I have always been the minority. Despite nesting in Little Saigon, I felt my otherness as soon as I left the tribe. Billboards, tv shows, and magazines were subconscious and continual reminders of that.
Obviously, Cambodia is different, but not in the way that I imagined. I thought I would stand out as a foreigner with my ombre hair, straight teeth, and tight yoga pants. Asian, yes; but local, no.
That is not the case. While I am not Khmer, the people of Cambodia beg to differ. Google Somaly Mam, and you’ll see why.
When I first arrived, my students thought I was Khmer, shocked when I told them I was actually Vietnamese. When I walk into shops or restaurants, I’m greeted in Khmer, confusing the staff when I don’t respond to their inquiries. When I clarify that I’m not Khmer, they always say the same thing: “But you have a Khmer face!”
However, this inclusion isn’t always welcoming. I’ve been checked out and pointed at while walking down the street in my above-the-knee dress or Berkeley tank top, both considered sexy by Cambodian standards. White foreigners do not get this treatment. And once during a lunch meeting, the restaurant staff thought that I was a young Khmer woman chatting it up with an older foreign gentleman – a common pairing that holds stigma, as I’m sure you can imagine. (To clarify, it was an informational interview for a consulting gig, and the person I was meeting with was the Khmer one.)
Being included in this tribe means that the rules of Cambodian culture are projected onto me, despite me not knowing the game. While it’s similar to Vietnamese culture, I’m sure I miss the mark on many, many things. But at the same time, I have the privilege of being the majority, of blending in. For the first time, faces on the streets and in media look like mine.
On top of that, being Vietnamese holds a negative connotation. The history between Cambodia and Vietnam has been tumultuous, resulting in a lot of tension and racism between the two. There’s even a Khmer racial slur for Vietnamese, “yuon”. Some of my students tell me about how Vietnam keeps trying to take Cambodia’s land and resources, and even influencing the vote by illegally contributing. But it’s hard to tell fact from propaganda.
When I first got here, I quickly opened up about my Vietnamese ethnicity, but the few scornful looks I received was enough to shut me up. In this unfamiliar environment, you never know the consequences of the truth. So in regards to identity, I’m caught at a crossroads. I’m not Khmer, but I’m not Vietnamese either as far as you’re concerned.
In the end, whether majority or minority, privileged or not, it appears one cannot escape the questions and concepts of identity and perception.