Photo courtesy of Bunthay Cheam

Cambodian (Khmer) Community Fellow

I was suddenly free. And just like that, physically and mentally, my hands, my thoughts, all of it asked, “What’s next?”

Travel. And that’s what I did. I went deeper into the woods. I went to the Bay. I went to L.A. Twice. I went to Southeast Asia. And the time spent there was the longest I had spent outside of the U.S. since I arrived as a 10-month old refugee. I spent almost two months traveling through Cambodia, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bali. I reconnected with some old family, met a lot of new ones.

I took a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. Silence. For 10 days. Eating twice daily, once at 6 AM and the second time at 11 AM. When I came back to Seattle from Southeast Asia, I became a Samenara Buddhist Monk. I learned a lot about myself and even more about the Khmer culture from these two journeys.

Around the time I became unemployed, a good friend sent a link to an article to me from the International Examiner (IE). I don’t remember what it was but in the email, she wrote something like, “You should write for the IE…”

Some time passed and upon further critical thinking afforded by all the free time I had, I realized that the IE didn’t have too much coverage on the Southeast Asian community. Actually, all Asian American media didn’t. Neither did alternative papers. The same for mainstream media. No real coverage for communities like the Cham, Lao, Mien, Hmong and Khmer.

So in the late spring, I asked Travis Quezon, editor of the IE at the time, for a meeting. I told him that although I didn’t go to school in journalism nor did I have any real experience writing articles, I would be a great addition to the IE because I grew up and had some access into the SE Asian community. He agreed. And then he told me he didn’t have a traditional journalism background either. And that the best journalists are people like myself and him, all the talent we needed was in our hearts.

And on May 18, 2017, on the anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, my first article was published. It was about a gatekeeper in the Khmer American community in Tacoma, Silong Chhun, and his work to bridge the intergenerational divide through an art exhibit he curated called, “Scars & Stripes: War, Genocide, Resettlement, Deportation.” This exhibit told the story of the Khmer diaspora’s journey and the continued trauma the community deals with up to present day.

I didn’t know it then, but the submittal of that article marked the beginning of another type of journey. Although I still live where I grew up and have been in the community for a long time, it wasn’t until I began to write for the IE that I understood what type of community member I had been and began to understand what I was beginning to become.

I’m a 1.5-generation refugee. That means my mother and father were adults when they arrived and therefore identified with Khmer culture more than being American. You can see that in their day to day beliefs and values. My son, Tyler, is truly American. I, however, am in- between, and, to an extent, understand both worlds.

“Taking leaps of faith,” is how I decided I’d spend this newfound freedom. So I did that. With the travel, the meditation, the monkhood, all of it. I also did it with people. I did this by showing up in spaces for and with people I didn’t know too well but in work that I believed needed to be done to address the lack of visibility and marginalization that the Khmer American community faced.

In the fall, Sameth Mell, a Khmer American community leader, forwarded me information about the Advocacy Journalism Fellowship Program (AJFP). Help give a platform for marginalized communities to tell their stories through journalism? I didn’t think twice. I wanted in.

To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what a fellowship was when I applied. I had never been in one. I’m new to the world of “community work” as it’s understood and the culture that exists in the API world with all the non-profits and community based organizations and in the community at large. I’m still learning acronyms that are common language t0 this day. I still feel very much like an outsider.

I was accepted (THANK BUDDHA!!!), and I met three other dope fellows with a similar need in their core, to help people. We all come from very different walks of life but have been raised with very similar values, in other words, SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT.

At some point during the fellowship, I needed to take off my training wheels and take even more leaps of faith into the community. But I thought it wouldn’t be as hard as I thought. I’m Khmer, so why wouldn’t they let me in? Also, I know what issues the community is facing so I know what I should write about – displacement from gentrification, intergenerational trauma, access to higher education, etc.

IE Fellows Annie Kuo, Nick Turner and Bunthay Cheam walk the red carpet at the 2018 Seattle Asian American Film Festival • Photo By Sokha Danh

Those two assumptions couldn’t be further from what I really needed going into the community: a lot of humility and better listening skills.

Lesson 1: Just because you’re ethnically from the community doesn’t mean that it’s going to help you. When you show up in Khmer spaces, people want to know who your parents are, where you’re from (geographically), what community organizations you’re with. It’s almost as if it’s worse being from the community ethnically. Trying to prove that you’re coming in with objectivity given your alliances and perceived alliances from within the community can be really hard or tough depending on who’s you’re trying to cover. I learned fast that I couldn’t just parachute into their space with a story in mind. I really had to spend time and build trust. Only then would the genuine conversations begin. And only then would I learn what the stories truly were.

Lesson 2: It’s very much related to the first lesson; you listen and learn. I really had to do that because at first, I only heard what I wanted to hear. Then I began to listen. And after that, something crazy happened. Real genuine stories were shared with me. And it elevated my understanding of the community. I started to actually become a real live “JOURNALIST.”

I don’t know if it was a coincidence, how being involved in the fellowship intensified my writing, especially about the Khmer American community alongside my immersion into community work. I also got involved with a number of community groups to do some really good and much needed work, strengthen old relationships in new ways, and connect with even more dope people who fight the fight every day. But I’ll take it.

The past year has been a year of journeys, and the fellowship led me down a path to discovering new ways to advocate for communities. It was a conduit to get to know the people in my community deeper, stronger, better and it taught me that I didn’t know everything and that that was ok and that to simply show up and be present was powerful, it allows me to genuinely pass on an authentic stories. Along with the meeting of minds with the other fellows, the sessions with established API leaders and their experiences, the AJFP gave me another path to leap towards on this continued exploration of my purpose: To tell the stories of a community that nobody has ever heard.

To read the essays of other Fellows’ experiences, click the following: Annie Kuo, John Phoenix Leapai, Nick Turner

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