As the primary English communicator of her Cambodian-American family, Suely Saro got used to speaking out at a young age.
First it was the kindergarten lunch cards that she had to request for her and her brother. In elementary school, she was accepted into the English learner class and had to file an application to be removed from the class. A few years later she spoke out to help her way into the honor classes she needed for college.
Soon she was preparing income support applications and other official documents for her parents, other family members, and even family members’ friends. She learned that there were people the government reached and some it did not.
“I felt responsible for ensuring that not just my parents but the entire community was protected and advocated. And that finally extended to everyone who was marginalized or disenfranchised, ”said Saro.
When she is sworn in on Tuesday, 40-year-old Saro will become the first Cambodian-American councilor in the history of Moncton, which has housed the largest concentration of Cambodian-American refugees in the country since the 1980s. She could also be the first Cambodian American to be elected to office in California.
Your political concerns are pragmatic. She wants to paint crosswalks, increase the response rate to the office for complaints about quality of life and reduce homelessness.
But the symbolic meaning of her story is not lost. Like many Cambodian Americans in Moncton, Saro was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and her parents worked in factories and sweatshirts after settling in America. Her candidacy made headlines on Cambodian television channels and newspapers, and sent pride to a global diaspora hungry for examples of success.
She wants her story not only to shed light on the struggles of Cambodian refugees, but also how her sons and daughters are strengthened and shaped by the experience.
“People are used to seeing us as a needy population as victims. But we are as diverse as any community. We can be elected officials and artists, ”said Saro. “I think we’re kind of scared of the government. I can testify that this is not true. “
Representing the Cambodian-American community can be a complicated subject. A legacy of the Killing Fields, a five-year campaign against terror and genocide in the 1970s that killed nearly 2 million Cambodians, is the shame survivors carry to their new home countries.
This painful story leaves survivors and their children hungry for reasons to be proud of their culture. I’ve heard more than a few young Cambodian Americans wonder why Cambodian chefs always seem to market their restaurants as Thai food, which is considered mainstream. I have eaten in countless Cambodian donut shops and fried chicken shops all over the southern country but have never seen anyone sell Nom Kong, a Cambodian pastry that is very similar to a donut.
Huey Behuynh, owner of Knead Donuts & Tea, and his daughter Amy Behuynh.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
So I decided to call Huey Behuynh, a second generation Cambodian American entrepreneur who runs Knead Donuts, a gourmet donut shop in Moncton. He was surprised that I asked about Nom Kong. His family has been running donut shops for decades and never thought they would sell them.
But serving a Cambodian dish just wasn’t a big deal for him. In fact, he offered to make it for me and we quickly got into a conversation about whether there was a market for the pastry, which is made from rice flour and has the mochi chewy candy.
I realized that the assumptions made in my question just didn’t seem relevant to Behuynh. It’s not that he doesn’t value his culture and loves Nom Kong. He and his family members, who run donut shops, would have sold the pastries if they thought someone was going to buy them. They always did everything that was necessary to survive.
Behuynh, 47, came to the country as a refugee. He dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to become the main breadwinner for his family when his father was injured in an accident. He has worked as a broker, contractor, insurance agent, police officer and for a time ran his family’s restaurant in Cambodia, the Banquet Hall Siem Reap.
Behuynh never thought that he could make a living and celebrate his culture at the same time. Assimilation into mainstream white American culture is a matter of survival, Behuynh said.
But in Siem Reap, his family’s restaurant, they served a rice noodle dish that most customers recognized as pad Thai, a Thai dish. But the Cambodian version is less sour, sweeter, with a slightly drier texture and a completely different story, known as portable lunches for students in Cambodia. Behuynh said his family insist on naming the dish by the Cambodian nickname student noodle because it is an important expression of their culture and history.
“When I was growing up, there was no Google. Nowadays people want to try something different. You have to get it out of there. Cambodians are on the map, ”said Behuynh.
After agreeing to try Behuynh’s Nom Kong soon, I asked him another question about representation, this time about Saro’s campaign.
Behuynh’s reaction was far more enthusiastic. He spoke of trying to shake off a helpless mentality that sometimes comes from growing up in a refugee camp, and how Saro’s victory enabled the people who lived through it. And he thought about his daughter, who recently became the first in his family to attend four-year college.
“We were always neglected and tried to survive because we were afraid to ask for help. The Cambodian community, unfortunately, never asks for things. So this is a good direction for the church that it is going. It encourages future generations to see what is possible, ”said Behuynh.
I think I shouldn’t be so surprised that this question provided a more meaningful answer than my query about donuts. And it reminded me that when we talk about representation in the Asian-American community, we need to look beyond positive affirmations of our cultures to the material needs of our communities.
Saro and Behuynh share a common culture, but both are also more concerned about graduation rates than positive action at elite colleges. You’ve both heard of Nom Kong; More importantly, they share the experience of growing up in cramped homes with multiple families.
I asked Saro what her candidacy meant for two Cambodian Americans in particular: their parents.
“You never felt part of America,” said Saro. “I hope this starts to change your perspective.”