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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 >>

Embracing Cambodian cultural identity in a majority-white setting

Kong went to Salem College, and there, because so few people in the area knew anything about Cambodia, found that she had to learn a great deal more about her home country so she could explain herself. There, in a majority-white environment, where pressure to assimilate may have been stronger than at any point in her life, Kong embraced her Cambodian heritage. She remembers trying to explain this conviction, weeping, to a white friend.

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:
And so as you're going to college and you're now starting to, again, being in the company, living away from home, of even more non-Cambodians, how does that make you feel? Do you feel like you have to figure out who you are now because you're away from those people, or what kind of things happen to you?
RAN KONG:
I think, well, you have to know Salem. Salem is very small. And I am one of two Cambodians there. And the school itself is not very diverse. It's pretty diverse for a school like it's size. But at the same time you walk into Salem, and automatically, you're a minority. And just the fact that I'm around all of these other ladies who are Americans. And they can trace their family back to wherever. And they know exactly, where they're from. But, then they ask me, where are you from? Well, I'm from Cambodia. Oh, where's that at? Oh, it's this little country in Southeast Asia. Where's that at? Well, it's in Asia. So in a way it made me force myself to discover who it was I really am— who I really am. Because in order to answer other people, you have to know what the answer is yourself first. And so just in terms of little questions, like where is Cambodia, and stuff like that, you can give them a quick answer. But at the same time, I don't know—it's really hard to explain. Like I said, when bad things happen, that's when you understand. So like I told you the incident before, it didn't really hit home until then, you know?
BARBARA LAU:
Would you mind telling that story again, or is that too hard?
RAN KONG:
I can tell it again. Well, first of all, in the dorm that I lived in, one end of the hall was majority White, and my end of the hall was a little bit more diverse. My next-door neighbor was— one was part Honduras and the other one was African-American. And then in my room, I was Cambodian, my roommate is Ethiopian. And then across the hall there is an Indian, one of my Indian friends, and she had a White roommate. And then two doors down, there's other Americans. And then down the other end of the hall it was basically all White. And so I think too that it wasn't supposed to be that way, but just because we were all living at this end of the hall, we were all closer together, we'd all see each other more so we'd all hang out more, whereas that end of the hall, that was like the same kind of story. So it wasn't that we didn't get along, that we hated each other, but at the same time, it wasn't everybody knew each other very well. And so particularly on my end of the hall, I have an American friend. And she's a great person, but she's very different from me. I had one friend who was very open to everything that I said and I told her. And for my other friends who lived nearby, my Indian friend and my Ethiopian roommate, we had this commonality. What we had in common was that we were different. We knew we didn't come from here, our families were very different. We had a different religion. And so when we all got together sometimes our conversations would be like, oh, okay, this is what we think of America. Well, this is what America thinks of our country. And this is our religion. This is how other people view our religion. So it was always, I think conversations like that that really helped me like understand, and try to explain to others like what it was. But this one friend of mine— and we're still friends now, we see each other all the time— what the whole like gist of the conversation at first was we feel that some Cambodians or Indians or whatever nowadays feel that they have to become Americanized in order to assimilate totally into the culture. And we don't agree with that. You know, true, we all make our own choices of what we want to do with our lives, and who we want to be. But at the same time, it's really sad that you want to totally drop away everything. Because it all comes down to your looks. And as superficial as that sounds, people are not going to judge you by your personality or by who you are first and foremost. They're going to judge you by what they see first. And when they see that you're different, they're going to treat you automatically different. So the whole point was that we can't ever be American. Well, even those people who think that they're totally American, they're not totally American. They're always going to carry this part of themselves around that's going to say that they're not totally American. And there's more—I know there's more to being American than just looking like one or whatever. But at the same time, it's just different. And so all of a sudden, my friend who was there, she took it the wrong way. She took it to mean that Americans are bad, that we were saying that we're too good to be Americans, I think was the way that she took it, which is totally not what I'm saying. The whole point is, why do you want to be something that you're not? That was our whole point. Because then it leads to conflicts within the family, or it leads to conflicts within the community. All these kids who come and they try to assimilate and try to like totally forget who they are, all it leads to is problems for themselves, for their parents, you know, for their whole community. And it's just really sad. And she gets up and she's like, I don't know what's so different or, you know, what's so bad about me and about all those other girls down the hall. What it is that you have against us. What is it that's so bad, why do you like not like us? What makes me different from my Indian friend or my Ethiopian friend? And I just got so upset. And she started to leave, and I could see that she was really mad. And I was crying at this point. I went up to her and I was like, wait a minute, you don't understand. You don't know what you're saying. It's not the point that we don't like Americans or whatever. It's the point that you know, what if you went to another country? Say, what if you came to Cambodia? And you would take Christmas with you over there, simply because it's such an important part of you. You would take Christmas over there, right? But how would you feel if you know, your kids didn't like to celebrate it? Or how would you feel if all of a sudden Christmas was identified with Cambodian people. There were American kids saying we're celebrating Christmas, but we're Cambodians? It's not—I know I'm associating like Christmas with being American, but at the same time, culturally it's very important here. I know it's important for all Christians in general. But at the same time you wouldn't want that to happen, would you? How would you feel if that happened? Because that's what's happening now. We have Cambodian kids who are going around saying, we're Americans. And they're carrying with them things that are very Cambodian, and, I guess like diffusing it with American thoughts and ideals. And it's not totally Cambodian anymore. We feel like we're losing what's important to us, and what we want to keep, what's unique to us. Because we don't have much. We don't, we really don't, you know. This isn't even our real home. And so after that, I think she really understood. And I think that was really at that point, where it was very important for me that I remained Cambodian.