Although only 25 years old, this young man is wise beyond his years and has one of the biggest hearts I know. I met him at an Asian American writing workshop back in the summer of 2009. “OhmiGOD, are you Khmer?!?” is what he yelled across the room when I entered the conference room. Despite that awkward introduction, we have developed a friendship based on our heritage, sharing stories about growing up bicultural, hopes for Cambodian people, and our goals to preserve the Cambodian culture and to help others. His sense of self, love for Cambodian people, and drive to help others are what you’ll first notice upon meeting him. I’m proud to introduce my friend, Social Justice/Community Activist and Emerging Spoken Word Artist, Chom Sou.
“Chum reap sua duol neh bong paoun daeng aw kney! Wasap y’all, my name is Channbunmorl Sou but people call me “Chom” for short. I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. I am a Social Justice/Community Activist who works closely with the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities as well as a Spoken Word Artist. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. I am currently continuing my education in hopes of obtaining a Masters in Public Administration. As a young child, I seem to never back down from anyone. My mom told me that she got my name from one of her dreams. She told me in my past life I was a general with the heart of a lion. I told her that I wanted to be born into a common person life because I wanted to help people fight for justice. Her dream was right. I am now a board member of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO). APANO is a grassroots organization that advocates for Asians and Pacific Islanders in Oregon. My advocacy work and poetry reflects my passion for justice, peace and equality.” – Cham
Are you 100% Cambodian? If not, what else?
Cham: I use to think I was 25% Vietnamese, 25% Chinese and 50% Khmer. However, when I had a conversation with my parents about the Khmer Rouge, they told me that I am 50% Chinese and 50% Khmer.
When did you come to the States and where do you reside? Or were you born here?
Cham: I was conceived in srok Khmer (haha) but I was born in Portland, Oregon.
It sounds like you were destined to be a Social Justice/Community Activist before you were even born. Did anyone or any significant event influence you to choose to be an activist?
Cham: I was influenced a lot by my mom; she was the one who made a significant impact on my life. Her compassion for others goes beyond anyone that I know. If it was not for her upbringing, I would not have any determination or strength. She went through a lot in srok Khmer and the United States. I want to share with the world what she has taught me.
Also, growing up I was a very inquisitive child. Because I am so in tune with the Khmer culture, I always had a feeling that something was not right; that there was something wrong with the system.
What do you mean by “the system”?
Cham: As a child, I felt like the environment I lived in was not right for me. It was like I was a piece of a puzzle that didn’t fit. I still feel like that. For example, I remember a time in my life, as a child, where I use to pray to Jesus. Before I go on, I would like to say that I have nothing against Christian people. My intentions are not to offend anyone. So going back to the story, I use to pray to Jesus. The reason why I did this is because everyone around me saw the world from a Christian’s perspective. Between 3rd and 5th grade, I use to say “god-damnit” or “Jesus Christ” a lot and I felt really bad as a child about saying those words. Then I would pray to Jesus and apologize to him. I am Buddhist, but every time I prayed to Jesus, I just didn’t feel right. I was never introduced to Christianity but because the school I went to was predominantly with people believing in the Christian faith, I just wanted to fit in. But I never could fit in. My puzzle piece was shape differently, no matter how hard I pushed my piece in, it just wouldn’t fit. As a child, I knew that praying to Jesus wasn’t who I am. I was pretending to be something I was not. And there is no way a nine year old could comprehend all these complex feelings and ideas. We don’t even realize how much we have to assimilate and assimilating to the point that we are unconsciously throwing away a piece of ourselves. I can go on and on about this but we don’t have time. So that’s what I meant when I said that there was something wrong with the system.
