By Kenneth So
The issue of Westerners objecting to Khmers for calling a Vietnamese "Yuon" has come up over and over again since UNTAC came to Cambodia. We have been called racists for using this word.
I have written many articles responding to those accusations and even sent a letter to The Washington Times defending Mr. Sam Rainsy when this newspaper published a letter from Dr. David Roberts (Lecture from the school of History and International Affairs, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland) accusing Mr. Sam Rainsy as racist. Attached please see my letter that I wrote to the newspaper on September 20, 2002.
Because of the expenditure (time, energy, and political) we spend defending our position on this issue and get us back to full circle, I am rethinking my position on this subject. I will always defend our right to use the word "Yuon" to refer to a Vietnamese whenever we speak or write in Khmer. However, we have the choice to use the word "Yuon" whenever we write in English or speak to a Westerner, but is it prudent or beneficial for us to do so?
Before I express my position further on this subject, allow me first to educate the Westerners who think they really understand Khmer people.
There is no doubt in my mind that some Westerners know and understand the Khmer language very well. Some of them who have been staying in Cambodia for a long time may even feel that they know how Khmer people think and behave. However, I don’t believe that the understanding of a Khmer language alone and also living in Cambodia (some for a short and some for a long period of time) will truly open up the Khmer soul to Westerners. Khmerness is more than knowing the language and living in Cambodia. Khmerness is speaking the language, understanding Khmer idioms, appreciating Khmer jokes and their nuances, and enjoying Khmer musics and poetries. It is a feeling that resonates with the feelings of Khmer people living in Cambodia. A Khmer is a person that has never had the comfort and security that Westerners have in which they take it for granted. A Khmer is not synonymous with Pol Pot. The actions that Pol Pot had committed and the Western media description of his evilness have portrayed Khmer people as savage, uncivilized, and racist. A Khmer is a person who is proud of the civilization that Angkor has left as its legacy. Khmers are people that are constantly living under threat, both within and without the kingdom, who have witnessed the disappearance of Khmer territory to their powerful neighbors. If one does not have any of those feelings, one can never totally comprehend a Khmer.
Having said that, I will attempt to explain that the word "Youn" is not a racist word. The word "Youn" in a Khmer language is a neutral word. In general, when we call the Vietnamese "Youn", there is no malice intended.
I believe most Westerners’ confusion come from the fact that there is a word Vietnamese in the Western vocabulary. The misunderstanding is that for Khmer people to opt using the word "Youn" instead of the word Vietnamese give Westerners the impression that we are racists.
I think I can explain this. When we speak in Khmer, it is very awkward and does not sound right to the ear to use the word Vietnamese. However, when we speak in English or French then it is more natural to use the word Vietnamese and it would become awkward to use the word "Youn."
Let me give an example. If I want to say, "Fishermen are mostly Vietnameses" and I want to use both words, "Youn" and Vietnamese, to say that sentence in Khmer. In Khmer we would then say, "Pourk Neak Nisart Trey Keu Chreun Tè Youn" or "Pourk Neak Nisart Trey Keu Chreun Tè Choun Cheat Vietnam". It therefore requires more effort to use the word Vietnam to describe the Vietnamese because we have to say "Choun Cheat Vietnam" to describe a Vietnamese. We cannot say, "Pourk Neak Nisart Trey Keu Chreun Tè Vietnam" because Vietnam is a country. In Khmer, the word Vietnamese alone does not exist unless one uses the word "Youn."
It is rare in Khmer language to have a racist word attributed to different races. However, this does not mean that we don’t have a strong vocabulary that connotes racism. If we hate or disrespect somebody we would add an adjective "A" in front of the word that we intend to use. If we say "A Youn", then it is a sign or disrespect but not necessarily a racist remark. To be racist we would have to say "A Katop", "A Gnieung", or "A Sakei Daung." Some Westerners who compare the word "Youn" that we use to call a Vietnamese to the word Nigger that the Americans use to call a Black is completely misleading and show that they do not know really understand the Khmer language.
