A black-and-white photo of Putsata Reang, a short-haired, middle-aged Cambodian woman, with the logo of The Detour, a sphere orbited by a spiraling white line.

The Cost of Being Who We Are

In this episode we talk with Putsata Reang, a journalist from Cambodia and Corvallis who has lived and worked in more than a dozen countries. In her book, Ma and Me, Putsata writes with candor, emotion, and insight about the displacement and emotional exile she experienced as a child of refugees and as a gay person. This conversation about home and family is the first in a three-part series on belonging that kicks off the third season of The Detour.

Show Notes

Putsata Reang has published several articles with Oregon Humanities.

"Full Circle" inspired "A Return Passage," a video featuring Putsata and Kim sharing their stories.

About our guest

Putsata Reang is an author and journalist whose writings have appeared in a variety of national and international publications, including the New York Times, Politico, the Guardian, Ms, the Seattle Times, and the San Jose Mercury News.

Putsata was born in Cambodia and raised in rural Oregon, surrounded by berry farms where she and her family hustled to earn their middle class existence. Her memoir, Ma and Me, explores the glades of displacement felt by children of refugees and the overlay of emotional exile that comes with being gay.

Putsata has lived and worked in more than a dozen countries, including Cambodia, Afghanistan and Thailand. She is an alum of Hedgebrook, Mineral School, and Kimmel Harding Nelson residencies. She is a 2019 Jack Straw fellow. In 2005, she received an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship that took her back to Cambodia to report on landless farmers. She currently teaches memoir writing at the University of Washington School of Professional & Continuing Education.

 

Transcript

Adam Davis: Welcome to The Detour. I'm Adam Davis. Today is the start of our third season of The Detour. To celebrate, we're bringing you the first of a three part miniseries on belonging—belonging to a place, a people, maybe a way of being.

A couple of months ago, we held a Consider This event with the journalist and author Casey Parks, who you'll hear from later in this series, about what it means to belong or not belong in the place you grew up. After the program, as usual, we encouraged audience members to talk with people they didn't know about what they were thinking in response to the conversation. I was struck by how many people talked about their sense of not belonging.

Everyone I spoke to, without exception, felt like, in one way or another, they didn't belong. They had grown up with a different culture, or were far away from home, or left the religion they were raised in, or simply felt like they didn't fit in. The particulars of the stories differed vastly from each other, and from my own story.

But, oddly, through those conversations about not belonging, I walked away from the Alberta Rose Theatre that night feeling more like I did belong. 

Today, you're going to hear from Putsata Reang, who has worked on a few stories with Oregon Humanities over the years, about Chinese farmers and vegetable peddlers in Portland, about Chinese hops farmers in Central Oregon, and about leaving Southeast Asia as an infant and returning much later as a journalist. Putsata is from Corvallis. She is also from Cambodia. In this conversation and in her book, Ma and Me, Putsata speaks with candor, emotion, and insight about the challenges that come with being from and of multiple cultures.

As you'll hear, Putsata loves her Cambodian family, and Cambodia itself. She also loves Garth Brooks, and hot dogs, and Ruffles potato chips. And she loves her wife, which has posed serious challenges to feeling at home with her family and both of the cultures she's from.

This conversation with Putsata starts slowly, and goes deep. Much of it revolves around home, family, belonging, and the heart, and the costs of being who we are. We're delighted to share this conversation with you and really grateful to Putsata for sharing so much of herself with us. 

Hey Putsata, welcome to this conversation for The Detour

Putsata Reang: Hey Adam. Thanks so much for having me. 

Adam Davis: Sure. Now, Putsata, you even as we were saying hello talked about being in a few different places in the last couple days. I think maybe I want to ask, like, where does it feel like home base is these days for you?

Putsata Reang: That question is so timely. I've been in so many places across our own country, places I've never been. Yesterday actually was a true homecoming because I was down in Corvallis, which is my hometown. And I was invited there to speak at this new Corvallis Museum, which is this gorgeous building that wasn't around when I was there.

And I was not expecting very many people to go. I don't know. I guess in my mind, I thought since it was in themiddle of the day, 10:30 a.m., I thought maybe we'd get, you know, 12 people there. The place was packed. They had to get more chairs. It ended up being standing room only. It was so neat. But beyond that, what I spoke about yesterday, which is very different from the talks I've given in other parts of the U. S., is that I spoke about this idea of placeand how throughout my life and throughout my career as a journalist, when I've been in situations and I've been in countries that are stressful and difficult, Afghanistan in particular, but not only Afghanistan, I was in Thailand when there was a military coup, and that was exceptionally stressful, especially with my work as a journalist. In my mind, one of the things that I do, just tricks that I play on my mind just to reclaim a sense of calm, is I actually think about places in Corvallis. It might sound weird to say. Because at the same time that Corvallis is a place that I really feel at home, it's also a placethat was difficult because my family was one of very few non-white families in that town and yet, as I mentioned to my fellow Corvallis residents yesterday, of all the places my family could have ended up when we immigrated from Cambodia and arrived in the US, Corvallis couldn't have been a more perfect place to grow up as a kid and to be held by a community and to be held by the landscape. This gorgeous Willamette Valley where sounds echo and the air is filled with the sweetness of this perfume of strawberry scent and everything in there is just so beautiful and gorgeous.

