Many children grow up hearing fantastical tales and listening to nursery rhymes. A magical forest here and furry talking creatures there. I grew up listening to the nightmares of chaos and terror as tragedy consumed Cambodia.

Imagine this.

On April 17th, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Like many Khmer Americans, my family came to the United States as refugees from Cambodia in 1982. My grandparents reflect back on the day the Khmer Rouge scoured the city and announced over their loud speakers that the Americans were going to begin dropping their bombs. Greeting the citizens with smiles, they expressed that safety was their priority and all those living within the city should evacuate to the countryside. They promised that the invasion would be over and they would be able to return to the city. Yet, it would be four years of terror before any lucky survivors would be able to return to the remains of their homes. My family had no choice but to abandon all of their belongings and at that precise moment, their entire lives.

Soon after they began to lose sight of the city, they were met with the smell of death. Piles of dead bodies, of former doctors, teachers, lawyers, business people, and other intellectuals lined the streets. The rotting flesh was cooked by the sun and empty eyes stared at the travelers. When I was younger, my mom used to wake up in the middle of the night after she replayed this scene over and over again in her nightmares. You can find her story [here].

From labor camps to pseudo-refugee camps, my family never had the security of knowing that they would wake up the next morning. Their very lives were dependent on being invisible. Children over the age of 10 were separated from their parents. My mother, the oldest sibling, was forced to leave my family behind and live in a separate labor camp. She worked 9-10 hours a day, 7 days a week under the hot sun, surviving on small portions of rice soup and salt. Countless citizens were so malnourished that they died of starvation, diseases, and exhaustion. Yet, no matter how sick they were, my family dragged themselves out of their makeshift huts because they feared being executed. The Khmer Rouge believed that if you were unable to contribute, then you were useless and it would be a waste of food to feed you.

On one fateful night, my family was met with the sounds of gunshots and the blares of an explosion. They found cover in the bomb shelter and continued to listen to the whirring of bullets throughout the night. When daylight broke and the shooting sounds subsided, they tried to move on to another town and abruptly the shooting sounds were close by again. They found refuge in barn house hid anywhere out of sight. My grandparents later heard that there was a Khmer Rouge soldier who wanted to enter the house, but his comrade said that he had seen my family with the rest of the Khmer Rouge already. If he had not made that mistake, a simple grenade would have decided the fate of my family. 

Fortunately, my family made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand. My grandpa filed for sponsorship to come to the United States, as we had no relatives living in the U.S. that could sponsor us. After he applied for sponsorship, my grandpa went to the refugee bureau every day where they posted name of families that were sponsored to leave the camp. With each passing day, my family began to lose hope, as their name did not appear on the board. Finally, in May of 1981, after a year and a half in the refugee camp, my family’s names were posted among the last ones in the list. They were transferred to the Philippines, flown to Columbus, Ohio, and eventually made their way by bus to Denver, Colorado.

Life has a funny way of coming full circle when you least expect it. Here I am, sitting in a Starbucks in Columbus writing this blog and reflecting upon how close I came to living here instead of Denver. As I began to get older and my family began to acculturate into America, I began to hear less and less about their previous life in Cambodia and the discrimination they experienced in the United States. I forgot these stories and I forgot the struggle that my family underwent. The above stories are so surreal that they almost seem like fiction.

It must be recognized that history is often written by its victors. Growing up, much of my narrative of the Khmer Rouge were small excerpts in my history book written by American historians. In many ways, America was painted as a safe haven for refugees, and while I am not denying that, it seemed as though my family traded in one form of cultural genocide for another. It was Washington’s intention in the early 1970s to strengthen the Khmer Republic and to help defeat the revolutionary Khmer Rouge movement. However, it is heavily argued that American intervention widened the war and served as a catalyst for driving Cambodia into conflict. Furthermore, evidence suggests that foreign intervention produced negative results in the end, as it gave rise to the revolutionary force and weakened the Khmer Republic, making the power transition and societal levels more volatile and dangerous.

President Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, began to discuss the North Vietnamese sanctuaries and supply routes in the then neutral country of Cambodia. Despite the fact that military strikes against locations in a neutral country would be flagrant violations of international laws and treaties, it was soon decided that the areas be bombed in order to clean out “the communist sanctuaries.” Codenamed Operation Menu, on March 18th, 1969 the US Strategic Air Command began the bombing of Eastern Cambodia under the Nixon Administration. The primary goal was to destroy supply lines and camps used by the North Vietnamese to wage attacks into South Vietnam. In 1969, these secret missions more than doubled and over a thousand missions were initiated. And in the same fourteenth month period, over 3,600 B-52 raids were conducted against targets in Kampuchea. However, these bombings were kept secret – not only from the public but also within the Air Force command. The first bombing raids were called Breakfast. Later raids that were deeper in Cambodia were referred to as Lunch. Eventually, the raids reached beyond Dinner and into Snacks and Dessert. At a great loss of Cambodian civilian lives, the operation proved unsuccessful in decreasing North Vietnam offensives. Indirectly, the bombings led to the downfall of the Cambodian government and the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

Yet… I was never taught any of this until I studied abroad in Southeast Asia. I remember being placed in an English as a Second Language track during elementary school (even though, let me be clear, I spoke perfect English) and having the word refugee thrown at me. I had no idea what that meant. I never understood how lucky I was to be sitting within the safe confines of a classroom, with the reassurance of three meals a day. I knew I was Cambodian, but did not realize how much weight and history that identity held…. nor did I realize how much of my identity was authored by American history. Why must we illustrate heroes at the expense of so many? It makes me think of how much of what I know is constructed, rather than authentic.

Recently, I have had the privilege of traveling all over the nation to speak with fellow Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (A/PIA) college students about the importance of community organizing and A/PIA activism. I realize more and more how my family’s history has shaped my passion for activism, equity, and authentic representation of communities. Since becoming involved in the social justice realm, I have had many internal conflicts about the American Dream. Despite coming to the United States with every possible disadvantage, my family made it. My mother was the first in our family to graduate from college. My family is littered with Student Body Presidents, Valedictorians, Salutatorians, full ride scholars, Daniels Fund Scholars, and Gates Millennium Scholars. Coincidentally, many of us found ourselves in fields of education and made West High School, the Denver Center for International Studies, and the University of Denver our home, including myself. But, they are only a single story. Cambodian Americans still have some of the highest high school drop out rates, are victims of the school to prison pipeline, and face numerous deportation cases.

In providing me with these opportunities and the need to assimilate to survive, I grew up not truly understanding who I was or where I came from. It was not until recently that I began to realize more and more the need and impact of storytelling. My family realized this long before I did and published their own personal memoir (of which many excerpts have been included in this blog). Storytelling allows us to preserve our roots. It allows us to share our experiences in ways that are real and authentic. Stories give us the ability challenge what we learn in our history books and gives us the power to advocate for visibility and representation. Stories give us the right to WRITE our OWN histories. They can move systems and transform institutions. Storytelling is resistance. Stories start (r)evolutions.

For the past year, I have carried an Audre Lorde quote that states, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” with me wherever I go. It serves as a powerful reminder that choosing to be visible and to speak powerfully will help to ensure that fewer communities will have to experience the types of silencing that my family had to endure. Although I was born 16 years after the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975, I choose to remember it every single day. Why? Because it is evidence that I come from a legacy of warriors, of survivors. Resiliency is on our blood. My name is Vanessa. I am a daughter of refugees. I am a feminist. I am an activist. And most importantly, I am Khmer.

**Thank you to Gao Chia-Ren for his unwavering support, encouragement, AND editorial and creative title skills.
***To support Project Ava and our vision of sharing stories that inspire meaningful change, visit our store.


