I shared a story that I once swore I would never talk about again but after watching my former boss Seth Gillman on CNBC’s American Greed. My silence had to end….
“You should learn how to speak Vietnamese”. “Why can’t you speak your language?” “You should try to learn it”
“You should learn how to speak Khmer” “Why can’t you speak your language?” “You should try to learn it.”
“Why don’t you get married to a beautiful Vietnamese girl?” “Why don’t you get married to a Khmer woman or any Asian girl?” “But wait, don’t marry with a Filipino girl” “Why don’t you marry someone who can take of your mom?”
“Where are you from?” but “Where are you really from?”
“You speak very good English” “You’re an English major? I would never imagine you doing that.”
“Your last name is Kim, but you are not Korean” “How does that happen?”
“I like Asian men. Can I ask you if you are a bottom?”
These are the questions that come from my family members, the Vietnamese and Cambodian-American community, the taxi cab drivers, hotel clerks, wait staff when I was in Vietnam, older white folks, the 3 years that I spent in Korea and from random Korean folks here, and of course, from random gay men who have an appetite for the Asian skin that seek me out on Tinder, Jack’d, OKCupid, and Grindr
These are the questions that spray bullets into my queer Southeast Asian-American existence, some penetrating into my brown flesh, some penetrating into my queerness, some penetrating into my psyche, but all of them penetrating into my heart.
I was born as Randy Kim, a name that does not reflect my Vietnamese and Cambodian heritage. The last name “Kim” which is a common Korean last name, was never my dad’s true last name. It was simply given to him when he was sponsored through a refugee program when he came to the US after escaping Cambodia.
Randy is the name that I carried since birth. I found out recently from my mom that my dad was going to name me “Rady” which would have been my Cambodian name but he was scared that the kids would make fun of me. Who knew that a one letter difference can create such a fear?
Living through my name, I often struggled to know where my place was within my own family, the communities that my family was a part of, my peers that I went to school with, the places that I have worked at, and with those within my own social circle.
Whenever I hear questions of where am I really from? I ask this same question to myself which leads to the next question, “Where do I belong?”
I remembered going to Vietnamese and Cambodian related events, and having been told that either I’m too dark to be Vietnamese, or too Vietnamese looking to older Cambodian folks. Through the two ethnicities that I share, both Vietnam and Cambodia have long been historical rivals for years. Growing up, it was not uncommon for me to hear anti-Vietnamese sentiments from my own Cambodian side of the family and hearing it vice versa on my Vietnamese side of the family I saw myself as the bastard child of my family, and made myself believed that I could never be accepted by either.
And of course, being queer sure as hell didn’t help matters.
Through my childhood, I was one of a few minority kids in my school out in the Chicago western suburbs. There was the expectation of having to assimilate quickly into a society that my parents knew very little of, and unable to offer guidance on how to navigate in an environment with people that did not look like us. I was unable to learn my parents’ native language early on, and was pushed to use English as it was part of the goal in trying to succeed academically and having a shot at a future which was denied to my parents.
But in the path of reaching these goals, it was often thwarted by my struggle to fit in with my peers. I stood out from the rest of my peers from the way I looked and acted, and sometimes that resulted in hearing racial slurs and other jokes that came at my expense. I also discovered in my teens that would terrify me. I was starting to realize that I am gay. I was fearful because for the longest time, I had been taught from my family that being gay was never to be tolerated, and it carried through in the attitudes of my peers in my community. I remembered Matthew Sheppard, a young gay man died of a hate crime because of his sexuality. When my High school English teacher brought it up, I remembered my classmates were laughing and one of them commented that he deserved it. It is those words that would haunt me and would keep me in the closet in the years to come
So here I was as a teen, struggling to find people to accept my multi-ethnic identity, would also be struggling for others to accept my queerness on top of it.
I fast forward 20 years later, and here I am, surviving, thriving, engaging, struggling, laughing, and existing. The intersectionalities that I carry through all of these identities as a queer Southeast Asian American can be very heavy and back-breaking to walk around with, but these intersections of my life have also been gifts and opportunities for me. It gave me the opportunity to expand my empathy, deepen my connections with people that i have intersected with through similar identities and backstories, and learning to transition from my own self-hatred to embody myself with the love and care I rightfully deserve.
The 2nd generation of folks that came after our parents’ arrival should no longer be seen as, “Not enough” for their parent’s homeland, and our homeland. The queer / trans identity that we carry should not be seen as a burden, or another part we have to explain about. The combination of additional intersectionalities in regards to our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, physical / mental health should not be an added threat to our survival.
