SEASON 3 is FINALLY HERE!
I’m starting off the season with a topic very close to my heart: growing up as a child of refugee immigrant parents. My friend, Saroeun, and I will be sharing our personal struggles growing up as first-born children of immigrant parents who moved because they didn’t have a choice - from overcoming barriers with the English language to helping our parents translate in day-to-day situations to guiding our younger siblings to a better life as Southeast Asian Americans. I hope that this 2-episode special will help people understand better where we’re coming from and why today’s immigration issue should hit close to everyone’s heart. Here is part 1. Look forward to next week for part 2!
Saroeun Moungyiv is a 1st generation Cambodian American. She has a cosmetology license and is a nail technician at her mother's shop. Her ambition is simply to help her parents' dream of becoming business owners come true and hope to have people understand the value of true happiness in themselves and in life.
TRANSCRIBED BY IVY HANG
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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NGUYEN: Hi! Welcome to Project Voice! It is season three and I’m so excited to start off the season with my guest, Saroeun. And it’s—honestly, we just finished a run-through of what we’re gonna be talking about today and... At first I thought, she might have thought it was a recording, like we were recording, but we weren’t. (LAUGHS) And I wanted to make sure that she knew that we weren’t ‘cause what she said was, ugh… really struck...me — like really struck my feels— and I’m excited to have this interview, officially. I’m excited to have this officially… out? And yeah! See, I’m like a little bit nervous already because… you know, it’s such a big topic. And well, today we’re gonna be talking about experiencing life as children of refugees. And before we dive in deeper, I’m gonna let Saroeun introduce herself. Hi!
SAROEUN MOUNGYIV, INTERVIEWEE: Hello! I’m Saroeun from Chicago! I’m the oldest of five from a Cambodian American family.
NGUYEN: Yeah, actually, Saroeun is the older sister of a close friend of mine, Rosey. And I interviewed her during last season and you know what? I wanted to interview her older sister, too, because I got this feeling that she would have a lot to say. And I was so right; I was so right about this. And yeah, just because I am curious to know what it’s like growing up as children of refugees, as I am one, too. I wanted to hear someone else’s experience and someone else’s story and also what’s important to keep in mind is that there are so many voices out there in the Asian American community, Asian American women community, because oftentimes, we focus a lot on the voices of East Asian women when you know you don’t hear that much— you don’t hear that many narratives from Southeast Asian women and South Asian women. So, today I wanted to kickstart off with this really important story, this really important narrative that— one of many that you don’t hear so often in media. So yeah! (LAUGHS) So earlier today—earlier tonight, we literally got off work not so long ago; it’s almost ten now and I asked Saroeun what her thoughts were on—on our questions and yeah, I’m curious to know what you thought about the question before we actually review them because that really got you going.
MOUNGYIV: Oh, yes. The question hit home so much that… you never forget it. Like, when you’re growing up as someone that is a child of refugees, your parents don’t let you forget that. You have another heritage, but at the same time, you remember that you’re not the same as everyone else in this country. I may be born here, but sometimes it’s a huge reminder that I’m not fully American, that there is something that I have to remember, to keep being positive, to keep moving on, to survive mainly. And these questions hit home on reminding me that: I think about these questions everyday to myself. From when I was old enough to think for myself, that I—now I’m twenty-eight, and these questions touch my heart so much that I’m willing to do this interview, even if it’s so personal, that I felt like people should hear it more, instead of just assuming that, “Oh, you got lucky to come here.” No. There [are] reasons why I’m here and that—there’s a reason why my parents brought me here. So, I’m excited to start this interview with you. (LAUGHS)
NGUYEN: Yeah, thank you so much. I feel so honored to have you on my podcast, it means a lot. So, first question: what are your and your parents’ background and history? What caused them and you to come here to the US?
MOUNGYIV: Hmm... My parents came here around 1986... 85? From Cambodia. Around that time, the Khmer Rouge was in power and they were losing their land, they were losing their home. And to seek refuge, their family all moved either to Thailand or the Philippines to get here to America. My parents met here in Chicago when my mom came and went to school and my dad was going to college at the time. They met in Chicago and I think two years after they met, they got married. And then, a year after that, they had me. And how our family started, I will never forget hearing about how they met, about the struggles all my aunts and uncles, my grandma, my grandpa, and my parents went through.
NGUYEN: Yeah, oh, so you’re the oldest out of the five children?
MOUNGYIV: Yeah, oldest of five.
NGUYEN: Oh my gosh. Yeah and earlier today, you mentioned how your experience differed from your siblings— your younger siblings and yeah, I wanted to know: what is it like you know, being the child who spearheads what it’s like to grow up as an Asian American, as a Cambodian American?
MOUNGYIV: Okay. Starting from when I was old enough to speak, we only spoke Cambodian in the house and—because our family had very— was very scared that something bad will happen, I was very sheltered. I didn’t realize I was not speaking in the proper language until I went to preschool. And even in preschool it was hard to adapt the fact that I wasn’t speaking English. And the struggle compared to my sister or my younger siblings was: I was the one that had to go to school with no… with no concept of what English is. I literally learned English in school. I was in ESL my whole life. Even to this day, when I had to speak English, I really, really have to think about it. It doesn’t come as quickly as it should because English is truly my second language. Growing up, my parents always kept me in the Cambodian area, Cambodian American area where all the other Cambodians were. And even amongst ourselves, we spoke Cambodian. So when my parents— when my sister, Rosey, was born, our family needed a bigger home, so my dad finally was able to save enough credit to go and get a home. And when I moved from the Cambodian community to a school predominantly of other race and I was the only Cambodian there, things got rough; things got hard for me. I couldn’t keep up with school. I couldn’t understand what everybody was saying. And being bullied, knowing that they’re picking on you, but can’t speak back? Because you can’t communicate with them… hurt a lot. But because I had my younger siblings, I had to pretend school was fine, school was okay. As long as they don’t see me hurt, it’s okay.
MOUNGYIV: And it’s a hard thing when you have to learn English and people take it for granted here. Kids just born here take it for granted; kids that are like third, fourth, fifth generation take it completely for granted. And forever, I will never forget that learning English was the hardest thing I had to do. And the hardest thing my parents decided was to stop speaking Cambodian at home.
MOUNGYIV: To have everybody speak English, to have everybody write English. And I give my parents credit; they worked hard at learning English to the point where now, they don’t—they rarely speak Cambodian at home. Only time they speak Cambodian is when they’re frustrated.
MOUNGYIV: And that gets hard for my siblings. Rosey, my other two siblings that are younger, they speak, but not as properly and well as me and my brother, Simon. So their English and their Cambodian is kind of like… Spanglish? Where people that are Spanish and American; they’re very hard, they mix it all the time.
NGUYEN: I know what you mean. I mean, I didn’t immigrate over here with my parents; I was born here, but I definitely do feel the— I can share the struggles of growing up as the first child of refugee parents where my only teachers were my mom and dad. And well, I remember my dad— he was the one who, you know, was out of the house more, working more while my mom stayed at home—at least where I was much younger, like, from three or four when I could— when I could learn another language or where when she eventually learned another language like, English is still a struggle to me and we did a whole episode on this. I think since season one, episode three and like to this day, like you said, I, too, have to consciously think about what I have to say sometimes. Because Vietnamese is actually my first language? Even though I was born here? I remember, you know, growing up in my household just speaking Vietnamese and learning English and watching television shows and my mom would be the one to teach me English. And of course, she’s obviously— she didn’t have perfect English, she wasn’t completely fluent in English; she herself was also learning the language and for her to teach me English, you know, it was definitely—it was a different experience catching onto that language, versus how my sister caught on with English. And yeah… so it’s like you and me, and Rosey and my sister. With my parents, especially my mom, like, I don’t know— like I tried as best as I could learning from her and it was a struggle sometimes because I didn’t have the formal education— I didn’t— I was surprised that I never really had formal education in school either— I don’t recall having one and so that made it even harder for me to catch on the language, whether it’s me speaking or writing. But my sister—well, she had me, so it was easier for her. She had that support like you said. Like, that opportunity, or that privilege, to be able to lean on someone who’s older, who’d already been through this. And yeah... Also, a little throwback about myself, I was a child of refugees and my parents came over here because of the Vietnam War. And you know, they were forced to come here; it was not a choice for them. Honestly, if they had the choice, they would have probably stayed back in Vietnam. Back then, pre-communist times. So, yeah! It was—it was tough for them too, like—and they also met in Chicago! (LAUGHS)
MOUNGYIV: (LAUGHS) Chicago’s the meeting place!
NGUYEN: It really is. Perfect for, you know, someone who’s been through tough times, someone who can— who’s reliable, hardworking, knows what it’s like, heh.
NGUYEN: Yeah, come here and pursue that American Dream on—not so even ground!
NGUYEN: And yeah! Let’s see. Talking about our parents: I wanted to know what are some decisions that your parents have made that you think are milestones for them? Ever since coming here?
MOUNGYIV: My parents, for their whole life growing up—they were both born right when the Khmer Rouge completely took over. So for them, growing up was about surviving. Every day was can they survive? Would they be able to survive? And I think the one thing my parents wanted from us, as their children, was very simple. They don’t want us to struggle, that’s their main goal. They don’t care what we become when we get older; they don’t care if we become millionaires; they don’t care if we become doctors or anything. Their only hope is that we never ever have to live like them, never have to be hungry, never have to be scared, never have to live day by day just to survive. And even though I did suffer, I always remembered, like my parents always tell me: you’re lucky you’re born in America because you don’t have to suffer; you don’t have to know what starving feels like; you don’t have to know what trying to find clothes feels like. And I am very, very grateful for my parents for that. And I think now, when they first had us, they didn’t have really much of a plan for us. But now, me and my mom—we’re both nail technicians—so my mom just finally got her own shop. She never imagined that being a refugee, you can go back to college and actually pursue what she really wanted: to have an American Dream. And now she does and mainly what she wants is to own a shop… that’s all hers. In the end, even if she’d only have a couple years left to own a shop before she retires, she knows that I will be able to take over that shop and we have a family business and we actually succeeded an American Dream that they never even intended to have. And my parents are strong people; years of sacrifice of thinking that they’ll never be able to go to school; they’ll never have higher education; but now that they do, that’s all they want from us. Like, other parents have dreams of their kids becoming doctors, of their kids becoming much more successful than them. My parents’ dream was the fact that they don’t lose a child. They don’t have their children suffering. That we kids don’t have to live day by day just to survive. But the consequence of that is their reminder to us children is that when you are granted to live in a country where you don’t have to worry about, “Oh, I’m a woman. I won’t make it. I don’t have that much money. Or I can’t get a job; the only job I can get is being married to a rich man.” I don’t have to worry about that. And I am so grateful for my parents for giving me the opportunity. ‘Cause if I was born in Cambodia, I don’t think I would have survived. I’m not as strong as they are; I’m stronger than my siblings; I’m stronger than most Americans; but if I was compared to my mom and my dad, I’m not as strong as them. I don’t think anyone could compare to what they had to struggle through—to have to grow up so fast—they had to... They had to learn how to lie; they had to learn how to steal to survive.
