“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.