Jason Argenta, 30’s
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Started and run LGBTIQ+ drop-in centre in Cambodia.
What racial, ethnic, cultural community or communities do you identify with?
Tell us about your family story.
I was born in Australia, but I moved to Cambodia about 7+ years ago. I first came as a volunteer on my way to do a 3-month Euro-trip. I volunteered with a building NGO and built houses, toilets and wells for families in need for 2 months. I fell in love with the place within the first few days and decided to move here to live. I did go to Europe for 3 months, but then returned to Australia for a month, sold all my things and moved to Cambodia New Year's Day 2014.
3 years later, I opened a drop-in centre for Khmer LGBTIQ+ individuals. It is called, "A Place To Be Yourself (កន្លែងដែលអ្នកអាចជាខ្លួនឯង)" and we are locally registered as, "Beautiful Life Organisation (អង្គការជីវិតស្រស់បំព្រង)" because the Ministry didn't like the name, A Place To Be Yourself, haha. Around the same time, I started working in mental health here, too (My background in Australia is in Psychology, Sociology and Child Protection). I started offering one-on-one counselling sessions, mentoring, consultancy services and workshops relating to mental health.
My counselling business is called, Penhjet Counselling Services. I chose the word "Penhjet" because its literal translation is "full (penh) heart (jet)", which I think is so apt when we are talking about mental health. It is generally used to express a feeling of satisfaction. APTBY is an NGO and we are open daily. We are staffed by Khmer individuals and all our resources are created and written in Khmer. We started with the drop-in space, but we basically try and help local LGBTIQ+ individuals in whatever way we can - we organise community events and annual Pride events, offer free counselling for Khmer LGBTIQ+ individuals, teach workshops about Gender & Sexuality, and try to support local LGBTIQ+ talents by helping to highlight and sell their products, provide scholarships to LGBTIQ+ individuals (Some have studied English, Counselling, Tourism, etc.). We helped organise an album launch for an LGBTIQ+ band in Siem Reap, and created and printed a Khmer LGBTIQ+ Dictionary. The list goes on!
I am in a same-sex relationship with a Khmer guy named Tola, who I met shortly after moving here. We started a cafe together with my mum named, "Krousar Cafe" (krousar = family). APTBY is located on the same site as Krousar Cafe, so 1) that we don't have to pay rent, and 2) so that visitors can enter without people necessarily knowing that they're coming to an LGBTIQ+ drop- in centre (It's private). Penhjet also utilises the meeting room (or "loungeroom" as we call it) at Krousar Cafe for private counselling sessions.
Tola and I recently adopted a young Khmer boy. We named him Som El Silver (Som El is Tola's dad's name, as it is traditional for this to be passed down - and Silver is the English meaning of my Italian surname, Argenta).
What are the strengths and challenges of being an Australian living in Cambodia?
I am Caucasian, but I can offer some interesting insight into life in Cambodia as a foreigner. For example, how a lot of Khmer people want to have white skin and use whitening products all the time. How things that people thought of as "ugly" in Australia, Khmer people really seem to like about me - big eyebrows, white skin, etc. How I try to challenge all of this, as well as stereotypes and discrimination related to being LGBTIQ+.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Oh... probably starting APTBY or the counselling I have done over the years here or even just the work I did in Child Protection in Australia because that had such a big impact on me at such a young age.
Reflecting on how you grew up, what did you learn or appreciate from your family?
"United we stand, divided we fall." Unconditional love (from one parent) and the power of that.
Do you speak your family's native language? Why or why not?
My mum has Italian parents and I learnt a little Italian in high school. I have been learning Khmer pretty much since I moved here - I can speak enough to get by, and can read and write but I am not fluent. I still have 2 lessons per week, which I use mostly to translate material and resources for APTBY and Penhjet.
What advice do you have for the younger generations in our communities?
Be open and accepting, and follow your own heart and path and dreams (not just that of your parents).