MOUNGYIV: And that’s when they were there. And then coming here, they had to learn a completely foreign language that they have no connection with. If they can’t learn it, and when I was struggling with it, and they couldn’t help me and I had to be my own teacher? And eventually I became my own parents’ teacher; to this day, I still correct my parents’ grammar. Not to make them feel like they’re inferior, but to have them speak so properly that even other Americans would have thought, “Ah, so you actually went to school. You know better English than I do.” I want my parents to be proud enough to say, “Yes, I learned this all by myself. No help. And my daughter is able to be strong, too—to learn English by herself.” I think after—my parents have an education level of fourth grade; so literally, after the fifth grade, I had no help. I learned everything myself. If they can’t help me, okay, let’s see if I can fail that and see if the teacher will teach me. That was how it worked. I learned that if I failed, it’s okay. Because that means that I didn’t understand it to begin with. But once I learned it, I learned that failure is not the end of the world. I can fail a million times in my life. But in the end, I’m still alive. I still have food on the table; I still have clothes on my back; I never had to worry when I was little. I wasn’t given everything I want, but my parents made sure that we never lacked, compared to other kids. We had what we needed and I would say, compared to the struggles of being a refugee kid—of being mocked as a refugee kid, to this day, I would hear, “You know, you should go back to your country.” Or, “Oh, you speak well… you know, you speak well. You speak well for an immigrant.” To hear that everyday is irritating, but I’m okay with it because I had to learn everything. They don’t know my life. Learning everything myself made me stronger, made me stronger, made me feel more proud of myself. So, I don’t have to think negatively, like, “Oh, I couldn’t say that before.” Or, “Oh, no. I failed. It’s the end of the world.” So, whenever I see kids upset that they failed and they don’t know what to do to get back up, there’s no excuse; you can always get back up. No one’s going to judge your own failure. There’s no point of judging it because if you failed, yes— but if you can figure out how to make it up again, you’d never have to worry about that kind of stuff. And I can say that I’m proud to be a child of a refugee because we have this stigma— especially in this country that if you’re a child of a refugee, you have to be embarrassed because you have less than what normal Americans have. But you don’t. You’re much stronger than them because you have to learn a foreign language without your choice at all. And if you can learn it, you’re a lot stronger than most people. And it hits home and it hurts sometimes, but you have to think and talk about: my own struggles to show my weakness, but I’m proud of them because my weakness makes me who I am. It actually made me stronger and having younger siblings, that’s what I care about. People can mock me all they want. People can make fun of me all they want but they can’t do it to my siblings. Not when I’m around. They can’t point at my siblings’ flaws because I will make sure they don’t have the flaw. Their only flaw now, our home, our mother tongue is what they can’t speak, but that’s okay. If I go to Cambodia, I can be illiterate. I may not know how to write it; I may not know how to read it, but I can speak it. And if I can do that, that’s okay. Because I’m not made for that country; I’m made for America. And I bust my butt off to be made for America, to prove to everyone that maybe a melting pot is able to be existing; even though we say it, we all know it’s not true. We’re not a melting pot.
NGUYEN: Mm hmm.
MOUNGYIV: We’re trying to get there. To this day, we’re still trying to get there. It’s 2017; I’ve been hearing about the melting pot since 1994. And I’ve yet to believe it. I hope it’s true; I hope it’s true for my children. I hope it’s true for my sisters’ children. But for me, no. I know that I had to work hard to prove that I am an American. And that also I’m not just an American, I am a child of a refugee. And I’m okay with it. I’m more proud of that than my parents being born here. ‘Cause the struggles, the pain, is a good reminder; my parents’ country suffered, my whole family suffered, but my parents’ country is picking itself back up; to this day, they’re still working on becoming a better country. And I can be proud of that. I mean, nobody really knows where Cambodia is, but that’s okay. Eventually, people will. And that’s my only hope. Whenever people ask, I’m proud to say that I am Cambodian American. I just hope that one day that stigma of just because you’re Asian, you have to be something else; you can’t just be American. I hope that people will just accept the fact that when they ask, “What are you?”—if I say “I’m American… I’m American”. You want to ask my nationality? My nationality is mine, but please, I hope just one day, people will just accept that when I say I’m an American, that’s enough answers for them. That’s all I hope for in this country. I know it’s not my time, but eventually, it will. And I hope that everybody can be proud to be like that.
NGUYEN: Damn... Wow, that was beautiful. Um, yeah, I’m still processing it and wow. I think what you said, especially the last bit how… sacrificing parts of your roots or sacrificing that connection with your parents’ home country in order to feel more American, that’s really a struggle that many of us have to go through. Like, figure out what it means to be American. What does it mean to feel like a true American? Or to feel validated to be one and you know, no one can define what being an American is. It’s really all up to us, to really show what it means because the US is filled with so many different people—but like you said, a melting pot—it doesn’t feel like a melting pot—like you still see racism, you still see prejudice, and microaggressions happening everywhere and not enough dialogues, talking about it and as a child of refugees, I, too, have heard many stories about my parents’ struggles. My dad - he was a boat person and it’s crazy to think about him being on a boat, starving for nine days, lost in the ocean, and you know, with a motor that’s cut off, just not working anymore and him not knowing whether he’s going to survive the next day or not and my mom’s family having to constantly move from one city to another to avoid the bombing[s] that were happening in her area and in her hometown. Seeing dead bodies everywhere while you’re trying to save your own life, ttrying to save your own family and it’s so surreal. Hearing all these stories and you know, not experiencing them in person and then you know, seeing them here making it in the US. And my dad—he came here with little English, he learned how to learn the language on his own. He was fortunate enough to stay at his extended family’s house—like his cousins’ [;ace, while attending college and getting a Bachelor’s degree in computer science is—that was crazy, but working many part-time jobs on the side in order to support himself and seeing him excel after that. Seeing someone who started off not knowing English and then coming here to the US, getting a Bachelor’s degree, and now, you know, being way more successful than many Americans here—who were born here. And I give him a lot of props—like I feel like I can never live up to how he did. Like, I can never compare to him because he’s achieved—that’s really, really hard. And my mom as well. Like, her coming to the US and you know, having to get by with the language and then with her huge family—family of ten, I believe and having to support one another and you know, working jobs where they don’t require you to speak—they don’t require you to communicate much. They have to take these jobs in order to support themselves and for me, it was such a sacrifice. Like now, I’m graduating from college and thinking about how privileged I am to realize how many opportunities I have. I don’t have to feel worried about being starved or—. My parents nag at me for—or my parents always want me to achieve better. They’re actually really gung-ho about me applying to the top level jobs, not a doctor per se, but like, working in corporate and earning a lot of money and it’s really all stemmed from their fear—or their past struggles. Them knowing what it’s like to not have food and shelter and for me, it’s been harder for my head to wrap around.
MOUNGYIV: Mm hmm.
NGUYEN: So, yeah. Moving on to the next question: maybe you have mentioned early, like what were some obstacles that you had to face and that were specifically part of the experience as an Asian American child of a refugee? Struggles experienced outside the home? Struggles experienced inside?
MOUNGYIV: Well, again, being born in America doesn’t matter if you’re—you know—not or… am a child of a refugee. But the main thing was when I’m inside the home, Roey doesn’t have to do it as much as I do but the tradition of how a lady’s supposed to act in our culture was really forced upon me. Like the way I ate was very strict; the way I walked, the way I talked, the way I sat, anything. Whatever I did, I had to do it how a traditional Cambodian girl had to do. And growing up like that is hard, especially with how I am as, my personality as it is, like I’m a very extroverted person and I’m not; my parents call me “free child”. They had to discipline me; they had to make sure that I am grown with respect and that people would see, “Ah! Her parents raised her right.” The obstacle of that: when I’m outside of the house, and when I do bow my head low, and when people are talking or when I’m very quiet because people—guys—are talking or adults are talking, people find it weird that I won’t be running around, I’d be sitting. I’d be well-behaved, I won’t go anywhere unless I’m told, “Okay, go ahead, honey. Go.” Because that’s how I was raised and it was hard because people used to make fun of me whenever I bowed when older people are talking and I had to go through them. I would literally stand there and had to wait or I had to duck down low enough where they can’t see me so I can go through. People thought it was weird, but for me, it was normal; it was my normal life. But also, being a child of a refugee, food is never taken for granted. Even if I don’t want— if I don’t like it, whatever they’ve made, I had no choice; I had to eat it. Or if I can’t finish it, there’s always a reminder: “You know when I was your age? You know what I ate at your age?Porridge! Sometimes nothing. Sometimes I had to go catch bugs or catch frogs to eat.” And that reminder that we take food for so granted. It’s still instilled in me; sometimes, even if I’m full and there’s only a little bit left, I’ll take it home because it’s a reminder that the less privileged will never have that scrap of food. But we throw it out like it’s nothing.
MOUNGYIV: And it was really instilled on me that… ”You’re suffering; you don’t want to eat that because you don’t feel like eating it? Well, too bad! That’s what we made you.” And growing up, if I had a bad day, say I had a fight with a friend or someone’s bullying me, then I’d cry to my parents. “You’re crying over just a bully? Really? Try being told not to cry when you’re running away from people shooting at you.” That reminder like—whenever people talk about their heritage— Jewish, African American —that their great-grandparents struggled, they don’t comprehend it. When I talk about my history, “Oh, it happened a long time ago, why did it matter?” But unlike them, it’s instilled in me. No, it didn’t a long time ago, my parents aren’t that old. It happened to my parents, it happened to my friends. When I grew up and I started meeting kids that were born or older than me that came here. It happened to my cousins that are just five to ten years older than me. They had to struggle through it. They know how it is to be in another country. They knew the struggle of not being able to eat, to have clothes, to have this. And I can’t complain. I don’t get to complain if something bad happened. I can’t. Because in the end, I had it better than what my family had. I’m not the one who had to run away from grenades or shootings or people trying to arrest you to interrogate you. I never had to go through it and I will never go through it. So, anytime I had a bad day, I always think: “I’m alive.” In the end, I’m still here; even when I got into a car accident in December. It was painful, but knowing that I had doctors—I was immediately rushed to a doctor—
NGUYEN: Oh, wow...
