I recently had the good fortune to meet with Yenly Thach, a contributing editor for Cambodian Alliance for the Arts
Yenly is a fascinating person—an advocate for refugees, writer, grad student at UC-Santa Barbara, and blogger (you can check out her blog here: Curious and Determined).
In so many ways—because of her bubbly outgoing personality, because of her quintessentially So-Cal look: the golden tan, the sun-streaked hair, because she talks fast and she’s both smart and funny—Yenly is the epitome of the Southern California All-American Girl Next Door. She is also herself a former refugee. These identities are not at all contradictory, if you really think about it.
Yenly was born in a Thai refugee camp to a Cambodian mother and Vietnamese father and immigrated to the US with her family when she was 8. After realizing it grew way too cold in winter in Tennessee, the family moved to So Cal where Yenly grew up and went to school.
Yenly said she really didn’t have to question her identity until she joined the Peace Corps and lived in a small village in Costa Rica. Suddenly, like that, her “identity”-–the one that the outside world places on us—changed. At first people wondered if she might be Nicaraguan because of her tan complexion. As she tried to explain that her roots were in SE Asia, people began calling her “Nica-china,” meaning a Nicaraguan Chinese.
“But by the end everyone in my village knew how to find both Vietnam and Cambodia on a map!” Yenly told me. “Now they know the world is bigger than they thought. And I’m proud of that.”
Isn’t it funny how identity can change when we move from one place to the other?
Yenly said because of her dark complexion, people in Costa Rica assumed she was 1) poor 2) unintelligent, and (outside a city once) 3) a prostitute.
I’m glad she can laugh about it. And I’m really glad she showed everyone that they were wrong.
Recently Yenly has been traveling to SE Asia for her Master’s thesis, looking at repatriated refugees, some who return to their home countries by choice and others who were forced to go back by government policies. She’s interviewed 70-80 such repatriated refugees as well as the UN High Commissioner on Refugees in Switzerland, where she lived for three months to study how refugee policy is made and administered. (Yenly was able to complete her work abroad as she is a recipient of the prestigious Boren Fellowship.)
Perhaps most fascinating are her personal discoveries. When she went to Vietnam, she was able to connect to family members, including her grandmother, who survived the war but were not able to emigrate. And she also discovered a whole new facet to her identity: she is in fact considered to be “an indigenous person,” a member of an ethnic minority in Vietnam (Khmer Krom, according to Yenly’s blog). Before she met her grandmother, she’d had no idea.
Meantime in Cambodia, despite her fluency in Khmer and her physical appearance (which to most Cambodians seemed more Cambodian than Vietnamese, she said), she was definitely seen first and foremost as an American by her professor at the university where she studied.
“I was too outspoken! I’m used to talking about my opinions and politics, but in Cambodia that was considered dangerous,” Yenly said. Her professor at one point asked her if she’d be willing to do an independent study because he feared that her outspokenness in class would get him in trouble, and even her relatives in the US worried about her safety.
But Yenly persevered and completed her fieldwork.
Now as she finishes her Master’s degree in Global and International Studies, she also volunteers to help refugees of various backgrounds in Southern California. “Sometimes people just need a guide, someone to show them the path.” Yenly was referring to the Burmese family she’s helping to find employment, but she could be talking about any of us. We can’t predict what will happen in any of our lives. Thus I find it reassuring to meet someone convinced that we should be willing to help each other. (Sometimes in the media I feel there’s only talk about how much we’re supposed to be afraid of each other these days!)
Yenly says her goals are to educate the public about refugees’ struggles in the US and overseas. I have no doubt she will succeed.
This video was shot by Yenly’s husband and posted by Yenly on Youtube for Cambodian Alliance for the Arts.