If we were to speak in Khmer and call the Vietnamese "A Katop", then I would consider it derogatory and racist in content. If we were to say, "Pourk Youn" or simply "Youn", meaning Vietnamese people or Vietnamese, respectively, then there is no reason for Westerners to condemn us for saying so. If we were to say, "A Youn", again it does not necessarily mean racism but rather a disrespectful way of calling a Vietnamese.
To show Westerners how a meaning is changed when we apply the adjective "A" in front of a sentence. For example, when a Khmer says, "Lombol Yo, Tveu Oy Ahgn Lours Proleung", which more or less means, "Son of a gun, you scare the hell out of me." Now, if I add "A" in front of the sentence such as, "A Lombol Yo, Tveu Oy Ahgn Lours Proleung", then the meaning is becoming more vulgar, which is equivalent to saying, "Son of a bitch, you scare the hell out of me."
I have a Khmer friend who is married to a Vietnamese woman. He calls his wife "Youn" all the time. He said, "Propaun khniom Youn", meaning my wife is Vietnamese. Is he racist then? If he is racist why would he marry a Vietnamese?
It is very dangerous for Westerners who do not know the intricacies and the little nuances of the Khmer language to theorize on the meaning of certain words or phrases. The misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the Khmer language can harm us tremendously.
Many Khmers feel that we should not bend and accommodate to the will and whim of the Westerners because of their ignorance. The inaptitude of the Westerners on the understanding of the usage of the word "Youn" reminds me of a recent case that took place in the United States. The teacher of a high school was using the word "Niggardly" to describe a person that is very stingy about his spending. Because of this, he was reprimanded and told not to use that word again because its sounds too much like the word Nigger.
Now that I have educated the Westerners, should I feel free to use the word "Yuon" from now on? Recently, a friend of mine made a comment that Khmers have used the word "Yuon" over centuries, as recently as during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum of Norodom Sihanouk both in newspapers and over the radio air waves. He further said, there should not be any reasons for Khmers to stop using the word "Yuon" because of complains from the international community and protest from the Vietnamese government that consider the word to be derogatory.
The above comment is fair. Now, let me state my position on this subject. As a pragmatist, I am looking for what is best for Cambodia as she moves into the 21st Century and into the era of internet and globalization.
As I try to remember, I don’t believe I have ever encountered the use of the word "Yuon" in French or English newspapers/magazines in Cambodia back during the era of Sangkum Reastr Niyum. I do not recall Khmers calling a Vietnamese "Yuon" when speaking in French. We, especially my family and I, always said "les vietnamiens et les chinois" and not "les yuons et les chens." However, I think it is still appropriate to us the word "Yuon" when speaking or writing in Khmer
Having said that, I will give my reasons why it is more beneficial for us to stop using the word "Yuon" whenever we speak or write in French or English.
Comparing the time during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum to today is not appropriate. Cambodia was relatively independent and self-sufficient during Sangkum Reastr Niyum. However, Cambodia of today is not independent because we receive about 50% of financial aids from foreign governments and the UN. Because we are at the mercy of foreign governments and the UN for our economic survival, therefore we cannot ignore advices or suggestions from them.
I believe the misunderstanding on the meaning of the word "Yuon" was caused by foreign advisors to Yasushi Akashi when he was the head of UNTAC in Cambodia. Those so-called foreign experts in Khmer language told Akashi that the word "Yuon" was a derogatory word. This misunderstanding then spread out like a wildfire. Now it is impossible to convince Westerners otherwise. We would have spent too much energy defending the usage of the word "Yuon" and reaching only a small percentage of the western population for our explanation. Do we have to defend our usage of the word "Yuon" every time a Westerner questions our intention? Can our valuable time be put to better use instead?
There are words in English or French for Vietnamese or Chinese. If we were to write in French or English and decide to use the word "Yuon" or "Chen" instead of the internationally recognizable words for Vietnamese and Chinese, then it is understandable that Westerners may get confused and think we are prejudiced and racist. Why do some Khmers insist on using the word "Yuon" or "Chen" when writing in French or English? What do we have to gain from using those words?
