Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
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 immigrant faces discrimination

The presence of other Cambodians at her elementary school helped ease Kong's anxiety about her identity, but she still encountered discrimination. White kids called her "chink," though thankfully she did not know what the word meant until much later. When she did, and she heard the slur used, it hurt her a great deal.

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:
Well, when you first started going to school, did you feel really different than the other kids? And how did teachers and other people that were around you, did they help that, make it worse, or what was that experience like?
RAN KONG:
I think it helped a lot that I went to a school that had other Cambodians in it. My elementary school was Caesar Cone Elementary School. And I think that at that point that was the only elementary school in Greensboro that was offering English as a second language. And so I wasn't the only Asian there. And my sister and my cousin also went there, and a couple of other Cambodian kids who I knew from the community. So in a sense, I didn't feel totally different, but at the same time, we were going to ESL classes with our teachers. And you know, so I knew that we weren't exactly, you know, like other American kids who were just staying in the classroom, you know, the whole day. We had to go to a special class and learn English.
BARBARA LAU:
You said before that even with the kids in your neighborhood you realized that you looked different. Did kids tease you?
RAN KONG:
Well, yeah. You know, I think the most common phrase that I heard thrown at me when I was little was "Chink." So I don' t know, I don't look very Chinese to me, but I guess you know, what kids pick up from their parents or what kids pick up from the media, that's all they can use against you.
BARBARA LAU:
Were there people in your school that kind of tried to counteract that, or did you feel like some of the teachers felt like you were really different too?
RAN KONG:
Well, I don't think I really knew what that word meant back then. You know, it wasn't really until fifth grade when one of my friends actually called me that name again, that I really understood that it was derogatory, and I knew that it wasn't nice to call somebody that. You can sort of like sense that and pick that up. But I didn't really know what that meant, until fifth grade. So, you know, kindergarten, first, second grade, whoever, you know, like whatever. Nothing really matters. You know, we're all on the playground, we all play together. It doesn't really matter.
BARBARA LAU:
So what happened in fifth grade? Can you describe that experience?
RAN KONG:
Well, I'm going to leave out the person's name. Actually, I still remember him to this day, and my fifth grade teacher, I loved her, actually, Mrs. Knight. And I was sort of teacher's pet. And so everybody in the class was like, she's teacher's pet, you know, like don't mess with her, type of thing. And so I was outside and my teacher had said, go out and take the erasers from the chalkboard, and bang them against the wall of the building and get all the chalk out and stuff. And so of course, I always volunteered to do this. And so I went outside and I was just banging away, chalk dust flying everywhere. And the guy comes out. He was actually one of my friends. And he was like, Chink, hey Chink, what's up? You know, just, Chink, Ran is a Chink. And that just really upset me that, like this guy who I considered one of my friends was calling me this name. And I actually hadn't heard it in a while. I developed this like image of myself that I'm teacher's pet so nobody should mess with me. And so of course, like it upset me to the point that I burst out crying. And I went inside, back into the classroom. And the teacher was like, what's wrong, Ran? And I was like, this person's name, was calling me Chink. And the bell rang, and we all got into a line, leaving the school building. And it's funny because Mrs. Knight grabs, one of those little pads from her desk and goes, you know, person's name, you don't go around— you know, that's not very nice. You shouldn't say that to Ran. And this is what you're going to have to do. So she wrote down on her pad, I will not call Ran a Chink anymore. You have to write this down 500 times and turn it in to me tomorrow. So that was his form of punishment for calling me that. But I guess it was just kind of funny, because later on he did come up and apologize. And I guess I've seen him in high school, and I think later on he dropped out. But he still remembered me, and I still remembered him. And I think we both remembered that incident very well.
BARBARA LAU:
What do you think you and he learned from that incident?
RAN KONG:
I think I learned that, it's really horrible, but when somebody makes a comment like that to you, it does hurt no matter how much you try to bar yourself against saying that it doesn't hurt and even in fifth grade, I don't think I really knew like the full extent. I just knew that it was bad and I didn't want to be called that. And so I guess I learned too that sometimes like— I guess like after he was punished, I guess I felt like a little bit happier that he was punished, but at the same time, it wasn't like completely, he deserved it, you know. I don't know. I think I wish that it had never happened at all, like that incident had never happened at all, because it's just something that I remember very clearly from fifth grade. And to him, I don't know. I hope he learned a lot more than just to never mess with a teacher's pet, I guess. So, I don't know.