"It is our duty to do what we can to influence the young generation and get them to have hopes and dreams, while providing the necessary resources and education."
Ronald (Ron) Ung, 28, was born in Long Beach California in 1988. His family left Cambodia in 1984 when his mother fled to the refugee camps along the Thai border. Her and her family later resettled in San Antonio, Texas where she later met his father, also a Cambodian refugee. They later settled down in Long Beach California where Ron was born.
Growing up in Long Beach was difficult economically, socially and culturally, for Ron, and many Cambodian refugee families. Discrimination, identity crisis, and living in a low income community where racial tensions converged created a ripe environment for Ron to feel lost and get caught up in the negativity.
Fortunately Ron met two people at the right time who would reshape his journey into something more positive and ignite his passion for helping others, ultimately leading him to move back to the motherland and help Cambodia's children.
Read Ron's journey below from feeling isolated and lost in the streets of Long Beach, to finding purpose in helping children in Cambodia.
Q: When and how did your family leave Cambodia?
In 1984. After the Khmer Rouge were driven out by the Viet Cong, my mother and her family fled to the refugee camps at the border of Thailand (Khao-I-Dang). Eventually, a family member sponsored my mother and her family to San Antonio, Texas. As for my father, I am not too sure about it. I just know he was from Phnom Penh, Cambodia and eventually was sponsored to San Antonio, Texas, where he met my mother.
Q: What was it like growing up in the U.S.? What were some of the difficulties you and your family experienced growing up?
It was difficult. I was raised in a bicultural household, where at home, I was expected to be Cambodian and speak Khmer, while at school, I was expected to be an American, speaking English. Just like many other newcomer refugee immigrants, my family was living on welfare. We did not realize how fortunate we were to have the government help when we were living in poverty; from rental assistance, food stamps, free breakfast and lunch at school and free healthcare. My brother and I were usually the ones who filled out the school applications since my mother had limited English comprehension.
Oftentimes, I would be a victim of racial, socioeconomic, and age discrimination. One time, a liquor storeowner forced me out of his store based on the way I looked as I was looking for stuff to buy. I felt so embarrassed and ashamed. I constantly felt prejudice because of my phenotype. In addition, cops would always harass me and assume that I am a suspect. I loathed that the most.
Another difficulty I had growing up was conforming to societal or cultural standards. I was constantly told to be submissive and not speak out about injustice, but I always felt like if I do not speak up, then who will?
Q: What challenges do Cambodian youth in the Long Beach area face in general and why do you think those challenges were unique to that demographic?
Assimalating to US society. Upon immigration to the US, the US government intentionally dispersed the Cambodian community across the country with the intention for us to assimilate faster.
Often, these environments presented more challenges to Cambodian youth. For example, in Long Beach, where many Cambodians resettled at, this was an urban, impoverished community. There were racial tensions between the Hispanics and African American communities. With Cambodians all of a sudden joining this community where job opportunities are scarce, racial tensions intensified, leading to many racially motivated violence and gang violence towards Cambodians. We were classified as Chinese. Racial slurs would be shouted at us and they would say “Ching Chong…” to make fun of us. They would tell us to go back to our country, but for some, like myself, I am in my home country. They would mock our customs such as taking off our shoes when we enter the house or say that our food smells. Many Cambodian youth were bullied and eventually formed their own gangs as protection since the older generation was still reeling from the affects from PTSD. The police sure was not going to protect us. For those that survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, coming to the US was like coming to another warzone. This was the Killing Fields 2.0.
These challenges are similar to challenges that other impoverished or urban communities face. In times of recession or lack of livable wages, the community is misled by the media to blame other minorities and then violence and hate starts to occur.
Presently, Cambodian Americans do not face as much racial tensions as before and gangs are not as prominent anymore because of social media, education, and opportunities. With education, we are able to gain higher paying jobs, move into safer communities and be an active contributing member to society.
Q: What were some fond memories you have of your childhood?
Some of the most memorable times I had during my childhood involved spending time with my cousins and grandparents. My grandpa would take his 1980s Ford F-150 truck from Chinatown and drive to my family’s house in Long Beach with about 6 bikes and the whole family would go bike riding at Queen Mary Park in Long Beach. I had the most difficult time catching up to everyone, as I was the youngest with the smallest bike.
Another memory would be winning the 4th Grade Spelling Bee. For once, I felt special, where the attention was on me and for a good reason. Growing up, I was always compared to my older brother and it was tough because he is the smarter one and I had difficulty learning. Looking back retrospectively, it was good to have that competition because my brother set the bar high, and although I could not surpass him, I was still not too far behind.
Q: Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
This is an important question. Without my mentors, I would have not been the person that I am today. Fortunately, they came into my life when I needed it most- my teenage years. I had so much trouble finding myself and who I was. But these two individuals, Mr. Bob Cabeza and Ms. Sally Lew are the ones who shaped me into a much better person with a purpose in life.