In honor of this day of remembrance: April 17, 1975

Is the change I seek revolutionary? Is every revolution going to require bloodshed? When “The Revolution” comes will I be able to take my mother and father with me? And what about my children? The Revolution did come to us. On April 17, 1975 the revolution marched into Phnom Penh. It emptied out the city. Nearly every single family in Cambodia suffered losses during the time of the Khmer Rouge. An estimated 2 million Cambodians died. There is no exact body count.

I was too young to be recruited as a child soldier. In 1975, The People’s Revolutionary Party instead enlisted me in the fields where I would pick up cow dung. The unrelenting sun scorched my hair a shiny amber.1978 my mother almost died giving birth to my brother. There were no doctors or nurses in their commune. Professionals, intellectuals, former government officials, and religious figures were targeted for torture and execution. Kindness spared my father who would have otherwise been executed for being a teacher and a Muslim. The oppressive Khmer Rouge regime lasted 3 years, 8 months and 20 days. In 1979 when the borders reopened, my family was forced to leave Cambodia for the nearest Thai refugee camp. Survival is an instinct the body remembers well. On June 30, 1979, my family left the Thai camps for America. I do not need to have memories of violence to know that the experience of genocide has never left my body.

My parents never left me behind even when the Revolution left us with nothing. The change I seek has to include my family even if their politics differ from mine. The change I seek must be rooted in love. I believe that you can’t serve your people if you don’t love your people. Acts of violence can never be acts of love.”

— Artist and activist, Anida Yoeu Ali. Anida is also the producer of the award-winning documentary, Cambodian Son. It screens today at 3:30pm at East Bay Media Center in Berkeley, CA.

Broaching the topic of “White Privilege” is not synonymous with “All white people are evil and, I hate them all.” Chill out.

Want to watch a white person rush away from a dinner party? Just bust out phrases like “institutionalized racism,” “white supremacy,” and the oldie but goodie “residual effects of slavery that are still with us today,” and watch a room of white people clear itself out, or, at least, have them stammer out the names of all the black people they are friends with, and then offer another unsolicited list off all the good they’ve done for people of color.

When I talk about systemic racism and historical racial inequalities as it ties into white privilege and modern-day racism, I think I must sound like this to white people: “Hey Whitey! I am going to kill you.” I know this is a lot to ask of white people, but could you please STOP FLIPPING OUT when the topic of white privilege comes up? I’m talking about being defensive, blabbing about how there is no such thing as race (just one human race, which is actually made up of different races), and how you are so gifted as a white person that you “don’t see race.” Ooh, that last one, ouch.

That’s why we need to have this conversation — because the inability to “see” racism and privilege is exactly what white privilege is. Talking about race is not a trap. It’s not a game of “Gotcha with your Klan Hood Down.” Talking about white privilege is not about asking white people to leave their race. Nor is it about declaring genocide on the white race. (Besides, looks like we’re already going to outnumber you by 2050, so you might as well sit back, relax and enjoy being Wong-splained.)

Talking about white privilege is not even about trying to make you feel like shit for being white. Surprising, I know. But the conversation on white privilege concerns you and yet is not about YOU. And when you make it about how you feel personally attacked, we really don’t progress further into talking about how we’re going to fix racism. Really.

If you are a white person who gets nervous when white privilege gets brought up, imagine having to navigating racism in every day life as a person of color who must live with it. Imagine systemically being locked out of better education or healthcare, job opportunities or the mainstream American narrative.

There are moments as an Asian American when I’ve been regarded as an “honorary white.” (There are also many other moments when I am reminded that I will always be a perpetual foreigner despite the fact that my family has been in the United States for three generations.) But rather than take whatever privilege I can and run with it, I’m interested in talking with people who benefit from white privilege -– how and if they can recognize it and use their positions of privilege to dismantle the systems that oppress other people.

Believe it or not, I’d love for the world to be more equitable for EVERYONE. And when I ask you to recognize your white privilege, it’s not because I’m trying to place blame. It’s about asking white people to consider the moments where they are able to “pass” in certain situations. Where they are afforded privileges that they never earned. It’s about finding ways to cede privilege, space, and comfort to allow others to live in a more equitable world.

