In this exclusive new diaCRITICIZE, Julie Thi Underhill offers an in-depth introduction to the sometimes fraught relationship between Chăm Americans and Vietnamese Americans. She raises difficult questions, including why Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans would rather forget the conquest of the Chăm, the continuing existence of the Chăm people, and whether or not the Chăm can be compared to Native Americans. She also raises questions about relations between Chăm and Khmer people, largely impacted (for better or for worse) by the violence of the Khmer Rouge. She concludes on a hopeful note whereby Chăm Americans and Vietnamese Americans can begin filling in together the “blank pages” of shared history and memory.
Although Julie Thi Underhill has previously written for diaCRITICS about Democractic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Chăm during the 1970s in Cambodia, this provocative diaCRITICIZE essay is the first essay published in English, since 1987, which exclusively centers the Chăm in Việt Nam and their communities and identities in the US.
This essay continues from its first installment, which ran a few days ago here on diaCRITICS.
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In the months after that man’s pronouncement that I am “vanquished” along with my people, I still wondered if a generation gap erupted that night in San Francisco, some old school motherland racial formations coming to fruition, since no one within twenty years of my age has ever said anything like it to me, even if they knew that the Chăm kingdom fell to the Vietnamese. A couple of months later, however, my young Chăm friend Ariya relayed a similar story, perhaps more disturbing. After learning at a party that Ariya is Chăm, a twenty-something-year-old Vietnamese American woman replied, “I didn’t know there were any Chăm left! I thought we killed you all!” By perceiving Ariya as extinct—an incredulous relic somehow surviving complete annihilation—this young woman reveals the Chăm person’s precarious position within the Vietnamese American community. Echoing the man at the gathering in San Francisco, this young woman addressed Ariya as “you all,” making her a stand-in for all Chăm, while representing the conquering “we” without much sensitivity to the power relations inherent in the exchange. The woman’s ancestors had persistently tried to wipe us out completely, not just off the political map. In her surprise that there are any Chăm “left” after 500+ years of massacres, enslavement, and assimilation by her co-ethnics, in her lack of awareness that there are still 130,000 Chăm living in southern Việt Nam (and many more in the diasporas formed since conquest), the young woman reveals how the invisibility of the conquered creates and pardons the underlying logic of genocide.
As if conquest was bloodless and totalizing, the man in San Francisco and the woman at the party and their talk about Chăm defeat and annihilation portray the tensions wrought by the post-/colonial encounter in the diaspora. Yet for those Chăm in the US, even amidst awkward conversations about our identities, we are actually quite fortunate to “be here” or else be away from “home,” since our families in Việt Nam live within continued settler colonialism, within a stridently upheld racial and social hierarchy where much worse happens than insults at social gatherings. Granted, the academic interest in Chăm history and culture, exemplified by recent conferences held in HCMC and Phan Thiết, shows that we are still “on the map” for some scholars, even as we sometimes disappear within the “family” of Việt Nam rubric whereby no indigenous peoples are recognized as such, by the current government. The confluence of social death and literal death, however, occurs when even the most extreme forms of violence against the Chăm are not investigated or punished, which gives an air of impunity to such crimes. In March 2013, a young Chăm college graduate—Thành Xuân Thịnh from Phươc Nhơn village—was burned to death at a government-run employment agency in Việt Nam, for simply requesting a refund of his job-placement money when no job had materialized after a wait of three months. By this and other human rights violations against the Chăm, the 541-year campaign to eliminate the Chăm acquires newly sinister forms. I could only imagine the terror of this young man burned to death for having the audacity not only to seek an education, but also to seek a refund from an employment agency for services not rendered. How much was the decision to immolate Thành Xuân Thịnh symbolically and literally fueled by the refusal to “see” that Chăm college graduate as deserving not only of a job—a standard desire for any young college graduate—but also of life? How does the refusal to see him as human reveal the mechanisms of both settler colonialism and genocide, whereby eradication of the indigenous person is nestled within the imperative to reserve life-sustaining resources only for those who are meant to survive?