And immediately, just before I hit city limits yesterday, I already was feeling that sense of calm return in me, just looking across the land and seeing the curtains of hills and what not. So Corvallis is it. I will always feel at home there every time. 

Adam Davis: Yeah. It's interesting how you already are talking about it, kind of an association of home with calm, even though it was also difficult in some ways and, and maybe it's worth noting you also lived in Keizer. 

Putsata Reang: Right. 

Adam Davis: And did you also live in Portland? 

Putsata Reang: Yeah, I didn't live in Keizer. My folks live there now. I actually, I drove up from their house, but I lived in Portland for just a minute. Portland was an experiment for me. And what I will say about my time here is that seeing my own home state with new eyes and really trying to get to know the Northwest in a different way, having spent, you know, so many years up until that point living internationally, I absolutely love whenever I move to a place, immediately trying to understand the history and, and, and learn about people of that place, and Portland was no different.

And actually, that's how I started to really get curious about people who were here before I ever was, before any of my neighbors were. And that led me down to some interesting places as far as storytelling goes. 

Adam Davis: And so, in a way, maybe I can ask, did you do that same kind of thinking in Corvallis, for example?Did you think, huh, we're relatively new, and there are relatively few folks from Cambodia. Have there been people from our place here before?

Putsata Reang: Absolutely. And that that led me to discover that I'm about 99 percent certain that my family was the very first Cambodian family in Corvallis. There are no records that I could find, and I do some pretty substantive sleuthing as a journalist. I could not find any records that would indicate otherwise, that anybody before my family arrived in 1975 had come from Cambodia. 

Yesterday I spoke about, you know, the audience long before all of us were there. The Kalapuyatribe was there, and I spoke about this idea of human migration, and that's part of the human condition, which is that we're constantly moving around. However, there are many communities who are forced to migrate, not of their own volition or their own desire, but forced either by policy or by circumstance to leave the place that they called home.

Adam Davis: And for your family, and maybe, maybe I'll start with you a little bit. You arrived in Corvallis as a very young person. 

Putsata Reang: That's right.

Adam Davis: What do you remember first about that place? Can I ask you that question? Like, how did it come to life for you as a little person? 

Putsata Reang: Yeah, I love that question so much just because I have been thinking about that a lot. Having been back to Corvallis just yesterday, I drove pastthe duplex, which is the first place my family lived when we arrived in Corvallis. It's still there.We ended up moving, gosh, less than... less than a mile away from that duplex eventually, and lived in our own home, but that duplex, I had a lot of memories there because when my family first arrived, some of my earliest memories of course were formed in what I consider like a place of origin in terms of when my family landed in Corvallis. 

You know, I slowed down as I drove. It's on a main road, and so I couldn't slow too much, and there's not really a place to pull off, but I did slow down to the extent that I could just take a good look at it. Gosh, I remember going with my siblings down to the 7-Eleven to buy Jolly Rancher's candies, which back then was three cents per candy. And I remember the backyard. We had a backyard big enough where wecould just... run laps and play Red Rover. My mom, in my memory,and as is true now, was in the kitchen trying to figure out how to use these appliances. In Cambodia, she only cooked over an open flame. Suddenly in the US, she was met with an electric stovetop and had no clue at all how this thing worked.

And so, one of my earliest memories is she took an entire chicken from its sleeve, put it on, right on top of the range, expecting it to cook, but that's not how people cook in the US, of course, and on an electric range. And so the learning curve for all of us was really high. I did not speak English at all until I arrived in kindergarten.

Even in kindergarten, I didn't speak English. But what was one of the best memories I have is that my siblings all went to school, and so they walked to our elementary school, Wilson Elementary School. And when they would come back, they would say these words, these English words. And I would just, I just remember being so fascinated, like, what is this weird language that they're speaking?

Because up until that point, I only spoke the language of my country, Cambodia, which is the Khmer language. And I just remember being so fascinated, like, first of all, what is this thing called school, where they're going for all day long, and I'm stuck at home, you know, with my mom. And then they're saying these words that I have no idea what they mean, and it was almost as if in that moment, when my siblings were speaking English and I did not, already there was a bit of a divide. 

What I failed to recognize in that moment was that by the time I entered school and learned English, that divide would be complete between my siblings and I and our parents, because they never formally took English classes the way that we would learn English in school. AndI think a lot about this idea of how language really creates so much of a sense of identity. And that when you learn one language, in my case, necessarily, the other language that I had falls away. But language is so much more than just words. It's a way of living, it's a way of being, it's a point of view and a perspective. And so suddenly it wasn't just that I was learning to speak language, but suddenly over time gradually as a young kid in Corvallis, shifting my mentality away from what I was born with, which was a very deep, ingrained Khmer culture.

