The Genocide of Genealogy: for those who refuse to be silenced.
Many children grow up hearing fantastical tales and listening to nursery rhymes. A magical forest here and furry talking creatures there. I grew up listening to the nightmares of chaos and terror as tragedy consumed Cambodia.
On April 17th, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Like many Khmer Americans, my family came to the United States as refugees from Cambodia in 1982. My grandparents reflect back on the day the Khmer Rouge scoured the city and announced over their loud speakers that the Americans were going to begin dropping their bombs. Greeting the citizens with smiles, they expressed that safety was their priority and all those living within the city should evacuate to the countryside. They promised that the invasion would be over and they would be able to return to the city. Yet, it would be four years of terror before any lucky survivors would be able to return to the remains of their homes. My family had no choice but to abandon all of their belongings and at that precise moment, their entire lives.
Soon after they began to lose sight of the city, they were met with the smell of death. Piles of dead bodies, of former doctors, teachers, lawyers, business people, and other intellectuals lined the streets. The rotting flesh was cooked by the sun and empty eyes stared at the travelers. When I was younger, my mom used to wake up in the middle of the night after she replayed this scene over and over again in her nightmares.
From labor camps to pseudo-refugee camps, my family never had the security of knowing that they would wake up the next morning. Their very lives were dependent on being invisible. Children over the age of 10 were separated from their parents. My mother, the oldest sibling, was forced to leave my family behind and live in a separate labor camp. She worked 9-10 hours a day, 7 days a week under the hot sun, surviving on small portions of rice soup and salt. Countless citizens were so malnourished that they died of starvation, diseases, and exhaustion. Yet, no matter how sick they were, my family dragged themselves out of their makeshift huts because they feared being executed. The Khmer Rouge believed that if you were unable to contribute, then you were useless and it would be a waste of food to feed you.
On one fateful night, my family was met with the sounds of gunshots and the blares of an explosion. They found cover in the bomb shelter and continued to listen to the whirring of bullets throughout the night. When daylight broke and the shooting sounds subsided, they tried to move on to another town and abruptly the shooting sounds were close by again. They found refuge in barn house hid anywhere out of sight. My grandparents later heard that there was a Khmer Rouge soldier who wanted to enter the house, but his comrade said that he had seen my family with the rest of the Khmer Rouge already. If he had not made that mistake, a simple grenade would have decided the fate of my family.
Fortunately, my family made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand. My grandpa filed for sponsorship to come to the United States, as we had no relatives living in the U.S. that could sponsor us. After he applied for sponsorship, my grandpa went to the refugee bureau every day where they posted name of families that were sponsored to leave the camp. With each passing day, my family began to lose hope, as their name did not appear on the board. Finally, in May of 1981, after a year and a half in the refugee camp, my family’s names were posted among the last ones in the list. They were transferred to the Philippines, flown to Columbus, Ohio, and eventually made their way by bus to Denver, Colorado.
Life has a funny way of coming full circle when you least expect it. Here I am, sitting in a Starbucks in Columbus writing this blog and reflecting upon how close I came to living here instead of Denver. As I began to get older and my family began to acculturate into America, I began to hear less and less about their previous life in Cambodia and the discrimination they experienced in the United States. I forgot these stories and I forgot the struggle that my family underwent. The above stories are so surreal that they almost seem like fiction.
It must be recognized that history is often written by its victors. Growing up, much of my narrative of the Khmer Rouge were small excerpts in my history book written by American historians. In many ways, America was painted as a safe haven for refugees, and while I am not denying that, it seemed as though my family traded in one form of cultural genocide for another. It was Washington’s intention in the early 1970s to strengthen the Khmer Republic and to help defeat the revolutionary Khmer Rouge movement. However, it is heavily argued that American intervention widened the war and served as a catalyst for driving Cambodia into conflict. Furthermore, evidence suggests that foreign intervention produced negative results in the end, as it gave rise to the revolutionary force and weakened the Khmer Republic, making the power transition and societal levels more volatile and dangerous.
President Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, began to discuss the North Vietnamese sanctuaries and supply routes in the then neutral country of Cambodia. Despite the fact that military strikes against locations in a neutral country would be flagrant violations of international laws and treaties, it was soon decided that the areas be bombed in order to clean out “the communist sanctuaries.” Codenamed Operation Menu, on March 18th, 1969 the US Strategic Air Command began the bombing of Eastern Cambodia under the Nixon Administration. The primary goal was to destroy supply lines and camps used by the North Vietnamese to wage attacks into South Vietnam. In 1969, these secret missions more than doubled and over a thousand missions were initiated. And in the same fourteenth month period, over 3,600 B-52 raids were conducted against targets in Kampuchea. However, these bombings were kept secret – not only from the public but also within the Air Force command. The first bombing raids were called Breakfast. Later raids that were deeper in Cambodia were referred to as Lunch. Eventually, the raids reached beyond Dinner and into Snacks and Dessert. At a great loss of Cambodian civilian lives, the operation proved unsuccessful in decreasing North Vietnam offensives. Indirectly, the bombings led to the downfall of the Cambodian government and the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
Yet… I was never taught any of this until I studied abroad in Southeast Asia. I remember being placed in an English as a Second Language track during elementary school (even though, let me be clear, I spoke perfect English) and having the word refugee thrown at me. I had no idea what that meant. I never understood how lucky I was to be sitting within the safe confines of a classroom, with the reassurance of three meals a day. I knew I was Cambodian, but did not realize how much weight and history that identity held…. nor did I realize how much of my identity was authored by American history. Why must we illustrate heroes at the expense of so many? It makes me think of how much of what I know is constructed, rather than authentic.
Recently, I have had the privilege of traveling all over the nation to speak with fellow Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (A/PIA) college students about the importance of community organizing and A/PIA activism. I realize more and more how my family’s history has shaped my passion for activism, equity, and authentic representation of communities. Since becoming involved in the social justice realm, I have had many internal conflicts about the American Dream. Despite coming to the United States with every possible disadvantage, my family made it. My mother was the first in our family to graduate from college. My family is littered with Student Body Presidents, Valedictorians, Salutatorians, full ride scholars, Daniels Fund Scholars, and Gates Millennium Scholars. Coincidentally, many of us found ourselves in fields of education and made West High School, the Denver Center for International Studies, and the University of Denver our home, including myself. But, they are only a single story. Cambodian Americans still have some of the highest high school drop out rates, are victims of the school to prison pipeline, and face numerous deportation cases.
In providing me with these opportunities and the need to assimilate to survive, I grew up not truly understanding who I was or where I came from. It was not until recently that I began to realize more and more the need and impact of storytelling. My family realized this long before I did and published their own personal memoir (of which many excerpts have been included in this blog). Storytelling allows us to preserve our roots. It allows us to share our experiences in ways that are real and authentic. Stories give us the ability challenge what we learn in our history books and gives us the power to advocate for visibility and representation. Stories give us the capability to right to WRITE our OWN histories. They can move systems and transform institutions. Storytelling is resistance. Stories start (r)evolutions.
For the past year, I have carried an Audre Lorde quote that states, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” with me wherever I go. It serves as a powerful reminder that choosing to be visible and to speak powerfully will help to ensure that fewer communities will have to experience the types of silencing that my family had to endure. Although I was born 16 years after the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975, I choose to remember it every single day. Why? Because it is evidence that I come from a legacy of warriors, of survivors. Resiliency is on our blood. My name is Vanessa. I am a daughter of refugees. I am a feminist. I am an activist. And most importantly, I am Khmer.
3:31 pm • 17 April 2014 • 20 notes
In honor of this day of remembrance: April 17, 1975
Is the change I seek revolutionary? Is every revolution going to require bloodshed? When “The Revolution” comes will I be able to take my mother and father with me? And what about my children? The Revolution did come to us. On April 17, 1975 the revolution marched into Phnom Penh. It emptied out the city. Nearly every single family in Cambodia suffered losses during the time of the Khmer Rouge. An estimated 2 million Cambodians died. There is no exact body count.