MOUNGYIV: —to get checked, that’s something my parents didn’t have. My dad has a broken arm, but he worked his whole life when he came here. He’s considered his left arm—he broke it when he was four, but there was no doctors for him to go see to go get it readjusted or fixed the nerve—so I never saw my dad as a cripple. My dad was such a great man; he was a provider for years and to me, my dad was always strong. I never noticed his crippled hand. I never knew he was a handicapped, until I was twenty two. He couldn’t work anymore and I wondered why. He had to take an early disability because his house was deteriorating and he couldn’t lift as much as he did anymore because of that weak left arm. To see my own father’s weakness and I’ve known him my whole life, I never realized it was abnormal to have one small arm. Because he was so strong, he made everything look so easy… that you forget he had a flaw, that there was something imperfect about him. When I see that,getting surgery, getting into a car accident, being hurt and then being able to recover, I’m grateful for that. My parents— my dad didn’t have that growing up. And I’m able to have it? And people complain about—you know, the healthcare, not getting insurance but it’s a reminder that yes, we complain about our healthcare, but we have healthcare. We have doctors. My parents didn’t have that. Doctors, teachers, government— anything that’s considered high education in the Khmer Rouge— they were all killed off first. The doctors were gone. There were no doctors. There’re no educators. And to have my parents know, speak and write the language and read it? It gave me a sense of pride that I am an American. Even though I have all those struggles, I can’t see them as a struggle. I’m not allowed to think that way because I’m American. But then when I’m outside, I see my flaw as a refugee child. I’m seen different because my culture’s something people aren’t used to.
MOUNGYIV: And that struggle, I feel like—that’s why I think I have more Asian friends. Because they understand. Being around other Asians made me felt like I’m not alone. Growing up with Greek friends, Assyrian friends, Pakistani, Indian— they still didn’t get why I did certain things. But then growing up with—having Chinese, Vietnamese friends, Filipino friends, they knew the struggles of being a woman here. Or being a woman over there. Being a woman in Asia i is —especially Southeast Asia— it’s like a low denominator. You get no privilege of being a woman.
NGUYEN: Mm hmm, yep...
MOUNGYIV: It’s like a curse to be a woman there. But when I’m here, I’m proud to be a woman. I’m proud to be a feminist. I’m proud of being able to speak out. Growing up, I didn’t think I could because I was taught, I shouldn’t. Never speak over a man. Never be louder than an adult. Never raise your voice ever. ‘Cause If I raised my voice, I would get hit. I would get punished, because that’s not what a woman do. That’s not ladylike. But the older I got, the more my dad realized a woman should be more strong than what we expect them to be. So, it’s almost like a double-edged sword for my parents to have a daughter. One side didn’t want me, want us girls to be traditional, want us to be proper, to be gentle girls but on the other side, they want us to be strong. They don’t want no guys to push us around. They don’t want nobody to tell us what to do. It’s a double-edged sword for them. And Rosey didn’t have to go through what I went through when I was a kid. Rosey could walk as loud as she want; Rosie doesn’t have to walk on her heels, her hind legs. I did. I had to tiptoe a lot of the time. I had to make sure that when I walk, I couldn’t make a noise. You couldn’t hear me coming. With Rosey, she can be free to do that because she was the middle. And my parents wanted more American kids. They didn’t want Cambodian kids because - Cambodian traditional kids - because there was no advantage to it, especially in America.
MOUNGYIV: The struggles I went through, my parents didn’t want my sisters to go through. So they were more freeing with the girls. I envied that about Rosey; I envied that she can go to friends’ house; I envied that she can act the way she wants, speak the way she wants, be as loud as she wants. But at the same time, I’m grateful that I was taught the way I was taught. Because that made me who I am and that’s what separated me from my sister a lot. That’s what separated my responsibility with my sister. Because I know how to be an Asian woman and I also know how to be an American; I had to— it was self-taught to be proud to be a woman. I hated being a girl when I was younger, hated it. I couldn’t play with the boys/ I couldn’t be aggressive. I couldn’t do certain things. But I loved being an American when I was younger. Now that I’m older, I love both sides. It’s hard to try to define what I am because I’m a feminist, but at the same time, I know what a woman’s supposed to be like. And I don’t see my struggles as struggles anymore because I overcame them. And I’ve accepted them. If you can’t accept your flaws, there’s no way you can live a normal life. Because the struggles we you go through... to other people, it might seem a lot for a girl to go through, but as another refugee woman, a child of a refugee woman, you know the struggle of being the oldest. You know the responsibility you have to take. To this day, I still have the responsibility as the oldest. I’m still the translator, I’m still the person [who] they go to for little things. If their friends are struggling with paperwork for the government, I’m the one who had to figure it out. I’m the one who had to research it. I shouldn’t know how to become a citizen of America; I was born here. But I had to know how. I had to know where to go. I had to find the resources. If I can’t find it, no one can find it in my family. As the oldest, that was my responsibility. I had to know where to go, how to ask, and how to properly translate everything; even though some of the words in English [were] not fully translated into Cambodian. I had to figure out how to do it. And I love Rosey and I really do not wish it upon her to have to go through what I had to go through, to just sit there and think, “How do I translate that? Or when they ask me a question: “How do I answer that?”. You don’t learn how to be a citizen, like the proper work in school; they don’t tell you. And to be an adult and you have to figure it out for another adult, it’s hard. But I would do it all over again; I would still be the one to be the translator. I would still be the one that’s the one to find: “How do I get what they need? Where’s the resource for that?” I’d rather keep doing that and then when I know it, I would tell Rosey. I would tell Richard. I would tell Risa. I would tell Simon. So, that way, when I’m not there and my parents have questions, they have four other people to go ask. That way, my sister’s still involved in the Cambodian community and she won’t be lost as much. I mean, everything ia Google now, but they’ll know where everything is without Googling it. Sometimes, things are different. And people don’t see that; me knowing how and where for people to go get married or go take the marriage question test to be a citizen or to become—to be married together and to make sure that you’re properly married and not illegal and non-legal? I don’t need them, but I do know them. And it’s kind of a weird thing to know about your government. ‘Cause you don’t learn in the Constitution.
MOUNGYIV: You don’t get the by-laws of what to be: a U.S. citizen. Because when you’re born here, you don’t have to worry about it. But because my parents needed to become—my mom needed to become a citizen—she didn’t become a citizen until 2002–no, 2001. 2001, she became a citizen. My dad became a citizen in 1987? And that was interesting, too. When I had to learn, my dad had to remind me; sometimes they changed the buildings and I had to find the buildings, that was also confusing. But I wouldn’t change it; all my struggles I go through, the embarrassment of having an accent like my parents or the embarrassment of not knowing the word properly— to this day, I still don’t know how to say certain English words because it would show my original accent. Because sounding Asian, people made fun of all the time. Though by reading books, by taking extra English classes in high school, I got rid of my accent. My accent was more predominant in seventh grade? By eighth grade, it was gone… almost gone. By my freshman year of high school, no one could tell that I ever had an accent. To this day, people didn’t know that I used to have an accent. And whenever I do my “Asian” accent, people were like, “Wow, you can do it!” No, that’s how I spoke; that’s how I really speak. But to sound how I am now, with the proper grammar, the proper way of saying things— like I said— I have to think about it. Like literally, right now, the sentence is going through my head like a line when you write it.
NGUYEN: Oh! Same with me, same with me. (LAUGHS)
MOUNGYIV: You have to make sure that those words are right because I think, “thuh” or “thee” a lot because I just want to think “dah”, but I can’t. Because once you say that, people are like, “Oh you suck at [inaudible]! Oh, your Asian accent; your Asian side’s coming out.” So, I try not to have it show too much because when I was younger, having a heavy accent was one of the things my friend teased me about. And that was one of my goals to get rid of. And when I got rid of it, I kinda missed it. I kinda regretted doing that. But to be able to have people communicate with me in English, without correcting me, it’s much easier. And whenever people get grammar wrong and I correct them, they get frustrated with me. But I had to go through it. And I was seven. People were correcting me. But you’re a grown adult, born here, raised here, your parents were raised here and you still can’t get English properly? That’s not okay. But you have the right to judge me because I’m a first generation? That’s not right. And I hope that one day, that will stop. The fact that I had to learn English at ten years old; when I finally properly learned English, I was ten… and I was a born citizen here. But ten years old was when I learned English; that’s coming a lot into your own future. And having to force yourself to read a language you never knew—that doesn’t even sound like your own language? That’s hard. To be able to communicate with my first best friend by ten years old— knowing her since I was seven? That’s hard, like, the one thing I remembered from my childhood: second grade to third grade, fourth grade, people called me “mute girl.” Why? Because I never spoke. Every time the teacher picked or pointed at me, I start crying, just to get out of speaking, just to get out of reading. Because I couldn’t say those words. When I did, they made fun of it because there was an accent. And I never wanted my siblings to go through that, so when they were learning, I made sure I corrected it right away. When I hear my parents’ accent from them, I fix it right away. There’s no way my siblings are just going to be the laughing stock of the classroom. No way, no. But for me, that was the one thing I remembered. Being teased, being called, “Mute girl! mute girl! can you even understand me?” It was hard because when I started understanding them, I couldn’t fight back, I didn’t have the vocabulary to fight back. But when I got older, when I came, when I finally learned English, when I finally got a better vocabulary than most of my classmates, no one could make fun of me. No one. I never allowed it. And that’s the extroverted of me. That’s the dominant me. That’s who I truly am. I didn’t figure that out until eighth grade. I don’t like being picked on. I refused to be picked on. I refuse to let you think that you will win. Just because of my little flaws that I had no control of. No, you’re not allowed to pick on that. I know my flaws. You cannot point it out to me… without me fighting back. And to figure that out at fourteen years old, no child should do that. No child should ever be picked on to the point where… as a defense mechanism was to be quiet, just brush it off. And I didn’t want that for my siblings. If my sister— bless her heart, being the sweetest girl she is— and when people upset her, she gets so emotional and she can’t control her tears. But she knows how to fight back, she knows what to say to make sure that she’s safe. I didn’t have that opportunity and that’s one of those things I struggled with until eighth grade. A lot to take in, too.