And suddenly I was thinking like an American, because I am an American, but I think in hindsight, looking back, that must've been a terrifying moment for my parents to watch these subtle changes, the movement away from them, via language, via food, the way we dressed, the things we wanted, the things we wanted to watch, all of these different little pieces in hindsight, you know,in my mind, how I’m envisioning this is sort of like tiny little paper cuts for my parents who wanted desperately for their kids. They understood that we needed to assimilate. And at the same time, I know for my mom, at least in her core, she had hoped that all of us kids would maintain a measure of fidelity toward our own culture. Because they, my parents, already lost so much by leaving.

Adam Davis: So it's interesting now thinking about in “Ma and Me,” when you talk about yourself in a way re-learning Khmer and the delight that it brought to your mother, I guess I want to ask how did it feel to go back to Cambodia and recognize, wait a minute, I'm going to have to do some learning if I'm going to feel at home here. 

Putsata Reang: That's right. A lot of learning. You know what was weird? I'll be honest with you, Adam, this kind of just made me so stressed and confused on so many levels. In America, I had to learn how to speak English very quickly when I got to kindergarten. And because of that, the more English I spoke, the less Khmer I spoke, until one day I was not speaking Khmer at all. 

That must have been an enormous shock and deep sadness for my parents. When I turned 30, and I went back to Cambodia to work as a journalist, the exact opposite happened. I arrived only speaking English, not speaking a word of Khmer. Even though I could comprehend because my parents still spoke Khmer at home, I didn't, I couldn't twist my tongue in a certain way to get certain sounds to come out related to my own Khmer language. And there was this really interesting cognitive dissonance, because being back in Cambodia, I looked like everybody else. But I couldn't. And I am, in my heart, I believe that I have a heart that's more of a Khmer heart than American heart, but being back in Cambodia, I just kind of felt like, I'm a bit of a fraud because I'm here, I look like everybody, but I can't even speak my own language.

And so it was embarrassing. And at the same time, I recognized, you know, I've got to go a little bit gently on myself because I grew up for 30 years in the US as an American kid and, you know, my entire life up until that point was in the US, that so much of moving from one place to another, you do get that feeling of disorientation. It was just magnified because of the context and the country where I was, which is back in my home country where I was born. But slowly over time, as I begin to learn the Khmer language again, and that was with the help of my aunt and her kids who were so patient with me, and I really learned. I didn't take any Khmer classes. It was really just being out and speaking to people. I would write down words, and then I would call my parents from an internet phone, and they’d patiently run down my list of 20 new words I heard that day. What does this mean? What does this mean? And that's how I learned. After a while, when I began to dream in Khmer, I'll never forget that moment when I had my very first dream, and it came out in the Khmer language. I woke up with an enormous smile because I thought, wow, I'm really feeling so connected to my country and culture all over again.

Adam Davis: It's making me think of what you said about the paper cuts as you and your siblings moved away, and that as you went down that list of words, Khmer words, that you asked your mother about, that there was definitely some like tending to all of that stuff that must have been happening.

Putsata Reang: I ended up living in Cambodia for almost a decade, and I would come back to Oregon. And when my parents would pick me up, at one point I started to speak in Khmer to them, just right out of the gate from the airplane. And I think it took my parents by surprise, because my parents responded in English. And I said, no, no, no, no, like this is not supposed to be happening. Like I'm speaking our own language. But I think because they detected the shift, and I think that they weren't expecting that. So they responded and reacted in a way that they thought, you know, if I was speaking Khmer, then that meant they had to speak English, which was like, no, you don't have to try too. It was really interesting and strange and funny.

Adam Davis: It's super interesting to hear how language also functions as kind of a proxy for what you said a few minutes ago about your heart, like that you feel like you have, I think you said you feel like you have a more Khmer heart than an.American heart. How many hearts do you think one person can have? 

Putsata Reang: Gosh. Well, if I was an octopus, the answer would be two. And I am not. However you know, I think a lot about this idea, I know it's an overused statement, but I want to bring it up here because I feel like it's so true, especially for those of us who are bicultural or binational or multinational, multicultural, which is Walt Whitman's line about how we contain multitudes.

And I really do think that that is so true for those of us who don't easily fit inside a box like me, I mean, I'm a Cambodian refugee who's gay, listens to country music, snowboards, you know, I just, it's so hard to place me in a box. And in terms of where my heart is, to me, when I spoke about that earlier, that I feel like I have a Khmer heart more than an American heart, what I was getting at there was this idea of just my sentiments, and how I kind of take the world in and feel it. So, in Khmer culture, we feel things very deeply, and it's a joke among my Cambodian friends and I that our Khmer community and our Khmer people, we are so dramatic. Like, everything we say ends with the word, nah, which is like, which is like, a lot or much. So if you were to say, if you were to ask me, well, how are you today, Putsata, I would say I'm like, ah, nah, I'm doing great. Like, very much so. Or if you would ask me if I'm hungry, I wouldn't just say I'm hungry, but I'd say I'm very hungry. And everything ends with nah. And it's like, we were joking about that. My friends and I were like, why is that? Like, can we just be like, yeah, things are fine. But everything was elevated to another degree. And that's, and I feel like that's my heart speaking, coming out, through words. Orally and verbally.