Mr. Cabeza is like a father figure to me. He has high expectations and he leads by example. At times, he can be tough, but he makes sure to balance it out and understand how you feel. He constantly throws me into the fire and into a pack of wolves. I must admit, this is not my style of learning and encouragement, but it did force me to grow a thicker skin. I failed constantly, but I learned so much through failures. Mr. Cabeza is a person that would protect you and teach you.
Ms. Lew is a grandmother figure to me. Since the first conversation I had with her on the phone, she has coached me. She has never once yelled at me, but you can tell when she is upset with you when she gives you the look. Fortunately for me, this is a super rare occurrence. Ms. Lew has given me so many opportunities and she truly goes out of her way to help. There have been countless times where she has given me a leadership role and I have thrived in it.
For both of my mentors, they have provided me with so much guidance and advice that I would not know what I would do without them. It is because of them that I make it my mission to help mentor others as well. In addition, it is not about quantity, but quality. That is the key. Trust and confidence also plays a huge role in the level of respect I have for my mentors.
Q: How did you maintain your Khmer roots growing up in the U.S.?
I did not. I hated it. I rejected my culture and my language. I always had so much trouble pronouncing the Khmer words and letters. In addition, I did not want to associate with anyone that was Cambodian. More or less, I was going through my own battles. I did not know how to identify myself. I used to tell my peers that I was Cambodian, but they would look at me perplexed, so I would tell them that it’s the country south of China and to the left of Vietnam. Later on, I would identify myself as Cambodian, Chinese, and Vietnamese as my maternal great-grandparents were mixed. Then, I started identifying myself as Asian American; especially during the whole “Azn” Pride movement. It felt good to belong, but it still did not feel right. So, for most of my childhood, I went thru different stages of identification.
Q: When and how did you get interested in philanthropy? What inspired you?
It started when I first started working at the YMCA in 2011. As a recent graduate at UCLA with a BA in Asian American Studies, I started to be more aware of community work. In addition, the most vital thing that a university taught me was to question everything and not just accept what people tell you, but to research it. I wanted to work at the YMCA to give back to the younger generation at the grassroots level. I wanted to know if the obstacles I had growing up are still the same today. In addition, as my mentor, Mr. Cabeza have always said, “Much has been given to you, but much more is expected out of you.” It is my duty to give back.
Q: When was your first trip back to Cambodia? What were your impressions?
My first trip to Cambodia was in November 2011 through the a service learning and cultural immersion project called the “YMCA Cambodia Project” (http://ymcacambodiaproject.org) led by the YMCA of Greater Long Beach Community Development Branch. I had no idea what to expect. I was looking to learn more about my identity and my people. Immediate reactions were: “Wow! It’s so hot and humid.” “Whoa! Everyone here is Cambodian! I’m not the minority!” Then I started to realize that although people are Cambodian, I was still different. I am constantly seen as a foreigner (anneakajun). People are surprised to hear that I speak Khmer. I am told that I look Japanese, Chinese, Filipino – anything, but Cambodian.
The first trip was truly an eye-opening experience. I finally understood what my parents meant when they told me to focus on my studies and that I was lucky to go to school in the US, where a quality education can be accessible for free. They also told me to never forget where I came from, but prior to the trip to Cambodia, I never understood what that really meant. I was born in the US. How could I have known what it meant to be Cambodian? During my experience, I also grew to appreciate art for the first time. Seeing the beautiful architecture along the walls of the temples and to know that my ancestors did it made me feel PROUD to be Cambodian. It was an awakening for me. Here I am, a Cambodian born from overseas, finally getting to see my family’s roots. It was powerful.
What cemented my experience was the time I spent with the children of the Cambodia YMCA who live in extreme poverty along the train tracks in Phnom Penh. The children, despite their conditions where they lack the basic necessities such as food, shelter and clothing attend the YMCA school for a free and quality education while receiving at least one free meal per day. They have so little, but their hearts are as big as gold. You just feel a genuine happiness from them. I look at the things we are conditioned to want by the media and the conspicuous consumption that Western society thrusts upon you and I realize that none of that truly matters at the end of the day. The feelings and memories you have with the children are irreplaceable. As much as I thought that I was coming to Cambodia to teach the children, the children taught me so much more.
Q: When and why did you decide to come back to Cambodia and work at the YMCA?
October 2013 was when I was first offered the opportunity to come live and work in Cambodia. At that time, I could not imagine being in Cambodia for more than 2 weeks. However, that planted the seed in my brain and sparked the conversation about moving to Cambodia. It is hard for me to be anywhere for so long as I get homesick really easily. Every time I would go back to the US, it would take me a week or so to acclimate to society.