What gives you the greatest joy in life?
Other people! ^^
Are there any projects you have created that you'd like to share and promote?
Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization (KVAO), formerly known as RISC Cambodia, assists former refugees, who lived in the United States and who have been repatriated to Cambodia, to adjust to life in contemporary Cambodia. This program offers help with necessary documentation, finding employment and housing, and integrating into Cambodian society. All services are provided at no cost and are essential in aiding returnees adjusting to their new life in Cambodia.
The overthrow of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime occurred in 1979. During this time, the U.S. accepted 150,000 Cambodian refugees into Boston, Long Beach and Seattle areas. Most refugees suffered from PTSD from enduring starvation, witnessing murder, and family division. Despite the extreme trauma, these individuals endured despite receiving limited support services. Many of the children who came to the U.S. were born in refugee camps. Growing up in the inner city, learning a new language and lacking community, led many of the young individuals unfortunately to get involved in the justice system. Their actions were not significantly different from their peers, but because they lacked U.S. citizenship, their actions had other consequences.
In 2002, Cambodia signed an agreement with the U.S. to accept deportations. Despite having already served their sentences in the U.S. prison system, thousands of Cambodian Americans have already been deported or are currently awaiting deportation. Most of these Cambodians came to the U.S. very young, don't speak the language and are unfamiliar with the culture and the society of contemporary Cambodia. Having had to endure the genocide and family severance, many individuals are no faced with the issue of deportation to a "home" they know nothing about and must withstand the struggles of cultural assimilation yet again.
In 2013, I wanted to support RISC Cambodia, now called KVAO. One of the ways I helped give back to this community is by coordinating a fundraising event at the U-District in Seattle, WA with several colleagues and professors from the University of Washington. Everyone came together to help make this event a success, and we raised over $6k. We received support from local artists and small businesses and held a silent auction. We invited Many Uch, a Cambodian refugee who had been fighting his order of deportation for nearly 24 years, and several other Cambodian Americans awaiting deportation to share their stories. As a 2nd generation Khmer American, I believe it is our responsibility to help these individuals. With the increase of Cambodian deportees each year, KVAO relies on financial support from the community since it is a non-governmental organization (NGO).
The aid goes to support Cambodian returnees through the following services:
Initial Orientation: KVAO meets each client on arrival at the General Department of Identification (GDID). During the initial meeting, or as soon thereafter as practicable, KVAO personnel will complete an intake form based on a personal, confidential interview with each client.
Documentation Assistance: KVAO assists each client to acquire necessary documents for personal identification or employment such as; birth and marriage certificates, national identification card, residence & family book and other registration papers.
Employment Assistance: Clients are provided with informal counselling and orientation related to employment, creation and updating of resumes, skills and education grants based on available resources.
Temporary Housing Assistance: Clients who are sponsored by KVAO program and those who are going through critical circumstances in his/her transition will be provided with temporary housing and the necessities.
Basic Medical Support: KVAO has a humanitarian commitment to provide emergency medical assistance in cases of illness or injury or maintenance treatment for chronic conditions for clients who have been in country for 3 years period and those determined to have physical and mental health disability.
Legal Monitoring: KVAO assists clients in monitoring their legal proceedings and help them fully understand their proceedings. KVAO also conducts monthly prison visits in order to verify the well-being of the clients who are incarcerated.
Referral Assistance: KVAO makes appropriate referrals for counseling, employment, medical treatment, drug detoxification, etc.
Follow-Up Support: To verify the well-being and resettlement situation of clients, KVAO conducts regular follow-up with clients through calls, texts and Facebook chat.
Field Visit: To justify services to the whole target population, KVAO conducts Field Visit to mainly the western parts of the country 6 times per year.
Defusing and Mediating Conflict: To build peace in the community, KVAO assists clients with defusing and mediating conflict within the community as it arises.
