Kilong Ung – Cambodian refugee
Interview by Sara Kolbet
1 Disc, 66:54, 10 Tracks
TRACK 1 – 10:03
SARA: Introduce yourself.
KILONG UNG: I am Kilong Ung and I am working with computers for a living and when I’m not working I’m spending time with the community, doing community work.
KILONG UNG: I am Kilong Ung. I’m currently the president of the Cambodian American community, CACO. And you can look at it at CACO.org. this is a volunteering work. I am a full-time professional. I’m a consultant, programmer, database administrator. Whatever it takes to make a living.
SARA: When you were younger. What did your family do?
KILONG UNG: I don’t want to give too much of my age. I live in America too long that age has become sensitive. I grew up in Cambodia. I’m not quite sure what my father was doing but I believe he had something to do with logging. And my mother selling food, some sort of restaurant. So she sold noodles and rice and some other stuff. And then in 1975 the Khmer Rouge took over and everybody’s doing pretty much the same thing. We were all evacuated and we were all farmers then.
SARA: Did you stay with the family?
KILONG UNG: Initially I was with the family but everyone was separated by gender and age group.
SARA: How long was that?
KILONG UNG: Five years. So you work ten hours a day, seven days a week, and sometimes you go without food.
SARA: When did you leave?
KILONG UNG: I left in 1979. that’s when the Vietnamese came over and took over Cambodia. There was a bit of chaos and it was a good opportunity for me and my sister and brother in law to run across the border to Thailand. We were there for a couple of months and then ended up in San Diego.
SARA: How did you end up in the US?
KILONG UNG: Some agency. I don’t remember. I was quite young. But we had a Cambodian sponsor in San Diego and we stayed with them for a few weeks and then had our own apartment and I was in San Diego for about six months. I went to a junior high school back then. I knew very few words of English that I learned in the camp. and then my brother-in-law had a friend in Portland so we moved up here. I didn’t like Portland.
SARA: Why not?
KILONG UNG: San Diego was nice and warm. More like Cambodian weather. And then we came here and it was cold and then Mount Saint Helens erupted. It was nice but scary. In Cambodia I had seen oceans, but never an eruption like that.
SARA: You were high school age?
KILONG UNG: Freshman. Back in San Diego they had a program with ESL and then here, I think Portland was a little behind with Southeast Asian translators and that made Portland less attractive to me. But in retrospect I think that was a good thing I got thrown into the regular class with everyone else. They had a tutor at the school so I could stay for an hour or two. I remember the first word that was difficult for me was “swerve.” And then “peddle” and “paddle.” It took me at least six months to get those words, but I nailed them.
SARA: Any other Cambodians?
KILONG UNG: There was another lady. She was a rose festival queen. I said wow, there are Cambodians here who can speak English. I was inspired and jealous, but mostly inspired.
SARA: Did you have any problems?
KILONG UNG: In my class I was the only Cambodian, but there were two or three other Cambodians in the school, I was at Washington-Monroe high school and they shut it down, so I went to Cleveland after that. Yes, and no, you learn to adjust. There was a lot of misunderstanding. For example, in cultures, if you want somebody to come over you would do this, which is equivalent to saying bye, bye. Basically, you wave your hand like this, in this culture it means bye, bye. In our culture that means come here. Well, there were kids in high school who would use a finger and signal you to come over this way. But in our culture that’s a challenge. So I ended up getting in a lot of fights.
SARA: Did you know English well after high school?
KILONG UNG: Good enough to survive college, but I was still learning English. My writing was terrible, my English structure was terrible. Just now I’m comfortable with the writing. About three years ago it got to the point where I enjoyed writing. And that was a barrier in my career move. Where I could have gone into middle management, that was the one thing that stopped me from moving forward. I was able to communicate verbally but my writing was terrible. Until about three years ago when a switch got turned and I enjoy the writing, I look for the writing. If at work I see any way to write, that’s the passion now.
SARA: Can you describe the language difference?
KILONG UNG: For me, Cambodian is easy, I grew up with it, so I don’t know any different. But I still think English is one of the most difficult languages I knew. I knew a few words of French when I was growing up in Cambodia. English is one of the least logical languages to learn and I hated speaking English until now. Now I enjoy speaking and writing English. For me, now English language became an art. Something I look forward to. But not before three or four years ago. I really disliked using it because it was difficult. And it was embarrassing, when I’d go into work.
SARA: You don’t think about it.
