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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 daughter serves as translator for her Cambodian family, then her community

As Kong grew older, she took on more and more responsibility as a family translator, reading mail to her father, and even helping her sister through a pregnancy. Eventually, Kong was helping her family navigate household finances, like paying bills or figuring out the details of insurance plans. Eventually, she became a translator for her wider community, accompanying Cambodians to doctor's visits and gaining valuable exposure to the outside community.

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:
How old were you when you got to be really proficient in English?
RAN KONG:
After second grade they said that I didn't need English as a Second Language classes anymore, so they sent me to third grade at another school that didn't have that program. So by that time I'd picked up the language easily enough to like speak it fluently.
BARBARA LAU:
So having proficiency in English, did that change your relationships in your family as you got older?
RAN KONG:
Yes. I guess like as I got older and I spoke it more fluently, and combined with like my personality, like I talk to much, and I'm not as shy as the other members of my family were in terms of like my sister and my cousin. Even though they were older than me, I would always be the one that my father would say, okay, translate for me, okay, speak for me. And so as I got older I took on more of the responsibilities of translating and interpreting, taking people to, taking my family members to the doctor. So I picked that up more and more as I got older.
BARBARA LAU:
Tell me what kind of jobs you did as the translator. Was it just in speaking, or did you also read things, or what kind of things did you do for your family in that role?
RAN KONG:
At first it was just speaking. At first it was just, well, my mom goes to the doctor and I translate. Like I remember it was third grade, my cousin who was pregnant, you know, this was her first kid. She went into labor, and later on, my sponsors and everyone else told me it was me, the one that like translated in the hospital. I wasn't in the delivery room, but you know, just like the preliminaries, they said it was me. And they were, you did a good job. But I don't remember that incident at all. But my father didn't trust me, when I was younger, to sort of read letters or anything yet. So at first it was just speaking to my sponsors or speaking to whoever— whichever American had called him, was on the phone. Or you know, talking— like translating between my teacher, telling my dad what my teacher was saying about my progress in school and stuff, which is not a bad thing. And, just—at first just speaking. But then later on when I could, you know, also read better, my parents stopped going to our neighbor, our Cambodian neighbor who could read and speak English. They stopped going to him, and, coming to me for like little matters, just like, you know, what is this saying, what is that saying. And I think my first big job was when we bought the house that we live in now, just sort of, helping out with my parents and with my dad's friend, who was the one that we had been going to for, you know, questions concerning like what does this letter say, and stuff like— so just like helping with that process.
BARBARA LAU:
How old were you when that was?
RAN KONG:
That was after fourth grade.
BARBARA LAU:
So you would have been 10?
RAN KONG:
Yes. 9 or 10.
BARBARA LAU:
Did you write letters or write checks or pay bills or do any of that kind of stuff for your parents?
RAN KONG:
That didn't come until later on, until probably middle school.
BARBARA LAU:
So tell me what you were doing then, as you got to be 12 or 13, what kind of jobs did you have then as a translator?
RAN KONG:
You know, more of the going to the hospital thing. I got better at that. And I actually liked it after a while. It was really fun poking around in the doctor's office, seeing what he had. And at 12 and 13, paying for the bills. Like my mom, in Cambodian culture, the wife is the one who takes care of like the bills and handles the money. The husband is the one that works. So my mom was the one who picked up the responsibility. I think when we first came it was my father and her, but then after a while my dad was just like, okay you can handle it now. You know, Ran can help you and Yi can help you. And so she would get the bills. And she'd be like, okay, what day do we pay this, so that it won't be late? And I'd be like, okay, well we can pay these two bills first, and we can pay these two bills later on in the week. And so just helping her with that and you know, writing out the checks and mailing them off. But you know, my dad was the one who had done that, but later on he was like, okay, she can do it. So you know, my mom and I just did that. And so even now my father doesn't worry about how much money we have in which account or whatever. He just works and puts it there. And my mom is the one that like checks, and she gets the statement from the bank and she calculates. She goes through the checks and like, okay, this is right, this is right, this is right. She always jokingly says, it's just to safeguard against my father, taking money out of the bank and doing something bad with it. Obviously she's joking around. But it's just really important that I do my job because he does his.
BARBARA LAU:
So part of doing that was also teaching you about what your role was supposed to be—
RAN KONG:
Well, now that you put it that way, well, I don't know. I don't think it was ever meant as that way.
BARBARA LAU:
Did you still do translation stuff for your dad? What kind of stuff did you do?
RAN KONG:
Well, I guess like the things got bigger over the years. Pretty soon it was like I could go with my dad and my mom to like buy the car without having another Cambodian translator present. And so it progressed to that point. And you know, also helping out with my cousin's side of the family, determining, you know, this is the car, this is how much it is, this is what the monthly payments are, this is the interest rate, warranties, or buying life insurance or health insurance, sort of like explaining to them what's going on, what these things really are and stuff like that. So I mean, it's all things we need to know anyways.
BARBARA LAU:
So as you got older you also interacted with a lot more people outside the Cambodian community?
RAN KONG:
As I got older I also translated for some people outside of the community, and not just within my family. Just like my mom's friend, you know, whenever she needed somebody to go to the doctor, I'd be like, I'll go, miss school, lots of fun.
BARBARA LAU:
Well, what did you think about the Americans that you came into contact with at that point when you were 12 and 13 and sort of, you know, acting as the translator for your family or for other Cambodians?
RAN KONG:
The Americans that I came into contact with, like the doctors and stuff? I don't know, it was good for me to deal with these people, because I was like, wow, I really want to be like them when I grow up. For the longest time I wanted to be a doctor, when I got older. And so in a way they were like my role models. And like my experiences with them were always good, just in terms of, these people, they're really nice. They're the ones that help get us better. They're the ones that always cure us. And so it was always good. Sometimes they'd come in and they were like, who are you? You know, like what are you doing here? You're kind of young to be in here. Can I ask these questions in front of you? But always before I left, they were always like, I am so glad you were here, because you made things go a lot smoother. So in a way it was, it was good to know that— it felt good to know that I was helping not only like the doctor, but like my family as well.
BARBARA LAU:
But that was pretty different than maybe some of your other friends, not necessarily your Cambodian friends, but other kids in school. They had kind of different jobs in their family, didn't they?
RAN KONG:
In a way, as I got older, sometimes I would get frustrated because I'm reading this letter, and I'm like, well what the hell is a premium rate? What is a premium? I mean, what is that? And then you call up the people, the customer line, right? And so customer service, and you know. So you're like, What is the premium rate? And sometimes they talk to you as if you should know this. And they're, like, well let me speak to your parents. My parents can't speak English. Well, I need to speak to another adult. Well, there's no other adult that can understand this, and so you need to say it to me. And then sometimes they get exasperated with you because you're speaking, and then you're like, okay wait a minute, I need to tell that to my parents. And then you'd stop for five minutes and tell your parents. And then you come back and you're like okay, I have another question. And so basically, I guess that's the worst part about having this type of responsibility, is that you know, dealing with people who just don't understand, like who were just never really exposed to like oh, this could be happening. There's a kid in the family that has to actually understand this, and, do you know what I'm saying?