Chanira Reang Sperry, 40’s
Mountlake Terrace, WA
Current Role: Director of Student Services at the UW School of Dentistry
What racial, ethnic, cultural community or communities do you identify with?
When and how did your family come to the United States? Where were you born?
As the story goes, a midwife started a fire underneath our home built on stilts in Ream, Cambodia. My mother labored for hours as the heat from the fire helped her back and labor pains. I finally made my arrival into this world. She told me, with a somewhat resentful tone, that out of her five children, her labor with me was the most difficult and painful. My life in Cambodia was short-lived. In April of 1975, my family and I fled our home on a military base in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge Communist Party’s takeover. After a long journey at sea, on a ship crammed with 300 Cambodian refugees that was originally built for 30 crew members, and two plane rides. We arrived in Corvallis, Oregon through the sponsorship of two churches. We were among the first Southeast Asians to arrive in Oregon. As the only Cambodian family living in Corvallis, the isolating and minoritizing experiences influenced my work with educational achievement for Southeast Asian college students.
What are the strengths and challenges of being Asian, Asian American, and/or Pacific Islander?
The strengths of being Southeast Asian are numerous. We have unique histories, cultures, languages, and value systems. Many of our Southeast Asian cultures revere our older adult population. It is common, and most often expected, that adult children take care of their parents as they get older. My mother said that she would come back from the dead and haunt me if my siblings and I would put her and my father in a retirement facility. I have heard that many Southeast Asian older adults prefer to age in place instead of living in retirement communities.
Extended families are common and can be beneficial and challenging for many members of the family to live in one household. This can be true for college students who live at home and are expected to help care for their younger siblings and grandparents while trying to do their homework. The benefits of extended families is being able to bond as well as to help each other out.
Many of our histories are rooted in war and colonization. As such, we are resilient and hard-working people. We also love our festivities, such as New Year's events, celebrating the harvest season, and being around our family and friends. I can't live out food. We have a variety of regional foods from different parts of the countries. My favorite food is Cambodian food. If I were stranded on an island, I would crave Somlaw Machoo Trey and papaya salad. The arts are also a huge part of our culture. Dance, music, paintings, and pottery are a huge part of our identities as Southeast Asians. Our stories are shared and preserved through these mediums.
While we have many strengths, there are also many challenges Southeast Asians face. Many Southeast Asians are here as a result of the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. We come from different waves of immigration. My family and I came to the U.S. during the first wave in the 1970's. Because my father worked in the military, we were able to escape the genocide in Cambodia. Our peoples' stories have been left out of history books, educational curriculum, and more. The exclusion of voices from Communities of Color is a result of historical and current racist views from White settlers towards non-White communities.
Additionally, we have low representation in leadership roles in government, healthcare, legal, and education sectors. Furthermore, the continued use of aggregated data by historically White higher education institutions maintains the silencing of Southeast Asian college students' experiences by perpetuating the message these students do not require resources or support.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
My proudest accomplishment is raising my children to be good people, who respect others and themselves, as well as being activists in our communities.
What is one thing you learned or appreciate from your family growing up?
While I disliked waking up at 5am to put on soiled clothes to work in the Oregon berry fields, the experiences of being able to work alongside my family and to earn money to sponsor other family members was rewarding. If my family and I didn't work as much as we did, it would have been difficult to bring my aunts, uncles, and cousins to the U.S. I'm grateful that we have more family members who live closer.
Do you speak your family's native language? Why or why not?
I speak a little bit of Khmer and sometimes KhmEnglish when I forget or don't know Khmer words.
What advice do you have for the younger generations in our Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander community?
Growing up in a predominantly White community in Corvallis, OR, my siblings and I thought that we were White. When we looked at ourselves in the mirror, we knew that we looked different. We assimilated rapidly into White culture as well as to American values and traditions. It wasn't until college that I realized I wasn't White.
My advice to younger generations of Khmers is to be yourself. It took me awhile to figure that out and once I did, my confidence shot up and I wasn't afraid of succeeding and to learn more about my family's history. When you know who you are and where you came from, you become a fuller and more complete version of yourself. You also become less of a barrier to yourself, which opens up many doors for you to enter.
What gives you the greatest joy in life?
My family gives me the greatest joy. They are my life and I honestly don't know what I would do without them.
Are there any projects you have created that you'd like to share and promote?
I co-created the No Longer Invisible Project, which highlights stories of diverse Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Southeast Asian voices. I also created the first Southeast Asian seminar at the University of Washington entitled, "Emerging Identities: Southeast Asian Scholarship and Visibility."
If you would like to share your voice as a person of color, please read the directions and fill out this form here. All ages, backgrounds, and generations welcome. Thank you!
Who are we?
Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander voices in our communities.
This is a section for AAPI specifically because, coming from our Khmer culture, we often feel invisible in various spaces from school to the media.
We want to show the ways in which we are the same and different, and that all of our backgrounds and experiences are valuable to learn and celebrate. Let's uplift each other!
Want to share your voice?
To be featured, read the directions and fill out this form. All ages, backgrounds, and generations welcome.
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