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?