So white people, the conversation about race can’t happen without you. We can’t get things better if we aren’t all talking. If racism were an easy problem to fix, we would have fixed it already. Ending racism starts with recognizing privilege, systemic control over society at large, and when you are dismissing issues of racism then you have the privilege of being oblivious to.

Don’t get me wrong there are people of color who proclaim to drink the tears of white people. There are anti-racism activists who will never organize with the most “down” of white people. I don’t want to drink your white tears, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t enjoy watching you squirm a little.

Come on, you got to give me that.


18 USC students are occupying the Bovard Auditorium to tell USC’s President to cut its relationship with Jansport, a brand whose parent company VF Corporation has killed 29 workers in Bangladesh and has since refused to take responsibility for the working conditions in its factories.

In their letter, the students write:

Dear President Nikias,

Students are occupying your office today because of USC’s refusal to take action by cutting its contract with JanSport, a brand whose parent company VF Corporation has killed 29 workers in Bangladesh and has since refused to tak
e responsibility for the working conditions in its factories. Your own students have been campaigning for eight months to let you and your administration know that we are outraged about USC’s continued relationship with a company that has such an abysmal track record for worker safety.

We have yet to receive any sort of acknowledgment from you personally, President Nikias. From your lower administrators, we have been told that USC will not terminate its relationship with JanSport/VF despite the overwhelming evidence students have provided that they are a corporation that does not represent Trojan values.

As students, we are saddened that it has come to this. While we would prefer to work amicably with USC’s administration – however, your continued inaction on this issue has made that an impossibility.

President Nikias: the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, the Sweat-Free ‘SC Coalition, and our broad base of student, faculty and community supporters will continue to fight until the University of Southern California cuts or pledges non-renewal of its contract, with JanSport, subsidiary of VF Corporation, over their human rights abuses in Bangladesh.

One last time, we have printed and attached for your reference the relevant information regarding this campaign and look forward to your prompt response.

The Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, USAS local #13

Call Nikias right now at (213) 740-2111 and demand that he listen to the students in his office and cut USC’s contract with JanSport now. Eight months is too long to wait for justice. #Trojan18 #CutJanSport

"Love is an Open Door"

Vocals: Jo Im, Jay Arella
Film and editing: Jay Arella

The Mr. Hyphen show is this Saturday!

You voted. And now it’s time. For the “Final 5” to rise and shine.

Five transformative Asian American men representing six transformative community organizations will compete for the coveted crown of Mr. Hyphen 2014, a $2000 cash prize, and a $1000 audience-favorite prize at the 8th Annual Mr. Hyphen Community Fundraiser on April 19 at the historic Marines’ Memorial Theatre in downtown San Francisco. 

Your Mr. Hyphen 2014 finalists are:

*Sanjay Makhijani - India Community Center's Gandhi Camp
*Sam Jung - Aypal: Building API Community Power
*Ju Hong - ASPIRE - Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education
*Timmy Lu - Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN)
*Leo Esclamado - Filipino/American Coalition for Environmental Solidarityand Alipato Project

Thanks to our Gold Crown sponsor Asian Art Museum and our Silver Crown sponsors San Francisco Federal Credit Union and SoleSpace, this year promises to be, by far, the biggest and boldest Mr. Hyphen yet. 

We’ve got: 

Host: solo performer Kristina Wong

2014 Grammy Award winner Hollis
2011 Kollaboration SF Bay Area winner ANAK

Guest Judges:
*Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man
*George Kiriyama (formerly of NBC Bay Area)
*Khmera Rouge (Miss GAPA 2013)
*Samina Sundas (American Muslim Voice)

Styling for finalists by: Retrofit Republic 

As our biggest annual fundraiser, Mr. Hyphen allows Hyphen — an all-volunteer nonprofit media organization — to publish its award-winning print magazine, maintain its blog, and basically, survive. At the same time, it also showcases the Asian American community organizers and community organizations that we love in a fun, tongue-in-cheek format. So please come and show YOUR love!

