“Stop acting like an American!”
A demand I often heard from my mother during my adolescent and teenage years. She would normally say this to me after a request I made to join the tennis team or if she saw me walk out of the house with shorts that didn’t fall at or below my knees. As an adult, I still have memories like these, which are often triggered by conversations with friends as we talk about our childhood memories. Many times I would think to myself, “wow, we grew up so differently.”. I often wondered how different I would be today if I didn’t grow with such conflicting experiences inside and outside my home.
My parents arrived in the United States in 1982. They escaped Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge in 1979. My eldest brother was just a toddler during this time.
At no fault of his own, he was born into a set of challenging circumstances.
He was then joined by my eldest sister in Thailand where she born in a refugee camp. The story gets a bit fuzzy here, but my parents were eventually sponsored by a Lutheran Church to come to Philadelphia, which is where my other sister and I were born. After just a few short years in Philadelphia, my parents and their immediate family members eventually bought their first home in New Jersey, which is where my parents still reside today.
Similar to many immigrant families, the house was used to shelter two to three different families at any point in time. There were very little privacy and consideration for space and quiet time. Khmer, my native tongue, was the only language spoken in the house. The TV was the only way for us to hear and learn English. I still remember the first day of kindergarten. My sister dragged me by my hand, and she reminded me of how to spell my name. My teachers didn’t take long to realize that I couldn’t speak proper English. I had to take two years of ESL classes. I was accompanied by other Cambodian students, as well as Vietnamese students and a few Spanish speaking classmates.
Somehow my father mastered the trade of sewing. He worked at several warehouses in Philadelphia and that’s primarily how he and my mother were able to feed four kids. We were later joined by two younger ones. In addition to salvaging the excess material from the warehouses, my parents started to buy fabric in order to make clothes for us. Large, baggy shorts and sweaters, along with year-round turtlenecks. We hated it but wore what we had. I remember wondering why I couldn’t wear the same clothes that my classmates were wearing. I was often picked on for the clothes I wore to school. I never once told my parents. I didn’t want to burden them as I knew they had their own challenges at home.
As I got older, I became more vocal both at school and at home. My natural state was (and still is) reserved, but somehow, I learned how to speak up. In high school, I joined the tennis team, the softball team, and I ran for VP of my senior class. I also joined the prom committee. My parents didn’t get it. They thought it was a complete waste of time and that it was taking away from my studies.
As much as I enjoyed these activities and spending time away from home, I often felt guilty because I knew my parents didn’t accept it and it was me being too American.
I knew that I wanted to continue to interact with kids my age. I didn’t always want to be at home listening to the financial struggles, or translating for my mom during doctor’s visits, or going with her to ask why the electric bill was so high. The more I wanted to do things I liked, the more guilty I felt, and the more I was roped back into and reminded of the challenges at home.
It took me a very long time to find balance. Honestly, I don’t even know if I’ve gotten it right just yet.
I felt guilty for going to college and being away from my parents. I remember feeling terrible for expanding my friend group, staying out late, going to parties, and experiencing typical college life. When I visited my parents during the weekend and over the holidays I was back in this funk, and I felt terrible for feeling this way. The irony is that they escaped their homeland to give us a better life, but I was constantly feeling constrained by them even when they weren’t around.
As an adult in my early 30s, I oftentimes find myself reflecting on the mini-episodes of identity crisis I faced as a teenager and the quest for self-discovery during my early 20s. I am faced with all the responsibilities that come with being a female, working professional. There are some nights when I get home and I ask myself that if it weren’t for my parents and my upbringing, where would I be today? I often come back to this: during the escape from the Khmer Rouge, my parents lost a number of their siblings. Somehow they survived, and provided me and my siblings with opportunities that they can’t even begin to imagine…I am grateful beyond words.
Sunny Eang is an advisor within the financial services industry. She works very closely with families, organizations, and a broad range of entities to counsel them on their financial planning matters. She spends a lot of her time in the Philadelphia and South Jersey market to help her clients sort through questions related to cash flow planning, setting up trusts, estate planning, and charitable giving. While she’s not working, she enjoys traveling internationally, cooking, hiking, photography, and spending time with her niece and two nephews.