Stephanie Ung, 20’s
What racial, ethnic, cultural community or communities do you identify with?
Khmer, Filipinx, Chinese.
Tell us about your family story.
I have one older brother - he and I are 2 ⅕ years apart. We were born in San Fernando Valley in Southern CA. Growing up in Simi Valley, it was predominantly white but now it is getting more diverse even though it is still pretty conservative.
My dad is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge. He was thirteen when my Lok Da and Yey moved to Phnom Penh from Kampong Chhnang. Both my grandparents survived and were educated. My grandpa worked for the Ministry of Education before the Khmer Rouge came in and he had been friends with a lot of the soldiers and officials. My grandma loves music and she was a teacher. In the countryside, my grandfather befriended the villagers. He learned how to grow, harvest and forage in the jungles from the villagers and shared whatever my grandmother cooked with all of them. When things were safer in Srok Khmer, my family went back to Phnom Penh and opened an orphanage for the kids. I feel like so much of my passion to give back to my community comes from this big part of my family's story.
My dad came to the United States as a refugee in the mid 80’s with other family members and settled in Long Beach area where my Lok Yey still lives. He quickly found that he didn’t want to stay in community because of the violence, poverty, struggle, and the scarcity mindset so he moved into San Fernando Valley where he met my mom. My mom is an immigrant from Mindanao in Southern part of Phillipines. She came with almost nothing and was undocumented. She couldn’t get a job even though she had a Bachelor's Degree in Accounting that wasn't recognized in this country. My mom ended up working at KFC with my dad. They didn't speak each other’s languages but my dad tried to talk to my mom in Tagalog. They eventually got married and learned how to speak English with each other.
My dad has a big heart and does what he can to help others even from a distance. Doing community work requires a certain relationship building and that can be hard for him because of the time it takes, the pain of learning people’s stories, and the hurt he has experienced in the Khmer community where he was taken advantage of before. At the end of December for our food distribution, he loved packing lemongrass and bringing bags of rice to our Khmer people’s cars. You learn a lot about the struggles of doing community work when you are from that community.
My parents didn’t teach me their languages because in Simi Valley, they wanted us to fit in and have a childhood that we were proud about. When I asked my dad why he never taught me Khmer in college, he responded with, “Why would I teach you Khmer? What good is Khmer going to be for you? Where are you going to use it?” He now sees what I do in the community and how much I care about it, and he apologizes that he didn't. My dad doesn't work with many Khmer people, my mom does not work with many Filipinx people, and they speak English to each other. My parents have internalized that our languages are not valuable.
We were not exposed to the cultural practices but still had Asian values and knew we were different from our white classmates in terms of our respect for adults, work ethic, and the expectation to go to college. My dad didn’t finish high school but he values education and thinks that it’s the way to be successful. I have been to Srok Khmer twice; my family lives in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
What are the strengths and challenges of being Khmer, Filipinx, and Chinese?
Being mixed comes with its own challenges, and being mixed within Asian also has its own challenges. I am never Khmer, Chinese, or Filipinx enough, especially since I don't know the languages. I'm trying to get over this as an adult. When I speak Khmer, my grandma would laugh at me. I know that it's coming from a non-malicious way because I sound "cute" but it makes me shy and not want to speak even though I know she likes it when I do. Learning languages is so necessary and I personally need to work on that. When we organize in the community, I’m pushing myself to talk Khmer but I’m still learning. I have my introduction down very well and that’s it.
Another challenge is not favoring one community over another. I have poured so much into the Khmer community because I know more about our stories, such as the Angkor Wat and Khmer Rouge. "With my mom's culture, sometimes I don't know where to start, as the Philippines was colonized by Spain, then invaded and occupied by the United States. My mom's family also fled her hometown due to civil unrest. My mom is Filipina and Chinese, and is a practicing Muslim, so speaks a different dialect of Filipino and practices a different religion than the majority of Filipinos. We didn't grow up with lumpia, karaoke, or hearing Taglish (Tagalog and English mixed). We were not a purely a "Filipino" household which contributes to not feeling "Filipino enough."
A strength is our richness, the opportunity to figure out my ancestral wisdom that is somehow manifesting in my life. Sometimes I ask my parents the same questions and get different answers, and I love when our cultures combine. One example is a food where my dad loves fried catfish with rice. My mom makes this cucumber salad with red onions, tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt, and soy sauce. Growing up, I thought that was a natural pair. Two weeks ago, I just found out that it is a combination from my parents. They learned about each other's foods and now they both eat it.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
I majored in Environmental Studies at UW. I followed my passion; I did not know what I would be doing with that degree and what job I'd have. My mom was supportive because she believes that caring for the environment is important. When I moved to Seattle and got to UW, my classes were really White. Many of my classmates grew up camping and hiking, shaping their inclination to "protect" the environment, which I didn’t feel like I could relate to. We never did that stuff growing up.
Instead of quitting, I researched about environmental justice, multicultural education, and communities of color in environmental movements. Then, I joined KhSA where I felt comfortable being around Khmer people. It gave me the chance to dive into my culture and family history to explore how we as people are connected to land and water. This led me to what I do with Seattle Parks in environmental education, fellowships, and community work. I always want to tie my work back to culture and heritage.
Reflecting on how you grew up, what did you learn or appreciate from your family?
I appreciate spending time together, and also simply, the value of family. When I organize in the community, I want to make it feel like a family - a sense of belonging, trust, and the ability to be yourself with unconditional love and support around you. It takes a lot of trust to build that.
Do you speak your family's native language? Why or why not?
No, learning native tongues wasn’t a priority because there were conflicting priorities and the pressure to assimilate was really big in our little suburb. I also feel like my parents didn’t think I’d be interested. I am interested in our dialects, including Tausug / Filipinx, but I didn’t express an interest as a child so they didn’t prioritize that.
What advice do you have for the younger generations from our Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander communities?
Their ideas and dreams are so important and needed in this work because they have had experiences in their lives that are unique and necessary for others to hear, so that we can build a society that either replicates those experiences or makes it so that no one has to go through them. Our lived experiences are like gifts to us. Young people are powerful and adults need to get out of their way. Everyone should have someone who listens and uplifts their ideas and makes space for them. We need young people to tell us what they need and want if we want to fight against a society that tells us our limits and the "way things are."
If we were to stay in this negative mindset, our ancestors wouldn't have been able to build the Angkor Wat, fight off Spanish colonizers, and have persevered to be here today. The reason we are here is because people fought to be here. I also want our young people to realize that we live on stolen land and consider what that means for us: How do we learn from the harm and traumas that have been committed towards our community? How do we turn that into compassion for the Native/Indigenous folx who still live here? How do we have compassion knowing what’s happened to ours? We’re stronger when we learn about the histories of our communities.
What gives you the greatest joy in life?
The greatest joy in life is getting to share food with people - whether it is bringing food to others, receiving food, or gathering together. This past spring, my favorite joy was eating the plums in yard. They harvest from little nubs to changing colors, and to be up in the tree to harvest by hand. Anything that has to do with food and land.
Are there any projects you have created that you'd like to share and promote?
Khmer Community of Seattle King County
Instagram | Facebook
NDNxAZN Mask Project
Indigenous and Asian artists were paired to learn about one another's stories and create a mask representing solidarity created face masks that were inspired by different cultures. In my piece, the embroidered flower represents the springtime inspiration for my Indigenous partner Melaw Nakehk'o, the textiles and elephants represent Srok Khmer, the Filipinx sun represents liberty and my mom's nourishment, and the braided plastic handles represents love for Mother Earth.
Website | Instagram
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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.
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