I was born March 29, 1984 in San Francisco, California before I knew anything about that city my parents moved to Tacoma, Washington. I have been residing here for 33 years now. Growing up in the most urban part of Tacoma was a very complex upbringing for me. I was taught that education and a job is a priority in my family. It taught me a sense of responsibility. My mother would always emphasize to me that she fled our country to start a new life and that we have to take advantage of what this new country has to offer to us and become successful.
Throughout my elementary and half of my middle school years I earned good grades and stayed out of trouble. My mother was a very strict woman and disciplined me when need be because she was a single parent and had to raise me on her own. She made it her duty to teach me the significance of our cultural customs, traditions, morals, and values.
At the time I was not interested in learning these traits because I was more infatuated with the urban lifestyle. But, because I have a high level of respect for my parents, I listened. Or at least I made them think I was listening. My parents, however, were relentless and they repeatedly kept on teaching and instructing me about my culture until it sunk in. I was going through a phase in my life where I rebelled against my mom and started skipping school and hanging out with friends and getting into trouble with the law. I use to think to myself: “Why would they waste their time teaching me our Khmer ways? They came to America to start a new life and how am I suppose to adapt to the American lifestyle?”
I was confused growing up because I saw kids of different ethnicities act or portray an image similar to another race—so I didn’t know how to “act Asian.” I have come to the realization that urban living is a very influential culture.
As I got older, I became more curious about my parents’ immigrant past. My mother would indulge me by telling me all these stories about my country and how she escape the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge regime. I use to think that I had a hard life but when my mother would talk about her trials and tribulations living in a third world country, my life seemed luxurious. It was pointless to try and complain to my mother about having no food to eat or even gripe to her about not having nice things, because growing up in the projects compared to living in a village in Cambodia is good living. She always taught me to make the best out of a bad situation no matter the circumstances were in.
I began to get more involved in my culture and it became natural. When I was in the presence of my family I was well mannered and respectful, but when I was around my friends I was the thug I wanted to be. I embraced a double life and familiarized myself with being able to switch as needed.
I cultivated my future aspirations and goals around the teachings of my parents to pass down the legacy of my people to my children. For centuries, my great ancestors laid the path down for our generation to pass onto the youngsters. I believe that my ancestors paved the way for our parents to elude the genocide and communist war in the 1970s during the reign of the dictator Pol Pot so our children’s children could be born in America to live a peaceful and prosperous life.
I take pride in my culture and even though I’m considered to be second generation due to the fact that I was born in the United States I still feel that the motherland is my first home even though I probably wouldn’t be accepted by my people if I ever visited or decided to live in Cambodia because I’m an American.
While I have been incarcerated, I spend my spare time learning and teaching my culture and customs to younger brothers that pass through these prison walls. I made it an obligation to not let the existence of my traditions be extinct by consistently instilling our Khmer ways onto future generations. My hope is that one day, they can glance back and say, “My mission as a Khmer man is complete.” I made a vow to commit to continue to mirror the beauty that my culture reflects and never give up on family. Although, I may be American-raised, I will never forget who I am and where my history, past, and bloodline is derived from. This is something more tangible to me than money, cars, and clothes, because culture gives us a sense of direction and humanity. We as a collective need to continue to fight for what is rightfully ours and journey into a path of righteousness.
I sometimes ask myself: “What does it mean to be an Asian American?” I’ve come to realize that, for me, the answer is very simple—it means to always love your family, have strong core values, practice our native tongue, be proud of my culture, and become a leader in my community by empowering my people.
It’s important to promote diversity and positivity in a society where it is easy to oppress the minority when ignorance is bliss. For years, our people have been subjected to stereotypes that continues to oppress us. Disaggregated data disproves the model minority myth and shows that Asian Americans are still the targets of racial inequality and institutional discrimination.
Since, I have been at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, I have been pushing to get a cultural group started here, which needs to be approved by the prison administration. I am still striving to set the foundation down for my brothers that are in the process of figuring out their own identities. This is something that I am very passionate about because I was the kid who at one point did not know how to “be Asian.” It’s important that we preserve our Asian culture, customs, morals, and values. I’d like to be the bridge that connects the next generation to their culture, so that they have a platform to express their culture without being ridiculed or judged. As long as we never allow ourselves to fall victim to racial injustice or become the victimizer ourselves, we will never be degraded.
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Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together (F.I.G.H.T.) was started by a group of Asian & Pacific Islander (API) men who were at one time incarcerated in the Washington state prison system. F.I.G.H.T. is a direct outgrowth of the organizing that many of us did through different API groups in different prisons. This organizing built deep bonds of unity among us. Together we learned about our own diverse cultures and political histories, life experiences, and perspectives. We also created cultural celebrations featuring various forms of traditional arts, like language, music, and dance.
Upon being released, we stayed committed to continuing to support each other, whether inside or outside of the prison system. We support both current and formerly incarcerated APIs through mentoring, advocacy, outreach, and political education. We encourage each other to embrace positivity, compassion, strength, hope, confidence, and building healthy lives and healthy communities, while breaking the cycle of mass incarceration. For more information, visit www.fightwa.org.