A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

The Exiled Speak Back: Citizenship and Belonging in the White House ‘What’s Your Story?’ Video Challenge

Vincent N. Pham, Willamette University

(Published December 18, 2018)

On August 22, 2011, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI) during President Barack Obama’s first presidential term launched the “What’s your story?” YouTube video challenge. One of the eleven finalists of this user-generated and community-focused video competition was “My Asian Americana” produced by the Studio Revolt arts collective consisting of Khmer American Fulbright artist Anida Yoeu Ali, Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Sugano, and Khmer American deportees. Launched in 2011 during Ali’s Fulbright year, Studio Revolt is a collaborative space for Ali, Sugano, Khmers, and Khmer American deportees to “assert a new generation of narratives” beyond stories of war-torn and impoverished Cambodia (Studio Revolt, “About Us”). Drawing on experiences of Khmer Americans (un)intentionally present in Cambodia, the video foregrounds eight different people telling the story of their “Asian Americana.”

Replete with “red, white, and blue” visual tropes of patriotism and an ever-present flag in the background, the video introduces viewers to eight different people speaking the first line, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” and orients viewers to the tradition of the “pledge” often said in school classrooms but now placed outside on the streets. The first person, relaxed but opening his arms with the flag draped around him, breaks from the “pledge” and declares, “Let me tell you about my Asian Americana.” He is followed by a montage of seven different people repeating “my Asian Americana.” At this point, the video cycles through the people sharing their stories of “Asian Americana” from the mundane instances of “leaves are changing” in New Hampshire or hearing one’s sister aspire to “buy all the stuff at the outlet” to the recognizable, mainstream traditions of Thanksgiving, apple pie, baseball games, fireworks on the Fourth of July, Saturday-morning cartoons, football in the New England snow, and sugary breakfast cereals. However, other memories seep into this performance and are articulated as a part of their “Asian Americana,” which include the Chinatown bus, Halloween when one speaker had to “make [his] own costume because [his] parents never bought [him] one”, hand-me-down clothes on Christmas morning, fried chicken and rice, “ramen in j-town in LA,” and “all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ.”

Articulated by these people in Studio Revolt’s video, this notion of “Asian Americana” is a rhetorical strategy that performs belonging by situating their memories as part and parcel of “Americana.” They assert Asian American articulated memories to redefine and expand the experience of being “American.” By juxtaposing and sequencing the “American” and “Asian American” memories together, the video draws attention to the simultaneous presence of both experiences, which cannot be separated from one another. “Asian-American-specific” memories of “all-you-can-eat Korean bbq” are on equal standing with “football in the snow in New England,” a pastime that aligns itself more with white, mainstream Americana.

Although the stories of “Americana” are the centerpiece, they are told in four different locations: a basketball court, a building’s rooftop, a streetside barber, and the front of a bustling street with mopeds, scooters, cars, and bicyclists whizzing by a dilapidated building in the background. These locations invite viewers to wonder where such places exist because they do not look like the United States. They prompt viewers to ask, where and how do such places exist in the "land of the free?" Even as the participants espouse US experiences and juxtapose them with memories of home, they do so in places that do not look like the US or like an “American” home.  In addition, each of the pairs of speakers occupies one location in which one person speaks only to have a following scene cut to a different person speaking from the same location. None of the speakers occupy the same frame until the end of the video. They may occupy the same place but never at the same time. Hence, the locales look familiar and the narratives sound similar while the people change.  The pairs are assigned to juxtapose their experiences and beckon the audience to consider “what is different about these two people?” which results in the audience’s reexamination of their assumptions about where “Americana” exists, who is able to partake in “Americana,” and who can be “American.”


Fig. 1. “My Asian Americana” video from Studio Revolt

The video concludes with all eight participants, convening on the steps of an official-looking building, greeting each other before turning around and placing their right hands on their hearts as if to recite the pledge of allegiance. The video quickly cuts back to the other scenes with the speakers who all reveal the status of their citizenship and (in) ability to return home by exclaiming either, “I am an exiled American, and I can’t go home” or “I am an American, and I can go home.” This scene answers the previous question of “what is different about these two people” who both spoke of “Asian Americana.” The speakers are distinguished by their status as “Americans” and by whether or not they can return home. While this is revealed, lyrics enter into the background music which was instrumental-only up until now. The lyrics state, “can’t go back, go back to a place that I call home. Exiled American is who I am. One way flight wasn’t part of the plan.”  The following text appears as the final statement prior to the final credits: “Featured Khmer Exiled Americans (KEAs) served their time for their mistakes they made in their youth. Upon release, they were additionally detained by US immigration then deported to Cambodia, a country they had never seen.”