Adam Davis: Yeah. I love that. It made me think about my daughter, actually, who I think actually feels things very strongly, but the language and attitude is sort of a more stoic, maybe even Northwestern, even the Pacific Northwestern. And so even if she feels it's strong, she's kind of learned not to say nah, not to express nah.

Putsata Reang: [laughs] She's got to say nah.

Adam Davis: Right. She's probably not going to learn it from me, but maybe she'll learn it from you. The last couple things you've said, the sort of like, feeling things strongly and the way you said, like put this combination of characteristics in a box, I mean it does seem like both in “Ma and Me,” and in your last comment, that one of the challenges, and we haven't talked that much about some of the challenges of having different homes, different languages, different places and different cultures. I guess I want to ask about that. Do you remember as a kid where you started to feel like, not only am I moving away from my parents, but it feels hard to be in this place. Like, do you remember what was the early difficult stuff? 

Putsata Reang: Hmm. Yeah. Well, that was definitely Corvallis as well. That had to do a lot with the fact that I understood I was different early on growing up in Corvallis.

Adam Davis: How did you, how did you understand that?

Putsata Reang: Looking around my classrooms, from elementary school to middle school to high school, and seeing all my friends with white skin. There's a moment that I'll never forget when I was in the second grade, and I was coming into my own consciousness in a way, I think, when we were working on handwriting. I must have been asleep at the wheel on that exercise, by the way, because my handwriting right now is chicken scrawl. I cannot read my own handwriting, which is why I thank God for laptops. And in Mr. Nordyke's class, back then, and I'm not sure that that's the case now in schools, but back then, of course, we had good old fashioned lined paper with a number two pencil with an eraser on the top. If you made a mistake, you'd flip your pencil over and use the eraser. And as if by magic, that mistake would disappear. And something in my mind clicked and I thought, huh, if I could use this eraser to make a mistake on the page disappear, what would happen if I put it on my own skin and begin to rub? 

And so I did. I rubbed my arm until a red welt emerged. And Mr. Nordyke came, bent low to my ear, and said to me, Putsata, don't do that. Now, I watched patiently when I got home to see if that red wilt would turn white eventually. Like, did my experiment work? And of course it didn't, because we cannot erase the color of our own skin. 

And it was in that moment that I understood something fundamental about my place in Corvallis, and my place in the world, which is that, by the fact of who I am and the fact of the color of my skin, I would always be different. But there was also another difference that was not a visible difference,  that I didn't tell anybody because I didn't have the language for. I was even confused about [it]. And that difference had to do with how I felt about girls versus boys. And I understood early on that what I felt about girls, I don't know if perhaps in society, I picked up some messaging that we're not meant to like girls in a certain way, we're not meant to like people of our own gender that we're born with in a certain way.

But I did, I had very strong feelings for friends of mine who were girls. I had a lot of guy friends too, you know, boys that I hung out with, mostly, you know, tagging along with my brother and what not, because I was such a tomboy when I was growing up. But I just had such a deep well of emotion for my girlfriends that I couldn't quite figure out what that was about and also growing up within my culture, my mom used to tell my sisters and I, specifically us, when you grow up, you have a husband, and when you do, you have to have a hot meal ready for him. 

It's like, now my mom would be so canceled for saying something like that. But of course, growing up in our family, we take those messages in and internalize them. And so at a young age, knowing that I had these feelings for girls and recognizing that something in that was wrong, also knowing that my mom all but guaranteed I was going to grow up and have a husband, because I would better learn how to cook and have a hot meal ready for him every night. I decided to tuck those feelings I had for girls away. I hid them. And eventually I realized I was hiding from myself the fact of who I am, which is that I am gay. That fact would not emerge, or I should say I would not allow myself to admit that to myself until...until much later, until my early 20s.

Adam Davis: So, thanks for talking about that as clearly as you just did it. It is making me think about, like, the different ways when we show up in groups, whether it's our class or with family members, there's like, there's the visible markers of similarity and difference, like our skin or our language. And then in a way, there's the internal stuff, which nobody can see. 

Putsata Reang: That's right.

Adam Davis: How do those sit for you? Do you, like, what do you feel is the relationship between the internal stuff as it emerged for you, that felt like it was putting you outside, and the more visible or given external stuff? 

Putsata Reang: Yeah, it's all painful. It’s just pain.I used the word disorienting earlier, and I think that that really encapsulates what that feeling is both externally and internally. When we are out in the world—when I am out in the world physically existing as an Asian American woman, I'm acutely aware of my own skin color, particularly with the recent and ongoing increase in hate crimes against my community. I'm also very aware that even after I came out, I have straight privilege, and people don't automatically assume that I'm gay, which has been its own interesting dilemma. I call it a dilemma. It's not really a dilemma. It's more of a, just a situation. But then when you add on top of that, an internal displacement, not feeling at home within myself, I think that that just creates one more layer of heartache, really. And, how do we reckon with all these disparate parts of ourselves, and how do we reckon with that depth of pain when we don't feel comfortable within ourselves? 

