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Buddha Is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America / Edition 1

Buddha Is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America / Edition 1

by Aihwa OngAihwa Ong
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Fleeing the murderous Pol Pot regime, Cambodian refugees arrive in America as at once the victims and the heroes of America's misadventures in Southeast Asia; and their encounters with American citizenship are contradictory as well. Service providers, bureaucrats, and employers exhort them to be self-reliant, individualistic, and free, even as the system and the culture constrain them within terms of ethnicity, race, and class. Buddha Is Hiding tells the story of Cambodian Americans experiencing American citizenship from the bottom-up. Based on extensive fieldwork in Oakland and San Francisco, the study puts a human face on how American institutions—of health, welfare, law, police, church, and industry—affect minority citizens as they negotiate American culture and re-interpret the American dream.

In her earlier book, Flexible Citizenship, anthropologist Aihwa Ong wrote of elite Asians shuttling across the Pacific. This parallel study tells the very different story of "the other Asians" whose route takes them from refugee camps to California's inner-city and high-tech enclaves. In Buddha Is Hiding we see these refugees becoming new citizen-subjects through a dual process of being-made and self-making, balancing religious salvation and entrepreneurial values as they endure and undermine, absorb and deflect conflicting lessons about welfare, work, medicine, gender, parenting, and mass culture. Trying to hold on to the values of family and home culture, Cambodian Americans nonetheless often feel that "Buddha is hiding." Tracing the entangled paths of poor and rich Asians in the American nation, Ong raises new questions about the form and meaning of citizenship in an era of globalization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520238244
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/04/2003
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #5
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)
Lexile: 1610L (what's this?)

About the Author

Aihwa Ong is Professor of Anthropology and of South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationalism (1999) and Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia (1987), and the editor of Ungrounded Empires: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Transnationalism (1997) and Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Labor Politics in Southeast Asia (California, 1995).

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Buddha Is Hiding

Refugees, Citizenship, the New America
By Aihwa Ong


Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-93716-1

Chapter One

Land of No More Hope

When the Vietnamese invaded, she was alone, wandering around looking for her family. It wasn't until in the camps that she met up with them. Her father and an older sibling had died. Only her mother and a sister were left. But then, once they had found each other, they didn't get along, so she went and stayed with a Vietnamese man in another part of the camp. She's what we call "a person with no pillar of support," a person with no direction, like a lotus leaf just drifting aimlessly, floating like a weed, in the middle of the river. Wherever she ended up, she just stayed there, and if she did not end up anywhere, she just floated on.

In Khmer Buddhism, the pillar or column of support (preah kamlaong) refers to the parents, who should be revered as near-deities. The speaker above—I'll call him Yann—is a Cambodian teacher who met this woman who had lost everything in a Thai refugee camp; he married her and they later moved to Oakland with their two daughters. They lived in a housing complex that held a lively community of Cambodian refugees. The one-bedroom apartment was dark, the curtains drawn against the California sunshine and the kids playing in the yard outside. When I visited, his wife, an invalid, was lying on a cot, intermittently moaning in her nightmares. She required around-the-clock care. Yann was kept very busy, but his daughters, barely out of their childhood, helped with the household chores and the care of their mother.

In Yann's story, his wife came to stand for all women who were swept up in the vortex of war "in Pol Pot time," a term Cambodians used to refer to the years of Khmer Rouge revolution (1975-1979). Cambodians speak of Pol Pot time as a period of social reversals: the rural ruled the urban, the uneducated ruled the educated, and (sometimes) children ruled their parents. Often separated from their fathers, brothers, and husbands, women were at the mercy of warfare, starvation, and constant fear, while struggling to protect children and aged relatives. Some had been through so many traumas that they were set adrift like lotus leaves floating in the stream. Many more survived with their bodies and minds undamaged but scarred and found unexpected resilience, rooted in their desire to live and to protect their children. Families were fragmented by war, mass relocation, labor camps, torture, death, and exile. Conventional Khmer-Buddhist notions of family obligation, gender roles, and personal propriety were scattered to the winds as displaced urban dwellers struggled to survive in the harsh labor camps of Democratic Kampuchea (DK), and later found refuge in the world of Thai border camps.

During those times, Cambodians experienced multiple displacements, encounters with authorities who wielded absolute power over their lives and death, and the kind of terror and hardship that transformed their identity as men and women, their sense of who they were as human beings. These refugees were to experience even more transformations in their lives in the United States.

When I began my research in the mid 1980s, there were approximately fifteen thousand Cambodian refugees living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the majority were crowded into rundown sections of Oakland and San Francisco. Families were packed into shabby public-housing apartment buildings, radically different from the verdant village homes many were forced to abandon years before. In one Oakland complex, people avoided the long, dark hallways reeking of urine after dark; in the evenings, people swore, they heard gunshots. The jangling and clanging caused by people going in and out of the iron apartment doors contributed to the prisonlike atmosphere that pervaded the entire complex. Loud sounds tended to set the older refugees shaking, as they flashed back to some war trauma. The old, infirm, and shell-shocked seldom ventured beyond their doors for fear of becoming disoriented or of being mugged. Their fears were not entirely imaginary: just before my research began, a small child playing in the courtyard had been accidentally run over by a truck, and street predators quickly identified these newcomers as easy marks. In many households, surviving family members and their friends had managed to patch together a family of sorts, clinging to one another and counting on welfare checks to help them navigate the storm-tossed world of inner-city America.


