I have a strong aversion to the question, "Where are you from?" It carries a weight that is difficult to explain, especially when asked by strangers I may never encounter again. I often reply: "Yonkers," satisfied that I didn't provide them with the answer they were truly seeking. My identity is complex, deeply intertwined with my Chinese, Cambodian, Thai, and American heritage. Explaining my diverse background to strangers who expect a brief answer can be challenging.
However, as we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, I am eager to embark on a journey to share my story. This is a chance to explore my cultural identity, reflect on the experiences that have shaped me, and celebrate the opportunities that have come my way. I wholeheartedly invite you to join me on this trip.
It took half a lifetime for me to overcome the insecurities tied to my race and history. As an adult, I have grown to be incredibly proud of who I am and where I come from. My parents met and married at a young age in Cambodia, where they built a thriving business and welcomed my brother and sister into the world. However, everything changed with the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Led by Pol Pot, a revolutionary dictator influenced by Mao Zedong's communism, the regime rejected urban and Western ideas, abolishing private property and forcing citizens to become farmers in rural labor camps. Armed with assault rifles, the army, including children as young as five years old, killed anyone who dared to oppose them. My seven-year-old brother was among those children forced into fighting for the Khmer Rouge.
For years, my family endured unimaginable hardships, facing starvation in their quest for escape. Amidst the perils of landmines and traps, I was conceived and we were granted the opportunity to seek safety and refuge in a refugee camp located at the Thai border. It was within the confines of this camp that I was born and spent the first year of my life. Eventually, the United States extended us the opportunity for admission, granting us a new home and a fresh start.
Arriving in this country with empty pockets and no understanding of the English language, my parents managed to build something extraordinary from nothing. They toiled seven days a week, ten hours a day, sacrificing vacation to provide us with the best education possible. However, debt eventually caught up with them, leaving no resources for me to attend college.
My family believes me to be the fortunate one. I somehow survived birth during a genocide and was born in Thailand instead of war-torn Cambodia. I do believe it to be true too. But perhaps it's not just luck; it's something more significant—an opportunity.
While still in high school, my sister helped buy me my first computer, and that changed everything. I taught myself how to build websites when the "world wide web" was still a novel concept. I became so proficient that my high school awarded me a scholarship in exchange for creating and maintaining their website. After graduating from high school, with no means of support from my parents, my computer skills made it easy to find opportunities, and before I knew it, I had a full-time position as a web developer at the National Audubon Society. At night, I continued my education at New York University and the School of Visual Arts.
My career has taken many fascinating turns since graduating from college. I began designing mobile apps long before the first iPhone was even invented. At an ad agency, I had the privilege of creating unique interfaces and experiences, ranging from interactive spy games to simplifying tax return processes through photo capture of W2 forms. I even had the chance to develop platforms that allowed consumers to customize and price their dream cars. These endeavors brought me numerous awards, including the prestigious Cannes Lion in 2012. While I cherished the diversity of projects from the agency side, a longing grew within me—a desire for deeper commitment and the opportunity to see my projects through from start to finish, creating a tangible impact on the business. This longing led me to my most significant opportunity yet: serving as a Senior Creative Director at Pitney Bowes. In this role, I am privileged to leverage my talents, skills, passion, and inspiration to build, achieve, and, most importantly, give back opportunities.
I attribute a large part of my success to the rich and vibrant Asian culture I am so proud of. Asian cuisine continues to be my absolute favorite. The Chinese civilization has made countless contributions and inventions that have had great impact on the world. Asian culture places great emphasis on the importance of education, hard work, and respect for the elderly. These values have played a profound role in shaping my career and guiding me to where I stand today. Now, more than ever, I am most prideful about Asian resilience. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the alarming rise in Asian hate crimes has reached record levels (up 339% nationwide in January 2022), with the elderly (the most revered group amongst Asians) being the primary target. In the face of these challenges, we stand brave and determined to break the silence, to confront hate, and to continue serving in government, innovating, educating, and making significant contributions across various fields, including dominating at the Oscars. AAPI Heritage Month is a time not only to celebrate our rich culture but also an opportunity to acknowledge the struggles our predecessors endured to provide us with the opportunities we enjoy today. It is a reminder to all that the fight for equality and justice is far from over.
As you can see, my story, like many other Asian Americans, begins with my parents arriving in this country with nothing else but a single opportunity. They worked tirelessly to create a better life for themselves and their children, and it is through their unwavering determination that I have been given my own set of opportunities to reach where I am today. The chance for such opportunities is like a golden ticket that can make an immense difference, not just for one individual, but for generations to come. Opportunities are not easily accessible to everyone, and we should constantly seek out ways to provide opportunities to help others advance.