Having lived most of her life away from her homeland, Peuo Tuy was always in constant search for acceptance and love. She went through stages of confusion, judgment, and rebellion to prove her worth. And it was through spoken word poetry that she found herself finally achieving happiness and fulfillment. The spoken word poet, creative writing workshop instructor and community organiser recently visited Cambodia to inspire participants of the Khmer Collaborative Writers. She tells Say Tola her story.
GoodTimes2: Why did your family decide to leave Cambodia?
Peuo: I was born in 1979 at Thmor Kol, Battambang province. That was the time the Vietnamese military marched into the country and the genocide, led by the Khmer Rouge, ended. My parents knew it was unsafe for us to stay here so they decided to leave. We stayed in Khao-I-Dang refugee camp for three years, then moved to a refugee camp in the Philippines. After about one year, we were sponsored to live in the US through a Christian center.
GoodTimes2: What was life like as a child?
Peuo: Though my family lived in a considerably contemporary place, my parents remained old-fashioned. We lived in accordance to Khmer traditions and we spoke Khmer even when we were in the US. I was always told to stay quiet and to follow rules.
Most of the people in Cambodia think that those who migrated (during the early 1980s) to the US were wealthy and stable. They are wrong. My family was very poor. My parents collected five cents redemption cans and worked three jobs at nearby farms and worked at factories in Massachusetts. We were on public welfare and food stamps and lived in an impoverished neighborhood. My brother and I took care of ourselves. My mom was really tight with money. We were not given anything beyond basic food, shelter, and clothing. Life was hard.
GoodTimes2: Being a naturally born Cambodian, was it hard to cope with the new environment?
Peuo: When I was younger, the students in my school didn’t think about my colour and my economic status. But there was a time when I got invited to the birthday party of my American classmate. Their house was so big and beautiful and the birthday girl received nice gifts. I suddenly felt embarrassed that I didn’t have a life like hers. That was when I realised that I was poor. I envied them and wanted to be white and rich.
Also, my school always had parent-teacher meetings. My parents never attended even one meeting. I felt really frustrated. When I got a little older I realised my parents were afraid to join the meetings because they couldn’t speak English and because of cultural differences.
GoodTimes2: Did you ever feel discriminated by your peers in the US?
Peuo: I remembered a time when my mother was buying something at the store. While she was counting the coins, the cashier talked to her rudely. That was the first time I felt we were discriminated because cashiers rarely do that.
As a young child growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts I saw how racism and internalised racism affected our neighbourhoods. There were Latinos, Mexicans, and Blacks in our community. I didn’t like them because they were dark-skinned and they were not Cambodian-Americans. They didn’t like us either. There was gang violence because of racism, hatred, internalised racism and culture differences.
There were high rates of teen pregnancy and high school dropouts among young Cambodian women. Young Cambodian men were targeted by the police and many felt out of place and sought gangs as their own family. Many dropped out of school as well. To this day, Cambodian-Americans are one of the lowest socioeconomic groups to achieve higher education.
I didn’t understand the stigma or our struggle back then. I thought it was because Cambodian-Americans felt the trauma from their experiences in the Khmer Rouge. During the early 1980s, the US government didn’t provide enough education and healing support for us to get assimilated into society.
GoodTimes2: How did you liberate yourself from all those problems?
Peuo: I wanted to obtain higher education. I moved out of Massachusetts when I was 18. I knew that leaving my parents behind wasn’t good. As a daughter, I was supposed to stay home and take care of them. But I wanted to push my limits and give myself higher education.
What motivated me to become a better person was my desire to discover self-love and self-acceptance. My parents’ trauma caused me pain and affected my self-esteem. I wanted to be given the chance to speak out because I was never allowed to speak at home.
As years passed, I started to understand more about my life and my parents. My hatred subsided. I understood my parents’ trauma from the Cambodian genocide. I started to be more compassionate and loving.
GoodTimes2: How did you start opening yourself to the community?
Peuo: In 2004, I began opening up by writing a collection of poetry and those poems later became a manuscript for my book called, Khmer Girl (2014). It was because of Khmer Girl that I started to love Khmer culture. The book contains words about rebellion against stigma on women’s role in society, independence, finding love, gender equality, my dark skin colour, and more.
I wanted to prove so many things through my poetry. Like the fact that there’s nothing wrong with having dark skin. Or that being right does not necessarily depend on one’s gender.
GoodTimes2: How has life been in New York since you moved there two decades ago?
Peuo: In the early 2000, I did work in the university to empower students whose cultural backgrounds differ from Americans. I trained women to be community organisers and encouraged them to be involved in the fight for self-determination. I taught them to speak up and be empowered.
In 2017, I became the executive director of the new Cambodian American Literary Arts Association (CALAA), a non-profit organisation in Lowell, MA that engages and cultivates emerging and established writers in the Cambodian diaspora. We provided creative writing workshops, intergenerational knowledge exchanges and professional resources. CALAA also aspires to empower the voices of Khmers in the US and help enrich the Cambodian community.
GoodTimes2: With all that you’ve been through, what do you think is the best part of being Cambodian?
Peuo: Even if it took me a long time to realise this – I love the fact that I have Khmer parents. I am proud that I have pure Cambodian blood running inside me. I love my dark skin and curly hair. I love Khmer culture and food. I am also trying to learn the Khmer language.
With all that I have experienced, I realised that we should love ourselves for who we are. Using excessive chemicals to alter your natural being is not a proof of self-love.
The key to happiness is the people you surround yourself with and the love you have for yourself, your friends, your family and your career.
I am proud that I am Cambodian. I am happy to have Cambodian qualities in me. I encourage people to feel the same way, too.
For those who feel like they are not given the chance to be heard, I recommend that they join many inspirational events and activities in the community.
If they want to write about their experiences and ideals, they should not be hindered to write.