Even as Chăm in the US are generally safe from such forms of state sanctioned violence, we know that our families “back home” are not protected, which adds a sense of urgency to our transnational circuits of belonging and affiliation. The rhetoric of extinction affects us deeply. We have seen that throughout history, the easier it is for those in power to think that we are “already gone,” the easier to hasten or excuse our disappearance. This phenomenon is something that the neighboring country’s Khmer Rouge leadership demonstrated during Democratic Kampuchea, from 1975 to 1979, in the campaign to target the ethnic minority Chăm in Cambodia with far more aggression—and much higher rates of killing—than they targeted the majority Khmer population. By Khmer Rouge logic, the ethnic Khmer stood a chance at being “pure Khmer,” the agrarian utopian vision of the regime, whereas the Chăm and other ethnic minorities did not. For centuries the Khmer had peaceably allowed some Chăm refugees to settle in Kampong Cham province, after the Chăm had received permission from Khmer kings to migrate during the Vietnamese conquest of Champa. Yet the Khmer Rouge attempted to justify its intent to complete the disappearance of the Chăm—in Cambodia, anyway—by blaming the Vietnamese for having already done the job. How can you get away with killing off a diasporic population? By pretending that their populations have already been completely annihilated, in previous generations. In both cases of genocide against the Chăm, in Việt Nam and Cambodia, a previous history of conquest left the blueprinted justification for more contemporary forms of eradication. These difficult recent histories heighten war-related motivations for the Chăm who have left their homes and moved to other nations, like the US, in pursuit of a life free of the types of violence experienced in Việt Nam and Cambodia. In the US, the belief that we’re dead on arrival probably won’t result in the immolation of an innocent job seeker or the targeted assassination of Muslim Chăm Americans, even as the belief in our extinction may occasionally function as a jarring needle across the record of our social interactions with Vietnamese- and Cambodian Americans.
Some Cambodian Americans even downplay the severity of violence against the Chăm during Democratic Kampuchea, as if to recognize higher kill rates, targeted assassinations, or specific religious attacks somehow minimizes the suffering of the Khmer majority. This denial may indeed be an outcome of the unhealed wound of having one’s own people killed by one’s own people, a trauma also demonstrated when Cambodian Americans insist that Pol Pot’s regime was actually run by the Vietnamese, and that there is no way that the Khmer could have been at the helm. Similarly, downplaying Khmer violence against the Chăm may also be a result of Khmer ethnic nationalism, and the resulting pride that one’s own people could not actually express racist tendencies—even the Khmer Rouge. “Khmer ethnic nationalism is quite strong, and something that Pol Pot exploited to his benefit,” indigenous rights activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reminded me during a discussion in 2013. One possible example of Khmer ethnic nationalism in the US—a Cambodian American told me that the “numbers aren’t there” for Chăm kill rates during Pol Pot’s rule to count as genocide. During our talk, it appeared to me that the crime of “genocide” as applied to other ethnicities besides the Khmer in Cambodia might, in this person’s mind, somehow overshadow the suffering of the Khmer people during Democratic Kampuchea—long referred to as a collective “genocide.” Yet since auto-genocide (the killing of one’s own national and ethnic group) does not legally constitute “genocide,” and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal must still decide if the regime committed genocide based on evidence of crimes against ethnic minorities, how could killing a non-Khmer ethnic group—at two to three times the rate of the average population—somehow not yield convincing “numbers” to count as genocide? Whereas the killing of Khmer people does constitute genocide? Legally, the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group” besides one’s own is the very definition of genocide. The only way to convict Khmer Rouge leaders is to try them for genocide against ethnic minorities, however unfortunate that may be.
For some Cambodian Americans, it appears, to legitimize the suffering of the Chăm in Cambodia somehow diminishes the “numbers” of Khmer killed by the Khmer Rouge. For these individuals, outright denial of Chăm genocide in Cambodia is preferable to a sense of shared victimization between the Chăm and Khmer. This denial insists that the Khmer people couldn’t have possibly been racially discriminatory when selecting targets of annihilation, even as the Khmer Rouge sought only the “pure Khmer” in the ideologies and practices of their regime. Yet according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the Chăm—who were forcibly displaced from their communities and dispersed and targeted as a people—died at a higher rate than any other ethnic or religious group, with many atrocities against their Muslim practices. Some Cambodian Americans refuse to believe the Khmer Rouge attacks against Islam, however. One such respondent to a paper I presented at a conference actually insisted that “there are no pigs in Cambodia” to explain that it was “impossible” that the Khmer Rouge forced the Chăm to eat pork to violate their Islamic beliefs, despite widespread oral testimonies to the contrary. A fellow panelist—a Khmer researcher from Phnom Penh—and I had both mentioned the forced consumption of pigs and the conversion of mosques into pigsties during the KR era, so we just looked at each other quizzically and shook our heads, before I explained why I believe the overwhelming evidence that pigs not only exist in Cambodia, but that pigs were also used by the Khmer Rouge to force the Chăm to violate their prohibitions within Islam. Thankfully, such strident disbelief represents an outlier perspective, far distant from the empathetic sense of collective suffering usually expressed by those who survived Pol Pot or who fled in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s initial defeat by Vietnamese armies in 1979. Many Cambodians I’ve met do feel that sense of shared hardship with the Chăm, including every Khmer person I interviewed in Cambodia in 2010, many who volunteered that the Chăm “had it the worst” without once conveying the sense that Chăm suffering overshadowed their own.
