• Chea (on mic) speaking at Refugee Re/Enactments event, 2018 / Photo: CSEAS

  • Chea (far right) on a panel with author Thi Bui, 2018 / Photo: CSEAS

Cambodian American identity through the eyes of Jolie Chea

Cambodian American identity through the eyes of Jolie Chea

UCLA Professor Jolie Chea tells the story of their upbringing and political activation in Los Angeles and how they came to ethnic and Asian American studies.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Encountering ethnic studies

"That [ethnic studies] class blew my mind. It changed everything I knew about the world and myself," said Jolie Chea, assistant professor of Asian American studies at UCLA. "It gave me a sense of purpose. It opened a door in my consciousness. When I was done, I thought, I want more."

That course resonated so deeply with Chea that on the eve of graduating as a sociology major—in the spring quarter of their fourth year at UC Riversidethey decided to stay a fifth to complete a second major in ethnic studies. "I knew ethnic studies would take me very far and that it would expand my horizons. That additional year was worthwhile for me," said Chea.

After graduation, Chea worked various jobs while staying in touch with academic mentors who encouraged them to pursue graduate studies. "Since I was a first generation college student, I didn’t understand at the time what was required of me to secure admission to a graduate program," added Chea. "But because ethnic studies as a field can be such a personal and intimate space, fortunately for me, I met people with whom I was able to build meaningful relationships that lasted beyond the classroom, beyond the degree, and well beyond my time on campus. Those people helped guide me through the application process and wrote letters of recommendation on my behalf. To this day, they still do the work of mentoring me."

They saw the master’s program in Asian American studies at UCLA and decided that they wanted to go there, especially because they were born and raised in Los Angeles. Chea said it felt important that they stay in the city.

"LA is and has always been a central part of my identity," stated Chea. "I always felt like my work was here in Los Angeles and the things I needed to learn and know were here."

Chea went on to receive their Ph.D. at University of Southern California in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity.

Growing up in LA

Chea was born to Cambodian parents who arrived in the United States as refugees shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Growing up, Chea would ask their parents, "Why did you come to America? And how did you get here?" to which they tersely responded: "War." Other times, their mother did tell the story of how she was so sick and feeble that Chea's father carried her on his back as he jogged to the helicopter to leave Cambodia. Their mother and father were the last two passengers to board that day.

"That answer, 'war,' was not good enough for me. It did not explain enough to me," remembered Chea. "I was determined to find out for myself why and how my parents ended up in the United States."

Because they had been born immediately in the postwar period, they explained that their parents probably did not have the time to fully transition to a new country and process what had happened. They needed to focus on supporting the family.

"What that meant was we also grew up in their process of rebuilding their lives and coming to terms with what had just happened in Cambodia," said Chea. "We grew up in the thick of that. We saw all of it—the trauma, the grief, the resilience, the joy, the struggle, and the appreciation for life itself. Those of us born in those early years after the war did not experience the war ourselves, but I believe that experience is very different from someone who is also a second-generation immigrant but was born 10-15 years after the war had ended."

Because their parents worked long hours, Chea would always say that they were raised by the city of Los Angeles.

They became a teenager in the aftermath of the LA uprising, which they alluded to as a formative time in their political consciousness-raising. The racial tensions and debates during that time shaped how they understood the ways in which Cambodian Americans and Asian Americans factor into the American racial landscape. They had always been exposed to diverse groups of people, having grown up in an ethnic enclave of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugee families but simultaneously being bussed to magnet schools where their peers came from a wide range of racial and socio-economic backgrounds.

"My focus has never been on Cambodian Americans as an insular group," said Chea. "I come from a mixed and diasporic heritage, too. I’m always looking through a comparative lens and thinking about the geometric relationships between many groups and their arrangement in this world we live in."

Complicating and enriching understanding of Cambodia

"The story of Cambodia can never be told in full. There’s always more to say, learn, and do," responded Chea when asked about advice for students interested in studying Cambodia. "There’s still so much that we don’t know of what happened before, during, and after the war. We also need to think about what happened outside of the war and even what could have happened instead of the war."

In today’s current political moment where so much work has been done to highlight the plight of Cambodian Americans, Chea said there is still a tendency to present and view Cambodians as objects of pity, which is something their research actively challenges and moves away from.

"This is obviously not to say that Cambodians haven’t been abused and impacted by imperial and military violence, but that Cambodia as a nation is complex. There are and have been all kinds of characters and roles in the story of Cambodia. And there are other ways to tell this story where we take the lead in narrating our stories and histories," advocated Chea. "When we become responsible for that, we will find ourselves in a better position to act."