There are more Westerners and international newspapers and media in the world than in Cambodia. The international newspapers can reach a greater number of audiences in the world than we can. If western newspapers print out in their articles that we are racist because we use the word "Yuon" to label the Vietnamese, it will then reach a very large numbers of readers in the world. It is therefore impossible for us, Khmers, to target that many numbers of readers to counterbalance our view. Additionally, it is very hard to justify our usage of the word "Yuon" or "Chen" to the Westerners when there are acceptable replacements for those words in French or English that are used internationally by every country.
The perception and impression that we portray ourselves to the world are very important. If Westerners perceive us as racist because of our insistence of using the word "Yuon", then it is our duty to change that perception. We cannot just explain away our right of using the word "Yuon" because it has been in our vocabulary for thousands of years. For thousands of years Cambodians speak only Khmer and did not speak French or English. "Yuon" and "Chen" were the only words known to us to describe the Vietnamese and Chinese, respectively. It was then natural to call the Vietnamese "Yuon" and the Chinese "Chen" because there were no other substitutes for these words. Now that we are living in a modern era where everybody communicates in French or English, we are therefore exposed to the new international vocabularies to describe the people of Vietnamese’s and China’s descents. Why can’t we adapt and accept the change? Why do we stubbornly cling to our old way of justifying that we are right and everybody else is wrong? We may be right but our attitude of intransigence give the perception to Westerners that we are arrogant and racist. What is the harm of replacing the word "Yuon" and "Chen" to describe the Vietnamese (or Vietnamien) and Chinese (or Chinois) when we write in English or French?
There is no way we can win the battle of ideas in this one. We are losing the public relation’s war and there is no way we can convince enough Westerners we are right on this issue. I, myself, consider the usage of the word "Yuon" and "Chen" when writing in French or English to be awkward and somewhat pejorative. However, I still believe it is acceptable to use those words when we speak or write in Khmer. It is much harder for me to say "Choun Cheat Vietnam" or "Choun Cheat Chen" than to say "Yuon." Or "Chen" in Khmer.
I personally feel it is in the best interest for us to stop using the words "Yuon" and "Chen" to describe the Vietnamese or Chinese when speaking or writing in French or English. There is nothing for us to gain for using those words. There are too much time and energy wasting on this subject that could have been better served helping the country. We are not living in the 10th century where we have no other options to describe the Vietnamese or Chinese. During that time we spoke only Khmer. Now that we are living in the 21st century and are being exposed to the rest of the world where the communication is conducted mostly in English, it is therefore incumbent upon us to learn and adapt to our new environment. There are internationally recognizable and acceptable words to describe people of Vietnamese’s or Chinese’s descents. We must use those words to communicate in French or English because it is not only the right thing to do but it is also beneficial for us. We are not living in an isolated environment but rather in an era of globalization. We cannot afford the rest of the world to portray us as intransigence and racist. We are the victim of our own intransigence because we refuse to change and allow other people to define us instead. We have to make our image of who we are. We cannot make ourselves be the victim of the whole Khmer-Vietnamese affairs by allowing others to define us as racist and spending our time to defend ourselves. If we remove the racism sticker by stopping the usage of the word "Yuon" at least in the written communication part of it, then many problems will be solved by themselves. More time can be focused on the real problems that exist between Cambodia and Vietnam.
Whenever I need to find solutions to some problems or try to improve on certain situations in life, I always go back to the story told in "La Fable de La Fontaine." There are so many favorite stories, but the one that I like the best and is very relevant to almost every situation is the story of "Le Chêne et le Roseau." The story tells of a strong oak tree (Chêne) falling down and being uprooted while the reed (Roseau) still remaining standing and alive after a strong wind. Vietnam is a powerful country like the wind and if Cambodia wants to survive we cannot be like a strong oak tree but rather like a supple reed. There is an old Khmer saying, "Kom Yauk Komheung Tol Neung Komhol."