KILONG UNG: It is difficult. You go up to somebody and have learned a new word and want to use it and you use it wrong and you go to bed embarrassed.
SARA: What do you dream in?
KILONG UNG: I dream in English. People ask me in the last twenty years, and now I can say I dream in English and I occasionally dream in Cambodian.
SARA: Settling in. you went to college…
KILONG UNG: when I went to Washington-Monroe they put me with a bunch of students, many of my friends weren’t taking school that seriously, just goofing around. And I thought wow, here’s an opportunity. And after a while I caught up and I realized with the exception of English I am more talented in other areas: art, drawing, math. I pick it up and start to enjoy it. So I spent more time studying while my peers spent time partying. And there was a kid in my English class Scott Easter who became my brother, and I moved in with them. I had an American parent. And I applied to Oregon State and the University of Oregon. I got accepted but I didn’t have money to pay for the acceptance fees. So I ended up, I went to a career center or college center in high school. And I asked for a fee waiver for those two applications. And she said I’m busy, come by tomorrow. And the next day I got a note in my English class to say go see Mrs. Frost. And I went to visit her and she said I talked to your counselor. Did you apply for any other college? And I said no, those were the two universities I knew. And I didn’t think of college, because college where I came from was like high school. And she said there’s a gentleman from Reed College who wants to talk to you. She asked do you know where Reed College is and I said no I don’t. mind you I went to Cleveland high school which is a mile away from Reed College. She said just go talk to him. And I went and talked to my foster father and he said that’s a good college, you should go. And she talked about the college and it started to sound religious, so I wasn’t all that interested in going to Reed College. Now the gentleman from Reed came and talked to me and he said, well, what are your favorite books? So I named some of the books I read and he said which one do you like best? I realized the word ‘favorite’ means the one you like best. And I said it was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And funny enough I think that was the book that got me into Reed College. And he said tell me about ‘animal farm.’ So I think the way I analyzed the book, the story, the fact that I just came out from Cambodia, I can relate it to the characters in that book. It was more like one of the characters in the book. So I don’t think he heard anybody analyze that book the way I did, with broken English. I think I blew him away.
SARA: Can you remember a parallel from the book?
KILONG UNG: No, I couldn’t remember. But I tell you I was emotional when I was talking about the ‘animal farm. ‘ and even today when I think about it, I don’t know the specific detail, but when I think of the story behind it and how parallel it is to the life I lived in Cambodia, it touches me.
SARA: Previous to your foster family, you were with your sister?
KILONG UNG: I was living with my brother in law and sister. After San Diego, after we left the sponsor, we moved into an apartment and we were all on welfare. This is in the ‘80s. or 1979. and for us, it wasn’t a whole lot . but you can actually at school they have boxes of clothes…at school there’s’ always boxes of old clothes people donated and I had some of those to wear. I don’t ever remember having any new clothes . we always wore second-hand or picked clothes from those boxes. But my sister bought me a new pair of shoes and I had those shoes for a few years, until I got out of college. My shoes lasted four years, my pair of shoes.
SARA: Before foster family.
KILONG UNG: Back in San Diego the welfare money wasn’t enough because we also got to pay back to an agency that brought us from overseas. For the three of us we owe over $3000 to get over here. And my sister and brother in law were the guardian of the money. so I’d go to school and after school I’d study math. And on the weekend I’d go to the park and collect cans and bottles for extra money. and when we moved here, my brother in law didn’t have welfare, my sister had a limited amount. I had welfare, but when we pooled it together it wasn’t enough. Just for the apartment. So on the weekend the three of us would pick strawberries. For the three of us we can get $120, $150 a day picking strawberries.
SARA: It was easier to live with a friend.
KILONG UNG: I don’t know if it made that much difference. For me, it wasn’t the finance that I needed to move out. It was more, an opportunity was right there. Today, we have a youth program with the Cambodian community, and I remind the kids the opportunities is everywhere but you have to grab it. You have to have the courage to do it. You may only have one shot at it, so you have to grab on to it and learn to appreciate it. It didn’t take me long to decide to move out. Two days. And I told my sister, I have an opportunity to live with an American family and I’m going to do it. That was my sophomore year. And I think she was really sad but she couldn’t stop me.
SARA: She still in Portland?
KILONG UNG: She’s still in Portland. She’s a social worker, with IRCO.
SARA: A lot in social services. Giving back to the community.
