I’ve been in Cambodia for almost eight months now, and still whenever a Khmer person asks me about my background, my stomach drops and I think to myself “oh boy, here we go again…” I’ve been putting off writing this post for some time now, mainly because the emotions behind this are too impalpable to put into words, and I didn’t want to reduce them to a mere blog post. But this is something that’s a constant thorn in my everyday life, and I think I might feel a little better if I just address it openly.
Whenever I talk to other volunteers about being a foreigner in Cambodia, I listen to their stories and I think to myself how I would give anything to go through that than this. I often wonder what my experience would be like if I looked like the Khmer preconceived notion of an “American”, but then I ask myself, would that really affect my life and my work here? Would I truly be happier? We were told when we first got here, that the Khmer people really take an interest in “barangs”, but nobody ever warned me that being Asian-American in Cambodia would be like this, that it would be so difficult.
Most of the time, it starts with an innocent question or statement along the lines of: “You look Khmer.” ”What is your nationality?” “Where do you come from?” I can usually handle these, because I know they’re just asking cause they’re curious. I forgive their bluntness, and I’m more than happy to answer their questions. And in the end, I feel a sense of accomplishment that I was able to teach someone about the diversity that makes America so great. But sometimes, I get broken down by the uncouth person who’s convinced I’m not American because I don’t look like the “American” people he sees on TV. I try to explain as calmly as I can, and I use all of the vocabulary I know, but most of these conversations end in me being called a liar, and I go home feeling defeated, angry, insulted, and embarrassed. It makes me hate this place when I want to love it so much.
It sucks, it hurts, and it’s a struggle to stay calm in these circumstances. And much to my chagrin, on more than one occasion, I’ve been so broken down I lock myself in my room and feel ugly and ashamed for being Asian-American. How fucked up is that? I hate it, but I hate myself even more for feeling this way. It’s tough to stand there and listen to someone call me a liar and undermine my work and not be able to say anything back. Cause I’m supposed to be the “nice” one in this cultural exchange.
The other day, I was walking through the market with another volunteer when a lady stopped us to chitchat, after a couple minutes she looks at me and says “Where are you from? You look Khmer”. And after I gave her my spiel on how I’m Asian-American she looked at me and said “I don’t believe you. Your eyes are small, and your skin is dark. I think maybe you are not American.” My usual response to someone saying this is to put on my best fake smile and walk away, which is what I did. My friend could tell that I was bothered by what the lady said and after we were out of the market she turned to me and asked “Are you going to be ok?” And I responded with “Yeah, I deal with this shit all the time”. But truthfully, for the next year and a half, I’ll HAVE to be ok, no matter how much it hurts.