As a Cambodian American, I’ve lived life in an identity crisis. Sometimes I felt more American than Cambodian, other times more Cambodian than American. On many occasions I was Chinese; “Ching chong” they would call me. It didn’t matter that Cambodia isn’t China because when it comes to the conversation of race in America, Asian Americans are often treated like footnotes, if they’re acknowledged at all. And perhaps because we’re treated as the perpetual other, there are many families in our communities who do not want the authorities meddling in their business. More attention from the law isn’t always safe for us.
Folks outside of our community say they want to help fix the problem, but my people do not feel safer with more police present in our neighborhoods. Those “protectors” have never taken the time to understand us. They don’t know our language, our traditions, our culture, or our history. How can we trust strangers who barge into our homes and don’t treat our communities with basic respect? We see the ramped up “protection” in response to the rise in anti-Asian violence as unchecked power that puts us at risk, not something that keeps us safe. It’s the same power that has pulled us over since our youth, that pushes us against their cars and walls while being searched. Our elders understand this power as a threat to our families and communities.
When my mother touched down in the states, she couldn’t work. She had severely injured her leg while fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime. In America, we were poor and living off government aid, but our house was filled with love and was better for my parents. My father settled for under-the-table work running errands for friends and delivering for businesses. He kept his head down and never complained. The entirety of his check went to rent and bills. We ate off of food stamps. My parents saw authorities—be it child services, the police, or the government as a whole—as people who could take their kids away, who could cut off their livelihood by revoking WIC, SSF, or food stamps. Oftentimes, these “protectors” understood their authority and treated us as second-rate citizens.
Once, my father called me into the house. There had been a shooting in our neighborhood. Gang violence. When the cops approached our door, I noticed him start to get fidgety and anxious. I was young—five years old, maybe. He had always taught me to respect authoritative figures, especially cops. In our culture, we were taught to respect all of our elders.
“They are here to protect us,” he’d say in Khmer. “Don’t give them no trouble. Be a good boy.”
At the time, I couldn’t figure out why he looked so worried; we hadn’t done anything and he’d said they were there to protect us. My mother had my little brother clutched tightly and her eyes were focused on the door. I sat behind my father’s legs, confused. When the cops asked if my father knew someone named “Panther,” he shook his head. This was a lie. We knew exactly who they were looking for and I couldn’t understand why he was lying. Excited to help, I got up to speak, but before I could say anything, my father shoved me into the wall with so much force I toppled over.
After a final exchange of pleasantries with the cops, he closed the door, dragged me into the room, and explained why he had to do what he did. He told me that we couldn’t risk the police digging into our family dynamics. He emphasized that the cops or child services would always see our people as outsiders. Despite what he’d told me, the cops were not really there to protect us, and we were not safe if they paid closer attention to us.
My story is not unique. My Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community comprises folks who are on work/school visas, or halfway through a fragile marriage process. We are immigrants and refugees who have not become official citizens yet—and crime will subject us to deportation, even after serving our time. Mostly, our community is simply afraid to be deported because our place in America has always been questioned by other Americans. The Biden administration alone has deported 33 people to Vietnam. This is nothing new. Asian Americans are scapegoats for American people. Coronavirus, release your anger on the old Asian lady. WWII, release your issues on the Japanese Americans and put them in camps. National debt is too high, damn Chinese took all of our jobs. What’s next?
So, to those who aren’t part of our communities, we are asking for you to work with us. Ask what it is that we would really benefit from, instead of assuming you know what’s best for us. We’ll tell you how to help if you listen and understand why “more police” in a traditional sense doesn’t really make us safer. Please recognize that this is foreign to most of us—asking for help, speaking up, challenging the system—and why it makes us feel vulnerable and anxious. For so long we have felt invisible and unheard, but we are hurting. We need your assistance. There are many issues at hand here: the stereotypes of “model minority” and “perpetual other/foreigner,” the fetishization of Asian women, the under-reporting of cases of violence against us, deportation, and verbal assaults. But for now, we’ll settle for recognition and conversations to foster a victim-centered approach.