in an interview that these racist remarks had more to do with class than with race and ethnicity.  Billy explains:

Yes, I thought at first it was a race issue, but it wasn’t.  I thought they (Cambodians) associate white with a certain race, but it was more associated with a certain class and being privileged, and that was what struck me as odd.  Why would they call me something that made me privileged?  But in a sense they are saying that because I am this way, I am putting them down or American, and that’s what made sense, after when I feel that white to them was a class, a class that I always got what I wanted, according to them.  This is how they grew up.  They always have white students having the nice houses, the opportunities to do what they wanted to do, you know, playing sports, and a lot of things that their parents wouldn’t allow them to do when they were in school, because my parents were liberal or still liberal, they allow us to play sports and join clubs.

Conversely, their counterpart, the “headache Khmer” lead a “hip-hop” lifestyle.  They dress baggy and listen to rap and hip-hop music; some perform poorly in school and have poor relationships with their parents.  Their peers describe them as “angry,” “mad,” and “tough.”  They identify with having a shared oppression with people of color, as evidenced in their taste of music, clothing and lifestyle.  Rith, for example, saw this shared oppression in the content of rap lyrics.

Rith:  Yes, it’s like where we’re from, you know, our neighborhood.

BK:    The music you listen, does it describe your world, your reality?

Rith:  Yeah, it does.  It’s like when every thing goes wrong, you listen to hip hop and stuff.  It’s like the person knows what you’re going through.

BK:    Can you tell me some of the story line, like why you identify with it?

Rith:  It’s usually, you know, struggling.  Low class family, low-income stuff.  And you gotta do what you gotta to do to get your money: sell drugs, rob people, things like that.

Theavy, a “white Khmer” from Easthampton, reinforces this polarity between the “white Khmer” and the “headache Khmer.”   In an interview, she revealed that she did not like to associate with these Khmers because she saw them as “lazy,” “pathetic,” “ghetto,” uneducated, and would never amount to anything in life.  She said, “I don’t think I’d ever be happy with an Asian guy or a Cambodian because most guys my age aren’t in the same boat as me.  I’d say not many of them graduated to go on to higher education or really wanted to.”  In this quote, Theavy conflates Asian American and Cambodian American as a minority group that does not have much of a future.  (A side note, Theavy was accompanied by her Caucasian boyfriend during her interview.)

As evidenced in these selected examples, the sign “Cambodian” is situated closer to blackness than whiteness in the United States’ racial and political landscape.  The notion of “Cambodian authenticity” becomes a tool to keep Cambodian American within the minority stronghold.  If a Cambodian American behaves or acts in a certain way that transgresses her prescribed minority role, she would be chastised and name-called as a “banana,” an “oreo,” and other derogatory names.  What is frightening to observe is that this racial and political ideology is so subtle that even Cambodian Americans themselves are not aware of it.  Some reinforce and perpetuate these stereotypes to one another without having knowledge of it.

The questions that follow from this analysis are: What do we do with authenticity?  Is authenticity necessarily evil?  How do we liberate ourselves from this social and psychological hold?

V. The Hyphenated Condition

Our disaporic situation forces Cambodian Americans to explore questions concerning the condition of the hyphen and the possible location(s) of our home.  In his style of elevating and showing the correlation between the concrete reality to the theoretical exploration of the academia, Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan begins his essay “Is the Ethnic ‘Authentic’ in the Diaspora?” with an anecdote.  His son asks him whether he is Indian or American.  The father reassures his son that he (his son) is both.  Radhakrishnan then proceeds to ask a series of questions, which I will translate into my own Cambodian American context:  How can you be both Cambodian and American?  If you are both, which is the real you, the Cambodian or the American, and which one is the other?  What does it mean to be both American and Cambodian?  What are the responsibilities that entail in such “hybrid” condition?  What are its causes?  What are its effects?

Radhakrishnan further explores these issues in a later article titled “Conjunctural Identities, Academic Adjacencies.”  To be in the hyphen, Radhakrishnan writes, “is a mandate to acknowledge coevalness between two histories as well as a call to redress the existing imbalances between two histories” (253).  To be in the hyphen means to be an activist, an interventionist, a critical intellectual.  Being in between two cultures, two worlds, the hyphenated individual realizes that no reality, neither the Cambodian nor the American, is absolute.  The hyphenated individual finds herself always playing the double game.  Never committed to both, always critical at spaces that breed oppression and exclusion, she shifts between two worlds, never at ease in each, but always at home in the in-between space.  In his essay “Reflections on Exile,” Edward Said urges a similar attitude toward “cultivating” a critical and ambivalent position.  “But, provided that the exile refuses to sit on the sidelines nursing a wound, there are things to be learned: he or she must cultivate a scrupulous (not indulgent or sulky) subjectivity” (365).  Although Said is talking about and to the exile, the condition of being situated between two worlds is similarly shared by both the exile as well as the hyphenated individual.