KILONG UNG: yes. Also, there’s limited skills of, I wouldn’t say skills. Part of it is the passion about putting back into the community. my sister for example, doesn’t have the education I have. Everyone’s a survivor. I’m certainly more fortunate than most people, my friends and relatives. I’m grateful for that.
SARA: Was there a Cambodian group when you came here?
KILONG UNG: No. we weren’t all that connected. People were all over the place. In Washington Monroe I went through one and a half years without knowing other Cambodians. But when I went to Cleveland there were some more students there. A whole bunch of Cambodians lived on Powell and 33rd. that was the community there. But then my brother-in-law and 13 families formed this Cambodian American community of Oregon. And their initial, they formalized it to a point they had a bylaw and it was well structured, but when they go to a meeting it was just a few people meeting. As new refugees they have very little ideas about what to do with community, so their programs were limited and their budget was a couple hundred dollars a year. Everyone was working hard to keep the organization afloat. But they ‘d have parties to be together and talk about opportunities, vision, and dream, but he capability was limited. The fact they knew people here who barely survived, so to have done what they have done, I think they’ve done a tremendous job to keep it survived. A couple years ago we got to a point where no one would run for the community, so I think people were just getting tired of the same thing every year. The former chairman of the community came to me and he said I think we’re going to dissolve this organization and just a few months before that there were a deportation. The US government and the Cambodian government had a sort of agreement that they deported people who committed crimes who were convicted. Even people who had served their time had been deported to Cambodia. And I didn’t hear anything about it and it burned me. I said it’s not whether I agree with those ideas or not but the fact I didn’t know about it bothered me. So I said to dissolve this organization is a bad idea on top of that. So I said let’s hold a meeting and I’ll see if they’re ready. If they’re ready I’ll be in charge, if not we’ll dissolve it. I wrote on the board my ideaSARA: a technology group, education, a youth group. And people were quiet. But they were smiling…people were quiet. But they were smiling. When I looked in their eyes there was hope. Curiosity. They weren’t ready but there was curiosity. I said if I impose my leadership a little bit I can bring that excitement out of them. And I did it. This community is made up of the most incredible group I’ve ever seen. When you sit down and hear the stuff they’ve accomplished. It’s an amazing group of people.
SARA: Is there a similarity to experiences that have happened in the Cambodian community?
KILONG UNG: No, it’s a hit and miss. It’s opportunity. I think a lot of it, everything has to do with it. Your family heritage has to do with it. How affected you were by the Khmer Rouge had something to do with it. Meeting the right people at the right time, all those things have to do with it. I don’t know how you prepare somebody to be successful because I think a lot of it has to do with luck.
SARA: Activities the community is doing – know anyone being deported?
KILONG UNG: I don’t know anyone in particular that got deported but there are plenty of stories. If you really want to know the details Sokum Tauch from IRCO would be the person to talk to.
SARA: Community in Portland have any connection?
KILONG UNG: The advisor of the community has a connection with that and the new vice president of the community was working on that issue. Sopak Bell. She works for IRCO. But the way I survive the last twenty years in the US, my mechanism for survival is some time I force myself to be ignorant. I do what I can do and when I can’t do it, I at best know the headline, but I don’t want to get into detail unless I can do something about it. Because the last twenty years I’ve lost so much sleep over the past, over the present, over the future. And I’m getting to the point where I have a happy life. I think I have to be the happiest guy in the world. I found a balance. And the way to do that is if something bothers me, I do something about it. If I can’t do anything about it, learn to forget it and count on somebody else who can do something about it. There’s a feeling in the community that why don’t you take that action? My response is everybody has got to find somewhere that they can do. right now for me what I can do best is keep me happy and healthy, keep my career going, and put my energy into having fun, run the community. and now, I think the stuff we do in the community, not me but everyone, are changing lives every day. I believe we’ve seen more leaders in the Cambodian community than we’ve ever learned before. And the kind of leadership I’[m looking for. T he high-caliber leadership I haven’t seen before. This is the first time I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it among the youth, among the first-generation youth, and the elders.
SARA: What is the connection with the youth?
KILONG UNG: Certainly there’s a gap between the parents and the youth. So what the community is trying to do right now is to close that gap. Get the parents to become more American and get the youth to become more Cambodian. How do we do that? Do things they can both be aware of. Now last week we had a golf course. Most Cambodians, they feel uncomfortable to go by a golf course. And now you put them in an environment where they feel they’re becoming an American. And with the children, we provide language and culture classes and we’ll teach you things your parents grew up with. They think wow, I am Cambodian in some way.