Kenneth So's letter to the Washigton Time
September 20, 2002
I am writing this letter in response to your Washington Times article of Dr. David Roberts (Lecturer from the School of History and International Affairs, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland) dated 09/13/02, who accused the Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy as undemocratic and authoritarian. In addition, he implied that Mr. Sam Rainsy was a racist, when he used the word "Youn" to refer to the Vietnamese.
First, the Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy is a true patriot and democrat. He is well deserving of the award that was given to him by Senator John McCain.
Dr. Roberts may be an expert in his field but he is no expert in Khmer language. In the Khmer dictionary, it says "Youn" means Vietnamese and is possibly related to the Sanskrit word "Yavana" that means savage. However, this possibility of a link between the words "Youn" and "Yavana" is just pure speculation and has no basis for it.
Anyhow, my own research indicates that the word "Youn" came from the word "Yueh". The Mandarin Chinese calls Vietnam, Yueh Nam. The word "Nam" means south in Chinese. "Yueh" indicates the name of the people of that region. Therefore, "Yueh" means Viet or Vietnamese in Chinese and "Yueh Nam" means the "Yueh" people of the south. In this case, south means south of China. The North pronounces it Yeknam (with a "Y" sound).
Chou Ta-Kuan (Zhou Daguan), the celebrated Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia in the 13th century, indicated in his report that there was already a large population of Chinese settling in Cambodia at that time. He said that the Chinese preferred life in the Khmer Empire because it was easier than in China. There were a lot of Chinese men marrying the native Cambodian women. I don't know when Khmer started to call the Vietnamese "Youn", but the habit may have been picked up from the Chinese settlers who lived in Cambodia at the time. The word "Youn" may have derived from the Chinese word "Yueh" to indicate the Vietnamese. If one starts to think about it, "Viet" (as pronounced by the North Vietnamese) or "Yeak" (as pronounced by the South Vietnamese) sounds very similar to "Yueh"; and "Yueh", meaning Vietnamese, in turn sounds very similar to "Youn". George Coedes, the French expert on the Southeast Asian classical study, found an earlier evidence of the word "Yuon" inscribed in Khmer on a stele dating to the time of the Khmer King Suryavarman I (1002-1050.)
Why do the so-called Western scholars and journalists keep on perpetrating this kind of misinformation about the word "Yuon"? "Youn" does not mean savage as Dr. Roberts had mistakenly indicated in his writing. Savage in Cambodian means "Pourk Prey" or "Phnong". Cambodians calls Vietnamese "Youn" the same way they call Indian "Khleung", Burmese "Phoumea", Chinese "Chen", and French "Barang".
When the Vietnamese calls Cambodian "Mien" why did the Western press and scholars not report it to be a derogatory word also? If I were to follow the logical thinking of the Western press and scholars, then "Mien" must be a derogatory word also. In the late 17th century, the Vietnamese court of Hue had indiscriminately changed the names of the Cambodian princesses Ang Mei, Ang Pen, Ang Peou, and Ang Snguon to the Vietnamese sounding names of Ngoc-van, Ngoc-bien, Ngoc-tu, and Ngoc-nguyen, respectively. Also they changed the name of Phnom Penh to Nam Vang. Why do scholars and press stay silent on these
It is very dangerous for foreigners, like Dr. Roberts, to interpret the meaning of certain native words when they do not fully understand the languages and customs of those natives. It is people like Dr. Roberts who helps perpetrate the misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the word "Youn" to mean savage. aggravate the mistrust and hate between Cambodian and Vietnamese.
Cambodians have been using the word "Youn" to refer to the Vietnameses before the word Vietnamese had even existed. Because of the ignorance of some scholars and journalists about the meaning of this word, are we therefore supposed to abandon using this word that we have done from time immemorial?
If Dr. Roberts insists on saying that the word "Youn" means savage, then I would ask him to prove to Cambodians how it is so. How does he know that this word means savage? What did he base his knowledge from? If he is a true scholar, then he must not base his understanding on hearsay. Otherwise, his credibility is at risk.