Here is a personal anecdote to illustrate the condition of living between two worlds.  I spent a weekend home with my family in Malden, a suburb near Boston.  My fifteen-year-old cousin and I were having steak and rice for dinner.  In the middle of us were two plates of sauce for the steak: an A1 sauce and a Cambodian sauce made up of chili, paste, and onion.  My cousin looked up at me and, before I could open my mouth, said, “What?  No, I’m not putting down anyone.  Here I have a choice.  I can have both.  They’re delicious.  Watch me!”  Conscious of the condition of being in between two worlds, but committed to neither the Cambodian nor the American world, and critical to both, he relishes his choices and according to his taste navigates every day of his life between them.

In the same essay quoted above, Edward Said asks, “What is it like to be born in a place, to stay and live there, to know that you are of it, more or less for ever?” (362).  Of course, Said is talking about the pain of dislocation and disjunction inherent in the condition of exile.  In the similar case of the hyphenated individual, I do not think she ever knows any other space but one of disjunction, the contact zone[4] where two histories collide, the space where boundaries are fought and reconfigured.  However, I am careful not to romanticize the condition of the hyphenated individual.  She is not an aesthetic subject in literature where the reader enjoys the pleasure of entering and exiting her world without the danger of commitment.  She is not a represented object, devoid of history, on which the reader projects his “human condition of exile.”  Like the exile, the hyphenated individual is a real person situated in a specific time and place.  She is the product of the forces of politics and history.  The danger of elevating the hyphenated individual into some “human condition” that we all share and of transcending the politics and history of her situation rests in making a sort of pleasure out of her suffering and in neglecting accountability and responsibility of those who are in some way or another involved.  As illustrated with selected excerpts of the interviews with Cambodian American youth or that light anecdote about my cousin and his steak sauces, living in the hyphen is not some abstract concept explored in high-brow academic text — it consists of real issues confronting real individuals in real situations.

VI. Conclusion

     For me, the important questions that emerge from this research are ones concerning identity: Who are we as Cambodian Americans?  How did we get into this hyphenated condition?  If not us, then who are responsible and accountable for our present situation?  If we explore these questions and, as a result, better understand our present situation, I think we can better maintain that critical subjectivity which Said aspires for the exile.

Most of us second-generations are either born in the United States or came here when we were young.  Our parents’ views often clash with ours.  Most of our parents did not know that the United States was going to be our adopted land.  In the refugee camps, they applied for sponsorship because they wanted “a better life.”  When some of us speak out again racism and oppression in the United States, the ignorant and the racist reply, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to where you came from?”  Very recently, during a heated debate with a friend of mine on immigration and the United States, I was asked, “BK, where would you rather live, in the camp or here in the United States?  Without a second thought, you know where you want to live.”  Of course, I was too worked up in the argument to think critically about the United States’ involvement in Cambodia during the Vietnam War[5], about Nixon and his administration and the bombing of Cambodian soil (Shawcross 23).

     Now, as I am typing this paper, isolated from the rest of the world, in my own little study room, here is what I say:  Without a doubt, the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge were one of the most atrocious in human history.  However, the Khmer Rouge was not an isolated and discrete regime.  Its army defeated the Lol Nol government, which was then backed up by the United States.  Its Year Zero, implemented during the Khmer Rouge Regime, was a direct statement against anything that was modern and Western.  Of course, I am not saying that the crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime were justified.  What I am saying is that there were other parties involved that should also be held accountable for their involvement.  Period!

     Yet, the fact of the matter is that we, as a product of history, find ourselves between two world histories.  There has already been a break from our homeland, a rupture from its grand narrative, a process which can never be undone.  Even if we were to return to Cambodia, our imagined “Cambodia” will not be the same as the visited “Cambodia.”  We are shattered pieces of a broken mirror.  And these shattered pieces have their own individual histories that make up the heterogeneous, multiple, multi-generational and ever-changing faces of Cambodian Americans.  Thus, when we identify ourselves as Cambodian Americans, we refer to that rupture in history, that break from “Home,” to which we could not return.  Now, our home dwells in different faces and in different locations.  My home is located presently in both coasts of the United States, Massachusetts and California.  And when I return to Cambodia, this imaginary Home-Over-There will become my new adopted home.  We should not forget the past, but we should also pay attention to the present.  In our condition between two worlds, we should be critical of both, create a model from the best of the two worlds, and use that model to make better our two worlds.



