Being an Asian American in Southeast Asia

Lort Cha

Lort Cha — from the street

I’ve decided to dedicate a place on my blog where I write out my thoughts on living in Southeast Asia as an Asian American. One of the reasons I was drawn to the Davidson in East Asia Program was the chance to “go back” to Asia. If you don’t count the first year of my life, these two months in Cambodia will be the first time I’ll be in a country where I physically resemble the majority of the people around me.

Being a part of a transracial adoptee family makes me question my Asian identity a lot. After a month living in Cambodia, my identity crisis has only gotten more complicated. The majority of Cambodians I’ve met are super friendly and chatty. They love to strike up conversations with expats and most of the times they lead with the question, “Where are you from?” While Asians are perceived as the forever foreigner in the US, it didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t be seen as an American tourist here in Cambodia. This was how my first conversation with a waiter went:

– “So where are you from?”
-“I’m from United States.”
-“Really? … But your face is Asian.”
-“Well I live and grew up in the United States.”
-“You look Asian though.”
– “Yes, I am Chinese but I’m from the United States”
-“Oh so your parents are Chinese.”
-“Um, not really. It’s kind of confusing. My parents are also from the United States, but I’m adopted from China.”

At that point I realized the waiter didn’t understand the word “adopted” in English.

The conversation was harmless, but going through variations of this with nearly every Cambodian I talk to has left me get tired of trying to explain where I’m from I why I look the way I do.

One time, I made the mistake of answering with, “I am Chinese and live in America.” The people who asked me where I was from then tried to start a conversation with me in Mandarin, and I had to backtrack and explain I didn’t actually speak Chinese and had no idea what they were saying.

I’ve also had my first experiences with light-skin Asian bias. Usually when I’m complimented on my skin tone, it’s because people are impressed by my tan. For a Chinese person, I’ve been told I have darker skin. In Cambodia, however, I have received multiple compliments on my light skin color. When talking about my skin tone, a few people have asked if I’m half Cambodian and half white.

While many of these conversations have left me a bit uncomfortable, being an Asian American traveler in Southeast Asia has also be amusing. For one, I’ve found that the majority of white, western tourists tend to assume I am Cambodia. I try my best to speak Khmer when I’m ordering food. So when I start some small talk with the other tourists around me, they seem surprised with how well I speak English. It is definitely a bit of a microaggression on their part, but honestly I enjoy watching the impressed looks they get on their faces when I talk to them in “really good English.”

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Liberty Asia

Cambodian showing silk process.

Silk Island, a short tuk tuk and ferry ride away from the center of the city,

I’m excited by the work I’ve been doing for Liberty Asia. My internship has been a useful introduction to the anti-trafficking sector and is a good balance of my data science and social science backgrounds. Most the projects I am working on are on the data-side of the Victim Case Management System, but with the ultimate goal of helping NGO partners.

Currently, the Victim Case Management System is the largest data set in Asia. While the VCMS offers support to frontline NGOs in their work caring for victims of trafficking and exploitation, there are also challenges in the current data collection culture. More than just entering case information into the system, we want our partners to engage with their data and be involved in conversations of data collection. Next week I will visiting one of our local partners, Legal Support for Women and Children, to help with training.

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First days in Phnom Penh

I’ve spent the past couple of days exploring Phnom Penh and getting a feel for the city. Last night I enjoyed a mango smoothie (it’s almost the end of mango season here, so I’m trying to take advantage of any and all mango opportunities I have left) and wandered around the northern part of PP. While I have gotten lost on multiple occasions, this method of sight-seeing led me to a Buddhist temple (Wat Langka) and Independence Monument.

On my first day, I decided to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the largest torture and detention center–known as Security Prison (S-21)–under the Khmer Rouge. The museum is breathtaking and documents both the horrors and the resilience of Cambodia. What tied up the whole experience was meeting Bou Meng, one of the only seven survivors of S-21. Meng lived due to his skills as an artist: The guards thought Meng’s portraits of Pol Pot made him look handsome, Hannah Aronson in Cambodiaso they kept Meng alive to paint for them. According to prison records, Meng’s wife was tortured at S-21 and killed. Now in his late 70s, Bou Meng dedicates his life to sharing his story.

It is now my third day in Phnom Penh and I am already starting to grow accustomed to the city’s pace. I learned early on that this is not the most walkable city–the tuk tuk and moto drivers are fearless, zipping by and beeping at you from only a few inches away. Here is a video clip of my tuk tuk ride to work.

Yesterday was my first visit to the office, and apparently last. The lease on the office is up and we’ve decided to mooch off of the free wifi in local coffee shops. On Monday, I will be visiting one of Liberty Asia’s partners to help with training on the Victim Case Management System (VCMS), and this weekend I hope to tour Choeung Ek, the site of the Killing Fields. I look forward to my upcoming adventures!

Originally posted on