General Admission | $30
VIP | $45 
- Reserved front row seating
- Entry to an exclusive pre-show community meet-n-mingle with Kristina Wong, Hollis, guest judges, key community advocates from the Bay Area and beyond, and more
- Food catered by Le Soleil and Burmese Kitchen

Each general admission ticket includes a raffle ticket (VIP comes with 2 tickets), and additional tickets can be purchased with tickets and at the event. Prizes include:

- $500 bicycle from PUBLIC Bikes
- Signed EP from Hollis
- 2 Timbuk2 messenger bags
- $125 in gift certificates from Sports Basement
- 3 watches from Modify Watches
- Patxi’s Pizza gift card
- Styling session from Retrofit Republic
- SoleSpace gift card 
- Socola Chocolatier gift card
… and more!

FMI - 

Reappropriate has the full list of AAPI bloggers and journalists in solidarity with #NotYourMascot, along with this list of petitions to sign:

Act Now!

Here are many ongoing ways you can participate:

  1. Sign this petition by 18millionrising (@18millionrising) telling Dan Snyder and the Washington R*dskins that you do not support their team name and mascot!
  2. Sign this petition by EONM (@EONMassoc) over at, opposing the Washington R*dskins!
  3. Send an email ( or a snail mail letter (Dan Snyder c/o Redskin Park; 21300 Redskin Park Dr.; Ashburn, VA 20147) to the Washington R*dskins administration asking them to change the team name.
  4. Participate in the #Not4Sale campaign to protest Dan Snyder’s offensive creation of a “philanthropic” organization to purchase the goodwill of Native people. Retweet photos shared to this hashtag to help send the message that Native people are not for sale.
  5. Bookmark Eradication of Native Mascotry (EONM) and follow them on Twitter (@eonmassoc)
  6. Please add any additional links you think would be useful to the comments section below as an additional resource.
Paul Lo will be the nation's first Hmong American judge. (Photo credit: UCLA Daily Bruin)

Paul Lo will be the nation’s first Hmong American judge. (Photo credit: UCLA Daily Bruin)

Earlier this year, California Governor Jerry Brown made history when he appointed UCLA Law alumnus Paul Lo to the Merced County Superior Court Bench. Lo, who will be sworn in this Friday, will be the nation’s first Hmong American judge.

Said Karin Wang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice back in Januaryto the UCLA Daily Bruin:

“It is both historic and inspirational to have the nation’s first Hmong American judge in California’s Central Valley, which is home to one of the nation’s largest Hmong populations,” Wang said.

Merced currently has the fifth highest Hmong American population in the United States, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Lo immigrated to the United States in 1979 as a non-English speaking immigrant at age 11 as refugees from the Vietnam War. Lo’s family grew up poor and on welfare, but Lo was spurred by a high school teacher to pursue a career in law to help support the Hmong American community.

Lo was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1994 and has been a solo legal practitioner since 2003, according to State Bar records. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Davis and his law degree from the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.

Lo spoke no English when he came to the United States at the age of 11, but eventually mastered the language, working hard through school, college and law school.

He said he appreciates the appointment’s historic relevance, but said it wouldn’t change “the person I am now.”

“I think a lot of people in the Hmong community are very proud of it, but I’m equally excited for the opportunity to serve this community, this town,” Lo said.

Lo’s appointment not only contributes to increasing diversity on the bench in California but also elevates a dedicated community advocate, who has devoted his life towards improving legal rights for Hmong Americans, an often over-looked and marginalized ethnic group within the Asian American community. Although Asian Americans remain underrepresented in state and federal judiciaries, Lo’s appointment is an important step forward.

“(Lo) provides needed diversity for our bench. Our bench is starting to look like the population,” said Judge Brian McCabe of the Merced County Superior Court, who worked with Lo as partners in the same firm.

“My true passion to go into law was to be an advocate for the Hmong community,” he said.

The public is invited to attend Lo’s swearing-in ceremony this Friday, which will take place at 4pm at the Art Kamanger Centre at the Merced Theatre, 301 Main St.