Adam Davis: That's a lot a lot to sit with, and it's interesting to think about, maybe, I keep thinking about the heart that you talked about earlier. And I think towards the end of “Ma and Me,” you say something about home being essentially, being with people you love. I guess I'm wondering about the sense of displacement and when it seems not to be there. What are the conditions under which all those different kinds of displacement seem not to be there. 

Putsata Reang. Yeah, I have an answer for you on that because I've been thinking about that myself. And over the course of writing my memoir, actually, that the answer to that question really came to bear. It's those moments when I feel like I can disappear, not stand out so much. 

In the context of Cambodia, when I went there to work as a journalist, I began to really get to know my relatives very well. In fact, I was having dinner at one of my aunt's house regularly, probably four or five times a week. And in the beginning, in those first early two or three years that I was living in Cambodia, my aunt loved to make me the butt of jokes about her American niece. And then what happened is that interestingly, after a while, I really, I think a lot about this idea of how we not only belong in a place, but we belong to a place. And I begin to feel that very deeply about Cambodia, the longer that I lived there, because the longer I lived there, the more I as a person changed and adapted directly into the context of Cambodia. 

I would be going to the pagodas with my aunt, even though I didn't know the Buddhist chants, I knew how to prostrate before the Buddhist monks, I knew how to give alms, I knew all of these things, and that was really me learning by watching, and that's probably the reporter in me as well. But after a while, when I began to speak Khmer fluently, and I began to dress more conservatively, the way that my cousins my age would dress, for instance, and I would be eating all of the different foods rather than be squeamish as I was in the first few years of living in Cambodia, I was no longer the butt of jokes about being this American niece or American granddaughter who's come home. And it was almost as if I just completely melded into the environment, and I became one of my relatives who was fully Khmer. And then also on the American side of things, to me, where I feel the most belonging and the most sense of home really is with people, with people who know me. I can let my guard down. And I can just be who I am. In other words, there's a version of me that my friends joke about, like the professional, you know, I'm on stage, you know, I'm speaking a certain way, you know, my friends and my family have noticed that there are these different versions of me. But when I'm at home, and I can, you know, kick off my shoes or at the home of my friends or my family and just be who I am, it feels like such a relief. Like you can, you can shed all these layers of yourself. It's almost as if when I walk out my front door, I've got to put on a certain armor and add all these layers to myself just to survive the days. And yet when I'm surrounded by family and friends, and there's that safety just inherent. And there's that knowing, and people who love me and know me for who I am. And I don't have to be somebody else for them. It's such a relief. Like, you feel this incredible weight off of you. To me, that feels so much like home, because home should be the place where you feel safe.

Home should be the place where you can take a breath and know you're going to be just fine. 

Adam Davis: Yeah. I think I want to ask, while you were talking, I was thinking about the challenge of your mom. And how close that relationship has been and how central and that it was very hard for many years and may still be hard to let your guard down fully, to be fully like kick your shoes off and be okay. But I want to ask first, I want to ask like, what's your sense of where your mother feels that, like what for her feels like, ah, I'm home.

Putsata Reang: It's Cambodia, a hundred percent. It's being in Cambodia.The few times I've been with my mom in Cambodia, and I've watched her interact with her relatives, go to the open market, eat these beautiful tropical fruits, laugh out loud with her uncle. The kind of smile and the way my mother's face shines in Cambodia is unlike anything I'd ever seen here in America.  It's Cambodia. That is her home. She had told me many times over the course of me interviewing her for my book, We had a great life. If there was no war, we would have never left. We had no reason to go. But she has only visited since then. She has made her life here. She has, you know, for as much as my mom loves Cambodia, my parents are frankly just as American as their kids, because, you know, I was down there visiting. Girlfriend had a hot dog with Ruffles potato chips on a plate, and that was the lunch she had made for my dad.

And I was like, are you all kidding me right now? You're over here eating hot dogs? What's up? I was expecting to have like my mom's, you know, homemade Cambodian ribs. 

Adam Davis: I mean, you can't beat a hot dog and chips.

Putsata Reang: It's true. And yeah, and so she, I asked her one time, I said, will you and Pa ever go back to Cambodia to live? And she said, well, we don't have a reason to now because all of our kids are here. And America is our home too. Every Fourth of July, my dad puts an American flag othe flag holder in front of their house. And for as much as I think that they deeply, deeply miss their homeland, they've also, because of being here in America for so long, have embraced America as their second home, because it is.

Adam Davis: It also sounds like both of them and you and your siblings, even before you had too much of a choice in the matter, were sort of helping lots of extended family feel more at home here. 