I sometimes wonder what impact my life would have been, had my name been Rady instead of Randy, or if I was born in either of my parent’s homeland, or what my life could have been like had I been straight.
The name Randy may have had some bruises and dents along the journey, but it has traveled many miles, and seen its shares of beauty, connection, and solitude. I am confident that Randy has got more than enough miles to finish the journey.
I was asked by a fellow Vietnamese person after the show of whether I consider myself more in touch with my Khmer than Vietnamese, or vice-versa?
I said “Neither.” I don’t consider myself one or the other, even though the last 2 years, I’ve been more associated with the Cambodian community through my volunteering and having close friendships with some of my Khmer friends. Having those two identities are a challenge when you consider the history between the two countries which has been conflicted for centuries, and how that has transferred over to people that I’ve known through my family circles for years to which, in some ways, affected how those folks saw me as (specifically with my parents’ generation), and then you throw my queerness on top of it, which kept that distance fairly wide.
What made me step back into the Cambodian community was my friend Lyk Yoeun who, as a queer Cambodian woman, made it possible that I can be in that space without having to suppress my intersectionalities, and Savi Charmwho helped me to navigate moments when I’ve been triggered as I was reaffirming myself in that space.
She asked, “Has the Vietnamese community here been the same way as well?” I took a moment, and I said “Not necessarily” I was fortunate that I had Lyk and Savi to be the ones who actually reintroduced me back. However, my friend Vân who is Vietnamese , has been a person that I trusted in the Vietnamese space to navigate my said intersectionalities. The Vietnamese community in Chicago seems very distant and not as accessible as I would like it to be. If it was more accessible and inclusive to my identities, then I would certainly consider being around the community more, but I would never call myself “more” or “less” of this identity.
“So what do you call yourself as?” Queer Southeast Asian-American or Queer Viet-Khmer American. There’s no need for me to pit both identities against each other, or have a preference for one or the other. If I put down or lessen my identity, then I wouldn’t be loving myself. It’s just a matter of whether there are spaces that are down for what I bring to the table. Other than that, I’m existing and living my identities everyday on my own, and I know that I carry that history with care and love.
Many thanks to everyone who took the time to watch, listen, share, and express positive feedback to my sit down interview with Newsy on my family’s experience as former refugees. As many of you may be aware, the refugee community(ies) hold a special place in my heart, and not a day goes by, do I think about their survival, their battles, their resiliency, and how difficult the integration process is once they are in a new land. For many former refugees like my family, the scars & trauma from the violence, the escape, and arrival will never disappear, and in many ways, the psychological effects gets passed down to the children who never had to experience that first-hand trauma. It is also said that it can continue on for up to 6 generations! Refugees are more than just people who have been displaced. They once were a part of their former society. They were doctors, lawyers, grandparents, nurses, farmers, restaurant owners, taxi cab drivers, etc. They have witnessed the destruction of their environment, places such as their favorite restaurant / ice cream shop and other places they frequent no longer in existence. They witnessed seeing their family members, friends and community disappear violently. Then, they are forced to escape through enemy territory (both by neighboring countries and mother nature) where they are often avoid death within a day, hour, or minutes. Their arrival into a foreign country that they know so little about, and being forced to start all over again. There is a lot to unpack for many of our refugees (both past and current), but if our society holds itself to be compassionate, then we must create those spaces for them to safely unpack, heal, and be able to once again, contribute their gifts and ambitions to society.
I was a very fortunate one.
I was born in the US several years after my parents arrived. I never saw the trauma that they witnessed, but I certainly saw their struggles from the past resurface time and time again. The pressures from integrating into this new society became an everyday burden for my parents and my family members. The pressure to speak a new language, learn new customs, provide stable income despite the lack of sufficient training and upward mobility, and very few spaces and education that provide healing and counseling tailored to their needs only extends the refugee trauma for an even longer period of time.
When I first learned of intergenerational trauma, I thought to myself, why am I even connecting myself to my parents’ narratives when I was never a first-hand witness to the Vietnam War or the Khmer Rouge? As I began to uncover the roots of my father’s mental health struggles, I recalled how much my father’s personal trauma had an effect on myself and my brothers. His unpredictable mood swings, his obsession with our academic success, his paranoia and controlling nature over his family led to the downfall of our family’s relationship with him. In return, I experienced my own bouts with low self-esteem, temperamental issues, and distrust with people.
