Do We Know Who We Are?

May 26, 2006

I am not one who’s quick to resort to handy pseudo-intellectual labels such as “internalized racism” or so called “self-hatred,” but what’s with historical revisionism among young Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese Americans? As a result it has become downright difficult to tell if we know who we REALLY ARE.

In recent years I see more and more Southeast Asians, namely members of the 1.5 and 2.0 generations, whose bios state that either they or their families “immigrated” to the US. Unless pressed, Cambodians and Laotians claim to have been “born” in Thailand and my biggest pet peeve is Vietnamese Americans often claim that their fathers “worked” for the CIA. At times it sounds like the whole of former South Vietnam’s population was on the CIA’s payroll.

With the exception for a handful of students and members of the diplomatic delegation and their dependents who were trapped in the US when South Vietnam fell in 1975, the majority, I emphasize MAJORITY, of Southeast Asians came to the US as refugees. That means escaping, fleeing, or running away from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam either on land by foot or by water in rickety fishing boats, even for those who were “evacuated” by the American military. The term “immigrate” indicates an act of will with mutual agreement among all parties involved.

I understand that it might be impossible to extract information from our parents and in doing so might force them to relive a painful chapter in their lives that they prefer to forget. But being born behind barbed wire in No Man’s Land along the border of Thailand is not what I would claim as being “born in Thailand.” The same thing goes for Chinese Vietnamese who claim to have been born in Hong Kong. The refugee camps (Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand) during the height of the exodus were run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and those within the camps were wards of the UN.

Conditions in the camps in Thailand and Hong Kong were among the worst. Living quarters in some Hong Kong camps were nothing more than bunks separated by chicken wire mesh covered with a piece of fabric to provide a semblance of privacy. Gang violence, rapes, domestic violence and public drunkenness were commonplace. Though under the UN’s supervision and management, some camps in Thailand, especially those closest to the Cambodian border, were infiltrated by the Khmer Rouge, the same regime that the refugees had escaped from. There was freedom of movement within the camps but residents were kept behind razor-sharp barbed wire perimeter.

(I spent almost two years on an isolated and desolate island of Galang in Indonesia. There were beautiful white sand beaches and some vegetation but not much else. Three hundred and sixty-five days of this without being able to get off the island or doing much else can make one go stir-crazy. These were the conditions we had to endure after the harrowing sea-escape or dash through the jungles of Cambodia.)

And the CIA connection? By the time I arrived in the US in the early 1980s it had by-then become the accepted convention that Vietnamese refugees had to escape from Vietnam because of their ties to the old American-back regime of South Vietnam. I guess it would not be as sexy to say that we were farmers, fisherman or street vendors who came seeking better living conditions. Furthermore, to qualify for political asylum refugees had to meet criteria other economics. It did not take long for Vietnamese refugees to adopt similar reasons for leaving Vietnam.

I bought into it myself and for a while did tell people, whenever asked, that my father worked for the CIA and that he “spoke” both French and English. (I will go into the French connection in another post.) And to go along with the CIA connection, all the men were either captains or colonels in the old regime -- all officers, no grunts or conscripts.

In the late 1980s this reinvention caught up with one prominent member of the Vietnamese-American community in Seattle, a respected leader who had founded and managed organizations that provided services to newly arrived refugees and a business owner.

It began as a local English-language weekly wrote about his run-in with the laws – opening a night club without proper license, which he claimed was a private fundraiser for the local Vietnamese Buddhist temple. This led to the FBI investigating his various business holdings and spending of public funds. A pair of Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s reporters dug deeper and, lo and behold, they hit pay dirt.

Asides from misuse of public funds and mismanagement of the nonprofit that provided services to newly arrived refugees, the reporters also discovered that he had claimed to be a “colonel” on the Saigon Capitol Police force and holder of a degree from the London School of Economics, among other claims. According to the expose, he would have been 17 years-old when he became a colonel and that he was in a refugee camp in the Philippines at the time that he claimed to be attending the London School of Economics.

I am not advocating that we should corner our fathers and uncles and force them to fess up. They had their reasons to reinvent themselves once leaving the old country. Escaping Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam may have also meant leaving behind life of hand-to-mouth subsistence living, leaving behind grinding poverty and backwardness, leaving behind a life that befitting only that of a water buffalo, they would say.