Putsata Reang: That's right. Yeah. And that is, you know, I think a lot about that, that idea of how many people my parents helped bring to America who had survived the genocide. And because of them, there's this vibrant Khmer community here in Oregon. You can feel it. It's palpable. It's here in Portland, in the Portland suburbs. It's in Salem. It's in the Salem suburbs. When there's an event, there's a party, somebody's graduating or getting married or a funeral, I swear the Khmer community turns out in droves in massive numbers, and it's because we are all so closely connected. And I think to your question regarding belonging earlier, I really do think that community has so much to do with it. When there's a critical mass of people from a certain country or culture, almost as if we are an island unto ourself within the broader context of America, I think nothing builds a closeness and community more than knowing that everybody in that community are outsiders within the context of America, but that we also, by virtue of being in America, we are also Americans, but it's that duality I was trying to articulate earlier regarding it. Having fidelity toward our own culture, but also accepting and knowing that America is our home as well. But to me, so much of belonging has to do with what I see in the Khmer community in Oregon in particular. Really, there are two sort of epicenters for the Khmer community. It's Portland or Salem. We didn't have that growing up in Corvallis.

There were no Khmer families until probably the 80s, when more Cambodians who had survived the genocide made their way over, but really had to have that nexus of a place, you know, and there, of course, there are other places I can name. Lowell, Massachusetts, I believe, as the largest Khmer. population in the US and second only to Long Beach, California. When I go to those places, I'm like my mom going back to Cambodia. I'm so happy. Immediately, like in Long Beach, my wife and I spend a bunch of time there. Before we even get to our Airbnb, we go to the Cambodian noodle house and have noodles. That is home. That's belonging. 

Adam Davis; So I want to, I actually want to push on what I think is something a little hard, because it's what I think “Ma and Me” does so well, which is go, I feel the sense of belonging with other Khmer folks, whether it's Long Beach or back in Cambodia, and it's where I can't fully be some of who—so, in a way, it's like, the possibility to love who you feel like you love and to be public about that, how to square those two, the sense of like, I feel most comfortable with the people who share my language and maybe my skin color and my food, but there's a big part of me that I can't be like, how does that all sit in your head? 

Putsata Reang: Yeah, you got me cornered on this question, Adam. You can tell I was trying to avoid answering the first time. I was determined not to get emotional on this interview. 

But you know, I want to answer because I need to answer. I mean, I wrote a book about this topic. And interestingly, I think some people can assume that, oh, you know, if you wrote a memoir, you've already processed whatever you need to process. No, I've got a lot more to process. It's been interesting because belonging falls apart when it comes to sexual orientation in my family and in my culture.

Completely, completely fell apart. Suddenly, when I came out in my family, that sense of belonging went straight out the window because, in Khmer culture, Khmer culture is a pretty conservative culture, so that's onelayer. There's another layer, which is, growing up in Corvallis, Corvallis is a pretty conservative town. 

There are a lot of liberal people there, but by and large, it's a pretty conservative place. And then you go out another level to where our current country is on the topic of LGBTQ+ folks like me, with a serious intent to erase people like me. And that's on two levels. That's both in terms of me being Asian American and also me being queer. 

But drilling back down to the family level, it was really hard for my parents to accept that one of their kids is gay. My siblings, on the other hand, have been just fantastic and really solid and assuing through every intention that they have to embrace me for who I am, and when I got married, to embrace my wife. And let us exist as we are. I don't know if that's a generational thing. I feel like that's both a generational thing and in addition to that a cultural thing. It broke my heart when I came out to my parents. And originally my mom actually, I thought that she was okay with it. This was in my early 20s, and I was living and working in California as a journalist. 

And she'd come down to visit. I thought she was okay when I came out to her because of her response. Which was that she told me for the first time in my life, I love you Goan. And in our culture um, emotions aren't, aren't verbalized. Love is shown through food. She's going to cook me the best food. And that's her way of telling me that she loves me. And actually that's what I do with my wife. That's what I do with my family as well. It wasn't until I decided to marry my wife that things really went off the rails. My mom and I fell into a deep, dark hole of conflict. And it occurred to me, it occurred to me when I went back to Keizer to tell my mom that I was going to marry my wife, that I may never go back home again. That I may never go see my parents again because they wouldn't want me around. I think that my mom,she was really struck by such a deep level of shame. It started to rub off on me actually. And I really had to do everything in myself to counter that shame because I do not want to be ashamed of who I am. 

And I think for her, earlier when I talked about this idea that in Oregon, the Khmer community is very close knit here. My parents are really seen as leaders in the Khmer community, not just in Salem, but also here in Portland as well. They, my parents wanted their kids to be perfect in the eyes of my community, and being gay was not part of being perfect. Being gay was being something very strange, and unfamiliar, and scary, and weird, and frankly unacceptable. I think that’s what makes me sad thinking about that. I'm still emotional about it. 

Adam Davis: Yeah, there's so much in there.

Putsata Reang: I think that my parents could have...really changed the way that my community views gay people. If they had had the courage to just take a stand, whether they came to my wedding or not, just to take a stand and say, we still love her. You kind of want that for every kid. And this is why I was avoiding your question earlier. I'm still emotional on this. 

Adam Davis: Yeah, I mean—You know, towards the end of “Ma and Me,” when you describe the funeral for your wife's father and your parents show up, I mean, that's really something. It's not a huge placard out front that says, okay, we accept this, but it felt like a pretty big step.

