Chinese Cambodian American from Boston, MA
I met Cherry in college when we were both volunteers for an Asian American NGO in Boston. I had always been drawn to her spark and fiery energy for advocacy and social justice. In this interview with Cherry, we discussed identity politics, more specifically her experience with identifying as Chinese Cambodian American and the complexities of choice and acceptance. Thanks Cherry for a great conversation and also, welcome back to Boston!
My parents are refugees who were born in Cambodia. The genocide and war happened when they were 18. It’s weird to think about because I’m past that age and I can’t imagine what I would have done. It’s not even comparable. The amount of strength and courage that they had.
So this is their 30th year in America and my mom told me that this is an area where they’ve spent the longest time in but it has never felt like home to them. I think when they first got here to Braintree, there wasn’t a lot of Asian families living here at the time. And when I did see them, I was like, ‘Oh my god there’s another Asian family here!’. But I think my parents felt a little isolated because it was just different in regards to the feelings of belonging and things they related to culturally here.
Even for us as second generation Asian Americans, there are things that we understand as Americans but then there are things that we don’t. . . like playing on a baseball team. We know those things exist but we don’t know what it feels like to be on one.
Cherry discuss the complexity and identity politics on identifying as Chinese Cambodian American . . .
If I’m getting technical, I’m Cambodian Chinese American but there’s also identity politics. Like if I say I’m Cambodian American, people will respond with, ‘well you don’t speak Khmer.’ I also don’t look Cambodian nor did I grow up with those traditions either. It’s funny because if I talk to Chinese people, they’re like ‘your last name is Lim so what’s the story there?’
My parents grew up in Cambodia. My dad speaks Teochew and my mom speaks Cantonese but they also both speak Khmer. They also spent time in Vietnam in the refugee camps so they know a little bit of Vietnamese. My parents speak a multitude of languages and they could have gone any direction in what language to teach me and they chose Cantonese. I think that had a lot to do with helping me navigate my surroundings and making easier to belong in Chinatown. I’m in Braintree, it’s not like I live in Lowell which I think then the decision might have been different.
I thought a lot about my time at Tufts and growing up, it felt lonely. I just assumed it was normal and then all of a sudden when I got to college and they started talking about their history and my history and a lot of people can relate to it. It is lonely because it’s like I’m part of a small population of people that have this history. It’s not just about being Asian American, it’s like another layer, and it’s just so complicated.
This is the problem with identity and politics because I just don’t look it. And people shouldn’t be like, ‘oh you’re not dark enough or you’re not light enough’. It’s not fair in that way. It is part of my history – I went to Chinese school, I speak cantonese and my parents have a different history which is also part of me.
Today, Cherry is an adventurer that does not like being boxed into one particular thing . . .
Have you ever done myers brigg? I did mine on 16 personalities.com and I’m an adventurer that doesn’t like to be put into one box. It’s just so complicated. Even explaining my ethnicity is so complicated. I’m getting my masters in HigherEd, which is what I want to do, work with college students. I feel like college was such an important time for me because things didn’t click until I went to college. There’s that part of me. And then I really like knitting and crafting so there’s that part of me. I also really like sports. I’m a friend, a daughter, a sister. I’m a lot of things. Sometimes I feel like there should be one specific answer but it’s so complicated and I can’t find one.