Now that we are all grown up and have been educated at some of the world’s best universities and colleges. It should not take much for us to find out where we came from and under what circumstances.

Being a refugee or having born in refugee camps should not take away from our achievements or distract us from our ambitions. In fact, they can be a positive re-enforcement of our character and humanity. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with having been the off-springs of farmers and street vendors either. We all have to come from somewhere. Our past is what has shaped us to be who we are today. There is no need to resort to the modern equivalent of the Southeast Asian-American creation myth.

So why do 1.5 and 2.0 generations of Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese Americans feel the need to embellish their families’ histories and coming-to-America experiences?

Sonny Le is on Hyphen's advisory board.


Melissa Hung

Founding Editor

Melissa Hung is the founding editor of Hyphen. She was the editor in chief for the magazine's first five years and went on to serve in many other leadership roles on the staff and board for more than a decade. She is a writer and freelance journalist. Her essays and reported stories have appeared in NPR, Vogue, Pacific Standard, Longreads, and Catapult, among others. A native Texan, she lives in California. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.



I don't think the majority are like that, although I'm probably wrong. In my family, my father and mother enjoy talking about their escape, because it sounds more like a crazy adventure. They eloped together. Let's face it, a new romance in a war time conditions, falling in love, escaping together on the last boat out of Saigon two weeks before the fall, what's more romantic than that? He's a city slicker, and she's a country girl, and then they survived over here with 4 newly born kids.So for us, I would even go so far to say that being refugees is a badge of pride for them; It's a case of, "since we made romance bloom in such awful conditions, there's nothing we can't do."That's probably why I have such a positive view of the refugee ordeal. I think it depends per person's self esteem. Unfortunately, most people are taught that self esteem is reflected in their surroundings, and no one ever teaches us how to develop self esteem internally first. That's my take on it.Society's view are not my views. I make my own.
Hey HYPHEN, check yo self. Are you a TWINKIE???????????
Nice post. Here are my comments.Immigrant vs. Refugee: After Hurricane Katrina, the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington asked the news outlets and government to refrain from calling the stranded "refugees." Technically, the word fit loosely (if you ignore the UN definition of a refugee and if you refer to second or third definitions in dictionaries. Usually refugees cross international borders, tho.)The Congressional Black Caucus worried that the word created a false distance between the mostly black faces we saw at the Astrodome and the average American watching the disaster on TV from the comfort of his own home. As if the people on the screen weren't also American.Not that it should, but the word "refugee" creates a distance (or may be perceived to), and I can understand that some people wouldn't feel like closing that distance every time they meet someone who doesn't understand.That said, I agree with you. People should say what they are and be themselves. Who cares if people don't understand? Whatever they're not understanding probably has little to do with the task at hand, and if a relationship gets to a point where they ought to understand, you tell them. Yes or no?A lot of the whities, incidentally, were fleeing persecution when they got to America, might be considered refugees.Next: Place of Birth.I think that technically people born in Thailand really were born in Thailand. If that requires more explanation, then give it. But regardless of race, everyone in America is forced to give simple answers to complicated questions all the time - on forms, all over the place.This is part of being a minority, and everyone is a minority in some way. It's just a matter of how close your minority status is to your core. Racial minorities tend to identify as minorities more than people with auburn hair who don't feel right about checking "red" or "brown" in the hair color box.People born with both male and female genitalia have it the worst, I think. Everyone expects you to be one or the other. What do you do when you're both?CIA connection. This is probably a way of connecting one's extraordinary experience with the experience of non-refugee Americans. I always thought it was pretty commonly true, too - am I wrong?In fact, I thought pretty much every non-communist (and a few communist) fighters in Laos were paid with CIA funds. They fought with CIA-provided weapons. When their families got rice, it was by CIA drops. I recently read a couple of books about this, but I'm not an expert.CIA was also all over Cambodia & Vietnam, so there could be a hint of truth to some of this, don't you think?ANyway, this is my first visit to Hyphen, and I like it.Cheers, RC