I was too young to be recruited as a child soldier. In 1975, The People’s Revolutionary Party instead enlisted me in the fields where I would pick up cow dung. The unrelenting sun scorched my hair a shiny amber.1978 my mother almost died giving birth to my brother. There were no doctors or nurses in their commune. Professionals, intellectuals, former government officials, and religious figures were targeted for torture and execution. Kindness spared my father who would have otherwise been executed for being a teacher and a Muslim. The oppressive Khmer Rouge regime lasted 3 years, 8 months and 20 days. In 1979 when the borders reopened, my family was forced to leave Cambodia for the nearest Thai refugee camp. Survival is an instinct the body remembers well. On June 30, 1979, my family left the Thai camps for America. I do not need to have memories of violence to know that the experience of genocide has never left my body.
My parents never left me behind even when the Revolution left us with nothing. The change I seek has to include my family even if their politics differ from mine. The change I seek must be rooted in love. I believe that you can’t serve your people if you don’t love your people. Acts of violence can never be acts of love.”
— Artist and activist, Anida Yoeu Ali. Anida is also the producer of the award-winning documentary, Cambodian Son. It screens today at 3:30pm at East Bay Media Center in Berkeley, CA. (via fascinasians)
3:25 pm • 17 April 2014 • 115 notes
revolution [wordswordswords. so many words.]
what does it take for a revolution to occur?
or i guess, i’m more interested in knowing who it takes for a revolution to occur?
i want to be out of the system. i want to be out of the system. i want to be out of the system.
but i am here.
the system is everywhere. there is no out.
i want to be out of the system.
what does that mean when everything is linked to profit, to economics, to capitalism, to cash?
when i graduate, if i graduate, will i still have a place to be warm when i sleep? how can i move out of the system when i cannot even imagine more than one night of sleeping in the cold?
every time i’ve been kicked out of the house growing up, i’ve always been invited back in. eventually.
where is the revolution if i cannot eat? cannot survive?
if leaving the system means starving, means death, is there any revolution in that?
"there is no nuance in death." we all die sometime. we are all the same in death. our bodies cold, lips numb, skin blue. this is not a fairytale, or a disney movie. there is no prince charming, no white knight, no savior whose kiss will reignite the desire to live, pump hot blood back through our bodies. and i am glad there is not. we will be dead. we will be complete.
can there be revolution in death?
but it seems like deaths are necessary to push people to revolt.
if vincent chin were not murdered and his murderers left unpunished, would there exist a pan-asian american identity at all? but it’s not that simple. if vincent were not well-educated, middle-class, professional-status, east-asian, young, healthy, engaged-to-be-married, cis-hetero, etc. if vincent were not privileged enough to be palatable, would there have been any revolution?
history says no.
who gets to be part of revolution then?
i know i would. i could finish my stats major from duke university, top 10 college in the country, top 5 program in the country, etc. i could graduate with honors in sociology from duke university. i could go on to grad school, to law school, etc. i could go on to work on wall street, on main street, etc. i could go on and…
i would get to be part of the revolution.
i am privileged enough to be palatable to those who oppress me, i have pruned out the parts that are not, i have castrated the phalli of my presentation, i have circumcised the outer skins of my history, i have allowed the plunder of my mind, my grandmothers’ tongues, my fathers’ hearts, my mothers’ womanhood, my brothers’ fertility, my sisters’ strength. i have allowed it. i have participated. i am where i am today because my ancestors did things to survive.
"we are all here because our ancestors did things to survive, because we did things to survive, because our mothers wombs are where we first learnt to be violent, because we scratched and ate them dry, and red, because we swallow history whole and cannot birth it away."
i am a part of the system. i am privileged enough to be palatable. i would get to be part of the revolution.
how can i be part of the revolution when the words i use to explain the anger, when the words i use to explain the history, when the words i use to explain my self are foreign to those whose pain and love i draw upon for strength to continue fighting?
what does it mean that i get to be part of the revolution?
that i am a piece of the system?
what am i fighting?
who are we fighting?
if not ourselves?
