by Kanika Lawton
I was not fully aware of what it means to be Khmer until I spent a year studying in Los Angeles.
Granted, I am always aware of the intersections of my identities: biracial. Chinese-Cambodian on my mother’s side, Scottish-Swedish on my father’s. Second-generation Canadian. Daughter of a refugee. Female. I’m also fiercely proud of my heritage, arguing with anyone who tells me I cannot identify as half-Asian “because I look too White” and brushing off “where are you really from?” questions with literal answers (born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia).
Even so, I’m glad I got to grow up in a city teeming with colour and light and endless cultural exchanges. I don’t think about what it means to be a minority because, either way, I’m perceived as part of the majority. My mother tells me being of mixed races gives me the “best of both worlds” and, at least in Vancouver, that rings true.
Until, that is, I started living in America.
My mother’s family spent five months in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand before coming to Canada in 1980. The fact that I am Canadian was, quite literally, luck of the draw; Canada was the first country to take them (it helped that her family was privately sponsored by relatives already living there). They were holding out for France or America, but anywhere is better than a war-torn country.
However, America has always held a place in her heart; I cannot count how many times we’ve visited Disneyland and, despite the current administration, I know she cannot shake off the promise of the American Dream that comforted her as a teenager. It helps that we have family and close friends scattered throughout the country: in Seattle, Lowell, Massachusetts, Portland, Jacksonville, Florida, Washington, D.C., and, perhaps most significantly, in Long Beach, California, a city with a prominent Khmer-American population grappling with issues such as poverty, gangs, and inter- and intra-generational trauma.
My mother would tell me stories of how, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, her friends—the very same who aided her during the Khmer Rouge regime—were forced to have at least one person in the house at all times in case of a drive-by shooting or robbery or other gang-related problem. Things are better now compared to back then, but I cannot stop thinking about how different Long Beach is in comparison to my own cushy, comfortable Vancouver.
Let’s speak out about the issues facing our communities with courage instead of shame. Let’s fight, for as long it takes, for a better life for ourselves, our elders, and our children.
I’ve never been ashamed of being Khmer, but I couldn’t shake off what I saw and heard; a few years ago I watched an America by the Numbers episode titled “Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town.” The statistics shocked me: 35.5% of Khmer adults never completed high school; 62% of first-generation Khmer refugees in Long Beach suffer from post-￼traumatic stress disorder, and 51% suffer from severe depression; 18.2% of Khmer Americans live below the poverty line, and 39.2% of Khmer Americans speak limited English, which greatly restricts access to healthcare and education. How can you say all Asian-Americans are successful (49% of Asian-Americans hold a Bachelor's’ Degree compared to 28% of all U.S. adults) when more than 1 in 3 Khmer American don’t even have a high school diploma? How can all Asian-Americans perpetuate the “model minority” myth when Southeast Asian communities have some of the lowest education and high poverty rates in the country? How can you say all Asian-Americans benefit from being the highest-paid and best-educated demographic in the country when such an assertion erases the experiences of Southeast Asians that do not “fit” these stereotypes?
When my mother watched this episode with me, nothing surprised her; it was just confirmation for things she’s always known about Little Cambodia, Long Beach, and the greater Khmer-American diaspora. No wonder she places so much importance on education; in the end, it is knowledge that will save us from ignorance, poverty, violence, and despair.
So, let’s start here—through advocacy, activism, and awareness, let’s dismantle the “model minority” myth once and for all; let’s expose the harm and erasure it causes to Asian demographics that do not fit its description. Let’s speak out about the issues facing our communities with courage instead of shame. Let’s fight, for as long it takes, for a better life for ourselves, our elders, and our children. Let’s not just demand change, but make it, because staying silent isn’t solving anything.
I didn’t know what it really meant to be Khmer until I became aware of what it means to be Khmer in America, even as a Canadian; even as an outsider. Yet, how much of an “outsider” am I really? I still, despite it all, believe in America’s potential for change and harmony.
I didn’t know what being Khmer in America was like, but I’m glad I do know.
So, let’s change it.