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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ran Kong, November 25, 2000. Interview K-0269. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A Cambodian family finds a place in American culture, but holds fast to their heritage

Kong's earliest memories of the United States are not of the Cambodians in her immigrant community, but of the white Americans who welcomed her and her family. Her parents appreciated the gesture, but reminded Kong of her national identity, telling her that she was Cambodian, not American, and speaking Khmer in their home. In this way, Kong's family seemed to balance assimilation with attachment to their cultural identity.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ran Kong, November 25, 2000. Interview K-0269. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

BARBARA LAU:
Do you remember whether people were sort of nice to you or welcoming to you, Cambodians and non-Cambodians?
RAN KONG:
I think in general they were. It's kind of weird, though, because my earliest memories of when I lived in that apartment complex were not of American— I mean, not of Cambodians, really. They just sort of came and went. But I guess, Americans, I remember more about my experiences with Americans, particularly with my sponsors Mark and Stephanie Foster. And I just always remembered that they would come over and visit and bring things, or they'd come and take me and my sister, and my cousins family who later came, over to their house to spend the day with them or to you know, take us trick or treating on Halloween, and take us over to their house for Christmas. And so I think my earliest memories are of those happy times with them.
BARBARA LAU:
So they taught you a little bit about what was American as opposed to what was Cambodian.
RAN KONG:
Yes.
BARBARA LAU:
Was that a problem in your family? Did your parents have any problems, say, with you going to their house for Christmas when you were little?
RAN KONG:
No. I don't think they had, you know, a problem with that. I think it was nice that here we were, and was this nice American couple who is trying to help us adjust to what goes on around here. You know, sort of like, Christmas, you know, what is that? And just the fact that they came over and invited us to have dinner with them. And you know, we got to see the tree, and they had presents for us and stuff. I think that was just very nice, coming from what you know, they had just come from over in the refugee camps to this, you know, it was sort of like a nice little introduction to America.
BARBARA LAU:
Was there any pressure, do you think, on you to become more American when you were a really little kid?
RAN KONG:
I guess at that age, you don't really know who you are. I would say my name is Ran and, you know, but I think I've told you before that my impression of Cambodia was that it was on Mars. And so I don't really— you know, it's kind of silly how, you know, when I think back to how when I was little, I used to think that my country was on a whole other planet. That's how different I knew that I was. Just the fact that I don't look like anybody here, and I know that I'm not from here. But then again, who am I really, and why am I really here? And so it's just kind of funny how when you don't know you don't feel pressured to be anything at all. And when you're small, I guess nothing really matters except, having fun, and being happy. So there's not really any pressure to be really Cambodian or to be really American. But early on, I do remember my parents always saying, you're not—we're Cambodian, we're Cambodian. We're not American. Remember that.
BARBARA LAU:
So did they, for example, want you to learn English, or did you— because you were younger than school age then.
RAN KONG:
Yes.
BARBARA LAU:
Did you stay home for a little while and that kind of thing, or did you go right to school?
RAN KONG:
I think I went right to school. I think— yes, except for my brother who was about two years old at that time. I was five when school started, so they put me into kindergarten. But you know, my father was like, well, we're living in America, obviously, we have to learn English. So he never really said, go to school, but don't try to learn, or anything like that. It was always, go to school, learn what you can— keep talking?
BARBARA LAU:
Yes.
RAN KONG:
Go to school, learn what you can, because we're here. And I guess my father is a person who values education very much. And so to him it was always, no matter what kind of an education you got or where you got it from, the more knowledge you have, the better. And so there was never really any pressure from my parents' part to say, don't learn English in school or whatever, because when we came home, we had to speak in Khmer anyways.
BARBARA LAU:
So nobody spoke English in your house. Is that in part because of your grandmother?
RAN KONG:
Yes. And also in part because my mom didn't know English then. And my father's grasp on English wasn't a lot either. He wasn't, at that point, very fluent in it. But now, we speak English in the house to our parents. And they'll understand, and they'll respond in Khmer, and then tell us, to shut up, speak in Khmer.