i think, i think, i think. i think i know who i don’t want to be. i know who i don’t want to become. but i am defining my reality in resistance, in reaction and i don’t think there is any revolution in that.
i will graduate with my degree, if i graduate with a degree, and i will be anywhere from 20 to 50 thousand dollars in debt.
this institution has not taught me anything but how to shit on myself when it pleases the masters, how to shit on my peers when it benefits the masters, i don’t think i’ve learned anything worth taking away from these stone walls, this castle, we are an ivory tower but i am too piss-stained to belong. and yet i am here. people have been dying for centuries so that i get to be a piss stain on the ground of this ivory tower, blending in with the blood stains of my foremothers who have died for this place, taking up less space even then the beer stains on the grass every weekend.
i have friends who would die so that their children would get to be piss stains on the walls of this place and folks who would call it progress because at least they’d be visible enough to be bleached and sanitized away unlike our existence being tread on on the ground of this place.
i am tired of being palatable.
i am tired of being consumed.
i am tired of being valued for my ability to shit on others.
because that is what capitalism is. that is what white supremacy desires. that is what cis-hetero-patriarchy tells me i must be.
i’ve realized that the struggles i’ve been having with myself lately are because i have been too comfortable for my entire life. i have been conditioned into desiring comfort more than i desire justice, more than i desire truth, more than i desire revolution, more than i desire to love the mothers and brothers and partners who have loved me. not only am i privileged enough to be palatable, i have been conditioned to find my current existence palatable despite the atrocities i commit simply by existing within the system. there are thousands of brown and yellow women dying each year in my foremothers’ homelands that have been occupied and colonized and burned to the ground… thousands of women who, had history been altered ever so slightly, could have been me. is the couple dollars i save buying from f21, from hm, from urban worth so much to me that i am willing to be complicit in their murders? would i participate in the mass murder of thousands for the price of a few dollars? would you?
and yet we do.
it is difficult navigating and negotiating constantly for my existence. i am so privileged. so privileged. so powerful. without ever imagining how my decisions cause ripples that turn into tsunamis by the time they’ve reached my grandmother’s beach house. one choice and the wave crashing down on her life would drown her. and yet i am nothing but a piss stain on the ground of this prestigious gothic wonderland. i am nothing, and yet i am mighty.
"when you ask your mother if she is happy, and she says she’s happy if you’re happy, what do you say?"
i am hurting, mom. i am dying, mom. i am lying to you through my teeth, mom. i don’t know how to be honest when i am afraid my honesty will hurt you, mom. i don’t know how to be me when i’m afraid i’ll hurt you, mom. i don’t know how to be part of the revolution when the revolution is everything you have worked so hard, died so many deaths, to resist, mom. i don’t know how to tell you i have to join this war because i love you when you’ve always loved me by keeping my stomach full, mom. i don’t know how to love my self and love you and still be honest, mom. i’m afraid of becoming the daughter you have always wanted, mom. it terrifies me that you think i’m already well on my way, mom. i am afraid, mom. i am afraid that our love is not unconditional. i am afraid that our ties will be as easily snipped as the umbilical chord that once tied me to your flesh when i depended on you for life. i still depend on you for life, mom.
i will always be your child, mom, but i am breaking up with the system. i am more terrified now of the system than i have ever in my life been; abusive partners are always the most dangerous when they are left. i am afraid for the children i do not yet have to be stolen by the system, but am two semesters away from birthing. i am afraid for the lives of my families and friends who are still so infatuated by the system.
i don’t know if i can be a part of the revolution without being a part of the system as well, but i cannot imagine a revolution that results in our victory while the current system is in place. i have decided that i am no longer the center of my universe, that my comfort and my ease is no longer the prime directive. there are people who are dying right now somewhere in the world because they are not loved enough, not profitable enough, not palatable enough; they will be buried in the shit of their competition and the masters are applauding their deaths. i am giving up my need to survive; my survival is secondary, now. i am giving up my need to thrive; their survival is primary, now. if i am not actively breaking down the system both within me and around me, then i am failing. if i am not working to dismantle, to burn, to destroy that which is deemed normative, objective, etc. working to build, to create, to piece together that which allows space for love, for justice, for truth, for equality, etc. then i am rotting. the revolution exists, it is there. i am terrified, but i am ready to join it.