In recent years, there has been a flood of reporting about refugees from wars, natural disasters, and economic crises— the upheavals they endured, the statistics, the humanitarian efforts, the threats to the nation-state and to peace, and the personal stories. We've been told that tens of millions of the world's population are now classifiable as refugees. There has also been a proliferation of other kinds of materials about refugees from around the world—exhibitions, brochures of relief organizations, movies, and the like—detailing wrenching stories of terror and anguish suffered in war. These stories are used by organizations to seek funds for their programs addressing poverty, starvation, and human-rights violations. And the academic community has linked refugee issues to the nation-state, considering how the displacements of large populations have affected the ways nation-states imagine themselves as discrete geopolitical entities and how modern statecraft regulates refugees in order to exclude them from territorial citizenship. An ethnographic analysis of the actual experiences of refugees will show, however, that not all refugees are defined as being outside the norms of the (intended) host countries; the question becomes how, in each political situation, refugees are differentially categorized and assessed as being more or less assimilable into national norms of moral belonging and citizenship.

Giorgio Agamben notes that "by breaking the continuity between man and citizen, nativity and nationality," refugees "put the originary fiction of modern sovereignty in crisis" because the refugee is truly the "man of no rights" who exposes "the fiction of the citizen." For instance, in the 1930s, the Westphalian concept of national sovereignty based on the birth-nation link was severely challenged by laws that denationalized masses of marked citizens under the Third Reich. Such laws privileging a certain race (German blood and culture) over other citizens introduced "the principle according to which citizenship was something of which one had to prove oneself worthy and which could therefore always be called into question." And "the rights of man" were repeatedly violated as the sheer humanity of refugees was often not sufficient in itself for them to receive political asylum abroad. Even when accepted by a host country, refugees of ethno-racial and cultural backgrounds different from those of the dominant majority were subjected to questions about their worthiness as new citizens. Despite the lip service paid to the principles of human rights, modern political sovereignty is based on the power to exclude or kill what Agamben calls "bare life," in order to constitute the foundation of the nation-state and define the status of citizenship in biopolitical terms. This ambiguity in the concept of citizenship cannot be revealed by a study of formal laws or by relying on a notion of citizenship as something that is simply possessed (like a passport), but rather through an ethnographic investigation of the political reasonings and practices that assess groups differently and assign them different fates.

Scholarly interest in refugees, especially those from Southeast Asia, has focused on gathering firsthand accounts as a way to detect the varying conditions and progress of the conflicts they are fleeing, and to write a complex history of the present. Research conducted among Southeast Asian immigrants in the United States has been used as a way to give voice to refugees and to express the needs of the community in exile. There is also a growing body of eloquent memoirs told by Cambodian survivors themselves. Anthropological writings on refugees tend to examine how the refugee experience disrupts traditional cultural practices, and how traditions are continued and transformed abroad.

My intention in this study is different: to explore not so much how "culture" develops when transplanted to a new setting, but rather how the modern anthropos is reconceptualized in various political situations. I do so by tracing the specific logics that shape different notions of being human in successive contexts of the refugee-citizen continuum. I trace the movement of Cambodian refugees from the modern Cambodian state to the violent state of the Khmer Rouge, then the world of refugee camps, and finally settlement in the United States. Along the way, I consider how administrative rationality and everyday practice informed by that logic shape different notions of what it means to be human in these successive contexts. My analysis is based on the refugees' own perspectives on their ordeals—especially their views on how families, community, and the relations between women and men were irrevocably changed by the war, the flight to safety, and life in refugee camps, and how these experiences affected their adjustments to life in the United States.


The oldest refugees remember French rule (1863–1953), which by making Cambodia a protectorate kept it free of invasions and land grabs by Vietnam and Thailand. Even so, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Cambodia was yoked with Vietnam and Laos in "French Indochina." French-educated Vietnamese—civil servants, entrepreneurs, and urban professionals—came to live in Phnom Penh, along with ethnic Chinese traders from Vietnam and China. Vietnamese fisherfolk spread along the waterways, particularly around the Tonle Sap. The French viewed the Vietnamese as a stronger "race" than the Cambodians, and thereby intensified the age-old enmity between the two groups. After Cambodia gained independence in 1953, Prince Norodom Sihanouk continued to be wary of the pro- American regimes in Thailand and Vietnam, and he sought China's protection in order to maintain Cambodia's autonomy in the widening Indochina conflict. In 1970, the United States began secret aerial bombardments of Vietcong sanctuaries in the Cambodian countryside. Prince Sihanouk was soon overthrown by U.S.-backed General Lon Nol. By the time Congress stopped the bombing campaign in 1973, more than half a million tons of bombs had fallen.