Unlike many narratives of Asian America that foreground East Asians (i.e., Korean, Chinese, and Japanese Americans), “My Asian Americana” foregrounds the experiences of Khmer Americans by sharing their memories of being raised and living in the US—ripe with both identifiable “Americana” juxtaposed against niche Asian American experiences—only to find that half of these people are unable to return to the US because of their “exiled” status as a deportee. As a response to the White House’s attempt to include an AAPI public, this video beckons viewers to consider the role of diaspora and imperial histories in their conceptions of citizenship and belonging by emphasizing the interviewees’ “exiled” statuses. Studio Revolt’s video draws attention to the ever-evolving nature of Asian American communities and rhetoric in a digitized age influenced by social media. If Asian American rhetoric is, according to Mao and Young, a “rhetoric of becoming,” this instance of Asian American rhetoric illustrates when such becoming is represented, realized, and denied through its exclusion by the White House. 

This essay unfolds in three sections. First, I proceed by giving a brief history of the United States’s relationship with Cambodia that engages with critical refugee studies and deportation literature. Then, I situate discussions of citizenship within historical trajectories and understandings of the “Asian American” experience to elucidate the contemporary situation of Asian American belonging. I then return to the Studio Revolt video as a case study for the politics of remembering and belonging in a diasporic context and reflect upon how such political potential is realized through the logics of new media. The argument of this essay is two-fold. First as a case study of Asian American rhetoric, “My Asian Americana” challenges conceptions of citizenship and belonging through performative strategies and tactics that highlight the cultural and structural aspects of citizenship. Importantly, the video displaces the nation-state and citizen-subject as the locus for belonging; rather, it draws on a notion of diaspora that destabilizes fixed and static notions of the citizen-subject. Second, Asian American rhetoric (which, in this case, is a public address) occurs in relation to media. Its rhetorical value comes not only from the performance in the video but also from the fact that the video challenge itself draws on the media's participatory logic to produce and choose what represents the community. Drawing on textual analysis of “My Asian Americana” and its follow-up video, videos from the WHIAAPI, public articles about the controversy of “My Asian Americana” video and Studio Revolt’s exclusion from White House event, and its place within a history of relations between Cambodia and the US, I weave a web of interconnected media texts that allows us to recognize and reframe a contemporary, Asian American rhetorical production that has domestic origins yet is transnationally present from a diasporic, Asian American subjectivity. In doing so, I illustrate how Studio Revolt revises questions about citizenship, belonging, and the nation-state in the context of deportations and imperial pursuits.

The Making of Diaspora: Refuge(e), Imperialism, and Citizenship
The United States has had a fraught history with Southeast Asia. The Cold War and the battle against Communism led to US involvement in Vietnam and its neighboring countries. As Khatharya Um argues, it is impossible to understand Cambodia communism via Khmer Rouge without considering how it was “shaped by different imperial formations that spanned three ‘Indochina Wars,’ of which the destruction levied upon Cambodia during the ‘Vietnam War’… was but one chapter” (4). Although the US is known for its presence in Vietnam, US involvement in Cambodia is overlooked and marginalized at the very least or, more often, made invisible or forgotten. US bombings in Cambodia displaced lives, changed political relations among communities, and helped mobilize support for Khmer Rouge as it became evident that Nixonian policies were meant to protect US soldiers (Um 108-111). As communist forces overtook Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Saigon in Vietnam, and Vientiane in Laos, it became evident that US backed forces and their supporters would be subject to retribution, which resulted in a mass exodus by Southeast Asians forced to seek refuge. W. Courtland Robinson’s Terms of Refuge: The Indochinese Exodus and the International Response tracks the international community’s response to the mass exodus of some three million people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia by including the stories of the displaced and the refugees who inhabited the camps and made lives elsewhere. Whether it’s the US’s direct public involvement in the war (as in the case of Vietnam), a “secret army” run by the CIA (as in the case of Hmong), or its backing of the Khmer Republic against the North Vietnamese supported Khmer Rouge, the US’s actions massively affected the lives of people in Southeast Asia. Possibly as a result of this involvement and some feeling of responsibility towards those who were affected by or took part in the fight against Communism, the US Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act on May 23, 1975. Although many eventually naturalized into formal citizenship, Khmer refugees resettled in the US under asylum or permanent resident green cards.

As a result of US actions abroad, Khmer refugees now reside in the US and yet have a “home” and a homeland that is not the US. The video draws attention to this newfound notion of home and being able to “go back to place where I’m from” whereas their global histories and ethnic heritage situate their “home” in Cambodia. Yet, their attachment to US as a “home” where they “can’t go back” is grounded in the imperial ambitions and global actions of the US in Southeast Asian under the guise of anti-communist action. Their status as refugees emerged from the fear of persecution and death, which resulted from their alignment with US forces and now results in their reliance on another country to take them in to provide refuge.