2:22 am • 16 April 2014 • 1 note
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10:04 pm • 15 April 2014 • 33,578 notes
Up until my second year of high school,
I allowed myself to believe that I wasn’t like other girls
as if there was something fundamentally wrong with other girls
that I had to disinherit.
I used ‘girly girl’ as an insult
like the carefully applied foundation, the long-learned eyeliner
the too-bright lipstick they nearly missed their bus to put on
made them less.
Unlearning was a slow process that I’m still slogging through.
I catch myself raising my eyebrows at a girl on the other side of the room
and have to make myself remember it doesn’t mean shit.
Femininity is not a synonym with stupid or frivolous or weak;
I’ve seen girls who can shiv with a high-heel and look great doing it
or they can sweat and grunt and spit and not give a damn either way.
Your worth is not a win-or-lose depending on if your skirt goes below your knees.
Whether makeup or a bare face or fake eyelashes so heavy you have to squint
a long dress or inch-long skirt or jeans that rip at the knee or shorts that flash your underwear
dreadlocks or metal ear-stretchers or leggings without pants or bedazzled neon nails
bikini or burqa or hair shaved in strips or long plaid shirts
a hoodie that needed washing three weeks ago or dangling earrings or worn out sneakers
a scarf to hide your adam’s apple or sunglasses that cover half your face
braces or glasses or pigtails or a jagged pink mohawk or eighteen clearly visible tattoos-
Wear it as battle armour.
— 'You'll Get Shit For It Anyway,' theappleppielifestyle. (via theappleppielifestyle)
7:07 pm • 15 April 2014 • 7,536 notes
In 1993, I returned to Viet Nam for the very first time with you and your father. When the plane landed at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Saigon, everyone on the plane stood up and cheered. Some people were in tears. It probably seems a bit silly to you now. These days, travel is easy. Twenty-four hours and you’re on the other side of the world.
But back then, when we left—when we *fled*—we never thought we’d ever be able to return. Viet Nam was everything we have ever known and loved; it was our childhood, our family, our collective histories and blood. To leave was like having to rip our hearts from our chests. We were leaving a part of ourselves behind.
To this day, nearly forty years later, I can still remember my last day in Saigon. I walked around my neighborhood, looked at the street vendors, the children, the speeding motorcyclists, the way the sunshine hits the trees outside my window. I tried to soak in every single detail that I had previously taken for granted. I wanted to hug the country to my heart because I didn’t know I would be able to return.
There was also a sense of guilt for leaving, at least for me. I should stay and help rebuild with your aunts and uncles, with my neighbors, with the rest of the country. It was my responsibility as a Vietnamese. Why should I get to leave and have freedom and liberty while they had to stay in poverty and hardship? What made me so special? It was nothing but luck. I’ve been through a lot since that day, but nothing will ever compare to the sadness and pain of leaving Viet Nam.
I understand how you feel now, but Viet Nam will always be within your reach. It’s 2014. The world is a different place. And I am just so happy and proud to have a daughter, born and raised in America, who loves Viet Nam with all the heart and soul of a Vietnamese child who’s never left. Perhaps even more because you don’t take it for granted.
— something my mother said to me last February as we boarded the plane to fly back to the States (via weetoiletpaperroll)
5:01 pm • 15 April 2014 • 81 notes
Nuances of multifaceted gender presentation and privilige
[this is a submission written by agnosticbutts]
I generally state that I’m a transwoman. This isn’t completely true because I don’t feel I really fall squarely in that binary but mentioning much deviance from that would threaten my transition which I’ve thought really long and hard about and have come to terms with. So for all intents and purposes I’m a transwoman going through that set of experiences.
I am very early in my transition and haven’t even started hormones yet. I am active duty military, meaning I have to maintain my appearance according to regulation. So when I do not go out dressed up or anything I present very much and is perceived as male unless otherwise stated by me.
