Sarun Chan identifies as many things: an American, a south Philadelphian, and Cambodian, but not necessarily in that order. His experiences as an infant born in a refugee camp in Thailand, a child raised in poverty in Philadelphia and as the Executive Director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia define who he is.
During a virtual event honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month May 12, Chan shared those identities and what they mean to him and his community with Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support employees.
“I feel very privileged and nervous to be here. But I’m glad I am here, and I hope there are lessons and experiences to be shared today,” Chan said.
Following the Khmer Rouge genocide in the late 1970s, Chan and his family moved from a refugee camp in Thailand to the United States, and the differences were immediately noticeable, Chan said.
“When my family first arrived, we landed in Syracuse, New York,” Chan said. “People growing up and being raised in jungle [environments] … being thrown into January in winter in Syracuse … you can imagine [the shock].”
His family ended up in Philadelphia, where Chan said the fourth largest Cambodian-American population in the U.S. resides. His family’s life – a mix of cultural experiences – was a challenge at times, but he never knew it growing up, he said.
“If you live in a rowhome in Philadelphia, there is usually three rooms and one bathroom … One whole bedroom would be dedicated to one whole family,” Chan said.
He shared a photo of one such family all smiling in the small space, noting that their survival and grateful nature gave them joy in those little moments.
“They survived a war, trekking through the jungles, landmines and refugee camps. They’re here in America to lay down new roots, and it’s inspiring to see there are still smiles through all that trauma,” Chan said.
Despite those smiles, Chan said the effects of war and moving from their homes had lasting repercussions on the community that were exacerbated by the added challenges of integrating into their new surroundings.
“The community was being discriminated against by locals,” Chan said. “We were seen as invasive almost, even though we were still contributing to the community. It was hard.”
As an adult, Chan dedicates his time through the Cambodian Association to helping fellow Cambodians integrate and thrive in both the local U.S. culture as well as their traditional culture.
The Association helps school-aged children with resources and space to attend online school, offers translation of key products vital to citizens throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and shares information on traditional music and dance classes to help rebuild the Cambodian community traditions and culture in Philadelphia.
“It’s been an evolutionary, transcending experience through the four decades of a refugee community. The changes we see … the growth and accomplishments. Programs change because we address those issues. New issues arise, so we create new programs,” Chan said.
Isaura Arguello, DLA Troop Support Equal Employment Office and Diversity employee, helped organize the event and was appreciative of a shared experience in facing communities in the U.S. that fail to recognize or value some cultural identities.
“I could see myself in his shoes when he was talking about being Asian and people saying ‘Oh, you’re Asian. You must be Chinese,’” Arguello, a Latina born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said.
She acknowledged that just like in the Latin culture, there was a vast variety of Asian cultures, languages and dialects. The similarity was emotional for Arguello.
“When he was talking about the Cambodian culture, I was like ‘This hits home for me because I have to deal with that on a regular basis,’” she said.
Arguello believes people should respect the rich differences in culture among larger groups. Rather than assume someone’s cultural identity: ask, learn and value, she said.