According to David Chandler, the merciless air attacks had two important political results: demonstrating the claim of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) that the United States was the principal enemy, and inspiring thousands to join an anti-American crusade.

The bombing destroyed a good deal of the fabric of pre-war Cambodian society and provided the CPK with the psychological ingredients of a violent, vengeful, and unrelenting social revolution. This was to be waged, in their words, by people with "empty hands." The party encouraged class warfare between the "base people," who had been bombed, and the "new people," who had taken refuge from the bombing, and thus had taken sides, in CPK thinking, with the United States.

The number of traumatized and displaced peasants who joined the Khmer Rouge, the armed forces of the CPK headed by Pol Pot, rose. Approximately two million refugees swarmed into Phnom Penh, which was kept afloat by U.S. aid. In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered the city and instituted a utopian program for total change. Phnom Penh was emptied of all its inhabitants; they became the "new people" in a vast system of brutal labor camps controlled by the Revolutionary Organization (Angkar Padevat, usually called simply the Angkar). In their attempts to build socialism swiftly, the CPK ended what they called feudal institutions, such as the monarchy, Buddhism, family life, private property, the right of people to move freely, and anything else they deemed an impediment to revolution. By the time of the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, Democratic Kampuchea had lost about one and a half million lives to warfare, starvation, disease, and mass executions. While the leaders of the revolution did not intend to cause losses of such magnitude, they "were confused but unrepentant." For the refugees who finally settled in Oakland, the destruction of old Cambodia began an unraveling and reordering of family life, and of cultural and personal identity, that has not yet ended.


In their dreams, many refugees return to Cambodia, to a time before the Khmer Rouge. While many are plagued by nightmares of death, destruction, and flight, they also dream of home villages, orchards full of fruit-bearing trees, flourishing rice paddies (see figure 1), and large families. To their way of thinking, this was a time when they were real Cambodians, before the wars of the 1970s, before they became known as Cambodian refugees, before their families and culture were torn asunder and they had to become different kinds of people. They saw their lives as moving through a series of stages: before Pol Pot time, Pol Pot time, America, the future.

Subjecthood and Subjectivity in Pre-1975 Cambodia

Modern Cambodian society after the early twentieth century was based on two intertwined forms of political subjecthood, one shaped by this-worldly patron-client networks, the other by the Buddhist concept of an order of beings in a transcendent infinitude. As the supreme patron, the Buddhist king derived his power from two realms of action: the politics of patronage and protection on the one hand, and the accumulation of charismatic authority on the other. On the worldly level, kingly power was based on accumulating entourages, followers, and chiefs who at the local level deployed peasants, slaves, and mercenaries for corvée, trade, war, and other activities that generated wealth and power. One might envision the state as a great consumerist institution in which rulers and officials "consumed" (lived off) the regions and departments under their control. Society was held together by "a flexible set of dyadic relationships extending downward from the king" in patronage networks that linked the Buddhist monastic order (sangha), and the bureaucracy of the capital and major settlements (kompong) to smaller villages and minority peoples living at the edges of the kingdom. At each level, patrons offered protection in return for loyalty, and personal relationships, not law, governed the sense of personhood. The majority of Cambodians lived in a rural setting, and village society was informally organized, the family and the sangha being the only functional institutions. In order to attain security and other benefits, people without power sought patrons, whether among more powerful kinsmen, local monks, bandit leaders, officials, or itinerant holy men. Political subjecthood was defined by positioning within multitiered networks of patron–client relations (along axes of urban–rural, Khmer–non-Khmer, elite–peasant, male–female) that constituted the primary relationships of the moral economy.

At the same time, the majority of Cambodians were Buddhist, and their deference to a despotic monarch was based on the Buddhist concept of a chain of beings whose moral status was bound to a wheel of rebirth and accumulation of merit in previous lives. The king, having earned his exalted position from merit accumulated in his previous lives, was the upholder of the righteous order informed by the dharma (Buddhist teachings). He extended paternalistic protection to the people in return for the obedience of a loyal following. In the modern period, Prince Sihanouk saw himself as part of the tradition of rulers who were the little people's chief protector and chief source of happiness. David Chandler claims, perhaps with little exaggeration, that "Sihanouk saw Cambodia as a personal possession, a family, or a theatrical troupe. Many of his subjects, particularly older people, agreed to play supporting roles and endowed him with supernatural powers. So did the courtesans who surrounded him." Sihanouk, who was supported by the French authorities, was able to leverage his religious authority to maintain an absolute form of sovereignty through the 1960s. (Continues...)

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Government and Citizenship

1. Land of No More Hope
2. A Hilton in the Border Zone

3. The Refugee as an Ethical Figure
4. Refugee Medicine: Attracting and Deflecting the Gaze
5. Keeping the House from Burning Down
6. Refugee Love as Feminist Compassion
7. Rescuing the Children

8. The Ambivalence of Salvation
9. Guns, Gangs, and Doughnut Kings

10. Asian Immigrants as the New Westerners?

Afterword: Assemblages of Human Needs

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