By Vanna Nauk
While dragons have different historical and cultural characteristics—mostly in appearance—these characteristics impel societies to either revere or fear them for different reasons. Despite the fearsome mystiques of dragons, the Khmer dragon, Neak, is neither evil nor spiteful. The adorned dragon stands as a symbol of goodness, purity, and integrity.
The aura of the Neak echoes the political stance of Cambodian Americans who have fought to preserve the integrity of Khmer culture. Much like the mystical Khmer dragon, their intention is often misunderstood.
Considering the controversy over cultural appropriation at Fresno Hmong New Year 2019, where Cambodian nationalists across the diaspora came out in full force to share in our grievance and defend our cultural pride, the legend of the Neak continues to serve as an important moral lesson.
On Jan. 26, a video of the LunaBellas, a Hmong American dance group, was shared across social media platforms. The video of them attempting to showcase the Cambodian culture by falsely imitating Khmer apsara was not well-received by the Cambodian American community; many called their interpretation cultural appropriation and a disgrace to our sacred culture.
The LunaBellas has issued a public apology since the incident. Though many Cambodians have accepted the apology, many of us want to continue having this conversation since the LunaBellas incident was not the first case of our culture being appropriated, exoticized or Orientalized and most likely will not be the last.
With other Southeast Asians appropriating and misrepresenting Cambodian culture, such as Hmong American artists Yasmi Pajyi Yang and Dib Xwb, it is important to finally address this ongoing concern.
On Nov. 16, 2016, Yasmi posted a photo on social media of her dressed in classical Thai traditional regalia and wore it as a costume at the Cambodian temple. The fact that she is Hmong and she is wearing Thai traditional regalia is not only questionably problematic but having the photoshoot at a Cambodian temple demonstrates the lack of understanding that there’s a difference between the two cultures. This understanding is important considering the long complicated history of “love and hate” between the Thai and Cambodian kingdoms that can still be seen today.
A similar case of this occurred again in 2019, when Dib Xwb shot a music video titled “Neeg Zoo Aw,” or “Jao Oei,” inside of the religious grounds of the Fresno Cambodian temple wearing Thai traditional regalia for their community’s entertainment. This lack of distinguishing various cultures and mix and match use of Cambodian and other Southeast Asian cultures as aesthetics for their own vanity and entertainment is not only offensive to our culture but is also potentially harmful to the Asian American community at large.
Since the inception of Asian America, Asian Americans have been Orientalized as the exotic “others.” Though this oriental gaze might seem appealing on the surface, the over-generalization of “all Asians being the same” and “exotic” continues to have detrimental effects on our community.
The verbal and sometimes aggressively escalating exchanges between the Hmong and Cambodian communities across social media helped resolve some misunderstandings. However, it also led to even more misunderstanding.
Though the LunaBellas and members of the Hmong community apologized, it appears the wishes of some Cambodian Americans have either gotten lost in translation or fell flat on deaf ears. The LunaBellas and members of the Hmong community apologized for “misrepresenting” us but failed to see that it was not their place to represent “us” in the first place.
As a Cambodian American who started dancing Khmer folk dance at the age of 6 years old, where I often led as the solo, my wish is not for anyone to represent us “correctly” or “appropriately.” My wish is that anyone who appreciates Khmer culture will take the time to invite me and other Cambodian artists into their project or their space to represent our culture on our own behalf.
Khmer dance, music and art are not just an object you can wear or perform in vanity, for your entertainment, or when it’s convenient. When you wear or perform our culture, you reduce us as human beings and as a culture into merely costumes. For many of us, our sacred art along with other aspects of our culture make up the fabric of our cosmology. Hence, it is not just an object, but our way of life.
Now that the video of LunaBellas has been taken down and the storm has passed, the clear skies have exposed various Cambodian American leaders’ political and apolitical stances. When the video of LunaBellas surfaced on social media, the sleeping dragon (Neak) woke up. This awakening was refreshing as it reminds us that the Cambodian pride has not been lost on Cambodian youth. However, inter-ethnic conflicts about whether to stay silent and passive or to speak up and stand by our dignity also exposes the discord within the Cambodian American community.
Most notably, while deeply rooted nationalism within the Cambodian American community is undoubtedly our strength, it is important that we also reflect on the potential harm of nationalism. Nationalism can tighten our community, but it can also divide us from other communities.
Here in America, us Asians are racialized into one group so a threat to one can potentially be a threat to all of us, which is why it’s important that we remain allies. A timely example is the recent coronavirus scare that is resurrecting the “othering” of Asian Americans by stigmatizing Asians as walking viruses.
In addition, the Trump administration is pushing to deport hundreds of the Hmong and Laotians back to Laos; this is a crisis and a fear us Cambodian Americans know all too well. Thus, our Asian American community cannot afford friction right now. More than ever, the Southeast Asian American community needs to stand in solidarity.
Ultimately, the idea of a pan–Asian American community is to build bridges, so we can live in an America where we feel safe and our diversely distinct cultures can be preserved against the real hegemonic power of the United States, the dominant White culture and institution.
Southeast Asians who fled to America as the result of the U.S. failed projects in our motherland have only been here fewer than 50 years, so we are bound to come across conflict while trying to coexist in the margins of society together, but how we move forward from these conflicts will determine our fate.
As we move forward, I hope the legendary mystical Khmer golden Neak will fulfill its integrity. In other words, my hope is that the Cambodian American community will handle this situation responsibly, but, more important, through friendship and solidarity with the Hmong community because that is who we are, a hospitable people of class and dignity.
Vanna Nauk is a Ronald E. McNair scholar and a graduate student of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University.