Kenneth T. So
Trudy's Jacobsen's letter to the Phnom Penh Post in response to the rebuttal provided by Ambassador Truong Mealy and Touch Bora, Esq.
Phnom Penh Post, Issue 15 / 10, May 19 - June 1, 2006
Kampuchea Krom: the friction after the facts
Bora Touch's very detailed critique (Post, April 21, 2006) of my article Kampuchea Krom: The Facts Behind the Friction (Post, March 10) was a welcome change from the vitriolic emails I have been receiving since I first published the piece in March, if indicative that he has too much time on his hands, and too much faith in unsourced revisionist history.
The hatred and irrationality in the personal attacks levelled at me in the past two months have shocked me deeply. I have been accused of being a "red brain container," that I am "in the pay of Hanoi," that due to "marriage problems" I hate the Khmer and seek revenge, and various other charming statements involving my relationship to the "yuon masters," some of which seem anatomically impossible.
More disturbing have been the letters saying "It is easy to shoot down stupid academics" and variations thereof, and the attempt by a group of Cambodians living in Australia to seek an injunction against any future publication of my opinion on Kampuchea Krom, Cambodian-Vietnamese bilateral relations, and the word "yuon."
It is amazing that people can be so selective in the application of the principle of free speech. When Sam Rainsy is threatened for his views, there cannot be enough of it; when a simple academic delves into the Cambodian past and explodes a myth that has perpetuated hatred between two neighbouring peoples, suddenly free speech seems less palatable.
This level of negativity in response to a column that was meant to inform people of events they otherwise may not have known of, based upon Cambodian primary sources, is beyond comprehension.
I am grateful to those who have written thanking me for the 'Lost in Time' series, particularly the many Cambodian students I have taught over the years. They may not agree with everything I say, but they articulate their disagreement without resorting to cheap shots and attacks upon my character.
The older generation is mired in a tradition of Cambodian scholarship in which the veracity of one's work is directly associated with status. Thus appending an ex-ambassador's name to a letter is seen as increasing its veracity. Thus questioning the prestige of the university from which I obtained my PhD, continually reiterating the fact that I am female and therefore prone to emotional, nonsensical outbursts, and pointing out that I am a foreigner diminish my status, in the eyes of those trapped in a social, political and methodological time warp.
Yes, I am a foreigner. However, having spent 18 years living and working in and on Cambodia, I have a fairly good understanding of Cambodian culture and society today.
I would not presume to compare myself to a Cambodian (even those who jet in from Auckland or Long Beach every few years dispersing largesse to their extended families and enjoying the elevated status that being overseas Khmer brings) in terms of cultural comprehension, but the merit in being a foreigner, albeit with extensive experience in Cambodia, is my objectivity. The adverse reactions to my article are subjective, even biased, and hold no weight.
I stand by my assertion that the word "yuon" is pejorative in Cambodian society today. I am not disputing that technically "yuon" is an ethnic appellation. It is the way that the word is used that is pejorative. People who protest that "yuon" is a harmless term of ethnicity are using the same arguments that whites in the US had for the word "Negro." What matters is how the person on the receiving end of the word interprets it and the intent of the person using it. The letters I have received refer continually to the "yuon masters," "the stinking yuon," and how the "yuon enemy" are even now seeking to take over Cambodia through their puppets in the Cambodian government. These are hardly positive epithets.
This episode has at least dispelled my naïve conviction that if Cambodians knew what their own records said about the two events constantly held up as evidence of a historical tradition of Vietnamese aggression prior to the 20th century, perhaps they would rethink their hatred of Vietnamese living in Cambodia and be less inclined to turn a blind eye when Vietnamese fishing villages are massacred; that perhaps they would be less suspicious of the motives of the Vietnamese government when treaties between the two countries are signed, and see such events as two countries moving forward into a shared future of goodwill and cooperation; that perhaps those who feel alienated from Cambodia after many years of living elsewhere will stop perpetuating this hatred in a frantic attempt to have an impact upon Cambodian politics, however tangentially.
And perhaps kouprey will fly.