However, through these struggles, I have also found community, creative outlets through writing, volunteering, and public storytelling, and confiding in folks who made it safe for me to unpack my own trauma. There’s also the kind of resiliency that I have discovered, that in some ways, I inherited from my parents. How else could they have mustered enough will to survive when they were moments away from facing death, several times over, on their way to safe territory.
When I was approached to be a part of a story for Newsy on genocidal trauma, I had some reservations. I was feeling jaded with the Chicago Reader when they mishandled the story about the Cambodian Museum last year. I was also wondering whether or not my mom would feel comfortable enough speaking about her trauma publicly for the first time, or whether my brothers would be okay with me telling our family story. Certainly, my dad, who I have been estranged from the last several years, would not take part in the story, but I also wondered if I was wrong for doing this story without his consent.
I developed a great rapport with Melissa Prax, the reporter for Newsy, as she was attentive, sensitive, and took great lengths to make sure that my mom and I was okay through the process.
As with the life of journalism, there are always going to be things that are left on the cutting board. My mom spoke about their escape from Vietnam, and how her father (my grandfather) had served in the South Vietnamese army along with her son-in-law in both high-ranking positions. It was until the North Vietnamese took over that they would confiscate my family’s property, placed them under arrest, and closely monitored. Their fears of the North Vietnamese government led to their overnight escape by boat that led them to Malaysia in 1978.
My mom spoke at lengths about how traumatic their escape was, but also the hardship they experienced when they arrived to the US. She spoke about how scared they were when they flew on an airplane for the very first time. She recalled how they expressed “shock” when they saw that all the trees were “dead” but come to realize that they came in during winter, and would see them come alive in Spring. She spoke about how her family was put to work after 3 days of arriving, and having to rely on their hosts from the church that sponsored them to run errands, take English classes, and to be more self-sufficient like going to the bank, driving a car, etc.
For my grandfather, she said, it was the hardest for him. He often broke down, and felt defeated at times. His life up to that point, was being fiercely independent, and navigate his own way to raise his family, but instead, he had to rely on his children, strangers, and fellow Vietnamese friends to get by. He was unable to learn English, and struggled having to work under somebody else.
During my interview process, I began to hear stories that my mom has never told, and for that, it was something that for the longest time, I was scared to ask. Writer Ocean Vuong once said to me, “When we ask our parents about their trauma, they consider it as betrayal because you’re asking them to relive something that you did not go through.” As I have seen older family members aging including my mom who survived a near fatal stroke 5.5 years ago, I have been on an urgent mission to find out about their narratives before it dies with them. The importance of hearing those stories from family members in the past two years have allowed me to understand the root of my dad’s struggle. It allowed me to understand my family’s “emotional triggers.”
Through this sit-down interview process, I knew what I wanted to discuss. I was no longer afraid of my past. It was time to bring these stories to light. I wanted the stories of our aging Cambodian genocide and Vietnam War survivors to know that they still matter. I wanted folks to know that as we are going through another refugee crisis, I was one of many that existed and have contributed to society because my family were able to come into the US when there was nowhere else for them to go. I also recognize that there will sadly be more genocides in the future, but that we must never forget our compassion when refugees are in dire need of a hand, and to help them to rebuild their lives when they are in safe ground.
Chicago’s reinvention, which inspired the name “Second City,” became a safe haven for European immigrants in the early 20th century. As the city achieved its international status, it would welcome a flood of new immigrants from Latin America and Asia in the last 50 years, helping to make Chicago as one of the most diverse cities in the world. For one neighborhood in the Chicago north side, “New Chinatown” began as a Chinese community but would soon transition over with the influx of Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian immigrants (I.E. Cambodians, Laotian, and Thai) into the neighborhood. There, it would introduce the Southeast Asian culture to the city, and as a destination for Pho enthusiasts.
For my family, they made Chicago its home after they were forced to flee Vietnam after the war. They found a Vietnamese community in the “New Chinatown” area. Located on Argyle Street and Broadway in the Uptown neighborhood, “New Chinatown” would become the “home away from home” to many of the Vietnamese immigrants that came to Chicago in the late 70s through the 80s.