My Final Letter
Since I was 8 my dad left and neva brought his ass back/ my mom was out doing dope and it was always crack/
She was prostitutin’ herself so she could support her habit/ she was always on that crack pipe cuz she was an addict/
I could neva go to sleep cuz I was too hungry with no food to eat
So I went to go to the grocery store and steal/ that’s when I got locked up and got three meals
Social services came and took me away/I’ve been bounced from home to home every single day/
I neva know what my life is going to end up like/but I know I always had to be ready to put up a fight/
I’m just a boy who neva showed love/ becuz I could neva remember of eva being hugged/
I live in a place where there are broken homes with broken dreams/ things are not what they always seem/ I feel like a failure cuz I’m not livin da American dream/ with my broken down emotions with low self-esteem/ no one has ever witnessed the horror that I’ve seen/
Now I’m 16 years old/ the drugs is still takin’ my mama’s soul/
I was dealt a bad hand/ life’s unfair and that I don’t understand/ Violence is the only way I can/ to show these sukas I’ma a real man/
I gotta be fast on my feet/ cuzz too many peeps on the street/ is strapped up with that chromie heat/
They’re to quick to pull that trigga with no remorse/ people say that this is the life I chose and I wasn’t force/
This is all I know: violence, guns, and drugs/ and how to be a thug/ I was told by my teachers that I will always fail/ that’s why I live day by day knowin’ later on I’ll be destine for jail/
There’s no one in my life that genuinely cares/ to everybody else I’m just some punk kid with no love to share/
All I see is them rainy days/ they wanna lock me up and throw the key away/ I can’t stand this pain in my life no mo/ I’m sick and tired of depressed and po/
So I wanna tell all the people that I’ve hurt I’m sorry again/ but this is the time for my life to end/ I took my nine and pointed directly at my head/ I pulled the trigga……. “pop”/ “oh my god my son is dead”!!!!
© Channbunmorl Sou
Based on the poems you’ve shared, it sounds like your activist work influences what you write about. Can you please explain the story behind your poem, My Final Letter?
Cham: Yes, I was inspired to write Final Letter when I volunteered at the Donald E. Juvenile Detention Center. This was during my senior capstone in college. I volunteered at the Orientation Unit where I would talk to the youth about Measure 11. Measure 11 is a mandatory minimum sentencing without parole which was passed in Oregon in 1995. The youth were living in so much despair and came from broken homes. But when we would visit them, they would get so excited! It seemed as if their spirits had been lifted, so the poem came to me naturally.
At what age did you start writing poetry?
Cham: I really started writing during my first year in college when I took a creative writing class. The first poem I wrote that really meant something to me was in my senior high school English class. The year before my brother passed away and the poem was about him.
What message do you want people to take away from your poems?
Cham: I remember another writing class in college; I use to write about political and social issues. One day when we were sharing our writing assignments, another student was like, “Man, you always seek to write about the truth!” So I named myself “Truthseeker”. From then on, I always try to write about different aspects of life and things that people can relate to. I want people to seek, think and feel what I am writing. The best compliment I received was, “Man, I felt that one right here [pointing to his heart]”.
What inspires you?
Cham: Everything inspires me! For example, when I walk around downtown and see a homeless person walking without spirit or life, this brings up the issues of mental illness and how surviving life is sometimes the hardest thing to do. Or I see that my friends have changed from being children to adults and now have their own kids. Just the transition from being a girl to a woman or a boy to a man – you know, I just get inspired by people living.
Do you feel like a role model to other young Cambodian men or do you see yourself as one?
Cham: I am both. Our older community members suffered so much through the genocide and that was passed onto the Khmer youth. The reason why I say I am both is because I want to help preserve our culture as much as I can. Personally, I still have a lot to learn about the Khmer culture.
What is your favorite Khmer dish?
Cham: My favorite Khmer dish….hmmm…I have a lot! But I have to say that I like anything that has fish in it. To name a few: prahok, tuk grung, sa law ga goe. Prahok is so awesome, one of the best food ever!!!! J (Yes folks, he is definitely Khmer!)
What are your future goals in art?
Cham: I want to continue writing and learn how to produce beats. I have never spit over a beat before. I feel this will help keep me connected to the communities I know and grew up with. I know this doesn’t have anything to do with art, but I will continue to watch Khmer dubbed movies, so I won’t forget certain Khmer words.
Can you please elaborate on why you think “spitting over beats” is effective in staying connect with your communities? Who is composed of your communities?
Cham: The reason I say this is because I am in the professional world. This world is very technical and proper (defined by mainstream society). People in this world do not speak laymen terms. For me to become successful in this world, I have to learn a whole new way of talking and can make me assimilate too much. I feel like I can lose my identity if I’m not careful. Thus, having my poetry and expanding it into music will help me keep in touch and stay connected with the culture I know and grew up with.
What do you hope for or to see Cambodians in the States and abroad achieve/accomplish?
Cham: I see more of us in the professional world and accomplishing great things for the places we live in. With that said, I think that this will be a slippery slope in us trying to hold onto our cultural heritage. If you don’t live in srok Khmer it will likely be that your children’s children will not know the Khmer culture very well. What I hope is to see more us trying to get involved and actively learning about our culture. I know that there are great organizations out there that are preserving the Khmer culture. Also, I hope that for our generation, our children will be able to speak Khmer.
Originally Posted by Vanny K.
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