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TALES OF AN ORANGEPEELER

an archive of pleasures, wounds, sublimations
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07.29.13

Today I thought of my parents, after reading about the legal challenge to the policy of direct provision here in Ireland. In the past I had always been baffled by some Irish comments on "asylum-seekers". There is an antipathy to refugees here, a way of framing them that discounts their experiences and dismisses them as "benefits-seekers" and "job-takers". So I felt compelled to list some observations of the refugees I knew best, because I wanted to consider the trajectory of their lives, and the possible life-trajectories of other people like them.

In the 1970s, my parents arrived in the US as refugees from Cambodia. With assistance from the government, Christian groups, and largely their own kinship networks, they eked together a materially nicer life than most Cambodian refugees in the US. Mom and Dad achieved a certain, albeit precarious, semblance of the middle-class American dream: the two-story house in a nice neighborhood, a good education for the kids, second helpings at dinner, US bus tours for vacation, and life insurance as a bulwark against the uncertainties of their children's future. "When we die, you will have money," Mom always told me.

Physically, my parents live in San Diego. Culturally, they travel between worlds. They raised my brother and I, US citizens by birth, as American, even as they were not comfortable with what being "American" meant. (What does it mean anyway, but a mix of improvised signs and gestures?) Mom watches soaps both American and Cambodian, and Dad is an avid viewer of Chargers football games and Khmer karaoke videos. (Dad also listens to Spanish radio, which is telling of our proximity in San Diego, geographically and culturally, to Mexico). They are comfortable in their improvised world of computer flea markets, Khmer-language Christian meetings, Hawaiian buffets, and seaside festivals. Although my parents miss the Cambodia of their youth, they only return for brief trips, typified by family reunions and melancholy tours of a countryside forever altered by the depredations of frontier-style capitalism and de facto dictatorship.

My parents have the life they have because of their initial treatment by certain parties in the US. This treatment was encouraged, in part, by the media attention and mostly empathetic treatment of the plight of Cambodians during the Pol Pot years, which elicited the Christian aid that helped my parents and enabled them to emerge from the limbo of refugee status. (How would their treatment differ now, in 9/11 America?) In Ireland, the refugee or "applicant" is an "asylum-seeker" first, before s/he is a refugee, preempting the realities implied by the statement "I am a refugee", realities which would otherwise require address. Direct provision further delays empathy by segregating the individual into sites where all aspects of life are fully regimented by the state. With his or her life so completely circumscribed, the individual is known only as an asylum-seeker, with no or little cultural or social capital, consigned to a legal and existential purgatory.

What I know about my parents' time as refugees is little, from anecdotes, legal documents, and a couple of pictures, of children holding hands in a Thai refugee camp. They tell me bit by bit, and I piece their histories together, knowing that these accounts are not exact; some things are deliberately left forgotten. The limbo of the refugee camps was short, recalled in a couple of photographs buried in a box beneath other photographs - photographs of my brother and I as kids, of visiting family, of trips to the sea - visual markers, I think, of how far they are from that refugee past.

I guess I will leave this account unfinished and full of gaps, a consideration of possible refugee trajectories.





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