Growing up in the western suburbs, my brothers and I moaned whenever we had to go shopping with our parents on Argyle Street. In the days of pre-smartphone and mp3s of the early 90s, there was nothing less exciting than being trapped in the backseat of a car, listening to emotional Khmer ballads, and having to endure more of it when we were stuck in Chicago traffic. We dreaded the boring 1 hour commute on the Eisenhower expressway to get there. We then go through downtown Chicago which led us by Buckingham Fountain and into the scenic Lake Shore Drive which is parked right next to Lake Michigan. As kids, the city never seemed to excite us. It became merely routine, and didn’t appeal to us the way the Brookfield Zoo or the Field Museum did. As we arrived, my dad would spend nearly an hour trying to find parking in that condensed, crowded street of Argyle. Never mind the fact that he never wanted to spend an extra few bucks in that parking lot down the block.
Gazing through the aisles of the Tai Nam grocery store, I see a tub full of live blue crabs living out its final days. Customers would use the tongs to pick out the crabs, but they would cling on to each other in its final moments of solidarity. Passing by the meat section, I would hear the sound of machinery cutting through the meat and bones as customers eagerly wait for their freshly cut order at the counter.
I eagerly walked towards the dessert section, and grabbed a handful of packaged white rice cakes, which are in its rectangular, glutinous form, fried sesame seed balls with the red bean paste inside, the green and yellow striped mung bean snacks, among others. I spotted the sweet soybean milk, the CoCo Rico drinks (coconut flavored soda), and grabbed a couple of those, much to the chagrin of my mom who was always cautious about how much sweets that my brothers and I would take in. At the very least, she understood that these sugary-filled delights would keep us occupied during the long trip home.
On the intersection of Argyle and Broadway lies Ba Le Sandwich. In the early 90s, it was a classic hole-in-the wall joint with its blue exterior store sign, and inside, was its grimy, rough, and dingy appearance. Despite its unappealing physical nature, Ba Le had kind of a charm that was found in their food. The Vietnamese sandwiches called Banh Mi, partly inspired by the French during its colonialism of Vietnam uses its French bread and foie gras on top of the pork, ham, soaked onions and carrots, spreaded out with mayonnaise, jalapeno, and cilantro. It was oooooh soooo tasty. As a kid, I rejected nearly every Vietnamese dish including pho, but those banh mi sandwiches were the first Vietnamese food I ever love, and continued to love as I have been reclaiming part of my family heritage that was lost under the Western assimilation shuffle.
My mom would buy her Vietnamese cassettes at Trung Tin, which was one of the more well-known Vietnamese music stores in the nation. The vocal sounds of Che Linh and Huong Lan often blasted into the store, and eventually into my parents’ stereo in the family room. My dad would buy his Khmer cassette tapes at a Cambodian music store that was located just under the Argyle CTA red line viaduct, and carry on a long-winded conversation with the owner.
As we departed from Argyle Street, we would drive past the abandoned Uptown Theatre and the still-existing Riviera and Aragon Ballroom, and head out to Montrose Beach to sit down by the lake as the paleta men walked by us.
We would happily munch on our sandwiches as my brothers and I would conveniently forget the groaning and moaning that we carried with us during the ride to Uptown until we have to do it again next weekend.
I was introduced to George Michael when I was 13 years old, several years after he hit the climatic peak of his career. It was when the “Older” album came out in 1996, and the song “FastLove” came on. I remembered really enjoying that song. I was into a mix of music from Madonna to Mariah Carey to the Smashing Pumpkins, RHCP, to Bone Thugs N’ Harmony to 2Pac, but George Michael was a very peculiar one, considering that he was not the preferred choice of many of my teenage peers. I remembered asking a mom of one of the neighborhood kids that I grew up with, and asked her what she thought of GM, and she replied, “Hmmm….I’ve always liked him, but I wonder if he is really gay?”
His sexuality never came into my conscience. I was simply a guy who liked uptempo music, and thought that this man knew how to put together a catchy pop song. As I started to learn more about him, I was intrigued by his sexual / gender ambiguity. I wasn’t sure of whether he identified as gay / bi / straight, At that time, he left it up to the public to conjure up whatever their own conclusion was. As I entered into my early teens, I was at the point where I started to feel “unconventional.” I was born into the idea that I would be in a traditional marriage and have children. I started to develop what I thought was this “unusual” attraction to boys at the time. I remembered that not many girls would flock over to me, while at the same time, I was much too intimidated to being asking anyone out to any dances at the time. I was making myself believe that my lack of dateability qualities had something to do with that paradigm shift into the same gender. Perhaps, that this was just a phase or my greater curiosity getting in the way.
In a way, I was George Michael.