NGUYEN: Wow... Yeah, I feel—you don’t know how much this resonates with me. At the same time though, we are—you didn’t have to learn English when you were ten so, that’s different. You decided later than I did. Wow, that was—
MOUNGYIV: But when I started going to school from preschool to first grade, there was another Cambodian in the class. So, if I had trouble with something, they would help me. They would translate it to me. But second grade, when I moved, we moved to the house, went to a different school; there was nobody to translate for me. No teacher [who] spoke my language. No one could understand me, so I just kept my mouth shut. But I never want that to happen to my siblings. I feel bad because they should know the Cambodian language is a beautiful language. I feel like my language—that language. It’s... I want my children to know it because it’s so beautiful. To be able to speak it, it’s such an amazing language. Same with my boyfriend’s language, which is Chinese. Beautiful language. I regretted it, like, trying to get rid of it. Trying to not remember it. You don’t—you know when you grow up with that struggle, people making fun of you because you don’t speak the same language, you don’t understand them, you force yourself so hard to forget your own. To be like everybody else. To fit in! But then, I didn’t realize that it’s so regretful until like, I was eighteen. Until I almost forgot almost every word… of the Cambodian language.
NGUYEN: Oh, wow.
MOUNGYIV: And I regretted it. I regretted it so much that I went back and relearned it. I forced myself to listen to music my parents listened to, watched videos, relearned the language; watch YouTube videos now to refresh my language because I’m—like I said, if I was in Cambodia, I’m considered illiterate because I can’t read it and I can’t write it. But I can guarantee you, when I go there, I would fit in perfectly when I speak. That’s my goal… to be able to speak it. And then once I have kids, hopefully they will learn it. I mean, to this day, my parents said it’s okay if my kids don’t learn Cambodian because—and it breaks my heart to hear my own parents say it. They said that the Cambodian language is a useless language. Because why? Because we’re a poor country. There would be no way that my children would be making money in my parents’ country. To hear my parents say that, it breaks my heart. It makes me more determined to learn the language so when I do have children, they know it. They may not find it useful growing up, but at least they know: “I still have a little bit of difference in me. I know a language everybody else don’t know.” And then when they do get a chance—when they get older—to visit Cambodia, they can speak it. And I think—you know, you too—you would think the same, you know. Working so hard to learn English, then at the same time, when you’re older and you see how much things change, and the more proud you get of your country, you should’ve at least try to speak it more. And having my grandmother pass away, it hurt a lot because she was the only person that I was still speaking Cambodian to. My parents try, but because they have gotten to that mold where English is important and that’s what their kids can speak, they don’t speak Cambodian to me as much as they used to. And I don’t want that to happen; I hope that other refugee kids also understand and remember that your second language is very valuable, no matter where they’re from. They can be from Cambodia. They can be from Somalia. They can be from anywhere that’s tiny, considered tiny, they know that they have the language that no one else can take away from them. There’re people out there that speak your own language that looks just like you, no matter how many people say, “Oh, you just look like all the other Asians.” No. Once you go to your country, there’s a difference and you feel—I hope Rosey gets to go to Cambodia, too, because when I went… Cambodia—even though it’s not my home country, when I went, I felt like I was—I was meant for there. Like, when you go back to any—your own—your parents’ home country, you feel like you belong because everybody looks like you. Getting used to, like, everybody not looking like you in your school or being the only one of your race, and then when you go back to a place where everybody looks like you and you’re the majority, not the minority, how I wish that America wasn’t so segregated. No matter how many people say, “Oh, America’s a great country. You can be whoever you want to be. It’s for everybody.” No, it’s not. Being here, it’s very obvious that if you’re different, you’re different and it’s pointed out all the time. No matter how much, how much you wanna call home “home”, people still want to know where I’m from. And they would never accept Chicago, they’d never accept America. And that hurts because when I go back home—or my parents’ home in Cambodia—when they ask where you’re from, they’re not asking what province you’re from, they’re asking, “You may look like us, but you are not one of us. There’s something different about you.” Being told that by my own cousins in Cambodia and being told that in a country that’s supposed to feel like home, no matter where I go, it’s gonna be foreign because I wasn’t born there. Even though I can get dual citizenship, home isn’t there. Home is here. Home is America. And no matter how many people tell me to go back to my country, my country’s here. I can’t go anywhere else because if I go back to Cambodia, I’m not Cambodian; I’m an American. And I just hope that one day, people will stop saying that kind of hurtful things; to go back home, to go back to your country, because that’s not fair… for anyone. Because when you’re a US citizen, home is America. So, what if our parents are from another country? So, what if my parent is an immigrant? My parents tell me every day even though Cambodia is their pride and joy because that’s where they’re from. Their kids aren’t from there. My parents remind us everyday: we’re not from Cambodia. We’re Americans, no matter what people tell us. My parents may want us to be Cambodian Americans and be more proud of our country—from where they’re from—our heritage—but every day is the same. “You’re American. Remember that. You are American. You belong in America. There’s nowhere else you should belong.” And I have to take pride in that, even though people tell you no. “No, no, no. Your skin color, your face, you can’t just be from here.” And that hurts because I love Chicago; I’ll never leave Chicago. Um, but then, I always have to remember that because I’m not White or Black, and I’m not Hispanic, so when you’re an Asian, they expect you to be a certain way. And then when you tell them you’re not from the three big countries that everybody always tries to assume you are. Your country must be too small to be recognized.
MOUNGYIV: Hello, how can I help you? Sorry, my boyfriend’s just walked in… (LAUGHS)
MOUNGYIV: He doesn’t understand what’s going on right now.
NGUYEN: (LAUGHS) Oh, okay. Yeah, well, we’re doing an interview.
NGUYEN: (LAUGHS) Alright. Yeah, um, really, really interesting to see your passion in sharing your experiences. And you know, I just wanted to point the stark difference between your feelings about this entire experience growing as a child of refugees versus your siblings, versus Rosey, who I know personally. I know we don’t talk much about—yeah, we don’t talk much about of it. I’ll sometimes ask and the thing is,her response to my questions about her parents—or your parents—is that she doesn’t remember much. She was really young back then, so she didn’t really retain that many memories, she didn’t garner as many experiences… experiences that you shared with me today. Because—you know—of the age difference and pointing that out, how that makes such a huge difference, whether you’re first-born in the family or not. And my sister—and me, too—and I felt like she definitely had more freedom growing up. It got me to think about our personalities or more like how I project myself in front of other people, not only in the house and my sister— like how she projects herself, how she portrays herself and it got me to wonder: is that why I have a soft voice? Or is that why I’m soft-spoken all the time? Is that why I act differently? Like, my friends would always describe me as someone who was dainty and just has a gentle touch and is careful with her movements.
MOUNGYIV: Mm hmm...
NGUYEN: Versus my sister—like growing up, I always remember she had the loudest voice in the family. Even when she got in trouble, she wasn’t punished as severely as I was when I was growing up. I remember I had harsher punishments, just for the little mistakes even. And my parents were much more strict when I was a kid than when my sister was and seeing how our attitudes differed, how our behaviors differed, like—I don’t know. I felt this sense of injustice. [LAUGHS] Why didn’t she have to go through that versus me? And, you know, I’m more passionate about social justice and identity politics and talking about race as an issue in this country and all of that jazz. And my sister isn’t as much? She sees, you know, she thinks these topics are important; she thinks that identity is important; she thinks all that are important, but she’s not as active? She doesn’t feel as strongly as I did when it comes to like, how we’re perceived as a community, how we’re perceived as a race, as an ethnicity. Because I felt like, I was… people see me more based on how I looked and not based on how I felt. And I felt like people perceived me the way they wanted to perceive me. Whether as an Asian American, an Asian, as a Vietnamese, as a woman, as an Asian woman, as a Vietnamese woman. It’s like all these different connotations that stick with each label that, I don’t know, I am very much aware of. And I get sometimes paranoid, too—like, do they see me as—are they treating me this way because that’s how they’re expecting me to be? Based on how I look? And I wonder whether my sister thinks that way, too, when she’s out in the world. Because I think about my identity all the time, my race all the time. And yeah, she doesn’t engage as much and I think it’s strongly because I was first-born… yeah. Like you said, a lot of expectations are brought upon us and we have to meet them; we have to live up to them without a choice. I mean—we felt like there was no choice. And there’s very little room to rebel and feel like all these emotions that we’re feeling, just talking about our past. It channels through this energy that we have whenever we hear others sharing similar experiences to us. It’s like, “Wow, I found someone who’s like me, who is as concerned about these issues as I am.” And you know, I get— I’ve been self-conscious when I talk about— or I used to be self-conscious talking about the issues, talking about my background and talking about my Asian American community because first of all, it wasn’t White. It wasn’t the norm. Talking about that, like— it was very othering, just identifying yourself as someone who’s non-White and as— I don’t know— I thought— I felt like I was— I don’t know— selfish and because I was afraid that people perceived me as selfish or as you know— narrow-minded or someone who’s concerned about her Asianness. And then I think about: what’s so wrong about talking about your Asianness when that’s what everybody sees you as, you know? A lot of people—how people treat you growing up or how—again, all these expectations that are attached when they are aware of your culture.
MOUNGYIV: Mm hmm...
NGUYEN: It’s interesting to see what our values are, what our priorities are.
NGUYEN: And comparing them to our younger siblings and comparing them to our parents as well, so seeing how the microaggressions we face have really shaped us as people, individuals, even to this day, I don’t think either of us will ever forget where we come from. [LAUGHS]
MOUNGYIV: Definitely. It’s really hard when it’s embedded to you, since you can understand the language that your parents speak. To this day, it’s still embedded— like, I work with my parents, I work with my mother in the salon. I’m the only one that’s working with my mother right now at the salon. My sister sees them everyday, but you know—the idea of working with Mom and Dad is just so… ‘Cause you know, it’s expected. You’re expected to do a certain thing. But before I used to be like, “Never, never, never. Not in the same room with my mother, but now, me and my mom have this bond that we never had because she was so busy trying to be my mother. So busy to enforce all these rules, these traditions and values into me. Me and her never had that mother-daughter bond, out of me being afraid of her because that’s how she was raised by my grandmother. And I still envy Rosey to this day because she can hug my mom—like my mom might find it weird, but she can hug my mom if she wants to. Rosey can hug my mom if she wants to, the siblings—the younger ones can. My brother, Simon, and I, on the other hand, when my mom hugged us, it’s kind of weird to have her show affection and care. Because all those years of not showing it to us because she wanted us to be strong. And um, getting it back to that—being able to say “I love you” to her or to just hug her—you know—I mean, people make fun of it, like, Asian Americans always make fun of it that, you know, our parents would never hug us to show that they care because it’s considered bad luck or taboo. But getting older now, my mom has been showing more affection, you know; the older she gets, and it’s nice because usually it’s just me and my dad that does that because compared to Rosey, I am Daddy’s princess beyond. Even though my dad can’t give me everything I want, he is my dad. We have a connection that, I guess, only the first child has with her father.
NGUYEN: Mmm, yeah...