Thank you for caring,
Tuy Sobil, who goes by KK, was born in a Thai refugee camp as a result of the Khmer Rouge Genocide during the mid to late 1970s. KK spent most of his childhood and teenage years growing up in the projects of Los Angeles, USA. Unfortunately, like many other immigrants struggling to survive with limited resources and support (let alone having to overcome PTSD and trauma), KK got involved in gangs and convicted at the age of 18. The saying "aing jong tvuh gang, eh?" translates to "do you want to join a gang, eh?" is a common question that Khmer parents pose to their children because of how frequently it happens and impacts the Cambodian diaspora. Now with a criminal record, KK got sentenced to Cambodia and was forced to leave behind his life to go to a place that he has never known.
KK was a former breakdancer back in the states. Forced to live in a third world country after growing up in a first world country was an eye-opening experience. He saw many homeless kids without shelter and the basic necessities and living in the slums. These kids got involved in drugs and crime. Not wanting them to continue down this hopeless path, he opened up his home to these kids even though he had a small home. He started teaching them break-dancing and hip hop culture. Word got out and more kids started showing up. That's when he launched Tiny Toones, a charity with a vision for all youth in Cambodia and beyond to live a healthy life free of HIV and drugs, to realize their full potential through educational and creative opportunities, and to pursue their dreams and become positive leaders of tomorrow.
On December of 2007, I've had the opportunity to visit KK and Tiny Toones during a study abroad program through the University of Washington School of Social Work. I was inspired by KK's compassion and commitment to ensure the safety, health and well-being of children in need. Over 100 children from the slums go to Tiny Toones every day to dance, make music, practice English and Khmer, learn computing, and enjoy the freedom to be children. Although faced with new adversities in a new country, KK chose to live a life of purpose, love and compassion.
Today, Tiny Toones is a safe place for children to learn, be creative, and develop a positive sense of identity and community. We want to commend KK for having such a big heart and paying it forward through using his talents and creativity to save so many kids' lives and help them have a brighter future.
If you would like to learn more, visit www.tinytoones.org. Tiny Toones is a registered charity in Cambodia and receive no statutory funding, relying wholly on donations. If you are interested in making a donation, visit the link here.
Thank you for taking the time to learn more about KK's story and how Tiny Toones has made a positive impact on the at-risk youth in Cambodia.
2nd Generation Cambodian American
2019 UW Sociology Alumna
Bea Aurelio-Saguin & Christy Innouvong-Thornton, Co-Founders of Tuk Tuk Box: Spreading the Food, History & Beauty of Southeast Asian Cultures
Location: San Diego, California & Bangkok, Thailand
Services: Specialty food retailer business, offering curated Southeast Asian subscription boxes and products
We are excited to have finally connected with Bea and Christy to learn more about their team and business. With their professional backgrounds of giving back to their communities, they are continuing to celebrate and educate others about our Southeast Asian cultures, even during this pandemic. Read more to learn about why you should be supporting Tuk Tuk Box today! - Jas
What are your roles at Tuk Tuk Box?
We, Bea Aurelio-Saguin and Christy Innouvong-Thornton, are the Co-Founders of Tuk Tuk Box. We are all friends and have worked well together over the years. Christy is also one of the founders of the non-profit organization called, "Courageous Kitchen." She is highly involved in refugee-serving organizations. Allison and I used to work at an Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Social Justice Organization- Christy and I started Tuk Tuk Box together. Allison is our Operations Manager.
What made you become interested in having a specialty food retailer business to promote Southeast Asian food?
Bea: Tuk Tuk Box is my “vehicle” of learning about my family’s deep history and diving into my questions growing up, "Who am I? Where is my family from? What did my ancestors eat and experience, and how did they live?"
Through my travels and global health experience, I still found a big gap and question I kept asking, "Why was there a lack of Southeast Asian focus in addressing health disparities? Why weren’t we at the tables being a part of these discussions?" I started volunteering at Courageous Kitchen 4 years ago and never looked back.