It was around that time, shortly thereafter, that he was caught in the men’s bathroom in Beverly Hills in what was described as a lewd act. I remembered being shocked and confused about what he did, but what really took me by surprise, was the fact that he was forthcoming about his sexuality, about his own subconscious way of coming out by what happened, and more importantly, that he was never going to apologize for his sexuality, or his way of pursuing it (w/ consent). In a time when the mainstream media was ready to bury him alive and use his gayness as their weapon of choice against him, he proudly stood up, and owned his “full” identity to his advantage. He talked about how he was willing to torpedo his own fame for the sake of his own privacy, meaning being able to live his life as a gay man when being an out pop star was not encouraged and where he could have been vilified by the music industry for doing so. He had lived the straight life and was simply curious or trying out relationships with women until it no longer desired him ,and that he didn’t have his first same-sex relationship until his late 20s.
That moment when he spoke out left a first great impression on me as I was beginning to confront my own parts of my identity. He made it possible for me to understand that my own sexuality / gender were not a result of some mental illness or depression that I was having. While I was much too young to live through the Wham! and Faith era, I came in at the right time as a teenager to hear the words of George Michael declaring his own liberation.
Like George, I didn’t have my first relationship with a man until my late 20s. Like George, I had spent a lot of my time keeping my identity private for years as a way to protect my mom and my family from having to defend me against other family members and family friends. Like George, I did date women and was in a few early relationships with them, but never at any point regretted those experiences. They were experiences that I needed to have, in order for me to move forward and validate what I had learned from those times.
His loss was much more than his music. He was the first gay person that I looked up to growing up in a time when I needed to feel validated. He made it a-okay to be unapologetic as a queer man, and that I didn’t need to be bound by old-fashion monogamy, that gay sex is natural sex, and that it should be enjoyed or fulfilling (with consent and transparency of course).
He will truly be missed. Without George, there would be no version of the “me” that you have been a witness to the last several years. Thank you George, and may you forever rest in paradise!
Here is a link to this wonderful article about him below:
With the rumbling noise and vibration of a CTA train passing through the viaduct
Accompanied by the cacophonic sounds of the Vietnamese language heard
As it enters and exits out of the local grocery stores on a busy weekend day
The rapid chopping sounds of a knife slaying into the lifeless, barbecue-drenched duck on the stain-covered white table as the remaining pig carcass hung by its hook on public display to entice carnivorous customers to consume its remains at one of the local Chinese bbq digs.
The sounds of tongs clasping the body of a lone blue crab as it is pried away from its inmates and into the brown bag. The unforgettable sounds of machinery sawing through the frozen meat in the butcher section.
The sounds of coins shaking from a homeless man muttering for a few more as Vietnamese shoppers obliviously walk by
At Chu Quon bakery, the sound of a cash register impatiently printing out tiny receipts with faded blue ink and concluding with the slamming of the register door as customers take home their desserts filled with rice cakes, flaky wintermelon cakes, and moon cakes.
The slurping sounds from folks basking in the broth of freshly-made Pho at the Pho 777, Pho 888, and Tank Noodle (presumably the missing Pho 999).
The sounds of drivers angrily honking at the intersection of Argyle and Broadway as pedestrians unwittingly mistime their crossing.
The water hose being turned on to feed the mini Japanese bonsai plants outside on display in front of an antique store where walking inside is the sight of bamboo plants, Buddha statues in various poses, and incense used to awaken the spirits of ancestors past ready to be sold.
Walking by the mural, I see this street’s history.
The art depicting the welcoming arrival of my folks who came here to survive after having lost their community during the war, recreating a piece of Vietnam on that very street,and to be built on a place that didn’t carry the sounds of bombs and machine guns.
I step away, and hear the sound of relief.
For the first time in years, I mustered up enough courage to go with my brother Andy to make an attempt at visiting my dad.
I was nervous. The ghosts of my past surrounded me like a bedside vigil and kept my eyes open in fear for these past 48 hours. In the last 4 years, I had anger, rage, disappointment, concern, and empathy for the man that brought me here. My old friend and neighbor once told me, “When you see your father and you’ll see what he has become, I know you will feel sad for him.” Her quote has reverberated into my consciousness as I prepared to see him.
My brother and I drove together and reminisced a lot of our struggles with my parents’ court case. An hour later, I saw my family house. The backboard of the basketball hoop we had in our driveway was slowly decaying. I stepped out, and slowly walked along the sidewalk to observe what I remembered of my former home. The bonsai bushes along the sidewalk was dying. I was walking around the backyard and saw the garden my mom used to tend to. The tomatoes, the banana peppers, the lettuce plants are still there.