Under these perilous circumstances, these Southeast Asian refugees (Vietnamese refugees in particular), were given what Mimi Thi Nguyen calls the “gift of freedom.” In the book of the same name, Nguyen theorizes the gift of freedom as one “composed of pipe dreams, bogus concepts, and moral luck as well as violence at its origin, through its spectacularizations in other such refugee configurations and imperial remains” (24-25). Thus, the gift is a material fiction originating from violence and performed for others to see. Nguyen emphasizes how the gift creates a “power over” the recipient over time through the creation of a debt that is posited as the nation-state’s altruistic act (8). Here, the “gift” is a relation between governors and governed via quantifiable exchange among the two. Coupled with freedom, the gift subjects the recipient to an unending debt which stems from imperial forces and desires. For Nguyen, “the gift of freedom is both a continuation and an innovation in imperial time consciousness” (16) and one that “presumes to knowingly anticipate and manufacture this present and presence” (17). That is, it maintains imperial power and relations while setting up the conditions for its future presence. This gift resides in the bodies of the Exiled Americans whose histories are intertwined with US imperial power, whose current status as exiled Americans results from US immigration policy, and whose future presence in the US is denied.

The ever present gift of freedom structures relations—formal and informal, personal and macro—among people. The gift of freedom can contradictorily signal acceptance, debt, and retribution. Although the gift is given, it can also be forcibly taken away by stripping away of one’s “freedom” and its benefits, whether it is through prison or deportation. The justification for rescinding the gift of freedom was already present. First, the lack of social safety net programs and poverty laid the groundwork for criminalization and imprisonment. Coming from legacies of war and trauma, many Southeast Asians (SEAs) were caught in the 1980s Drug War as they attempted to make their way while social safety net programs fell to the wayside, leading to poverty. As a result, SEAs suffer from a disproportionately high level of poverty and criminalization compared to other Asian American ethnic groups (Jung et al). Second, as of March 2002, the US signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Cambodia that opened up the pipeline “to accept the return of their nationals” and allow for “repatriation” or more aptly deportation. This Memorandum of Understanding rendered over 2,000 Khmer nationals who came to the US as refugees or displaced people vulnerable to deportation (Dao). Cathy Schlund-Vial contextualizes the lives of Khmer American refugees and their communities by stating, "Between 2001 and 2002, almost 1,500 Khmer American refugees (who were not naturalized US citizens) have been (or are waiting to be) deported to Cambodia” (14). The possibility of rescinding the gift of freedom was made material and formal by coupling new policies facilitating deportation with the criminality of SEAs and the unfamiliarity with citizenship naturalization processes. The consequences of this possibility are made real in the final frame of the video where the audience learns of the circumstances that lead to the performers’ exiled status.

This brief history which leads to the “gift of freedom” that permeate refugee lives equips us to understand the context of deportation in the age of Obama that extends into our current times.  Despite being a democratic president, the first African American to be elected to the office of the presidency, and the president who instituted the DACA program, “his administration has deported about as many immigrants in five years as the George W. Bush administration deported in eight years,” which lead some immigrant advocates to label Obama the “deporter in chief” (Peralta). Under Obama’s policies, deportation would occur upon those who have criminal records. And Obama has deported many immigrants with criminal convictions: from 199,000 in 2013 to 168,000 in 2014 (Gonzalez-Barrera and Krogstad). Under these immigration and deportation provisions, Khmer nationals who identified as Americans and have criminal records yet served their sentences would be subject to deportation.[1]

Despite their long-term and “permanent” residence status in the US, many Khmers are subject to deportation because they did not complete the formal naturalization process to become citizens. Unlike full citizenship, “permanent residence” status is a precarious category in structural aspects of citizenship, requiring permanent residents to meet various conditions to stay in the US and to renew their permanent resident card (i.e. green card) if possible.[2] Thus, citizenship formally and structurally confers rights upon an individual. This might simply include the right to reside and work in the US and the right to vote or more in-depth procedures like the right to due process. Importantly, citizenship locates the individual body within a larger nation-state as part of a state, under its protection, privy to its rules and regulations, and endowed with certain inalienable rights. In doing so, citizenship (and those who hold it) constitutes the nation-state and the body politic by endowing human bodies with rights and privileges whose exercising of such rights then reaffirms the values of the nation-state and constitutes the nation-state itself. However, acts of de jure citizenship reaffirm informal belonging and the values of the nation-state even as it obscures structural issues of citizenship. Thus, deportees who embody the hybridity and multiplicity of a football-playing, ramen-eating, and pledge-of-allegiance-declaring culture, as seen in the video, can be understood as belonging to the US even though they are able to be deported or “repatriated.” Deportation is more complex than repatriation because it condemns one either to statelessness or to the status of aliens who are “legally citizen-nations of other countries” (Walters 81). Deportation takes advantage of structural aspects of US citizenship to override claims of belonging that are not protected from deportation because the deportee’s home is technically not the United States. Deportation removes the “gift of freedom” and is deemed within the rights of the giver to “take back” as needed for the imperatives of the giver (i.e. nation-state).