SARA: Mostly social programs.
KILONG UNG: It’s all about social programs. This is all about providing a better environment, a better place for people to live, but the tools to achieve that has to do with technology, politics, everything. Better English, better communication, better leadership. And you will find few communities, I don’t know any other communities doing what we’re doing right now l we have an education department, and I’m hands off. I like to have this happen but I have no say in it. He runs the whole program. He found the teachers and he creates a budget. We support him. So that’s education. And then we have the technology group, made up of network and consultants. People who work for Intel. Nike, Weyerhaeuser. So we brought these people together who were core technology. If you think of Cambodian community, you don’t think of technology. Refugees and immigrants. But the community is pushing very hard on the technology. And we have all kinds of dreams about changing the world, starting with Cambodia, using technology. People who barely speak English are getting on email and typing paragraphs. I’ll occasionally write a correction and it comes back better. The emails going around until two AM and then start at five AM.
SARA: What is the stereotype of a refugee?
KILONG UNG: I think most people think of southeast refugees as smart people because they have an encounter with some of these. But generally, if people are not educated or an average American would just see Southeast Asian immigrants as manual labor, manual workers. Maybe painters, maybe construction workers, building houses and things like that. To imagine someone would come out of the Khmer Rouge and get into technologies. It’s very difficult to imagine. I have trouble to imagine and I have to remind myself yes, you are here. I look in the mirror and think how did I get here? It is very exciting and the fact, I thought about this every day. I spent a lot of time on highway 26 thinking about life. And one of the most exciting things is hope. Hope and excitement. The fact that I was able to get through the Khmer Rouge and able to overcome the language barriers and get to where I am today. And I thought our youth, given the program we do with the community, I think our youth, the sky’s the limit. One went to the Olympics last summer. She competes in table tennis. Didn’t bring back the gold medal, but the community really rallied behind her and we were really excited. My motto for the community, and I think the community is catching on to this, is that every generation needs to be better than the previous generation. So every single one of us get it. We do everything we can to make a person in the community, besides us, better than we are. Especially the children. And that’s something new for Cambodians.
KILONG UNG: We don’t like other people to be better than we are. But we’re working hard and we make sure that our peers are better than w are. We are becoming less selfish every day.
SARA: The loose group of Cambodians started out of necessity.
KILONG UNG: I talked to some of them and they say yeah, that’s what we envisioned, but I don’t think anybody ever thought this community would be at this level. This is amazing. We go to Nike and tell them the things we do and they listen. They gave us some grants and other, I couldn’t mention everybody but we have a good base of supporters. It’s not that we’re slick speakers. It’s just that we have something to sell. W e have some things to show people that these are good things. We’re taking children away from the video game. We have leaderships. These skills are remarkable. We have professionals shadow the youth. So the youth will go to an adult workplace and they’ll learn about wow, this is what you guys are doing. Trying to explain to the community what a consultant is. that’s a difficult task. If you say you work with computers, they get it. But if you try to explain what a statistician is, the majority of us don’t get it. We didn’t have the opportunity, we never shake hands with one. We’re changing that. W e take the youth to a workplace and show them things. And we say now you go on your retreat, huddle, think about what you can do to improve society, be good to your peers, make your friends better than you are.
SARA: Did the first Cambodians in Portland have manual labor jobs?
KILONG UNG: the majority of us are not college graduates. I’m talking about the first generation that came out. W e have some people who have gone through college. In Cambodians, we have as high up as the ambassador from the US to the UN. But the majority of us, too late to go to school when you get here so you do what you can. You work in the grocery store, paint the house, work in the garden, mostly manual labor. But the disconnection between, if you’re not a part of the culture, you can’t really give that part to your kids. So even though the kids are growing up in this country, they still are not fully American. Their idea of being Americanized is different from what we think. Playing video games, driving fast cars is American. But I think to me, there’s a higher level of being an American because there’s so many opportunities in America, and I don’t think our children have seen all those aspects. I haven’t seen all those aspects. How many children go white water rafting, skiing. Those are American things to do. how many of our children go into flight school? Skydiving. All those opportunities we don’t know. What do we do? we listen to rap, we listen to karaoke, we get together and watch basketball, but there are greater American things.
SARA: Things you can’t describe.
KILONG UNG: And I’m not sure jus the immigrant thing is across the general population. And it’s a problem that exists everywhere, I think it’s in every society, Caucasian, African American, we have that same problem. Our view of being American is different but for many of us there is a barrier. This is how far I get. And you think about the more fortunate families. It’s all different. For rich kids, they probably have one or two visits at MIT or Harvard before they get out of high school. I didn’t know what Reed was all about. And the community, I tell them about Reed and they say huh?