My brother and I took turns ringing the doorbell, knocked on the window. No answer. We waited, and waited some. Still no answer. We went to a grocery story nearby to pick up a notepad and pen. I wrote a short note asking him to call me.
We left, and decided to drive around Ty Warner Park, his favorite place to jog. As we were driving along the road, I saw him on my passenger side from a distance. He looked gaunt. His brown skin darkened. His face expressionless as he huffed and puffed. I motioned to Andy that I was convinced it was him. He didn’t believe me at first and we pulled over from a distant as we watched my dad jog closer towards his car. We decided not to surprise him. From my experiences in working with social workers and with someone as emotionally volatile as my dad, we decided not to take a risk at agitating him in public. We silently drove off.
I came home, and he did call.
He was emotional. He was lost. He was wondering why my brothers and I wouldn’t see him. I chose not to indulge him of every hurtful thing he caused. I needed to give him space. He had been trapped in isolation for the past few years, and he needed an outlet. He said his teeth are falling apart but he believed that the dentist is out to destroy his remaining teeth so he can profit off of him. I asked him why he had his phone deliberately turned off whenever his family tried to contact him, and he rambled something in the way of, “well T-Mobile is out to rip me off…..” and talked about how he refuses to trust anyone except us, and went into another long-winded incoherent rant before I had to cut him off and say, “I will try again next weekend. I promise.” He quickly told me that he wants to see me, and my brothers. He wished me well and said “I love you.” I turned away from my phone, feeling sadness that he is still imprisoned by his conscience that has been invaded by trauma all these years.
I anticipated worse, but today, the door was cracked opened even if he didn’t answer it.
To be continued……
Before seeing my dad, I was sitting next to my mom facing her lawyer in his other office in downtown Chicago. It was our first time to that office, but we were more than eager to make it our last time seeing him. It had already been nearly 2 years, and our last court date resulted in the judge threatening to have my dad come into court via police escort as he had already been ignoring court appearances. My mom did not want to see her former abuser, nor wants to see him get arrested and potentially cause disorder in the courtroom due to his own mental health issues. She decided that she had enough. She had long been going through sleepless nights over her divorce case. She feared seeing my dad. She feared being forced to memorize certain words she would have to say in court despite her mental and language limitations. She agonized over the court fees, and how she would get the money that is tied over to my dad’s account. She became stressed over my dad’s missing court appearances, and whether the case has any end in sight.
Our attorney, who still messes up the pronunciation of her name (which is one-syllable) had her sign the documents agreeing to conclude the case, and ensuring that my dad wouldn’t be faced under arrest.
To her, it was not worth all the troubles. She had already lost so much before the case. She lost her mobility and part of her cognitive skills due to her stroke. She had to leave the house that she lived in for so many years, only to now be taking up space between my brothers and I. She was married to a man whom she felt protected by for so many years, but to only become a threat to her safety. She was already defeated before the case, and as the case dragged on, the losses kept piling up.
As she started signing the documents, I hung my head down in resignation thinking about what this court case did to her. I felt responsible for helping to create the chaos that have swirled above us like a scavenger finding a fresh corpse. I refused to talk to my dad and take most of his phone calls. I was intent at times on trying to punish my dad for causing harm to our family. I tried to hold back the sadness that was building up as I see her sign the paperwork. She then looked up and told her lawyer, “Now I can move on. I don’t have to worry about this anymore.”
She was relieved. She didn’t care about getting a settlement from my dad. She talked about how her new peers in her ESL class and Adult Day Care are struggling even harder than her, and that she still has an amount of privilege that they don’t have. She sees that she is able to get taken care of by her children. She is able to experience new things without having to worry about my dad controlling every aspect of her life.
As we got out of the office, I pushed her around in her new wheelchair along State Street in the downtown Loop area past the Chicago Theatre, and visiting Nordstrom Rack and a few other stores along the way. She mentioned how she never got to see the downtown area so intimately because my dad never wanted to be around it. She was relaxed and curious about what was in front of her. She became a tourist in that moment. For the first time, it seems like she has finally achieved liberation, than she ever did when she was able-bodied.
Though my dad more financially privileged and somewhat able, is still searching to be free……
To be continued……….