Likewise, most Vietnamese Americans I know have never once conveyed problematic sentiments about the Chăm—whatever their preconceived notions—perhaps due to having a shared motherland, something made more pronounced within our concentric diasporas. Having all “lost” our home(land)s due to shared wars and having relocated to the same asylum country, perhaps, is a leveling force that can provide a ground for mutual recognition and reflection, rather than upholding the racial hierarchies that justified genocide against the Chăm in both Việt Nam and Cambodia. Despite the possibility of mutuality, the completely blank stares that grace many Vietnamese American faces when I tell them “I am Chăm” reveals that the community has far to go, in the effort to understand the complexity of the motherland. Many Vietnamese Americans have no idea that their home country has fifty-three ethnic minority groups, and that the Vietnamese displaced kingdoms held by the Chăm and Khmer in order to form the entire central and southern part of the country—the region that many Vietnamese Americans come from. The effectiveness of the historical amnesia passed from generation to generation is unnerving, if not disheartening. Yet a blank stare is obviously better than a grimace at the word Chăm, showing that one possible benefit of historical amnesia is that the conversation can begin from here, rather than be freighted by negative preconceptions about the Chăm. If you don’t even know about us as a people, you certainly haven’t held a lifetime of racist and discriminatory assumptions about us, the same assumptions that fueled your ancestors’ justification that “we were never meant to survive,” in the words of Audre Lorde. In this sense, the blank stare is essentially that blank page we can fill in together, through receptivity to hearing and learning more about the Chăm, including the Chăm’s historical relationship to the Vietnamese and even our mutual hardships of living in diasporas formed by war.
We also have an expanding horizon of possibilities for more inclusive knowledge here, contrasting the education system in Việt Nam. My Chăm friend Azizah Ahmad, a gifted poet, reflects upon her experiences in the Vietnamese American college-age community as she writes to me, “For younger folks who were taught about Chăm people because they took an ethnic studies course, there’s a sense of guilt for being our colonizers and camaraderie since we share the same motherland and similar struggles in the US.” If guilt indicates sorrow about conquest rather than celebration of it, and if camaraderie shows that we have more in common than the divisions which hastened Chăm disappearance in the past, it seems that inclusive education for the 1.5 and 2nd generations within the diaspora may offer us opportunities for re-fashioning Chăm-Việt relations in important ways. With this in mind, I remember sitting down in 2007 with Thầy Bắc Trần, lecturer in Vietnamese language at UC Berkeley, at the onset of my two-year foreign language requirement for my Master’s degree. We met in office hours, where I filled out an intake form while waiting for my assessment interview. As I took a seat, he looked at the form and immediately began speaking with me in Vietnamese, my mother’s second language. I did not learn this language growing up, after my mother immigrated from Việt Nam. I felt embarrassed by that lack of knowledge as I answered, “I’m sorry, I can’t speak any Vietnamese yet.” The yet was the word of hope that this would work out somehow. Thầy Bắc looked down at the form, crinkling his brow, and blinked. “But your middle name, Thi, is Vietnamese.” I took a deep breath before replying, “Our people were assimilated by the Vietnamese so we had to take Vietnamese names. I’m actually Chăm, and I am also mixed race, if that matters.” As I spoke, I wasn’t sure what he would think—what preconceived ideas he might hold, since neither Chăm people nor mixed people are held in esteem in Vietnamese society. As an older refugee from Việt Nam, perhaps he still carried the racial and social hierarchy from back home. Once silent, I began to get nervous, wondering if I belonged in his class, or if he would somehow treat me differently once I enrolled. The class hadn’t even started yet, and I already felt like the odd one out, as with the other times where not being “really” Vietnamese challenged my inclusion in the Vietnamese community in the US.