SARA: Maybe there is something about being American that no one really is. is there still a physical part of Portland with a lot of Cambodians?
KILONG UNG: No, we’re sort of in pockets. We’re spread all over the place. And I’m happy because on the one hand it’s sad that there’s no concentration like Long beach, it’s like picking up a village from Cambodia and dropping in the middle of Long Beach. It’s sad in that way because the elders don’t have someone to communicate with. Their kids go to work all day and come home and are tired. So if you don’t work you spend a lot of time watching TV. On the other hand it’s a great opportunity for the professionals, the kids. You have an easier time in society. It forces you to do harder.
SARA: I wish I could talk to an elder who has not fit in. Can you think of anyone?
KILONG UNG: I think people are not comfortable. It’s like, when we had a meeting I brought this up and there was, I had a lot of silent feedback. But I think the best way to do this, we have a gathering and throughout that time if you want to take the opportunity to meet and talk with people, that’s the best way to do it. Our camping is coming up in August. Last year we had over 200 people and I’m expecting 500 people this year. We’re having it at Meriwether, property of Boy Scouts of America. They let our community use it. There are all kind of people like yourself who come in and learn about our culture and eat food and you can have that opportunity to talk to people. And I think that’s probably the most comfortable setting. Look at me, I have clients from programming to CEO and I talk to them daily and I’m sitting in this interview and I’m nervous. So imagine an elder who’s having trouble with culture and language talking to you. But if you’re interested in that opportunity the camping would be a good opportunity. A film crew will be there presenting the bomb hunters. And also, they are probably going to be interviewing some people also.
SARA: People who listen are not going to be Cambodian or immigrants. But they will have Cambodians in their communities. What should they do if they see a Cambodian who doesn’t speak to them?
KILONG UNG: I think, it’s interesting you ask. I always like people when they come across as themselves. Just being yourself. Cambodians are very nice people most of the time. Myself included. But I like people to be themselves. Go out there, be yourself, and shake hands only if you want to shake hands. If you do it because you feel it’s the right thing to do. don’t do it, there are plenty of other things to do. everything I do, I do it because I want to, not because I have to. This interview, I do because I want to. After some thought, also I start writing my book and I thought I want to do it. It’s a great opportunity and I always take pride on doing some things I have never done before. So to go back to the original point is that if you see a Cambodian, do what comes out naturally. If you feel you want to greet them, greet them. A lot of times people try to be Cambodian to another Cambodian. But you’ve got to think am I doing a disservice to this person? When they’re trying to be an American, you’re trying to take something away from them. Be yourself.
SARA: Refugees are not here to be on welfare.
KILONG UNG: Nobody does. Being on welfare is probably one of the most miserable things I’ve done in my life in America. It was miserable, kids were laughing at me. I had a roll of bubble gum and one of the kids were saying welfare money is for food, not for bubble gum. With limited English I understood that language. The language of love and the language of hate, you can understand that and extrapolate what a kid says. But having said that, I am a proponent of social service, welfare, if it is used right. Because I know if you have a welfare program in place, just to give them something so they can get going. I think the time I was here, there were two fold that got me here. One was the welfare program but two was the school program. All the teachers and counselors were pitching to it on their own. One should be welfare and the other to help to plan this person’s path, where it goes. It pays off. I pay more tax now than I got from welfare for that one and a half year.
SARA: Anything else?
KILONG UNG: I’ve got so many things to say. I want to leave something, giving the experience I have lived through. I had been Cambodian, I have been Cambodian-American, I have been American. I feel the right to leave this thought. I’d like people to hear. At the end everybody dies. I learned that a long time ago. So every day you’ve got to ask yourself, have I lived fully? I get stuck on highway 26 an average of 45 minutes to an hour every day. That’s my time to think about how am I going to live my full life today? And on the way back, I reflect have a lived a full day? And a full day is a balance with four components: first is self. I make sure I budget a certain time for myself. Then family. Got to make sure family is taken care of so you can also have your time. Then career, you’ve got to make sure you have a good career. It doesn’t’ mean you make a lot of money. and then equally important is the community. you’ve got to give back. Without the community, the society, without those people, you wouldn’t be there. Those are the four things that will make you live a full life. If you keep that balance you will be a happy person. That’s it.