As part of the Khmer Support Giving Circle (KSGC) family, I am truly happy to announce that our group is being recognized for the “John VIetnam Nguyen Youth Leadership Award” from the State of Illinois this year. From all of us at KSGC, this recognition comes with great honor, love, and humility. KSGC has been an important space for many young Cambodian-Americans in the Chicago area. While there are a few of us that are not youths or young adults, we recognize and value how impactful it is to have the opportunity to connect with our youths, and bridge the transition closer between generations. For many of us that are 1.5 / 2nd generation (US-born / mostly lived in the US), the diaspora that our families face from fleeing their homeland deeply impacts how we were raised, and the challenges we deal with when we are building our identities. We are sometimes viewed as foreigners in our own adopted country, and then we are viewed as foreigners in our family homeland. John “Vietnam” Nguyen represented that for many of us, especially in the Vietnamese and with other Asian communities he was a part of in Chicago. He lent a voice to our generation that needed an outlet to express those struggles through his poetry, storytelling, activism, and as a hip-hop performer.
Four years ago, I was several months removed from my return back to the Chicagoland area after living overseas for 3 years. Previously, I had been largely estranged from the Vietnamese and Cambodian community for years, and remembered being bitter towards my generation in both of those communities for (what I felt) was a lack of leadership, visibility, and cultural pride among them. I got accepted to work for KRCC (Korean American Resource & Cultural Center) in the Chicago North Side despite not having many ties to a lot of the Asian communities in the city. Needless to say, my work was cut out for me; I had to quickly learn the ropes from my colleagues who had spent years organizing and fighting for the rights and visibility that I never knew even happened in my community. I met with our youth group to learn about the work they were doing, and I remembered hearing about a hip-hop artist named John Vietnam come up amongst each other. I became curious about a man who would be brazen enough to carry the name of his family land as an artist and activist, and the fact that he carried such intrigue and awe among his peers. I’m thinking to myself, “I gotta know more about this dude.” He was about to enter his 20s as I was about to exit mine. I was looking to connect with him, and he became one of my priorities for the first month I started working for KRCC. I started to think that maybe….just maybe….we can finally have a voice that can bring light to our struggles, that can help us celebrate who we are, and to lead us fearlessly through those barriers.
I was working the KRCC booth at K-Fest in the middle of August during the whole silly “Gangnam Style” nonsense, and I caught a glimpse of an MC performance. There, I would see John step up to the mic, and gave a performance that drew the sheer excitement and passion amongst the crowd. Confidence, the good looks, charisma, wit, and boundless energy was what I saw of him that first time. I stood there, sunglasses on, smiling and nodding my head in approval. I walked back to the booth and resumed what I was doing.
About a week later, he would die tragically when he drowned trying to save his friend’s life by Lake Mendota, Wisconsin. I was stunned. The community was in mourning. I would never have the opportunity to introduce myself to him. Our community and the world would never have the opportunity to experience how much greater potential he could have achieved had his life not been so prematurely taken from him. I was so sure that he could have been that person for “us”, but four years later, he still is. John may not have lived to see the impact of his creation come to full fruition, but he gave birth to the ideas and fearlessness that were passed on to those he touched.
As a KSGC member, I am proud to call Savi, Ann, John Ty Yoeun, Alina Nuth, Punisa Pov, Teksong, and our Khmer Chicago youths my family. I could not have found such a loving space, and an opportunity to promote development, leadership, and community-building through KSGC.
With many profound, special thanks to his father, Saigon Joe and his mother Rose, his family, Tommy Choi, and to those that were a part in selecting us for this award and for continuing to carry the legacy of John Vietnam Nguyen’s vision and aspirations for the Asian community. We are eternally grateful for this, and look forward to continuing our work for the community as a whole.
PHOTO CREDIT: John Vietnam Nguyen Facebook page
On April 16th, during the weekend of the Khmer New Year celebration and Day of Remembrance which marked the 41 year anniversary of the Khmer Rouge genocide that killed over 2 million Cambodians, I hosted a small, intimate roundtable discussion on initiating “end-of-life” care conversations with our loved ones. In the Khmer-American community, the generation of refugees who arrived in America after the genocide are aging and becoming senior citizens. As they transition into elderly status, how do their adult children take on the reality that their parents would soon decline, and eventually pass on? Furthermore, how do elder loved ones in the Southeast Asian communities deal with the issues relating to aging?