MOUNGYIV: And when I was born, my dad—I was his little princess, I was his life. He would try to get me whatever I needed or he’ll stay a little because he had worked third shift my whole life and he would always try to give me the attention I needed before he went to sleep. And I think Rosey lacked that when she got older because the person who took care of her was either me or my grandma. So, she had to be… even though we had the same parents, it’s just my parents work so hard—like my mom working second shift, my dad working third shift, she didn’t get to see Mom and Dad like how I used to. Because I had the privilege of having my mom to myself for a year and then when Simon was born, me and my brother had her, you know. And I could still remember before Rosey was born, days where both my parents would purposely take off just to be with us. But when she was born, they couldn’t do that because they bought a home. And they had to work harder to make sure that they had money saved. So, Grandma was always there and I had to be her babysitter. I was the one who helped her with whatever she needed. So Rosey doesn’t have a lot of recollection and it’s not her fault because my parents wanted better for us. Same with Risa. Risa’s recollection of growing up was me. Richard, same thing. I’m—to my baby brother, the fifth one—I’m the second mom because my parents worked too hard. My parents were always working. And now that my dad’s on disability, my dad gets to be home a little bit more, he doesn’t know what to do. So they kind of clash because they’re not so used to seeing him home. And so they bump heads because they’re all so different. And I don’t blame my dad and I don’t blame them. But I know that I want them to have that relationship that I had with my dad. But it’s so different now because they expect more from my dad. And my dad expects more from them. So it’s… it’s hard because I’m the middle; I’m the one who knows how my parents feel; I’m the one who knows how my siblings feel. To be that “middle,” you really have to sacrifice a lot to comprehend and understand both sides. But at the same time, I’m like, “Where were you when I was having this struggle with our parents?”
MOUNGYIV: Being the oldest, you learn that when your siblings complain about something and when your parents complain about your siblings, it’s just like—you see the value and you learn to be the problem solver for both sides. And that, that shows a lot because I don’t—I know other kids feel it, too, refugee or not. But I—if Rosey, if anything, our family’s very strong, especially us siblings because we only had each other. And I always want to always let Rosey and Risa and Richard know: I’m always there. If they’re against the world, if no one’s on their side, I’m there. I will always be there. And in their defense, they’re there for me, too. If I need them, they’re there. And that’s what our parents taught us. Growing up, I never really cared about having friends, as much—I mean, I did want to fit in—but after being able not to communicate with people, and my parents telling me that your real friends are your family? People that you should be more valuable to you is your blood, it made me take serious consideration of my siblings. Me and Rosey can be completely polar opposite of each other, but in the end, she’s still my sister. I still love her. She still loves me and what I love to say to her, whenever I’m being too annoying to her or being too affectionate is: “You have no choice, you have to love me. That’s what happens when you’re born to be my sister. You were born to have no choice but to love me. If nobody else loves me in the world, you have no choice; you were born to love me. And I was born to love you.” And she hates it, but—
MOUNGYIV: Compared to her, I’m the more affectionate one because as the oldest, I didn’t get as much love as she did.
MOUNGYIV: I didn’t get to hear “I love you” a lot; I don’t get to hear, “Oh, you’re so—you’re okay as you are.” I didn’t get to hear that because it was, “You need to be this way. You need to be this way. You need to be this way.”
MOUNGYIV: And so, when it comes to her, in her defense, she was a cute baby. [NGUYEN LAUGHS] And I was excited to have a little sister. So it was her fault for being born a girl.
MOUNGYIV: So, that’s my defense whenever I get too affectionate over her. Plus, she was the first—even though I had my brother, Simon—me and him is a year apart—and she is four, five years younger than me. So, being an older sister, to be honest, being the oldest is all I know. If I introduce myself as: “I’m the oldest of five kids,” it’s always the first thing I say because that’s what I’m proud of. I am the older sister. I am the oldest; I may have a lot of responsibility, but I take pride in it. Because I—honestly I am more proud of Rosey than I think anyone could be. Yes, she took two years off, but I hope she succeeds. I hope she does better than I did. I love her so much that when I see her happy, that’s all I care about. I don’t care about anything else. With her and the other two youngest ones, I love them so much and I’m so proud of them that it scares me because they’re not my kids; they’re my sisters; they’re my brothers. But in my eye, because I am the oldest and because my parents put that much value on me to value family because we’re [INAUDIBLE] family. My dad lost a brother and a father; my mom lost a father, two siblings, aunts and uncles—no, my family lost a lot of people. My parents had to struggle through it. My mom and dad didn’t even get to know their father, but they knew they had a father. And... even though my siblings—you know—the good thing is that we have both our parents. But even if we don’t have them—God forbid anything happened to my parents—my siblings will have me… they’ll always have me. And I take pride in that, that I’m their older sister. There’s no joy more than being—and I think that’s what made life easy for me. Where even when I struggled as the first one, the first generation, the first to learn how to speak English, the first to know how to do anything, the first to figure out all of her stuff. I was also the first one to get all Fs on a report card. But every time that I felt like life is too miserable or my life is too hard, it’s not fair that they have these kids that are complete strangers, that have it so much easier than me, being told that you’re stupid because you can’t get it; every time I wanted to give up, I looked at Rosey. I looked at Risa, I looked at Richard. Sometimes, I’ll even look at Simon. And I’m like “No, I can’t. I can’t give up.” If I give up, they’ll give up. And I don’t want that. And any older sibling would feel that. We all, as older siblings can do, we do get envious of whenever our siblings get a little bit easier than when we did. But the values we learned, the struggles that we went through, especially as a refugee child, it’s completely different even from being an immigrant child who got proper paperwork, who had to wait nine to ten years to get here.
NGUYEN: Oh, yeah.
MOUNGYIV: It’s completely different because our struggles are completely different, our values are completely different. And any immigrant child would know that your struggles are very hard, that you’re always reminded that people have it harder. Anyone had it harder than them. Everybody had it harder than you. Any time I wanted to give up, even when I applied for college and I got accepted to every school in Illinois and when I finally had to go to college, that fear of leaving my family and being the first to leave, I was scared to fail. I was so scared like, the day before I had to move into my dorm, I broke. I shattered. My siblings were already asleep, but I shattered and my dad was there. I broke—I’m like, “What do I do? I’m going on my own I can’t do it. I don’t think I can make it. What if I fail?”. My dad said it was okay. He cried with me. He said, “The one thing I’m proud of is not that you got to every school, that you got into every college in Illinois, that you can get student grants, student loans for every college. The one thing I’m proud of is that you’re my daughter, that you didn’t suffer. That’s why I’m proud of you. You believed in yourself. You knew you were going to make it. Why are you shattering now? This is nothing. So what if you fail the first time? Colleges will still take you; you can go to college because you were born here. You had good grades. You are a good girl.” To finally hear that after years of struggling on my own and making sure that I was having good grades no matter what classes I took, making sure that my English was so perfect that nobody knows I was lacking, or how late I learned how to read, or how late I learned how to speak. And being told that it doesn’t matter if you finish school, it doesn’t matter if you pass, you made it further than I thought you would. Because you believed in yourself, we believed in you no matter what because you’re our daughter. But to hear that from someone like my dad, made it easier for me. To accept being a leader. Accepting failure was really hard for me as a kid because I always failed. And I hated that feeling of failing. I hated it. Because I felt so stupid. Or because I felt so weak. But now, failure, when I look back at it, those failures taught me a lot. I’m okay with failing because I can get back up and do it again. To get my cosmetology license. From wanting to become a teacher to being a nail technician and doing beauty. I’m happy with it. Because I feel like I found myself now, as a nail technician than I did when I was going to school to be a teacher. It felt right. But at the same time, it just didn’t feel right. And when Rosey went to college, I told her not to rush it. I was a little disappointed that she didn’t pursue going to California like she planned. Because I really hoped that she did.
NGUYEN: I hope so, too.
MOUNGYIV; She was so scared to fail. She was so scared to fail that she took the easy route. But I’m okay with it because in the end, now she’s happy where she’s at. And that’s all I ever wanted for her.
NGUYEN: I wonder if I could put this up on the podcast: Rosey, if you’re listening to this! (LAUGHS) We still love you!
MOUNGYIV: (LAUGHS) I was so proud of her. Even though everybody told her that being a film director or doing anything with film was impossible for an Asian woman, but the fact that she had that dream, I was so proud of her. She thought outside of the box!
NGUYEN: Yeah, I mean, honestly I thought seeing her taking two years off was her way of doing something outside of the box, outside the norm and owning it. I really admired that. I even told her, like I wish I took two years off, even more. (LAUGHS) From you know, going on this path that everyone’s telling me to go on, when I don’t even know what I want, what I really want out of life. But to see her not really caring what others think about the decisions she made, because she wanted to, because that’s what felt right for her at that time, I really respect it and admired that. And yeah. And you are such a badass, I’m sorry. Like, that is fucking amazing. Your story, your words—I really feel. Like I almost wanted to tear up a couple of times, just listening to all of this because you don’t really—you don’t know! I mean you probably, you know now that I’m saying this, but like, your story—everything you said—it made me see even more clearer as to why I—as to some of the questions I had in mind. It made me think about my relationship with my sister and the rest of my family. And it’s so funny to see how similar and how different our experiences are. Like being a firstborn, first daughter, first child in the family and having a strong relationship with her dad. Like, I, too, had a strong relationship with my dad. Like, you know, I craved his love. Like, I wanted to spend time with him; I wanted to learn more about where he came from. I wanted to—I wanted his approval. That was all I wanted. I remember growing up and a lot of decisions I’ve made—including the ones in college of what my major was, where I was going, what I was planning to do with my major, my career—I let my parents’ voice have a lot of emphasis on the decisions I’ve made. Because I wanted them to feel proud of me. That was all I ever asked for, actually. Growing up—it may sound silly—but if they said to me that they are proud of me for what I’ve become, what I’ve done, I could die happy.