After hearing my short introduction, Thầy Bắc looked at me in astonishment, something I would later consider to be the crack that let the light in, in the words of Leonard Cohen. “There are Chăm left?!” Thầy Bắc asked with complete shock, as if the idea was inconceivable. After that exclamation, I could have responded in a variety of ways—mentioning basic facts about our concentrated population in the region of Phan Rang, with nationwide population counts and notes about our three religions, for example, to show that yes indeed we still exist and we even have distinct characteristics and even some variation. But I took somewhat of a risk, as I am wont to do, when I responded, “You didn’t kill us all, you know.” By addressing the Vietnamese conquerors as “you,” Thầy Bắc became a stand-in for those who’d decimated my ancestors—just as I have been a stand-in, in other moments, for those addressing my own ancestors. I also delivered the news with a smile and a tone of amused sarcasm. He looked startled but he returned my smile before we suddenly both began laughing. Loudly. The light let in. He also let me into the class, where I struggled to keep up with the “heritage learners” who already knew how to speak and understand Vietnamese, but may have lacked reading and writing abilities. As I made my own inroads into speaking, understanding, reading, and writing, I came to know and adore a large handful of my classmates, despite differences in age, ethnicity, and academic status. Before long I also learned that Thầy Bắc had held respect for the Chăm since childhood. He had felt that same guilt about conquest that Azizah recently described in the US-raised youth who learned of us through their ethnic studies courses. Thầy Bắc also believed that Chăm history is instrumental to Vietnamese Americans understanding their own history, and gave me repeated opportunities to lecture to his Vietnamese language classes about the life and culture of the Chăm people. “They need to know their own history, which is impossible without knowing what their ancestors did to the Chăm, and who the Chăm are.” The invitation to lecture remains, each semester. In this way, his own initial lack of awareness that we’re “still here” is something he has since refused to let happen to his own students.
In my last semester studying under Thầy Bắc, I attended office hours one day alongside other students, including my friend and classmate Michelle. Her parents had just arrived to meet Thầy Bắc before attending the Vietnamese Student Association’s culture show that night at Zellerbach Hall. Their daughter—a beautiful, intelligent, kind, and talented senior—would star in the show. “Oh, Michelle,” I said, before departing office hours, “I’m coming to your show tonight. I am actually thinking of wearing my áo dài,” referring to the traditional attire worn by Southern women in Việt Nam, a gracefully fitted tunic with slit sides, over long loose pants. “But I sometimes get nervous wearing traditional Vietnamese clothing,” I confessed, “because I am afraid Việt people will think I have no right to wear their clothes.” Her parents were standing near as Michelle and I had a short discussion about my struggling to belong despite my fears of “inauthenticity,” the same ones that had troubled me when Thầy Bắc had asked about my middle name, eighteen months before in that same office. “So I’ve decided that if anyone challenges me, I will just let them know that the Vietnamese stole most of the design from the áo dài from the Chăm anyway, so I can wear an áo dài if I want.” My tone was amiable, perfected from years of truthtelling through humor. She smiled with a knowing look. “The Vietnamese stole everything else from the Chăm,” she observed. “So why not your clothing, too?” We both laughed at our dark jokes about conquest, to the amazement of her parents standing with us, who’d probably never heard such a conversation between descendants of Vietnamese colonizers and Chăm “conquered.” And if it hadn’t been for Thầy Bắc’s interventionist invitation for me to lecture about Chăm history and culture to his Vietnamese language classes, Michelle would have not understood the conquest well enough to be able to banter with me about it, as my friend who’s made a place for me, at the table, many times.
Despite the sometimes strained relations between us, the conditions of diaspora have actually made it possible for Vietnamese Americans and Chăm Americans to re-approach our shared histories of conflict, to arrive at a place where we can begin the conversation anew, taking mutual responsibility for discussing and knowing history while also forging new alliances not freighted by the racism and social hierarchies that may well have separated us had we grown up together in Việt Nam. At times Chăm inclusion seems tenuous at best, as the outliers remind us glibly of our extermination. Yet as the 1.5 and 2nd generation Chăm Americans grow up in the US, not only among Vietnamese Americans and Cambodian Americans but also among all the other ethnic groups in the US, we actually have a great deal in common with those from our home countries of Việt Nam and Cambodia. The destabilizing effect of war was generally a shared push factor for our families’ emigrations as refugees. Since arriving to the US, since born in the US, we are sometimes made into culture brokers for our families and even our ethnic communities “over here” and our motherland “over there,” whether we choose it or not. Sometimes the tunnel vision of mainstream perceptions has us frozen in its crosshairs as a racial silhouette, as an object lesson about Southeast Asian refugees, as uncomfortable reminders of contentious wars in Việt Nam and Cambodia, or as confused for other Asians. Perhaps the shared sense of loss of our overlapping motherland(s) will be what binds us most tightly. I remember hearing the Vietnamese folk wisdom that French colonialism and American war in Việt Nam were karmic retributions against the Vietnamese for the brutal conquest of Champa. While I am unable to provide empirical evidence that karma played out this particular way, this folk wisdom certainly offers insight into how our histories of warfare are indeed interconnected through the sequential losses of lives and territorial autonomy, experienced between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries.
