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Putsata Reang reflects on identity growing up as a child of refugees in her memoir ‘Ma and Me’

As an infant, Putsata Reang escaped war-torn Cambodia in 1975 with her family on a naval ship bound for the Philippines.

Reang was sick during the journey, and her mother refused the captain’s efforts to throw the child overboard. Over the years since then, Reang strove to please her mother, hustling to repay her life debt by becoming the consummate good Cambodian daughter.

Her memoir, “Ma and Me” explores the profound consequences of displacement felt by children of refugees, and the overlay of emotional exile that comes with being gay.

NAACP President and Spokesman-Review columnist Kiantha Duncan will discus the book with Reang for the Northwest Passages book club on Wednesday at the Montvale Event Center.

Reang didn’t intend to write this particular memoir. At first, she wanted to write a book about her parents’ emigrant experience, inspired by her time revisiting Cambodia as a journalist, where she gained a greater appreciation for what her parents went through.

Yet as she explored the topic, she found more insight into how her parents’ experience shaped her own upbringing, uncovering layers of intergenerational trauma complicated by her own experience growing up gay in small-town Oregon.

“While my family and I never lived through the genocide in Cambodia,” Reang said, “I realized what my parents went through in the United States was a different kind of survival. It was dealing with survivor’s guilt and the emotional undertow of knowing they had survived the genocide while so many of their relatives died of hunger and sometimes torture as well.”

As Buddhists, her parents believed in staying in the present, not looking backward. “I always had this overwhelming sense of heaviness in the air. There was always this sadness that was there but unspoken and unacknowledged.”

In the early years, her parents had little information about what was happening in Cambodia. “That sadness was rooted in the unknowing of what was going on back in their homeland and to their relatives. But it was also rooted in this feeling of suddenly being thrust into another context and culture.”

With lack of an outlet, her father expressed that trauma with violence behind closed doors in the home, while her mother carried an assumption of scarcity, believing there could be another war at any time, and stashed multiple freezers full of discount meat. Reang says that links directly to the three weeks spent on the ship where there was not much food or water.

So the focus of the book shifted to her relationship with her mother and the central idea of how to claim selfhood as a child of refugees growing up in one country, but also belonging to another. For Reang, that manifested with her sexual orientation and her mothers’ difficulty accepting it.

Filial duty is a major component of Cambodian culture. “I sensed that if I told my parents I was gay, they would perceive it as a sign of disrespect. And indeed that is what happened.”

When she came out to her parents in her 20s they had a hard time understanding that it was not disrespectful because it was not her choice. “It was a really difficult conversation to have, because it is hard enough to come out as gay, but to do it cross-culturally is just one more complexity piled on.”

She knew who she was in grade school, but suppressed her feelings and “skirted through” her youth the best she could. Still, she has fond feelings for her hometown Corvallis.

“Of all the places my family could have ended up, this is probably the best place we could have landed because the physical environment was not unlike Ream, Cambodia where my family had fled from.”

Green, agricultural abundance was a calming force for both her and her parents. “Corvallis is a very peaceful, beautiful place.”

She is cautious not to idolize it too much, since of course there is prejudice everywhere. However, because they were one of the first Cambodian families to move there and there were so few other immigrants, they were not perceived as a threat. “In fact, the opposite happened, we were very much embraced by the community.”

When Reang was 16, she returned to Cambodia with her mother. Her parents had not talked about Cambodia, so she had little understanding of the history or what it was going to be like.

“Being in my own country for the first time as a teenager shook me to my core.” It was disorienting to be in a country where everyone looked like her with black hair and brown skin.

One day they decided to visit a museum. They did not realize it was a former torture prison, called S-21 or Tuol Sleng, where thousands of people were tortured to death during the genocide.

It shocked Reang and it conflicted with her idea of museums. “What I understood about museums was there’s art, beauty and creativity; not torture, death and inhumanity.”

This became a major turning point in her life since she learned that many journalists were brought to Tuol Sleng because the Khmer Rouge wanted to prevent information about the genocide from leaving Cambodia. That’s when she knew she was going to be a journalist.

“I had to somehow do the opposite of what this communist regime attempted to do, which is to silence people. … It sounds cliché and trite, but back then as a 16-year-old I really felt it. I wanted to be the voice of those journalists and continue the work that they did before they were murdered in that terrible place.”

Looking back on the stories she has covered in her career and her work training journalists in other countries, she believes she fulfilled that mission. “I haven’t stopped. I still continue to try to put stories out there that I believe need a light shined on them.”

Reang began her journalism career here in Spokane, as a cultural reporter for The Spokesman-Review in 1996. “It was absolutely an incredible opportunity and a terrific job,” she said. But from a personal standpoint, as a gay Asian American, Spokane was a tough place for her to live in the ’90s. She also felt isolated as one of the only minority journalists in the newsroom.

Growing up sheltered in Corvallis, she had never experienced overt racism the way she did in Spokane. “I think when one goes through those experiences and moments, you’re forced to grow up in a different way and a much faster way.”

As hard as it was, she is grateful for the experience personally and professionally. “When I think back on all the years I was a journalist, that year I had in Spokane at The Spokesman-Review was the highest growth curve and the most growth that I’ve done in an abbreviated period of time than at any other location.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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