MOUNGYIV: That’s what refugee children crave, all of us do. As a refugee child, you know, we know our struggles our parents went through. And we always want to make them proud. That’s the main thing we want. Honestly, I could give one rat’s ass for what everybody thinks of me. Like, people say like, “Oh, you got to go to college just to do beauty school? Why?” Because I wanted to. “Don’t your parents feel sad about that?” Like, no, my parents are proud of me. Like I said, the one goal that—my parent’s dream—for us children, for us five, was: “We never suffered like that.” We will never be able to suffer like that. That was their main goal, why they came here. For us not to suffer. And when I failed so many times in college, I took, I think, a year and a half off. And then, I went to beauty school. I think I went to beauty school out of boredom. But then, when I went, I actually fell in love with it. And when I went through it and Rosey was freaking out about going to college, I’m like, “Relax. Don’t try to rush like everybody does, because once you rush, you screw up like for two or three years. And then you’re like. ‘Oh I suck, I failed. I’m a loser.’” You know, you have that self-doubt, especially the fact that she’s a first generation, too—you know? She’s not like everybody else. Our goal as a first generation was: “Okay, we have to be the one in college. We have to go to college.” That was one of the biggest dreams I had, was to go to college. Because that’s what everybody did; that’s what all my friends did. But you know, I think the benefits of having an older sibling had my sister realize: “Who gives a shit what other people think?” What does their judgement have to do with me? The only people that needs to be proud are the people in my immediate family. And I really engraved that into her; when she was so upset with what certain people said and we talked about it, and she felt like she did nothing with her life, I’m like, “Who gives a shit? You’re happy. You’re working, right? Yeah. You’re making money. You have a family that loves you, right? Yeah. No matter what—what other people might think of you—Mom and Dad will always love you. I will always love you. Simon will always love you. I mean, we like to make fun of you, but that’s our right as your older sibling,” but… I always tell her, to this day, I’m very proud of her. She’s very careful. I wished she wasn’t so careful sometimes. I wished she would be a little more reckless. But I think that’s my fault. Because everybody had a rebellious state and I hit mine very late. And I think that was my struggle of trying to cope with failing. And I didn’t want to her to do that. I wanted her to know that failing is okay. And know that the minute you fail, I got your back. And I wish all refugee kids—I always hope that they’d do that, because seeing some of my friends fail and and some of my cousins fail in the beginning was scary. Because it makes that mechanism that you think you failed, too. Just because you were in the same spot they are. You are prone to fail. Because that’s what the system makes it. And to be able to break out of that, and to be able to find yourself and accept yourself, is the hardest thing to do. It took me twenty six years to accept myself? I hated and loathed myself for so long. Because I was a first generation. I was a child of a refugee. My parents were looking for asylum in America from their own country. My parents fled instead of staying. I hated myself. And when I failed, I hated myself even more. But I couldn’t show it to my siblings. I couldn’t show them my weak side too much. Because even though I’m the oldest, I’m one of the youngest in the family. And because my mom’s side has so [many[ siblings—my mom have a lot of siblings, too—so a lot of them are older than me. And seeing them fail scared me. But I didn’t want that to have an effect on my siblings. So being the oldest—you know— you have to shield them from certain fears, certain failures. You had to make it seem like so it’s nonchalant, like you don’t care. It took me, I think until twenty? For me to not care what people thought about me? Really, at twenty years old, I really did—that’s when I didn’t care what other people thought about me. I didn’t care how people judged me, how people looked at me. Because they don’t matter; in the end, they end up leaving me anyway. Like a lot of my friends, a lot of people that I thought were my friends turned on me and that hurt a lot. And because I valued them so much in my life, that when they did it, I shattered. But having my siblings being there for me made it easier. And that’s when I remembered what my parents said: friends come and go, but your family—they’re born to love you, they have no choice, you can do heinous things in the world, but they are genetically made to love you. No matter what you do, they will always love you. I mean you guys can get into fights because you know, that’s what siblings do, but in the end, that’s who you turn to when you need help. And I think that’s also a privilege of being from a big family. I think the one thing my parents took from their suffering was that they needed to make sure they had enough kids. If something happened to mine, there’s another one. That was a—I think—a survival thing in them? Because a lot of people die in Cambodia; a lot of people they cared about died. And I see a lot of us in my family—a lot of us wants to have a lot of kids and I’m so grateful for it. When I was younger, I hated it because there’s so many to babysit. But in the end, to see how much they’ve grown and that I taught them—I was the one to make sure they did good in life—I feel so proud. I may have failed in college, but I succeeded with my siblings. They have a future. I have a future. But when I see what I’ve taught them, that’s how they value me—it makes me grateful that I suffered the way I did, that I was able to shield them the way I did. Because amongst my friends, I could get to be bubbly, I get to be the silly one, I can be the immature one. But for my siblings, no matter how much older Rosey gets, no matter how closer we get to being in the same standard, I’m still her big sister. And I should still get respect from my sister, the way she saw she respected me from when she was four. She still sees me the same way. I still see her the same way. No matter how old she gets, no matter how beautiful she gets, she’s still that chubby little five-year-old that ran around the house… to me, at least.
MOUNGYIV: That’s how I see her, no matter how skinny she gets, no matter how gorgeous she gets as a woman. To me, she’s still that chubby little girl that I had to watch and help learn grow because I didn’t want her to suffer like me.
MOUNGYIV: And you know—as an American, you don’t think you would suffer as much, especially when you’re born here. But that’s what everybody tells you: “Oh, you didn’t suffer that much. You were lucky to be born here. You’re a citizen. That’s the best thing in the world.” Especially now that I have a lot, even Rosie would tell you that I have a lot of Asian friends. For her, she would say that I’m the Asian one. From us five, I’m the super Asian one. I don’t know what that means, but apparently I am. Because I felt the sanctuary in the Asian community, growing up and going to high school, you know? Especially in Chicago. Chicago’s the most segregated place in the world. And that’s because that’s our comfort zone. As immigrants, that’s what immigrants do. We migrate to where we’re comfortable with. And amongst my friends, I’m the only Cambodian they know but I love learning about their culture. I respect them a lot and a lot of them are from Asia. So anytime I’m hurt about something or I’m suffering, they always tell me: “At least you’re born here. At least you’re a US citizen. What are we? We’re the ones that have to learn English at an older stage.” But even to my friends, they never knew I struggled. I never let it show. To them, I’m the strongest girl in the world. I’m the most American girl, they’ll know. But again, like I said, I didn’t learn English until I was ten. I didn’t learn how to read properly until I was eleven. I had so much trouble reading. I had so much trouble memorizing words or even spell. To this day, I still actually can’t spell words. I am so grateful for Google. And I’m so grateful for auto-correct that I don’t have to worry about that, that I still can’t spell to this day. It’s still something that I can’t comprehend. But everything else, I worked hard to have no accent. I worked hard to remember my grammar. And you know, when I did it, it didn’t seem like a struggle because everybody else did it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
I’m starting off the season with a topic very close to my heart: growing up as a child of refugee immigrant parents. My friend, Saroeun, and I will be sharing our personal struggles growing up as first-born children of immigrant parents who moved because they didn’t have t choice - from overcoming barriers with the English language to helping our parents translate in day-to-day situations to guiding our younger siblings to a better life as Southeast Asian Americans. I hope that this 2-episode special will help people understand better where we’re coming from and why today’s immigration issue should hit close to everyone’s heart. Here is part 1. Look forward to next week for part 2!
Here is part 2 of our 3rd season episode premiere. I made the conscious choice to not omit any parts of the conversation because I thought some of the emotional value would be lost if I had. I apologize for the length of the conversation but I do hope you understand why I’m leaving the conversation uncut.
Saroeun Moungyiv is a 1st generation Cambodian American. She has a cosmetology license and is a nail technician at her mother's shop. Her ambition is simply to help her parents' dream of becoming business owners come true and hope to have people understand the value of true happiness in themselves and in life.
TRANSCRIBED BY WAEN VEJJAJIVA
JESSICA NGUYEN, HOST: Today’s podcast is brought to you by Audible. Get a free audiobook download and 30-day-free trial at audibletrial.com/projectvoice. Over 180,000 titles to choose from for your iPhone, Android, Kindle, or MP3 player.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SAROEUN MOUNGYIV, INTERVIEWEE: And I wanted to make them proud, my parents, they’re the ones that I want to make them the most proud. I may not be the richest kid that they’ll have, but I’ll be the happiest. And that’s all my parents want, I think what any parents want. No matter if they’re a refugee, an immigrant, an American themselves, all parents want their kids happy, even if they show it differently than others. But to make them happy, I had to make sure they never knew about my struggles. They never knew the pains I went through. To be honest, I don’t think my parents ever read any essay that I wrote about my struggling. I kind of made sure that they didn’t because compared to their struggles, I have nothing compared to that. Sure, I got bullied but, what is a bully? Once you learn how to defend yourself, you can’t have a bully. Once you learn how to make fun of yourself, or to make jokes about yourself, or to make yourself feel stupid - like you deliberately did it, there is no such thing as a bully. I won’t allow myself to have a bully. I had a bully, I had plenty of bullies, but I refuse to give them that power over me. Because no matter how much they make me hate myself, when I go home and I see Rosey, I see Simon, I see Risa, I see Richard, I’m like no, I have to be the strong one.
Sure, I had to learn English by myself. Sure, I had to learn Math by myself. Sure, I had to learn everything by myself, or learn how to ask for help from the teachers, took advantage of my teachers to learn. But I had to do it. I hated doing that, to this day I hated that. I took advantage of them because I had no other outlet. My only outlet to learn was either from church or from school. My parents’ level of education, whatever they learned, they learned from while I was learning. So if I learned something new, I told my dad. I told my dad. I told my mom. And so we learned together.
MOUNGYIV: And I think that’s the bond that I get to have with my parents. Most kids learn from their parents. I learned with my parents, and I’ll never forget that. That’s the only advantage I get on other people, I get to learn with my parents.
NGUYEN: That sounds fun. Yeah, you’re definitely very strong, saying that. You’re a very, very strong woman, and I am sure that you know that, too. All the adversities we Asian American women have to go through over the years. And, I can relate to your bubbliness, too, obviously. Just a while ago, I was joking with Rosey about how like, I can see why she would be friends with me after seeing you, because I felt like we were very similar people in that way, how like we were very, you know, always positive, and just smiling and laughing all the time, just being dorks, and just being very open to other people. Yet, at the same time, having to stay strong, in the process of growing up, and being the first-born, of being the older sister, for your younger sister to rely - for your younger siblings to rely on. And Joanne doesn’t know how much I - I don’t know- it’s like that girl doesn’t know how much love I have for her. Maybe she does, because like you, I am super affectionate, too. Ah-ha!
MOUNGYIV: I crave affection.
NGUYEN: Yeah, it’s funny because as a first-born, my parents invested all of their time and attention, or a lot of time and attention onto me, because I was the first child. And my sister didn’t have that, didn’t have as much attention, too. At the same time, it was also because my parents were going through a divorce, and then my dad’s parents came into the picture. So a lot of the attention was diverted to other places, and my sister didn’t receive as much, she didn’t receive as much attention or she might have felt like she wasn’t loved as much as me. And so, growing up, for me, saying “I love you” was easier, and giving hugs and kisses to my parents was easier, and being closer to them was easier.