I remember experiencing a tremendous pang of guilt while writing this paper.  This guilty feeling of using the interviewees’ personal stories as a space for exploring my own trouble issues unveils the authoritative position of the ethnographer and the censoring power of the narration.  As an ethnographer, my own agenda affects the process as well as the product of the research.  As mentioned earlier in this paper, the questions that I stressed on the most were questions concerning issues of identity, authenticity, and home.  Furthermore, this paper, like any genre that implies “truth,” is a fiction.  The only genre that does not lie is fiction.  What I mean by the word “fiction” is the process of selection and omission inherent in producing, out of a chaos of data, a cohesive, meaningful story, or a well-organized academic paper.  Even if I were to ask my interviewees to write their own stories, its result would still be affected by my presence and contact.  In other words, the impartial ethnographer and her objective research do not exist.

However, we must embrace our despair[6] and continue our work to prevent that “contact zone,” where different cultures, histories and worlds meet, from being a “combat zone” in which one dominates the other.  As educated individuals, we must be ethically responsible to our communities as well as to the world at large; we must aspire to transform that confluence of differences into a peaceful celebration of heterogeneity and multiplicity.  In this paper, I hope the reader has been able to temporally overlook my idiosyncratic and often didactic presence and understand the need for an ethnical and ethical mediator/translator of cultures.  When we read about Cambodian gangs in the news, for instance, we should seek for other traces of explanation and translation beside the official one.  When a teacher unfamiliar with Cambodian culture accuses her new Cambodian student for being rude and defiant because the student does not look at her or answer her questions, the acts of which are interpreted as rude and defiant “back home in Cambodia,” a cultural interpreter is needed.  Working as a freelance interpreter and translator for the Translation Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I recently received an assignment to a nursing home in a nearby city, Northampton.  The social worker did not know what to do with her patient who had recently suffered from a stroke, whether or not to offer her psychological care.  As I began talking to the patient in Khmer, I noticed signs of recognition in her eyes even though her verbal skills were jarred by the recent stroke.  This experience reminded me of some pages in Foucault’s Madness and Civilization.  When the patient attempts to communicate, her gestures are unrecognizable to the nursing home staff, who then clinically categorizes the patient as “mad” and recommends psychological as well as physical therapy to her.  To put it bluntly, when the other speaks, she is not heard.

These examples illustrate the urgent need for a cultural translator to ethnically and ethically interpret signs at the cultural crossroad.  As a translator and interpreter, I want to argue for a more ethical and ethnical response to the “source” language and culture, rather than being too overtly sensitive to the “target” language and culture, which may intentionally or unintentionally cause harm to the source language and culture[7].  Although I know that we — as ethnographer, writer, translator, and others who are involved in the difficult task of representing and mediating between two cultures — cannot rid ourselves of our authorial and complicit subject position, nevertheless, as the above examples illustrate, we must continue our ethical and ethnical task in mediating responsibly between the two worlds.  For if we do not get involved, what is the alternative?  Let us return to the above examples in our attempt to answer this question.  As educated individuals, will we able to stand and watch when a column by the editorial staff discusses the problem of Cambodian American gangs, without referring to the historical and cultural context of the problem?  Will we be able to sleep at night with the painful knowledge that the new student is academically and socially penalized because her teachers and classmates do not understand where she came from?  Will we able to look at ourselves in the mirror when we know that a Cambodian woman, alienated from her children, alienated from the world of nursing home staff and patients, is diagnosed as psychologically handicapped when we know that the problem is linguistic and cultural?

Thus, this cultural interpreting job calls on us as educated individuals.  It does not matter whether we are hyphenated individuals or not.  Just as long as we recognize the existence of numerous worlds, of the ethical and ethnical work needed in the cultural crossroad, and of the heavy responsibilities in the act of representation, which is always located in that contact zone between worlds (individual or communal), we will do just fine.  Therefore, I am not opposed to an outsider doing ethnographic works in a certain ethnic community.  In such case, both of us, the insider and outsider communities would benefit from such works.  However, I do vehemently opposed to those who do not recognize the serious political and cultural ramifications of their work.

