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I’m a survivor of Cambodian genocide. Recent violence against Asian Americans terrifies me



DALLAS, TX – I am a survivor of the Cambodian genocide.

When I came to America as an 8-year-old refugee, I knew immediately what it felt like to be seen as the other. We were called derogatory terms walking down the street. We even received phone calls telling us to go back to our country.

I felt like I didn’t belong, that I was insignificant and lesser than others. I wouldn’t wish these feelings on anyone. But over time, I was also exposed to the incredible kindness and hospitality of many Americans, and I was fortunate to experience the American promise of going to college and finding amazing career opportunities.

With the recent rise of hate and violence against Asian Americans, the worst parts about my experience coming to America and the deep wounds it left are resurfacing.

The shooting in Atlanta that left eight people dead, including six people of Asian descent, has rocked the Asian community. While the district attorney intends to seek hate crime charges against the shooter, these sorts of attacks, whether racially motivated or not, tap into the deep trauma of being Asian in America.

The history of this trauma can be traced back to Chinese railroad workers in the 1800s who were initially thought to be too weak for the job. When they finally prevailed against these prejudices, they were then exploited with low wages, punished by abusive supervisors, and endured incredibly dangerous working conditions — from landslides to explosions to disease.

In the 20th century we saw the unjust internment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Regardless of the time period, Asian Americans have been consistently singled out for discrimination in this country.

The COVID-19 pandemic has played no small part in reviving these sentiments as Chinese Americans are once again used as a scapegoat.

Sadly, Asian Americans are forced to take precautions, even in Dallas. I’ve had to warn my parents about simply leaving the house. I’m choosing the treadmill instead of running outside. We are cautioning our children to be watchful and to always be with somebody.

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in California has documented a 164% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of America’s largest cities. For those of us who have experienced bias, discrimination and racism firsthand, these numbers are terrifying but not surprising.

Even small, racially motivated incidents, like one I had at the grocery store recently, can bring those feelings of otherness back to the surface. A micro-aggressive butcher singled me out for an extra charge to trim salmon fillets, for which the store has never charged customers, according to a store manager I consulted after the episode. A wound here, a wound there. The daily confrontations add up.

Yes, this is the America we live in, and I am confident that what is broken can be repaired.

I learned early in life that you have to stand up for your worth and the worth of others. Through conscious, collective action, we can repair this nation and make it more welcoming — and safer — for everyone.

That is why I am on the board of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, where every visitor is taught the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides and what it means to be an upstander for those who have no one to stand up for them.

We teach visitors at the museum that an upstander is someone who combats prejudice, hatred and indifference. When upstanders see something wrong, they work to make it right.

Every day I see more people speaking out against prejudice, hatred and indifference. More teens and adults are recognizing their own unconscious bias against others and choosing to transform the way they interact with the world. Is this happening among people you know? If not, you can be part of the solution.

While I believe we should all support tougher penalties for hate crimes, we must also focus on changing hearts and attitudes. New and effective legislation and tougher penalties may help curtail mass shootings like the ones in Atlanta or El Paso, but only changed hearts can fully prevent them.

That is why I’m grateful to the Texas Instruments Foundation for its recent financial gift to support the museum’s programming to confront anti-Asian hate and bigotry. The gift will fund programs through 2022, including our “Voices of Asian Americans” event on May 20 and next year’s “Crucial Conversations: Confronting Anti-Asian American Hate Speech and Hate Crimes” — two in a series of special events that will provide space for personal testimony of racism from Asian American and Pacific Islander voices and education about the work that needs to be done.

Now is the time to remain steadfast, united and hopeful because we have the resources right here in Dallas to impact attitudes, confront bigotry and make the United States a better place for everyone.