This folk wisdom connecting the wars of conquest and aggression also expresses the underlying guilt some Vietnamese feel for the conquest of Champa, which I have heard confessed by kindhearted Vietnamese people in the US and Việt Nam. This guilt need not be a submissive gesture whereby one loses face, but one full of mutual recognition—the ability to see the other as human, the desire to fill the blank page about Chăm/Việt relations in such a way that the light is let in. I’m trying to do this here, from a Chăm perspective. From a Việt point of view, who else besides Thầy Bắc, the Cultural Quest Foundation, and Bao Nguyen will try to fill the blank pages in our shared histories? Granted, acknowledging the sins of the forefathers is not an easy task, even for the sympathetic. History is generally told through the stories of survivors and victors, who prefer to sanitize ancestral sins, glorify the spoils of conquest, or romanticize the erasure of those “mysteriously” disappeared from reoccupied regions. Yet in diaspora we can improve Chăm/Việt relations amidst continuing repressions against the Chăm in Việt Nam, which have happened at individual, village, national, and cultural levels. Recently controversies have also erupted over the Vietnamese government’s disregard of Po Klong Garai as a sacred ritual site for the Chăm, as the authorities have confiscated and used our 13th century temple for ethnic tourism even when that tourism prohibits Chăm Bà-la-môn clergy from completing longstanding annual ceremonies. And let’s not forget the plans to build Việt Nam’s first nuclear power plant 1.2 miles from Palei Uu, my maternal village, the same village evacuated by Minh Mạng in the 1830s. Many Chăm near Phan Rang perceive the planned nuclear power plant’s location in Ninh Thuận province—right next to the country’s largest population of Chăm—as an attempt to hasten our extinction by allowing the Chăm to be the first ones hit by nuclear contamination or “downwinding,” and the first canaries-in-the-goldmine in line for possibly catastrophic accidents like the one at Chernobyl in April 1986 and, more recently, at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.
Each time it’s been necessary, I have been grateful to attest to Chăm survival, aware that the idea that we’re “already” extinct has resulted in disastrous outcomes for those living in both Việt Nam and Cambodia. The latter-day forms of settler colonialism remain destructive, so I’m grateful that it’s sometimes possible for the Chăm and Việt to stand here in the US, in our overlapping concentric motherland(s) and diaspora(s), with a shared sense of humanity on this side of the darkness. If the mere fact of Chăm existence is the crack that lets the light in, where do we go from here? If you’d thought the Chăm were extinct, how might you acknowledge the history of the conquest of Champa without reproducing the troubling refusal to “see” us that made the Chăm vulnerable to annihilation, a refusal to see that was ramped up by the massacre of 60,000 Chăm in Vijaya in 1471, and that continues in present-day Việt Nam? If apprehended as guilt, how can the sorrow of colonization be transformed productively? Certainly, the US populations of Vietnamese and Chăm have both been displaced or departed from the territory “fought over” long before the French, Japanese, or Americans arrived. In the US, how can our concentric motherland(s) and diaspora(s) establish our commonality and mutuality, now that we’ve all lost our “home” and found ourselves as ethnic minorities across the Pacific, in the US, within the communities of those who’ve emigrated from Việt Nam? How can we make room at the table for those who don’t appear, at first glance, to belong with us? What forms of collaborations extend these conversations to include not only the Chăm and Vietnamese and Khmer, but other Southeast Asians, beyond the arbitrary and permeable borders of any nation-state? When do our own exclusionary practices echo the doors once slammed in our own faces, as the violence inflicted upon us by others is taken out on those we perceive as subordinate? We must pry those doors open to let the light in, and meet together for the first time, where in the words of Yehuda Amichai—
a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Julie Thi Underhill has previously written for diaCRITICS about the lived memories of Democractic Kampuchea’s genocide of the Chăm during and after the 1970s in Cambodia. Since 2010, her historical, cultural, and photographic essay has remained one of the most visited posts on diaCRITICS, generating dozens of comments by those interested in Chăm history and culture. She thanks diaCRITICS editor Viet Thanh Nguyen and the many commenters on her 2010 article for encouraging her to write more for diaCRITICS about the Chăm, and for entering into difficult conversations about the past. Her bio continues below.
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