More than anything, I hope that this paper fosters other research interests and projects concerning those in the Cambodian Refugee diaspora.  As stated earlier, any work of fiction, any form of representation involves the process of selection and omission, of presence and absence, of sound and silence, and ultimately of lacking.  Therefore, there are other issues that need to be addressed, such as generation conflict, gender inequality, racial profile and police brutality, social and institutional racism, gang violence, ethnic and racial solidarity, etc.  I strongly look forward with great admiration and pleasure to reading these future works.[8]



Bhabha, Homi.  “DissemiNation: Time, narrative and the margins of modern nation.”  The Location of Culture.  New York: Routledge, 1994.

Burton, Eva.  “Khmer Refugees in Western Massachusetts: Their Impact on Local Communities.”  Migration Today.  Vol.  XI, No.  2/3.

Chigas, George.  “Cambodian Experience and Literature.”  Bridge Review.  8 December 2001.  http://ecommunity.uml.edu/bridge/review2/chigas/index.htm

Fabian, Johannes.  Time and the Other: how anthropology makes its object.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

George, Rosemary Marangoly.  The Politics of Home: postcolonial relocation and twentieth-century fiction.  New York: Cambridge, University Press, 1996.

Hall, Stuart.  “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation.” Film and Theory: an Anthology.  Eds. Robert Stam and Toby Miller.  Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Kiang, Peter Nien-Chu.  “When Know-Nothings Speak English Only: Analyzing Irish and Cambodian Struggles for Community Development and Education Equity.”  The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s.  Ed.  Karin Aguilar-San Juan.  Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1994.

Lowe, Lisa.  “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differnce.”  Diaspora.  Spring: 1991.

Maira, Sunaina.  “Henna, Hip Hop, and Bhangra Beats: Racial Crossings in Asian American Youth Culture.”  Lecture notes.

Manalansan IV, Martin F.  “Introduction.”  Cultural Compass: Ethnographic Explorations of Asia America.  Ed.  Martin F.  Manalansan IV.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

Pratt, Mary Louise.  “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Reading the Lives of Others.  Ed.  David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky.  Boston: St.  Martin’s Press, 1995.

Radhakrishnan, Rajagopalan.  “Conjunctural Identities, Academic Adjuncies.”  Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora.  Eds.  Kandice Chuh and Karen Shimakawa.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.  “Is the Ethnic ‘Authentic’ in the Diaspora?”  Diasporic Mediations: Between Home and LocationMinneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Rushdie, Salman.  “Imaginary Homelands.”  Imaginary Homelands: essays and criticism, 1981-1991.  New York: Granta Books, 1991.

Said, Edward.  “Reflections on Exile.”  Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures.  Ed.  Russell Ferguson et al.  Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1990.  “Traveling Theory.”  The World, the Text, and the Critic.  Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Shah, Sonia.  “Roses, Rites, and Racism: Interview with Sophea Mouth.”  The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s.  Ed.  Karin Aguilar-San Juan.  Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1994.

Shawcross, William.  “Paradise Lost.”  New Times.  11/13/78.

Vo, Linda Trinh.  “Performing Ethnography in Asian American Communities:  Beyond the Insider-Versus-Outsider Perspective.”  Cultural Compass: Ethnographic Explorations of Asian America.  Ed.  Martin F.  Manalansan Iv.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.


[1] From conversation with Professor Sunaina Maira as well as her lecture note, “Henna, Hip Hop, and Bhangra Beats: Racial Crossings in Asian American Youth Culture.”  

[2] See above footnote. 

[3] To maintain anonymity, names of interviewees are changed

[4] See Mary Louise Pratt’s article “Arts of the Contact Zone.”  To answer my earlier question, “for whom does this paper serve?”  This paper is a conscious attempt of producing an “auto-ethnographic” work, a work that addresses multiple readers.  In my case, the Cambodian American and the academic reader.   

[5] If you have not done so, please read a 1978 article in the New Times by William Shawcross called “Paradise Lost,” where he argues that the 1970 American incursion into Cambodia was one of the factors in  causing the country’s war, revolution, and genocide.  

[6] “Embrace your despair” was a phrase that we jokingly used in our seminar “Documenting Asian American” whenever we reach an impasse concerning the complicit and authorial subject position of the ethnographer.  The phrase was first uttered by Amy Cheng, a graduate student in the Psychology Department, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  

[7] See my essay “Antoine Bergman’s Ethics of Translation Theory and Practice: What is the ‘Foreign’ to a Bicultural Translator?”

[8] For their assistance, friendship, and guidance, without which this paper could not be written, I would like to thank the following people: Heang Ly, Alex Siv, Sokna Sin, Sopheak Tek, Anita Mannur, and Professors Sunaina Maira and Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan. 

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