Putsata Reang: It was huge. I can tell you that my mom in that moment, oh my God, that woman, she saved her relationship with me because I was prepared actually not to talk to my parents ever again if they had not met my father-in-law before he died. That was my line. I felt very strongly about that.

Adam Davis: Yeah. It's interesting—it's more than interesting. It's like, I guess in a way there is this thing with belonging where, we probably don't talk about how shame functions in there. That departure from the sense of belonging may often come with the risk of different kinds of shame. 

Putsata Reang: Absolutely. Different kinds of shame and also your question speaks to this idea of the cost of being who we are. In my case, the cost was pretty damn high. The cost was losing my relationship to my mother, who was, my entire life up until that point that I announced I was marrying my wife, we were two peas in a pod. We just were so tight and so close. And that has to do with my origin story of how my family came to America.

And that bond, I had always believed, perhaps naively, that that bond would never break. I could not imagine actually anything that would have broken that bond. 

I didn't know that the thing that would break that bond was...my sexual orientation and me being gay, and to me, I think what feels particularly and profoundly sad about that is that I'm the exact same person. I'm still that kid who's going to show up at my parents’ doorstep with boxes of fruit and chocolates because I was raised to bring sweets to my elders. I'm still that person who's going to prostrate at the pagoda in front of the monks and do the right thing within that context. I'm still the person who loves my siblings and my family, with just an absolute fierceness. I have not changed fundamentally who I am because I happened to marry a woman, and nobody does. 

And I think that that's what hurts me the most in terms of a lot of what's happening in our American culture right now, is that there's this idea that that difference is dangerous somehow. And that that difference—I think that there's this idea that difference is unacceptable. And I think what I've come to decide and feel very much in my heart is that I don't want to be an outcast anymore, as I felt in so many ways, as we talked about, externally and internally. I don't want to exist on this earth in order to make somebody who doesn't look like me or somebody who doesn't share the same sexual orientation as me or religion as me, I don't want to live my life on this earth existing to make that person feel comfortable. I'm now comfortable in my own skin. I feel at home in myself now that I didn't before. And I'm not going to let anybody take that away from me now.

Adam Davis: I mean, that's a big achievement for any individual. I think that, like, the hope of feeling comfortable in our own skin, there may be some very unusual people who arrive at that and stay there, but I think for most of us, that's, as you say, it's something we have to keep trying to do, and if we get close to it, then it's something probably to hold on to.

Putsata Reang: Absolutely. It's hard won. Anything that's hard won, you just grasp onto it for all your life. 

Adam Davis: Yeah. It's interesting, I'm thinking a little bit about, I'm thinking about your mother again and I'm thinking about, for her,,it sounded, and it sounds now a little bit like, in a way, it was her fear of being cast out that led you to feel like more of an outcast at home. 

Putsata Reang: Absolutely. I think that my mom has always been afraid of being viewed as less than perfect. And frankly, I don't know what circumstances and experiences she had in her own early life that instilled in her this pressure to always appear perfect. What was hard is that she imposed that kind of living and that kind of way of being on her own children and on her entire family.

And so in that way, I talk about this idea in the book that Ma created a fiction out of me. Well, in fact, she created a fiction out of our family because indeed, we were not perfect. Nobody is, but within the context of the Khmer culture,I think she's always been afraid to sort of lose her lot in a way and her and my father, their lot is they are respected members of this Cambodian community that had to recreate itself after escaping a war.

It's a lot of pressure. It's a lot of pressure to not only conform and, and to strive for that American dream, but to hold onto that place that you've been given as being respected and revered as leaders in your community. 

Adam Davis: Yeah, you said before, you talked about some hard-won stuff, and I think about your folks and coming over in the way they came over, what they were leaving and what they had to build, and how hard-won that must have been and still be for them and then probably perceiving threats. And yeah, unfortunately, some of those threats come from inside. Just so difficult, it seems like, to think of the different kinds of ways we're trying to build a sense of belonging, respect, and the risk of giving up any of that I guess is what I'm thinking about. 

Putsata Reang: Absolutely. And when you're saying that, I can't help but think of this idea that growing up, particularly as a teenager, it's hard enough just to be a teenager, but then you begin to add in layers of being a refugee and you begin to add in layers of being brown-skinned and you begin to add in layers of having less income than your peers and working in the berry fields to earn your living, you begin to add in all of these layers. And that pressure just mounts and mounts. Honestly, when I think about it now, I don't know how my siblings and I did that. That we survived Corvallis. We survived our childhoods. We're actually, you know, I'm so proud of my siblings too. We're actually thriving. You know, there's this idea that we owe our parents for the quiet sacrifices they made for us, because indeed they made many, both of my parents. My father was an accountant in the Cambodian Navy before we fled Cambodia, held a very respectable position within the Navy and the broader Cambodian government and suddenly thrust into Corvallis, a new country, he no longer had his uniform and the three stripes on his epaulets. He had an apron and a spatula and he was flipping burgers from Burton's restaurant in downtown Corvallis. And my mom was scrubbing toilets and washing windows as a janitor at the Oregon State University Student Health Center before she became a cook in the dormitories. And when I think about that, like, it's almost just this idea that we spend our lives building up to a certain level, and then something external like war snatches all of it away, and you're left with nothing, literally nothing. 