At the same time, I also felt like, being open to them was a kind of, a rebellious thing to do. Like yeah, you know, I grew up in this so-called, traditional, conservative Asian household. But at the same time, we all loved each other. We can love too, and I really wanted to break those barriers down, break down those walls that my parents had to grow up with, had to build because of the environment that they lived in. And in a way, they passed down to us too, a bit to us. But at the same time, I believe that children can make a difference. Like, we as the children can make a difference, being the first ones to initiate to show love, being the first ones to be open to them, and to reach out to them and ask them what their lives were like growing up, what it’s like to be at our age at that time, what their struggles are like. It’s a very humanizing experience. Now, I no longer see them as just my parents but they’re human beings, too, as they were also vulnerable children who wanted to be loved, who wanted to be cared for, but had to build their own walls, had to force themselves to grow up quickly, in order to be strong enough to face the world. And yeah, my sister, she didn’t- in a way, she’s like Rosey- I love how often we talk about her on this episode, by the way. (LAUGHS)
MOUNGYIV: It’s just hard not to, because no matter how much we struggle, we just keep thinking about our siblings.
NGUYEN: It’s so true.
MOUNGYIV: And it’s hard because, especially the fact that Rosey is also a girl. Even though we had a brother in between us, but because Simon, he had to grow up and experience everything like I did, had to learn English at school, had to- but he learned English faster, because he was, even though he was a year younger than me, he was two years in grade behind me because he was born in the fall. So whatever I struggled through, he learned from me. But he still had to struggle through his own things. And sometimes I don’t compare myself to my brother because he is a boy. Being a boy is different from being a girl, especially in the Asian culture. It was very unfair. It was obvious that, I didn’t see that it was strange because I was so used to it. And it’s the same thing with my cousins, because they had the same thing. Their brothers were treated differently than they were, my girl cousins. And when Rosey was born, it was easier to compare. Because it was blatantly obvious that my parents were raising her differently. Just because what they learned from me, and I have no recollection after 4, before 5, 6 years old, I have no recollection because I I feel like I was a troubled child. Then again-
MOUNGYIV: Then again, it became obvious when I started going to school. And when I started learning English, I became a- I’m a very curious person. And even though I was used to asking teachers for help, or asking teachers certain things that I wouldn’t get, asking for me to learn English. But then once I learned English at 10, my curiosity just took the best of me. And then, my parents would talk about when I got older, like in high school, that I started getting more curious about certain events, and I’m always in all these things. My parents were like, we knew once you learned how to walk and speak, you’d never stop. And I guess that’s what made it easier for Rosey to be their good child, kind of. Because whatever I learned I threw at them. Whatever I learned from school or anything, I would tell Rosey right away. Like, “Oh, don’t do this when you’re at school… you know, this, this, this.”
But Rosie didn’t see my struggles in school, because by the time she got into the seventh grade, or the sixth grade, she ended up having teachers I had. But those teachers grew with me. They saw me grow. They saw me achieve from being an F student to a B- student. So, they expected more from Rossey. I think that’s one of the things that made Rosey start to hate me, because she ended having my teachers. And looking like me didn’t help, because they expected her to be exactly like me, to be curious, to always ask questions, to always know the answer, to always read in advance, read ahead so that I could get a good grade later. And Rosey didn’t do that, and she hated me for it, when we went to the same public school. But then once we moved to the suburbs, she ended up being the only person they know from our family, it made it easier for her because she got to be herself. Because being compared to me was apparently not fun, so I’ve heard from both Simon and Rosenna. They told her, “You know your sister, she struggled, but she made it, she made it, and you could, too, if you asked a question”, and she’d be like, “No, no, no, I’m not her.” And hearing that, it kind of made me sad .But at the same time, I’m proud that she knows that she can find her own identity.
So then she could be more Americanized as she pleased. And I know that when we moved to the suburbs, I know it would have been harder for her. But because she was able to easily able to adapt, because she wasn’t that different - she knew English. School was easy for her; she didn’t have that struggle, and she always had me helping her so she was able to excel while in school. And plus, she had to hear my nagging if she didn’t do anything right, or if she forgot to do her homework, or something.
Because like I said, I struggled. I had to really study. I had to really pay attention in class to get good grades. And for her, it came natural. I knew that of her, because she had me to help her from day one.
NGUYEN: Mm hmm.
MOUNGYIV: When she didn’t need my help anymore, it kind of made me feel sad. But I’m proud of her, and I think that’s what we see in our siblings. We see that they didn’t have our struggles. On one side, we’re envious of that. But on another, we’re proud of it. Because they’re doing something we didn’t do.
MOUNGYIV: And I think when Rosey was born, my parents were more affectionate to the younger ones. And I envied that of them, of my sister, because I rarely hear “I love you” from my parents.
NGUYEN: Mm hmm.
MOUNGYIV: I didn’t hear it until I started getting older, and I started doubting myself, doubting my characteristic, doubting who I am. Then I started hearing it more. Then, when I found myself, and accepted myself, my parents were super proud. They didn’t care that I didn’t make money. They didn’t care that I failed. They were proud that I am me. They were proud that I love me, and I love being their daughter, and I love being Cambodian. That’s what they feel love. And more and more, the kids are getting older, more and more that communication is a key in our family. Hearing the words “I love you” have become a natural in the home. And I think I’m happy of that, because the more we know that we know that we came from refugees- that we were refugees, that we came here for help and we got it, the more when I see the news, it breaks my heart. Because my parents were able to come here. Yes, it took a long time. My parents were in their late teens when they got here. But when I see that people want to turn away refugees because of terrorism or something like that, oh no. And like refugees and stuff, it breaks my heart because my parents were that, my parents were the kids that are not being able to be told to come over here. If my parents were to be turned back, I wouldn't be here today.
And I just hope that the Americans [who] are so scared of immigrants, would just open their hearts. Not everybody’s bad. Everybody has the right, to look for a place to call home, to feel safe again, because their home isn’t safe anymore. To hear how many kids are suffering in Syria, in all those little countries, it breaks my heart. Because sometimes I take it for advantage that we didn’t, that I didn’t go through it. But when I see those kids and I think about my mom being hungry, my dad being hungry, my dad losing his family, my mom losing family, I feel for those refugees asking for help. Why can’t we give it to them? Because we’re scared of terrorism? We shouldn’t be scared of the people [who’re] asking for help. I feel like in this country, there are more US citizens that can do more harm to us than the refugees. And these people, they’re not coming to a country they know. They’re coming to a completely foreign country for help. I mean they have to learn a completely different language, they have to learn a different culture. They’re going to have a culture shock. But if they want help, we should give it. Because with my family, if there’s one thing I learned from everything I went through growing up, [it’s that] I’m so grateful for the people that sponsored my family here. Not all of us came, but a great majority of us did. And we get so sucked into the problems we have, as American refugees, that we were working so hard to become an American that a lot of us get blinded. The ones that feel like immigrants shouldn’t come over, or refugees shouldn’t come over, because they might be terrorists, just remember, if your parents didn’t come here seeking asylum, your grandparents did, your great-grandparents did, somewhere in your lineage, your heritage, someone was seeking help.
It’s not fair for us to turn away people asking for help. Because if we do that, they lose hope. I think the only thing, even though America is not a melting pot, but the one thing it- it doesn’t matter where you’re from, it doesn’t matter what part of the country you’re from, North America, America is known for one thing: hope, hope to survive. And I just hope that people who are listening will understand. Coming from a child of a refugee, of someone that was seeking, of their parents and their grandparents, aunts, and uncles, cousins, were seeking asylum for a war that they never created, a war they never asked for, for help and hope so that their generation, their family, their kids don’t starve, don’t have to go through bombings and raidings. Why is it so hard for us to open our hearts, open our arms to let these people in? I know that the president is saying all this stuff, what the government is saying, the freaking immigration ban, the immigrant ban, it’s ridiculous. If we do that, that’s not calling America home of the free. Without that, without allowing refugees in, we close our doors from what every country thought of us.
Doesn’t matter where you’re from, you go to Korea, they think the same thing. Japan, same thing. China, same thing. Even in Europe, America is known for one thing, and that main thing is hope, hope that someone will open their arms for you. Hope that you can- to not suffer. Yes, you will suffer trying to learn a new culture. That’s a strong struggle, but compared to struggling to live day-by-day, its worse than trying to learn English. It’s worse than being bullied. Bullying can kill but in that country, they don’t have someone to bully them. They just want to live, they just want to survive the next night. Why can’t we put ourselves in their shoes? I’m grateful that I had refugee parents, because I can put myself in my parents’ shoes. Because I struggled as an immigrant, as a child of an immigrant. I struggled to be an American, even though I had the right to be an American. Day after day, I struggled to be an American. And when people say racist crap like, “Go back to your country,” or, “Can’t stand you guys, you guys are taking our jobs, why can’t you just stay in your country like other people?” or, “Ugh, look at that chink - ugh, I bet you that she’s gonna take our class; she’s better than math at us so that’s why she’s going to take our spot in college ‘cause she got a free ride for being Asian.”
It needs to stop. Your hate that you learn from your bigot family needs to stop. Because even though you’re being that ignorant to me, I would never go, “Ugh, look at you, you’re a cracker. Ugh, you don’t even know where you’re coming from. You’re just a plain old mutt.” No way I would ever consider saying that to anyone. All I cared about was making my parents proud. If I got that, I could sleep at night. But these refugees, they’re like my parents. When I see children starving, or hearing children getting sick because they didn’t have anything to eat, it hits home. And it hurts because I can’t help, because my government refused to help. When I put myself in their shoes, it hurts. Because if I didn’t get lucky to be born an American, I would be in their shoes, I would be that refugee child seeking for help. All I did was be born in the country while there is a war. Does that make it wrong? Does that make me a terrorist? Does that make my parents a terrorist? Why does someone asking for help just to live to the next day, why is it wrong? Why are we scared? Every time I think about my story, I’m willing to talk about it, no matter how personal it is, no matter what struggles I went through. Because I remember, when my parents said, “You’re lucky. Remember that you’re lucky you were born here. So what you get discriminated? So what people make fun of your race? So what if they ask what you are? Just remember you were born here. There will be no war here. If there is a war, it will be taken to the other person’s land, never your land, never where you’re from.”