People I knew started helping me to see that living in Cambodia is possible. I started asking my distant family members that live in Cambodia if moving there was something I should do and whether they would help guide me when I would get lonely. I started talking to friends that live in Cambodia and asked how life was like. Do they miss home? Can I buy spam? Where can I find a good steak? What is there to do during the holidays and vacation? Slowly, the idea of moving to Cambodia started to grow on me. When I visited Cambodia again through the YMCA Cambodia Project in July 2014, the experience just cemented my feelings on moving to Cambodia. I was happy. Seeing the children and them remembering me and wanting me to stay longer gave me a sense of urgency to do something about it. So in December 2014, I made the move to Cambodia. I would have to say that this was the biggest life decision I made, giving up a comfortable career in the US and selling all of my prized possessions was not easy, but I wanted to do it.
Q: What is a typical day like for you at the YMCA?
It starts off checking my emails. Then, making phone calls to various people from around the world. Google Hangouts and Facebook call are my go-to applications to make phone calls. I would then go to the Cambodia YMCA center along the train tracks, spend time with the children and teach them according to the curriculum. Many times, I have visitors from around that world that conducts site visits at the YMCA, so I take it as an opportunity to inform the children where the visitors come from, at times showing them on the map just how far they have come from. At times, our visitors would incorporate a lesson to teach the children. It is important for the children to see just how big the world is and the careers that people are in as it gets their mind to start wondering, where hopes and dreams start becoming bigger and bigger. We would also conduct facebook video calls with volunteers that have previously spent time with the children and the children would be amazed by the time difference where it is day time in Cambodia and night time in places like the US. In addition, the children would have the opportunity to see snow for the first time while on the facebook video calls. When Tous Les Jours Bakery calls informing me that the pastries and/or cakes are ready to be picked up either myself or a volunteer would pick it up, then we would give it to the children. Oftentimes, I spend the afternoon in meetings with volunteers, donors, sponsors, etc.
Q: What are some difficulties in your job and what inspires you to go on?
Early on, the difficulties were huge. Coming into a completely different work environment, culture and level of education. I had a tremendous culture shock. It was a huge adjustment. People advised me that I had to somehow have a blend of being Cambodian and American - to know in different situations which one to use. The more I tried to understand that, the more confused I got. I had to learn how things work out here, while also at the same time, find ways to influence the environment. Things would get lost in translation. Even though I speak Khmer, I am not fluent and I have an accent. I had to develop different ways to communicate through actions and body language. I was very fortunate to have a support group of other overseas Cambodians and local Cambodians that have had experience being overseas. I was able to share my frustrations, but also my successes to them. They really helped me find my way here in Cambodia.
What inspires me to go on is seeing the joy in the children’s faces. When they see me, they rush to hug me. It is an empowering feeling. Seeing them start to develop into leaders makes me so proud and fills my heart with joy. Seeing the light bulb click in their head when they start to understand what you have been teaching them is powerful. In addition, so many overseas Cambodian want to be involved but they do not know how, so when they come visit Cambodia, they come visit the Cambodia YMCA kids and I. It is great to be able to connect them to how they can help society grow and prosper.
Q: Since being in Cambodia what has been your proudest/memorable moment?
Wow. As I think about, there are so many! I have only been here in Cambodia for a little over a year and I feel like there is so much to be done. I would have to say the proudest moment since being in Cambodia was earlier this week. We recently moved into a much nicer building where it would house the Cambodia YMCA Street Children Learning Center (a school that provides free education and a free meal per day to those who cannot afford to go to a public school) and the Youth Institute Program (a program that uses technology to teach youth to love learning and also social, academic and workforce skills). This is a testament to the amount of support that we have been receiving from our donors, sponsors, and volunteers locally and abroad. So much has been said in the media that Cambodians do not help each other, but I would disagree. There are people that truly care and help in their own creative way. The new building stands to show that Cambodians do care about one another. I want to show that the people. The children LOVE the new building. With the new building, we are able to create a safe and positive environment where the children can come to learn and grow.
Q: Why should the Khmer diaspora come back to Cambodia?
To give back and share knowledge. To learn. To help the country prosper. In many ways, we are so fortunate to have grown up in a Western civilization where there is diversity. We are exposed to so many different cultures and knowledge. We have access to things that many in Cambodia still do not have access to such as clean water, basic healthcare and free and quality education. The way I look at things, my grandfather could have easily told my mother to stay behind in Battambang, Cambodia to watch over the house that he built with his own hands. Then, my life would have been so much more different. I look at the people in Cambodia, especially the children living in extreme poverty and I feel a sense of urgency for them. They lack the basic opportunities that we often take for granted. Yet, despite their situation, they are happy, loving and caring. It is our duty to do what we can to influence the young generation and get them to have hopes and dreams, while providing the necessary resources and education.
Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to young Khmer people in your generation either living in Cambodia or abroad?
Success is not defined by what you have but by helping others achieve their goals and become successful.
For more information, please visit the Cambodia YMCA's Facebook Page at: https://www.facebook.com/CamYMCA/?fref=ts