And then what is it like to just get back, step by step, rebuild your life all over again, and that's the hard-won piece. And I think that connecting that back up to the shame that my mother felt when I told her that I was going to marry my wife, and the shame of having a gay daughter, I think it's connected directly to how hard they worked to build everything they had, and now here comes this daughter, and you want to, I'm not saying that I am like war, but I am saying I am an external thing that threatened to take all of that away from them, all of what they had worked so hard for, by the simple fact of who I am. And I think that that's what I didn't quite succeed in articulating earlier, which is this idea that this is what I'm deeply troubled by and saddened by, which is that how could it be that just because of who I am, would be that threat to take everything that you have from you?

But that's the society and that's the pressure we have, and that's the messaging we have in our society right now, which is that to be gay is wrong. We're at this really interesting place, I think, in our culture where, and when I say culture, I'm speaking about the American culture and the American context, where I thought, you know, when in 2015, when gay marriage became legal, my wife and I, we got married two years after that.

But I thought back then in 2015, I was beginning to see really so much sunlight in terms of the future of our country. And it felt very hopeful for people like me to just be allowed to exist as we are. And then you flash forward now to 2023 with so many different pressures of erasure. I'm talking book bans, anti-trans legislation, hate crimes. 

There's that external pressure of erasure and then that's almost in a way competing with an internal pressure of erasure, because I can tell you, Adam, that shame has come back in a huge way with all of these external pressures that I'm seeing around me, that suddenly books that I love, just because they have LGBTQ+ characters, are being banned, that I wake up in the morning and turn on the news and see yet another gay club in Colorado Springs where people are being targeted and murdered because they wanted to dance in a safe space. 

All those things really conspire to just really kind of fortify the shame that I had worked so hard to kind of tackle, and it's a daily discipline, and it's a daily practice to just fight our own internal pressure of erasure, trying to disappear ourselves. It's dangerous. It's a dangerous place to be when I think about the latest statistic I saw from The Trevor Report was 2022. It talked about how one in every two queer-identified youth between the ages of 13 and 17 has thought about suicide. One in every two. It's a disturbing and completely unacceptable number. I know I was suicidal when I was a kid, and I was trying to come to terms with my own sexual orientation. I doubt that back then, every one in two youth between the ages of 13 and 17 had thought about killing themselves—queer identified youth thought about killing themselves. 

That's the danger that we're up against right now because it's one thing to be erased by external pressures. It's another thing entirely to physically, as I did as a little girl with that pencil eraser, and as I did later on in my 20s, trying to kill myself because I was so ashamed of being gay. That's really the danger we're up against right now.

Adam Davis: The taking it in. Yeah. I want to go back to almost where we started when you talked about, as you came in, the sense of calm. And it seems like a lot of your work is actually journalistic work. Your memoir is actually putting words to a lot of this really hard stuff, not just in your own experience, but also in other people's experience.

But I want to ask you, because I assume work is not always a source of calm. I want to ask you about that sense of calm and where you find it, how you try to find it these days.

Putsata Reang: Right now, I have a specific example in mind. My schedule has been so hectic, I don't have another word for it. In the past year after the book came out and in a really beautiful and exciting and inspiring way, just to be invited to so many places around our country to speak on core themes of my book. I absolutely, absolutely recognize the pure privilege of that, and honor as well, I'll say. But it has been a constant go. It's been a real blur every year. And so when I can, when I'm home lately, what I do is, I found that I love to just have a solo hike up Mount Sai, east of Seattle. And what I do is I'll pack myself a breakfast before I go, you know, usually yogurt and granola. And most recently a friend of mine made this beautiful rhubarb compote that I added in there. And I'll get up to the top, just for another perspective, and oftentimes if it's in the middle of the week, since I have a bit of flexibility, I'll be one of maybe three or four, sometimes the only person up there. 

When you're up that high, it's odd, because you think you're on the top of the world, when in fact you're just a tiny little dot.You're so insignificant, and you see this land spread out before you. That's my calm. I feel so much joy in that moment. I can just release and let go and just like taking that, breathe in that beautiful clean Northwest air and that pine, that heady pine resin smell and hear the birds rather than the bombs that I heard in Afghanistan. 

I'm just reminded. of how beautiful this life can be. I mean, we have to, I think, again, really work hard to find that beauty, but it's so worth it. It's so worth it. 

Adam Davis: Putsata Reang is a Cambodian American journalist and author. You can find links to Putsata's work in our show notes on oregonhumanities.org. The Detour is produced by Keiren Bond. Dave Friedlander is our editor. Adam Davis is our host. Ben Waterhouse, Karina Briski, and Alexandra Powell Bugden are our assistant producers.

Thanks for listening.

 

 

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