Christy: I started Courageous Kitchen nearly 7 years ago with a friend in Bangkok. We currently serve over 400 asylum seeking and refugee families in Thailand and now, San Diego. It started as English lessons in my apartment which eventually led to pop-ups around the city and later, cooking classes. We also led street food, market tours and classes to generate funds for the organization. Through these experiences, we are able to teach supplementary education, as the refugee families have little to no pathway in Thailand. We do this through mentorship, food education, math, English, and basic transferable skills like budgeting and kitchen management.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we could no longer work directly with tourists in Thailand or San Diego. We had to figure out a sustainable way to generate funds for the families we serve and continue to bring education and awareness of our communities. Through my work, I have had the privilege to work alongside many chefs or food entrepreneurs. I have sent out Thai cooking kits and ingredients to people in my network for years, but with the shutdown, my regular clients didn’t have access to the Southeast Asian food they longed for.
Bea suggested that we offer a subscription box model for those who were missing the classes and cuisine; and so, we set to work - building Tuk Tuk Box and connecting all of the pieces: Food, Southeast Asia, and social impact. Not only offering the customers the items they desire, but a nostalgic experience that engages, educates, and gives back.
What is your favorite part of owning your business so far? What are the challenges?
Bea: As I navigated my way through the nuances of being a first generation Southeast Asian American in school, I developed a strong connection and passion for knowing what made my community what it was and finding out how it shaped me. I went to school and studied history, but my community’s history was never told. One of my favorite parts of owning my own business is that we can bridge the gap and teach others about our community in a way that other people have not. We have full reign on everything that we want to share! Through Tuk Tuk Box, we are pushing the question of, "Why aren't we at the table?”
Christy: Everything Bea said and more. Questions of identity were always on my mind, and especially the frustration of not having representation anywhere. In the media, in the culinary industry, in the workplace. I’m tired of being the only one. Tuk Tuk Box is here to show us that Southeast Asians are visible, we’re loud, we’re proud, we’re unapologetic and we’ve got damn good food. We’re not going anywhere. We want you to read our stories, or try a snack and say “Hey, this looks like my mom,” or “My grandpa gave me this candy when I was little!” Not only the stories but the food will hopefully evoke emotion.
The challenges, of course with any new venture, is capital. We’re doing this ourselves, without a silver spoon in our mouth and with our own savings, building everything from the ground up. It’s bootstrapping, as our parents and ancestors did. We’re resilient because we have to be.
Tell us about your products or services!
Our monthly Southeast Snacks subscription box always has something sweet, salty, and spicy. You get to choose your funk level - a Lil Funky, Funky Fresh, and Funkylicious. The latter of which may have new or exciting flavors like mung bean, squid, and durian. We donate a minimum of 10% of subscription sales each month to Courageous Kitchen. If you’re not ready to commit, you can also make a one-time purchase of any of our items.
If you are a subscriber, you’ll have a different theme every month. Each box highlights a particular culture and community. You will find someone's story within that community, as well as snacks to go along with the history of that culture. In December, for instance, our theme was “Traditions of the Mekong” where we highlighted a few small businesses and products that aligned with the theme. We want to celebrate and teach others about cultures that they may not be familiar with.
You will also receive a QR code that will lead you to our website where you can read more about our featured story of the month. We have stories with the chefs, food suppliers, and businesses that we’ve partnered with, as well as some fun items like our Southeast Noods box, which was a collaboration with our friends from Laos Supply. It features 6 packs of instant noodles, a Lao-themed mask, chopsticks, and stickers among other things.
What else would you like for people to know about you and/or your business?
Thank you for your supporting our Southeast Asian woman owned business and believing in our mission. We are grateful for the opportunity to connect and uplift our community.
Additionally, we are always looking for people within our Southeast Asian diaspora who are willing to share their stories, volunteer, or collaborate with us.
