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December 12, 2007

Holidays in Cambodia

Posted in: Asia,Introspect,Race

I’m going to Cambodia and Vietnam for the holidays, and in some ways it’s like going home. You see, growing up black in a largely white suburb of DC can be isolating. If anything makes differences plain, it’s gotta be the cliquish culture of junior high and high school. And it turns out the groups I fell in with were immigrant kids: Mexican, Ethiopian, Paraguayan, Korean, Vietnamese, more. I never wondered much about why I was so comfortable with them, I just was. But a recent story on Barack Obama got me thinking:

And there are also times when Obama’s experience feels more like an immigrant story than a black memoir. His autobiography navigates a new and strange world of an American racial legacy that never quite defined him at his core. He therefore speaks to a complicated and mixed identity — not a simple and alienated one. This may hurt him among some African Americans, who may fail to identify with this fellow with an odd name. Black conservatives, like Shelby Steele, fear he is too deferential to the black establishment. Black leftists worry that he is not beholden at all. But there is no reason why African Americans cannot see the logic of Americanism that Obama also represents, a legacy that is ultimately theirs as well. To be black and white, to have belonged to a nonreligious home and a Christian church, to have attended a majority-Muslim school in Indonesia and a black church in urban Chicago, to be more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything — this is an increasingly common experience for Americans, including many racial minorities. (atlantic)

Then it hit me: spending time in immigrant communities was a way for me to escape (in some small way) the racial confines of America — to be with people who haven’t been quite so fully indoctrinated with the racial expectations we in the US have been taught generation over generation. It gave me the opportunity to define myself as more than one thing. Maybe this poster says it best.

After my African American family at home, then, my second family is Vietnamese and Cambodian, my oldest friend is Vietnamese, my wife is Vietnamese. The sights, sounds, and smells (mmmm… pho, bánh mì) of Southeast Asia have been part of my life for so long it honestly seems a bit strange I’ve never been there. That’s about to change.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be off the grid; traveling mostly in Cambodia and Vietnam, with stopovers in Tokyo and Bangkok. We’ll be back in 2008 with more art, games, change, and everything else. Happy holidays and see you on the other side. Peace!

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Update: Comments are open again — more soon!

images via stuckincustoms and infrangible; with apologies to dk

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