Kheng, 35 at the time of this interview, was born in Cambodia to Chinese parents. She is studying for her GED at The Literacy Project’s Pioneer Valley Adult Education Center in Northampton. She recently became a United States citizen.
I’m from Cambodia, in Southeast Asia. And I have been here about seven years…and I have been living in Florence since I got here in 1998. I was 29 years old. My husband started living in the United States. He’s a carpenter. And that’s why I’m here. And we have two children. My son, he’s six years old, and my daughter is four years old.
It’s pretty…pretty hard. You start – like every single thing, I have to learn every single thing. Everything is new – the culture, a different language, about the society. The way we live was a lot different. Overseas, it’s hot in summer. Over here it got really cold. And the language has been really difficult for me. Here, they use a lot of body language. In Cambodia, they like to talk straight. A different culture. Studying the social studies, it really helping me, about the culture in the United States different from where I come from. So that’s helping me to figure out.
I took Cambodian for eight years, and four years Chinese. I spoke two languages, Chinese and Cambodian. But now, after I have children, I speak English and Chinese. We speak Ju-Jao [a Chinese dialect]. I was born in Cambodia, but I’m Chinese. My parents, they were born in China, and so they have many, many different dialects. Some, they speak Ju-Jao, some who are speaking Cantonese, some who are speaking Mandarin.
I grow up in Chinese town, people speak Chinese, and also Chinese is – I love it. I’m still hoping that someday I can afford to have my children to go to Chinese class, Chinese school. I miss my home town. Some day I like to have a different society. You can sit around and talk. I feel like Cambodia, I have more friends. In Florence I live in a house, I do have neighbors, but everyone – they’re busy, morning out and night in. And also they don’t have young children. It’s so busy, you don’t have much time to talk.
The first couple years [I was lonely]. After I have children, it’s not lonely anymore. No time to be lonely. Yes, [this area] is home. I have two children here, that makes it home. I think they have more better living than in Cambodia, like jobs. Here, they have better school system, if you want to go to college.
[Schools in Cambodia are] a lot different from here. [Here], it’s much easier because students, we got a lots of books, lots of materials, we have computers. In Cambodia, we didn’t have things like that. We didn’t have copy machine. Much easier. Over there, everything all by hand. Now there are some copy machine, but not in school. You had to go outside.
[When I was in school in Cambodia], at that time, they didn’t have high schools, have the civil war. For a long time. The Chinese school was opened in 1990. It was closed for a little while because, after the Khmer Rouge, it closed, and for a little while it still closed. It was illegal to take a Chinese class. If you want to attend a higher class, you got to pay certain money for that. I had my brother. He finished all his school. He’s an English teacher in Cambodia. The whole family was happy that he finished that.
I want to become a citizen, every time I call my family, the first question they ask me, ‘do you become a citizen?’ It is very important, if you want to go to your country, come back to your country, you need that…if something happens and you visit your country…not just to Cambodia, but you can go to any country and come back…
I just got my citizen…I just – a few days ago. I had a history book, I got from the library…I had to apply for – it took so long…it’s very hard. Every time you go to Boston to renew the green card… Sometime you wait on the line, three hour by the time you get there, they say, this thing not right, you got the wrong information, you got to go home, you got to come next year….
[When I took the citizenship test in Boston], it was really, really cold, and we then we got into the –it was SO big – we got inside of the…JFK building…oh my goodness…some ladies, they have to open up the inside of their sock!…but me I have two children with me, they say, ‘Ma’am you’re all set’…I got inside…I have no problem with the history, but he ask me something about the terror, after 9/11…I still [don’t] understand what he asked me, I was nervous…then he said you go out and wait for me, and let me decide if you be citizen…he gave me a green sheet, asked me to read, asked me to write, you know testing writing and reading skill, then after how long, he told me you coming, what the place…Faneuil Hall…and he told me to go there another hour, you…become a citizen…did I pass the test? Yeah, you did. If I didn’t ask them, they wouldn’t tell me…I had to remember that, to ask them. I got to know, make sure I don’t have to wait one or two more weeks. My husband, they didn’t tell…after he passed the test or not, they say just go home, we will send more information to you. And then, in a letter, they sent to him…
[To take the oath] it’s much easier, it’s much easier, they don’t care about when you came, you just show up, stand on the line, they open the door, you just go inside, “No cell phone in the building!”…so I spend about three hours in the building…it’s many, many people…the first time they call their name – different nationalities…they call the line, the first line, the first row …a very, an old history building… And I become a citizen. My husband so proud of me. He’s so happy. Oh, it was so happy…we went and bought some Asian food, you know they have a lot of Chinese food there…
The reason I get my GED…so I could help the children to learn, and do their homework…I feel like just the school teacher is not enough…my son is starting to read…it’s good to start early…my daughter knows all her alphabet, I’m so proud of her…she’s only four years old, and she knows the alphabet.
I’m coming in this class, a little bit over a year, last January. Three mornings a week I come here, and I meet with my tutor as well… for two hours, yes, and then also I work in the nursing home. I’m a nurse aid. It’s a hard work. Really busy…you see a lot of people, deal with a lot of residents’ families, talk with them, you have the chance to learn more English…I work 24 hours a week, 3 –11…and then my son get up at 6:00! It’s a hard work, but it’s good work.
I don’t think I could go to college right away… I think it’s good to go to college, but the financial part, I can’t work if I go to college…I still plan to go to college, some day…in four or five year maybe, when my children are doing better in school…It would be wonderful…maybe take one class…I think it’s good to think about it…