Khmer or Khmao Enough?


Vannary Kong


Resilience. My grandfather use to tell me all the time that we derive from the “Land of the Killing Fields.” Being five years old I did not understand the meaning of the “Land of the Killing Fields.”

My mother used to always tell me that I was created perfectly in the image of God. I have always struggled with my identity. My father is Khmao, but he does not look like your typical African American. My father is a ginger with green eyes, freckles, and the complexion of an oyster pearl. My mother is Khmer. She has long, thick, wavy hair with a curl at the ends, and is short with curvy features and tan skin. I was always known as the ‘cute little mixed girl’ because no one really knew how to classify me. I was tan with thick, dark brown curly hair, and a big smile that can be seen around the world.

I could never really fit in anywhere. African Americans use to always tell I am not black enough or call me ‘white girl’ because I was so different. I remember going to a predominantly African American Parochial school and being made fun of for eating Salaaw Machiuew (sweet and sour soup) at lunch. My last name is Kong, so you already know I was catching all the names with that name.  But I always pretty much got along with the Afro-Latinos and the Caribbean mixes.

As I got older, my identity became harder to find. My parents ended up getting a divorce when I was in kindergarten. My stepfather is also Khmao with a mixture of French Creole, while my step-mother is Mexican from the indigenous Lakota Tribe in Yucatan Mexico. As my family became more diverse I had to ask myself ‘Who am I?’ Being raised in the Midwest, I always got mistaken for  mulatto (being black and white) or Afrolatina.  I can speak Spanish really well, but my Khmer was also pretty strong. Whenever I was out in public with my mother we always got confused for being Latinas, Burmese, Philippines, or Hawaiian. My mother’s family practiced Theravada Buddhism and my father’s family was Baptist. My stepfather and stepmother’s families are both practicing Catholics.

It was hard growing up as mixed Asian American, having to juggle multiple identities. I was always abused by my father’s family for being different and light skinned. There was also a lot of animosity toward  my mother for leaving my father. People always made me feel terrible for loving my Khmer culture. I was constantly in this battle of not being Asian enough or Khmao enough. This  really took a toll on me in college.  I was always being teased by East Asians – and by the Asian faculty -  for being Khmer.  They would always tell me I am not a real Asian because Cambodians are the ‘Blacks of Asia.’

The Black student organizations would always tell me that I was black due to Jim Crow’s ‘One Drop’ rule, yet I was never black enough to join any of the historical African American sororities. When it came to dating African American males, I was always looked at as an exotic wild animal being ‘that Asian girl’ and the one not to bring home to meet the family. I remember taking an Asian American Studies course taught by a Japanese professor, where I was told that he was not going to teach about Cambodia or Laos because we were just ‘another refugee demographic that was not important.’ For the longest I hated myself; I was alone facing discrimination and abuse throughout college.

My sophomore year in college, I ended up joining student organizations which did not necessarily turn out to be the best choices I was different from a lot of students, and I always stood out . After being chastised for not being ‘East Asian’ or ‘Black Enough’ with very little support I ended up going into a depression. But from junior year to my senior year in school I ended up gaining numerous opportunities that would aid in self-acceptance and my career aspirations. I started modeling for numerous boutiques and clothing lines in the Indianapolis area. I learned how to love all my features despite being an in industry prone to body shaming. I learned how to embrace the diversity of being a minority within the Asian American community. Yet I was getting verbally abused by my parents despite all the awards that I was winning and international opportunities I was gaining. Even though Indianapolis was only a little bit smaller than Chicago, there were still huge small town mentalities sprinkled throughout the city. My family did not support my goals and dreams.

In fact, there was little glimmer of hope that I would achieve my dreams. I ended up running away from home and became homeless. I ended up working for the Indiana State House under the Department of Education with Education reform under Superintendent Glenda Ritz, but this was right before Mike Pence became Vice President of the United States. Re-election came up for the Superintendent’s Positions and Glenda Ritz loss, putting me out of an internship.

With no means of supporting myself and still talking classes full time at IUPUI, I picked myself up and ended up getting hired by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs DPADM. I went to New York City and lived in Manhattan, becoming Indiana University’ first student to intern with the United Nations. The United Nations embraced my diversity of being a Khmer and African American. During my time interning with the United Nations, I was hired on to Save Cambodia, an international organization aimed at cultural preservation and sustainable development in Cambodia.  I ended up competing in the Resolution Project Competition for a grant to jump start the Cambodian Boarding School. After making it to the semi-finals I ended up getting recruited by Harvard School of Law where I will soon start my dual Law and Ph.D. program in both International Law and International Relations. My struggles of belonging to the Khmer and Africana Diaspora has led me down the road of fighting for international human rights with global diplomacy and governance through the United Nations and International Courts of Peace. 

Finally, I found my voice.