If you are a part of a food business, we'd love to share your products.
Please follow our journey at tuktukbox.com, Instagram, and TikTok @tuktukbox.
Thank you to Bea, Christy, and your Tuk Tuk Box Team for the work that you do for our API communities. As a podcast team, we stand by your mission to educate others about our unique, collective stories as Southeast Asians.
On Wednesday evening, we attended a storytelling event that our podcast friend, Randy Kim, hosted with his longtime mentor, Ada Cheng. They created a beautiful space where seven community leaders shared their life passions, stories, and challenges through speech, music, poem, and comics.
The Talk Stories show started in 2017 with the mission of featuring different points of views in our communities and uplifting people from all backgrounds. As Ada shared in the opening statement, "Everyone has a story to share. My work is to encourage others to share their stories." We are moved by the vulnerability that each performer brought with them.
This show was made possible by the following collaborators: The National Cambodian Heritage Museum, Chinese American Museum of Chicago, Japanese American Services Committee, and OCA Greater Chicago.
Some of My Takeaways
Etzkorn Wong: The power of music. Music helps us connect with one another and explains what words cannot. Etzkorn shared a calming, dreamy-like song about believing in yourself, even when you are faced with obstacles along the way. He also shared a piece that he wrote in tears after his sister and his sister's boyfriend dodged a car accident a few weeks ago. We felt such honest emotions and passion.
Rohan Anand: The power of bringing people together. It was inspiring to hear how Ronan rallied together funds and community members to have a slot in Chicago's Pride Parade on June of 2019. We loved his analogy of comparing his time in the parade to his own life: "You're marching forward in your life with... [the right] people and energy. If people are in front of you and not moving, they’re standing in your way. They need to stand beside you or up in front of you to lead the way, or they can get back the other way."
Veronica Murashige: The power of questions. Being a 4th generation mixed Asian-American, Veronica explained the questions that she has received since childhood from the frustrating “What are you?" to "Is she [Veronica's mom] your nanny?" to "Are you adopted?" She reminded us of the importance in understanding all parts of who we are and figuring out how we can move forward in our lives with confidence.
Isabel Garcia-Gonzales: The power of microaggressions. Isabel told a series of stories that happened to her over the years, stories of when she experienced racism and sexism. Growing up in her town of Wisconsin, there were only about 9% of the population who were people of color. Every woman, woman of color, and person of color should find their community where they can feel safe to be themselves and to speak their truth. As Isabel said, "In solidarity."
Sina Sam: The power of seeking closure with our past. Sina gave a heartfelt and melodic poem about her hardships being born as a Khmer refugee child in the Khao I Dang camp between Cambodia and Thailand. We can find healing and unity through reflecting on difficult times and being honest about our true feelings. It was powerful when she said, "We [younger Khmer generations] respond in English because we know our broken tongues sting your heart. Your hearts can’t hold anymore."
Taneka Hye Wol Jennings: The power of family. Taneka spoke on how, as a child, she was adopted by a white family and moved from South Korea to New Jersey, US. Her adoptive family did not always understand the obstacles she went through and how to talk about issues with race/identity, but they made the effort to make her feel loved, heard, and accepted. Family is anyone who truly loves and cares about us - who is there for us no matter what.
Grace Chan McKibben: The power of love. Love has no boundaries, as Grace discussed her story as a Chinese woman falling in love with her African-American husband, Tom. Their path to interracial marriage in 1991 was not easy because Grace's family and community were concerned about the racial and cultural differences. With their determination in making things work, Grace and Tom were able to receive support from Grace's parents.
Grace described, "I am forever grateful to my dad for always being supportive of his children and there’s only one way to pay it back – to be unconditionally supportive of my own children even when I may not completely understand them."
Thank you to Ada and Randy for hosting this event and bringing these amazing individuals together in one night. We are truly inspired by their words and talents, and look forward to supporting your future events!