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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 >>

Finding ways to learn about Cambodia

Kong describes some of her experiences at Smith High School, including her encounters with Cambodians who, unlike her, did not like being Cambodian, and her sense that Cambodian culture was marginalized in the classroom. Kong tried to fill this hole when she could, and at home, her father and other community members made sure Kong knew about Cambodian history and culture.

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:
So as you got a little bit older, and I know that you went to a pretty special high school here in Greensboro. Maybe you could tell us the name, but also tell us a little bit about that experience in high school.
RAN KONG:
I went to Smith High School, which is probably the most diverse high school in Greensboro. And it also has one of the worst reputations in terms of academics. But let's see. High school was pretty fun. But at the same time, I'm Cambodian, you know, like I've always known. I've always known that. And you know, I like being Cambodian. But in high school, I saw Cambodians who didn't like to be Cambodians. And that was something that made me like being Cambodian even more. Just the fact that here's this person who's not being truly true to themselves, that's just lying to themselves. It's kind of like, well why do you want to do that, why? It's not really good to do that. And so I guess it was good that there was that diversity in terms of not only like other Asians there, but also in terms of there being other Cambodians there who weren't exactly like me. And it's your choice, whoever you want to be. It's all good with me. But just the fact that like you know, like their attitudes, it's just different.
BARBARA LAU:
Well, when you say that, when you say they didn't like being Cambodian, how did you know that? Did they do things?
RAN KONG:
Well, I mean they would say that they're not Cambodian. And they would dress and act differently, and not associate with us.
BARBARA LAU:
What would they say they were?
RAN KONG:
Blacks, or Vietnamese, or just plain American. I'm American. I was born here. Sure you were—
BARBARA LAU:
Were there a lot of other kids that were like you, who were proud of being Cambodian?
RAN KONG:
Definitely. I think the majority of us were just like, we're Cambodians, hello. We know where we're from. Like Vandy and I are close friends, and we went through high school together. And so we were always the ones that were together. We were always the ones that were like, okay, International Day, Cambodia is going to dance. So we'd get up there, organize all the kids and do a dance. And it'd be good. But at the same time, there would be people who'd be like, well, why are you so adamant about doing this? It's really not all that important. But at the same time, they don't care about it.
BARBARA LAU:
You mentioned International Day. What other ways do you think Smith High School helped you kind of figure out, you know, where you were and where you stood? What were the teachers like?
RAN KONG:
It's kind of hard in a school setting to really do that. In school, I went to classes, I just did what I needed to do in class or whatever. We didn't really ever talk about it. But I remember in history class, we'd talk about you know, the Indian civilization and all these other great civilizations. And I'm like, wow, well, I wish we could mention the Ankor Civilization, because you know, I can relate to that. I know a little bit about that. But you know, Cambodia is not really important, so, you know, skip. We didn't really hit on that much. And then just in terms of whenever we had an intro to all the religions, , and then you know, Buddhism comes up. And, I know about that. But then we'd spend ten minutes on it. So it was just kind of like this is the teacher's agenda, you know. Cambodia or Asian history is not on the agenda. It's all American history, which is understandable. We're here in America so that's what you're taught in high school.
BARBARA LAU:
Do you think there were other kids who weren't Cambodian but weren't also Americans that felt the same way you did, that they didn't see themselves much?
RAN KONG:
Definitely. All the other Southeast Asian refugee students who were there, definitely. I guess like the Vietnamese people feel like they get a little bit more simply because of the Vietnam War and stuff. But then again, it's negative attention. Do you know what I mean? And then, when we talk about communism and Karl Marx and stuff, like brief mention of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge and stuff. So in a way it was all the attention, whenever we get the attention, that we got, is not good. So in a way, I can understand some people who were like, we just want to forget about it. We just don't want to remember it. Whatever they bring up, whatever they remember is not good, so why bring it up at all? So in that aspect, I understand.
BARBARA LAU:
Did you ever mention any of that to your teachers, about being interested in studying more about Asian history or Buddhism or anything like that, or did you just look for that information in other places?
RAN KONG:
I just looked for it in other places. Like whenever we had a paper due, out of all the list of the topics there were to do, I'd be like, I want to do it on the Khmer Rouge. So, I'd do it on the Khmer Rouge. Or pick a country and make a booklet of it or whatever, okay, I'd pick Cambodia. So in a way, I'd always try to combine what the teacher wanted me to do with what I wanted to learn, really, because I want to learn about my country, because I don't get the chance to in a classroom setting. So I'd always take whatever opportunities I could.
BARBARA LAU:
Did some of that learning happen at home? Did your parents try to teach you a little bit about your—
RAN KONG:
Definitely. My father would go on about all of what happened, like the politics and stuff, like with dates and stuff, how he remembered it, and, what happened, and his opinions and his views and stuff. So that was good for me. It sort of gave me a perspective. And it gave me the initiative to find out more. Because I was like, wow, this is really unclear for me and for him, so, you know, like look it up, see what really happened. How do Americans view what happened, you know? So you open up the text, the encyclopedia or whatever, and you read up on this brief little caption about the Khmer Rouge, and you're just like, wow, it leaves out a lot of stuff.
BARBARA LAU:
Were there other places that you learned a little bit more about where you came from?
RAN KONG:
Cambodian community. The old people would always talk about it. Somehow or another, conversations would just turn to that, or some incident or some remark would just pop up into somebody's head, and then they would mention it. And sometimes, it's funny how you can sit back now and you can find humor in like during all these times, just the fact that somebody was hiding in, you know, find out they were hiding in a pile of crap or whatever. And so then it was scary, but now it's kind of funny what you did. But definitely like hearing the old people talk about it.
BARBARA LAU:
Well, tell me what kind of stories they told you. Can you remember any of the things they told you?
RAN KONG:
From my parents it was always like you know, just like in a way it was always like different, like the experience. Like this is what happened in Kao-I-Dang [refugee camp]. This is where we lived, this is what your dad did. And when your sister was born, this is what happened. We were making our way to Thailand, you know, on foot, this is what happened. This is what I saw. This is what your grandmother said. And never actually really what happened with the Khmer Rouge besides like, they wanted to send me here. They told me that I had to marry between these two people, I had to pick somebody, so I picked your mom. You know, stories like that. And with the other Cambodians in the community, whenever they talked, it was always about a bad experience. Like what one of the Khmer Rouge people said to them, or how their families were separated and they didn't end up together again until this time, or again, what happened in Kao-I-Dang or when one of their kids was born.
BARBARA LAU:
So people do talk about that, they think it's important for young people here to know more about the history?
RAN KONG:
I think it's up to their parents. I think for some parents, they definitely want to put it behind them, and so they don't mention it as much. But there are other parents who are like, you know, I really want for my kids to know.