It is very clear to me how different it is when I go out in public without doing much to present as female. It is incredibly frustrating to know that for me to be honored as a woman I have to go WAY out of my way to try to appear as one, dressing in ways that I am not sure I would do if I was cis.
However, as uncomfortable it is for me to present myself as male and just bite it, it is really apparent how differently people treat me and as long as I’m perceived as male how some of the privileges that go along with that open up to me. I can walk alone and not feel overly threatened, I do not get the stares, I do not get people looking at me like I’m a piece of meat, I get left alone and my personal space is respected. Granted as soon as I deviate from this presentation all of that quickly evaporates. Due to necessity of work and how early I am in my transition I get really varied experience depending how I go out.
It’s not that I have tons of male privilege at this point in my transition, I don’t have much. When deviating even a little, most of that evaporates pretty fast anyhow. I still get very uncomfortable with the rampant misogyny of this culture, but for me it’s almost like second hand smoke when I’m not deviating much from male norms. I see it, it makes me uncomfortable and wary, but until I deviate it isn’t directly pointed at me. It’s kinda like seeing someone shooting at a target and knowing that you yourself is going to be that target very, very shortly. It is still very disconcerting, it is still very threatening and it still makes me very uncomfortable but the gun is not yet pointed at me and as I remain so early in my transition and under the radar I have the liberty of not being shot at.
I wouldn’t say that’s a privilege because it’s pretty much saying keep myself silenced and conform to something you are not or get shot at but for now I have a bit of freedom to what I get subjected to. It is abundantly clear to me that people target me for what the perceive I am. I get a lot more leeway and enjoy a much greater degree of safety and freedom when I go out being heavily read as male even at the cost of the discomfort that that brings. I know that very soon that ability to be read as male will evaporate and any benefits that have with me will quickly outweigh the discomfort it brings.
I find it interesting how fluid the privileges and oppression I am subject to are when I have a bit of freedom of expressing myself fluidly. I do not believe those nuances are unique to gender fluid people but apply to actively transitioning are pre-transitioning people as well, with a bit greater cost because of dysphoria and greater emphasis in conforming to gender roles just to be read as who you are.
I dunno maybe I’m just rambling. I tend to try to avoid it altogether by not going out much either way. I’m also white and getting steady pay from the military while I’m still in. My experience and perspective on this may be very unique so this might not apply to most people.
[this is a submission written by agnosticbutts]
[do not remove the credit]
3:18 pm • 15 April 2014 • 88 notes
being in relationship with vs ownership of
the way we frame our relationships with other people, with larger movements, etc. really bothers me.
i am beginning to loath the words “my” and “mine” and “our.”
since when did we own “our” friends? “our” class/year? “our” God(s)? etc. like the way we own our socks, our bones, our shit.
why do we feel the need to possess things, to consume them, in order to love them?
i’ve been thinking lot recently about what it means to be in community (haha, i mean really i’ve been thinking/talking about this for two years now), about what it means to be in a partnership, a romantic relationship, a friendly relationship, etc. with each other.
and none of these things, i think, ought to have anything to do with ownership. ‘if you love something, then let it go.’ and even it doesn’t come back, that’s okay because it was never yours, never going to be yours, even if it did.
i think one of the things that really bothers me about this ‘ownership’ is that there really are people who are enslaved, whose lives do not belong to themselves. to me, saying that someone is ‘my’ friend, on some level calls upon the image of a master referring to his slave in the same way s/he refers to his horse.
i don’t know. maybe this is just a deficiency in the english language and our words are bound and caged so that the only way we can express our love is to bind and cage others, tie them into ourselves. but, i’d like to think that there is some way(s) around this. i don’t own you, friend. i don’t own you, love. i don’t own things that are living, are breathing, have agency, can create without me. i love you enough to not try to possess you. i love you enough that i do not want to to consume you, because everything we consume becomes shit. and you are too beautiful, too alive, too singular for me to even begin thinking i could possibly make you into something as disposable as my socks.
3:45 pm • 14 April 2014 • 7 notes