So when people are scared of these terrorist attacks, hitting their homes, think about how scared we were for 9/11, think about them. They have to live it. These kids have to live it. These adults have to live it. To be a parent and not being able to guarantee your children’s safety, it’s the worst feeling in the world. I never experienced it, but I know my family did. I know my grandmothers did. My grandmothers, not knowing English, not knowing how to read or write it, came to a country they knew nothing about, but they came here because they wanted their kids to survive. This isn’t about terrorists, this isn’t about immigrants taking your jobs. This is about surviving, as humans. We’re all the same in the end. We’re all human. We’re just different color because our regions have different climates. But we’re all the same. We still bleed. We still bleed blood. We still breathe the same air. This hate, this discrimination, this propaganda needs to stop. Because whenever I see those stories, it hurts a lot. Because even though I’m an American, my parents worked their ass off to be an American. To become a U.S. citizen, my parents, my dad at least- he got lucky, right when he turned old enough that he could study, and he bust his ass off to learn the constitution, to become a U.S. citizen. And then my mom had to wait until 2001 to become a citizen. I’m proud of my parents. My mom had a- you know, the reason why my mom even waited that long, because she had a fear she would fail. For a strong woman, she was scared to fail. But she succeeded in becoming a US citizen. She would never be considered a terrorist. She came as a refugee. My mother is a refugee. I am proud of my parents. I will never be ashamed that I am a child of a refugee. I was when I was younger, but not today, not as a 28-year-old American woman. They gave me the freedom to be a woman, to be proud to be a woman, to be able to work wherever I please, to be able to be a business owner if I want.
So, when we shut down those refugees, it feels like they’re shutting out my family. It just, that hate. It is reminded again, to all the hate that people are saying, because they’re scared, you have to put your foot in my position. Try being a child that had no say of where she was born, but being thrown hate at from day one that she stepped into a school. And I still think positive. In the end, I kept saying, “They can make fun of me now. They can pull and pick at me all they want now, but when I go home, I belong, I belong, I am loved, no matter what you say about me, I am loved.” To always think positive. “Oh, today is a bad day. It’s okay, tomorrow will be better. Tomorrow is a new day. Just forget about today.” To be able to still be bubbly, to have a great exterior, to trust and open my arms to people when they want to be my friend. When people need someone to go talk to, I will be willing to be that person.
But when people shut out just because I’m a different color, just because I’m a different religion, just because I come from, my family comes from a different country, it just makes it so obvious that America is so segregated. And I just hope that when people are listening to this, they understand that these refugees aren’t trying to make our country bad. They’re just seeking refuge. They’re just seeking a place where they can live, because they can’t go home. There is no home left. Home is destroyed. How would you feel if something happened to your home? As American citizens, how would you feel if something happened? You wouldn’t know what to do. But they did. They’re surviving, everyday. I’m proud of my parents, and I’m proud of those refugees because they’re surviving day by day. Their will to live proves that they are way stronger than we are, proves that they are better humans than we are, that they still have hope that a foreign country will take them because all they’ve heard their whole lives is that America is home of the free. America will open their arms for anyone. But when we become hypocrites and shut that door, that gate, who do they turn to? There’s no one else to turn to. No other country is home of the free, no other country is home of the immigrant. Because I can tell you for sure, America, North America at least, our constitution, and how our country started, we are all immigrants, too. Pilgrims are immigrants. I hope that everybody remembers that, that they think that, that you’re the majority, that the majority is White people, that America is theirs. No, sweetheart, no, sir. You, your family were once immigrants. Just remember it. Just because it happened in the 1600s, the 1500s, doesn’t change the fact that you, your family had to go in through my shoes. Someone in your family suffered being a first generation, too. I just hope that’s what the listeners will take out of this.
And other immigrant children, you guys are strong. There is no one stronger than first generations because we had to have two identities to keep, and we had to make it merge, ourselves. Our families don’t teach it to us.
MOUNGYIV: School doesn’t teach it to us. We as an individual have to learn it ourselves, from when you are 5 to way until you’re 40, you have to accept yourself. You have to be proud of yourself. No one can take away the fact that you have two cultures in you. No one. And no matter how many people pick on you because you speak funny, or you sound funny, your language sounds funny, you eat funny food, your food smells funny, in the end, you have two cultures to be proud of. You can be an American, be proud to be from this country. Home of the free, home of the immigrant, home of the stigma of the melting pot. If you want to be the melting pot, do it. You’re more, you have the privilege to. You don’t have to deal with what your parents, your grandparents or great grandparents had to struggle. But remember, having two cultures does not make you wrong, it leaves you strong.
And being a woman is also the strongest thing us girls can be. Because in any Asian culture, a woman is known to suffer, and suffer a lot. Every woman are told when you’re a little girl, that you’re going to suffer. You’re not going to be equal to the boys, you’re not going to be expected to do much besides cook, clean, and have children. It doesn’t matter what culture you are. All women feel the same way. Any, every race gets told the same thing. You’re not a real woman if you don’t get a man to support you and have kids, and keep your man. If you can keep your man, you’re a real woman. So, tired of hearing that shit. If it means being single for the rest of your life, adopt your own kids, go ahead, who cares? If you’re in America, you have the right to. No one can tell you what to do. Because as a woman, we have the ability to multi-task, we have the ability to think beyond today, beyond tomorrow, and we have the ability to have empathy. As a woman, we have all of that. So what if sometimes, we get emotional? So, we accept our emotions. We accept how we feel. If we’re upset, we’ll show you we’re upset. If we’re angry, we’ll show you we’re angry. But we have that ability. Men, they try. But men still lack that. But as women, we are told we are allowed to do that. That is expected from us. So, we’re going to make it as an American woman. We’re going to make it obvious. It doesn’t matter where I go. Even when I went to visit my family in Cambodia, all my girl cousins told me, “You’re lucky, because in your country, you’re allowed to be strong. You’re allowed to be able to work wherever you want. You’re allowed to not get married. You don’t have to get married there.” And that’s what makes me proud as an American woman. I may struggle because I’m still a woman, I may struggle that I’m an immigrant, that my parents are immigrants and I’m a first generation. But compared to all the struggles, if I can still survive, if I can still be proud to be who I am, I don’t care what other people say. You can judge me all you want, because in the end, I’m me and I accept it. I accept both my cultures. I am proud to be Cambodian. I am proud to be an American, and I’m also proud to be a woman. No one can take that away from me. And if I have a bad day, I remember someone that’s also suffering worse than I am. There’s always someone struggling.
But the difference is how I figured that out to get out of my struggles. If I can think positive and think happy thoughts, so can you. I hope that the listeners get that, too. No matter what struggle you have, being a male, being gay, being Black, being Hispanic, being Asian. It doesn’t matter what struggle you’re going through right now. My parents always say, someone’s struggling worse than you are. And as a country, we should stop being scared. We need to go back and be the open country that we are. Without that, we’re not America. Without that, I can’t be proud to be an American. America is known for hope. Why can’t we give other people hope? If we can do that, then we’ll be able to be proud to be Americans again. But if you just think about yourself, you need to step back. You need to talk to go talk to your great grandpa, great grandma, you need to go talk to your parents about your heritage. You need to go back to find your roots, because if you were to find out the truth of how horrendous your great-great-great-great-great ancestors had it, you wouldn’t be so selfish.
I’m just lucky that the war in Cambodia happened so late. I mean it’s heinous to have a genocide in your parents’ home country. But you know what I learned from that, is that every country will go through it, every country will have the struggle, but then every country will then look to America to hope. And I’m born in the country of hope. If I can have hope, we need to give hope to the refugees, and I hope people will listen to this and take it to heart and consideration, that we need to stop being selfish. Because if my parents were to be selfish, my dad wouldn’t have come to America, my dad would never have met his wife. My dad would have stayed in Thailand. He didn’t want to come to America, but his whole family was coming here because there was hope. Because if he had stayed in Cambodia, there was no hope. He would have died, and my mom, too, there was no hope where she was from. You ask my parents today if they ever want to go back to their homeland. They’ll tell you, “Not until my kids are grown. Not until my kids are in good hands, are independent.” If you ask them if they would bring us back to go live there, they’ll tell you, “Hell no. There is no way in hell my kids are growing up in Cambodia. I didn’t just bust my ass off for them to be here, to just take them back to a country where they’re going to get discriminated against, especially at school.” So, I’m glad that I get to have this interview with you.
NGUYEN: Thank you so much. So many powerful words from you. Yeah, haha. I am speechless, as well as most likely many of our listeners will be, once they listen in. This is very empowering, very moving. And I am very grateful to have you on this podcast. I really couldn’t have said it any better. You said everything, everything that you know, was needed to be said, and so much more. And I’m so glad to have you on this podcast. This was definitely very serendipitous. I did not expect this at all. Like, you know? Ahaha. So this was beautiful
MOUNGYIV: Thank you.
NGUYEN: Just hearing all of your words. But anyways, thank you so much Saroeun, for your time, and your stories, and I hope that our listeners will take a lot from this episode.
MOUNGYIV: Thank you for having me on. I was a little worried about being on, but then I thought about it and I’m like, with everything that’s going on, people need to be able to hear from other people, the stories that we keep so dear to our heart, because it’s considered a weakness. But I’m tired of using my weakness as a weakness. It needs to be used in a positive note. No longer will I ever be ashamed of being a child of an immigrant, a child of a refugee. That’s no longer going to be crutches for me. I’d rather use it for positive, and I hope that it opens people’s hearts to being generous again, to being understanding again. Because fear comes in so many ways, and it turns into hate. It is uncomfortable to have that you know, especially knowing that your family came from being, as immigrants suffering to come here, the suffering they went through. I hope that the listeners can understand from our point of view. Even though we’re born here, being from the background we come from, I hope that opens light to understanding that everybody has struggles that you may think that one first generation is strong and very happy, you don’t know what’s going on inside because that pain, if I hadn’t accepted it years ago, I would be balling my eyes out right now. Bbut that pain that I bottled up, I’ve accepted it, all those flaws that I’ve had. If I didn’t accept it I wouldn’t be the person that I am now, and I hope that people that are struggling through it right now, learn to accept it. Don’t think of it as a weakness. It’s something to be proud of. Because that flaw, that one thing that people think is a negative, or that struggle that you’re going through, that pain and suffering that you’re going through. If you can survive it, you’re ten times stronger than anyone in the world. And I hope people know that, because that’s the main reason why I agreed to do the interview, because I hope my sister listens to this, and I hope my friends and family and listeners will take it to heart that you’re not the only one that suffers. We may come from different backgrounds, we may look different, our personality may all be different. But in the end, I hope it shows that suffering can be made positive, anything can be made into a positive to be honest, no matter how hard you’re struggling. If you keep thinking negative, you’ll never succeed, and that’s the one thing I took to heart is that you can’t succeed if you’re only thinking about the bad. You can only succeed when you’re positive. And if my parents hadn’t shown me that, I wouldn’t have learned it as fast as I did.
NGUYEN: And there you have it. If any of you listeners out there would like to send us your feedback, your thoughts, questions, to either one of us, message us on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tune in next time. Can’t wait to show you what we have in store but again, I hope that you gained a lot from this. Reflect upon it, and we’d love to hear what you’d have to say. Bye!
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