I was inspired to take on this subject as both of my parents just entered into their 60s. Both of my parents were survivors of war (my mom’s family escaping from the Vietnam War while my dad survived the Khmer Rouge genocide), and experienced many of the PTSD issues that are connected to those traumas. Four years ago, my mother suffered a stroke. Before I turned 30, I would soon share the responsibilities with my brothers on being her caregiver. Meanwhile, my father has struggled mightily with his own PTSD issues after his escape from Cambodia, and his own mental health struggles would become a major hindrance during my mom’s recovery.
Through my experiences being my mom’s caregiver, I was confronted with my own challenges in being able to give her the emotional support she needed. It required confronting my own complicated relationship with my parents. From my teenage to early adulthood years, I rebelled against my parents’ ideals of being an “obedient son”, a family prize that would achieve success in the medical and science field ( a place that my dad once said that “most Asian people” belong to), and bypassing my family culture that I found too oppressing and limiting altogether. I found it challenging for myself to reinvent my relationship with my mom. The years of limiting my emotional accessibility to her has been a barrier in giving myself the opportunity to hold the conversations I am wishing to have.
The reality that for my mom and for our loved ones, they are on borrowed time. When we think of buying eggs or a carton of milk, we look at the expiration date in the back, and think of what meals we can make out of in a specific time. With our loved ones, we don’t have the luxury of knowing when they’ll pass on, and oftentimes, we may not be so fortunate to spend the kind of quality time with them before they expire.
With the current group of US survivors from the Khmer Rouge era aging, there is a growing need to have a discussion on what their needs are, and how they can discuss them with their loved ones. The reality of facing pending mortality is an emotional trigger in the senior community. For the Khmer Rouge survivors, it also triggers memories of facing near death when they were fleeing / surviving from their homeland. As many of their children are now in their adulthood and starting their own families, elderly parents find it challenging to express what their needs are, and how to communicate it to their adult children.
During our roundtable discussion, I first did an ice-breaker where I asked everyone to think about a special loved one in their life, and asked another ice-breaker about a time when they made a decision that improved the quality of their life. This would lead into the main discussion of how empowering it is to be able to make your own life decisions and how you can involve your loved ones in the process. We would share stories on our challenges of initiating “end of life” care discussions with our parents and siblings. Their parents often become reluctant to talk about death with their children. Instead, they would casually joke around, and say “well, you better take care of us when we get old, okay?” One of the takeaways from our story-sharing was that we were conditioned to not become “overly emotional” or sensitive in front of our family as it is a sign of weakness. In typical of most Asian communities, it can be harder to express those vulnerabilities. This hinders our ability to verbalize our own needs, and how we want to be taken care of before we pass.
From my own experiences, I remembered my dad and male members of my family ridiculing me if I started crying, or expressing my feelings to them. By attempting to eliminate that part of my emotion, it created a lifelong struggle with being able to personally connect with my family. I rarely allowed my family access to my personal feelings; I had difficulties telling my family when I was getting bullied in school, or that I ended my friendship with an old high school friend, etc. As my mother’s caregiver, I found it difficult to have that relationship where it required me to be open and vulnerable to her. By avoiding it with my mom, I am often left feeling guilty that I have continued to neglect the many days that I could have had to improve my relationship with her.
In our group, we are left uncertain on how to express our love to our parents, and how we can best support them emotionally as they deal with the hardships of aging. We also see the value of how important our relationship with our siblings are, and how they can play a role in the handling of our parents’ care, and after their passing. We shouldn’t have to shame ourselves of our feelings when it includes fear, anxiety, depression, and anger.
By asking what our parents want and involving the family members, there is a fine line between controlling someone and guiding them to make the right decisions. We also have to be aware of what the end-of-life situation could look like. Do my parents want to stay on a feeding tube or on life support? What is the impact of someone that has a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order? Who are my parents willing to designate as their Power Of Attorney in their family to make health care decisions on their behalf if they are no longer able to? What ways can we educate ourselves and our family about these options? How can we empower our parents to make these decisions on their own? How can we start thinking about the “quality” of care that impacts them? There are also situations when our parents are not willing to have that discussion, or are no longer wanting to make decisions on their needs and final wishes.
With the generational differences heavily prevalent in regards to education, culture, language, intergenerational trauma, and economics between our parents and us, as adult children, do we have enough of a starting point where we can overcome our discomfort in talking about what life would look like without our parents present? Do we have what it takes where we can strengthen our trust and put aside our past insecurities with our parents and siblings? As adult children, we are in the process of establishing our own future, and at the same time, we must also consider how we can support our parents’ future. This can only happen by asking.