Deportation effectively constitutes and constructs the body politic and its bodies in ways that align with the nation-state. As Nathalie Peutz and Nicolas De Genova argue, deportation is the “expression of a complex sociopolitical regime that manifests and engenders dominant notions of sovereignty, citizenship, public health, national identity, cultural homogeneity, racial purity, and class privilege” (2). Deportation is not just an act but rather a process that makes visible dominant ideas of the nation-state by enacting it through policy. In the case of permanent residents with a criminal history, deportation serves to expunge dangerous and corrosive bodies from the body politic regardless of whether they have served their time. In fact, the deportation process is triggered because they served their time and are perceived as dangerous or tainted by past transgressions. Thus, the deportation of US permanent residents from Khmer descent, whose histories and presence are rooted in US overseas actions, are couched in the long history of deportation as a practice for expunging exiles, the poor, and members of racialized groups in ways that facilitate population transfer (Walters). For those who identify as part of the deportee’s community, deportation is a warning, threatening those who look or act like a deportee that the same fate may await. Importantly, deportation signals to the remaining citizens that the nation-state will protect both their physical presence and their affective registers. The (past) criminals are no longer present. The threats they posed to the public and the values of the nation-state are removed. The citizens’ vision of who is “worthy” of being present in the US and bestowed with the rights of citizenship remains intact.

This removal of (former) criminals and reinforcement of the desirable, model refugee is central to how the US sociopolitical regime sees itself. Through deportation, the removal of (former) criminals also effectively erases the United States’ role in Cambodia during the war by situating deportees’ transgressions as expressions of individual agency and not as the consequence of the trauma of US involvement overseas. The model refugees that remain in the US embody the “American dream” and reinforce the bootstrapping mythology undergirding American exceptionalism. The refugee “success” story is one that is made possible by America through its gift of freedom just like the immigrant narrative of “coming for a better life” is seen as possible only through the United States. 

The Abject and Illegal Matters of Belonging
Deportation underscores citizenship’s structural ability to dictate discussions about who is ultimately allowed to reside in the US. It draws attention to how citizenship in the United States is addressed in terms of one’s relationship to and within the US as a sovereign nation without considering other countries despite US residents’ connections to other countries and the actions that the US as a nation-state has conducted abroad. That is, US citizenship is solely and singularly about domestic rights and responsibilities to the US as a nation-state, and this is reinforced by a notion of being “American.”

However, the language and issues surrounding “citizenship” and being “Asian America(n),” as raised by Studio Revolt’s “My Asian Americana,” provide another direction for considering “Americanness” and belonging by centering Asian American rhetorics in immigrant and diasporic contexts and vice versa. By foregrounding the imperial history of the US, these rhetorics of migrant settlement are not just about overlooking racial assumptions that undergird acculturation or assimilation (or the failure to do so) within dominant mainstream norms (Jung 104). Rather, one might consider how diasporic and transnational identities are formed by migrant (re)settlement and the possibilities they pose for a “politics of national belonging” (Jung 18). In this section, I address rhetoric’s attention to citizenship and the potentials born of theorizing from the discursive modes of “Asian America(n)” citizenship.

Theorizing Asian America(n) public engagement and citizenship requires a shift from solely structural aspects of citizenship to hybridized and interwoven structural and discursive modes. As noted earlier, citizenship is often conceptualized as the rights inherently beholden by a person when they are formally associated with the nation-state. However, Robert Asen theorizes a “discourse theory of citizenship” that turns our attention from “what constitutes citizenship to how citizenship proceeds” (194). Asen’s discourse theory of citizenship moves us from the “status attribute” of citizenship to the various ways in which citizenship is enacted from multiple directions and not unidirectional from citizens (204). Asen asserts that citizenship does not inherently flow from the actions of formal citizens but that it can also be enacted outside such formal, structural aspects. This echoes Renato Rosaldo’s and Toby Miller’s centrality of culture as part of citizenship's discursive action. Toby Miller states that “citizenship has always been culture” (51). Foregrounding culture as central to citizenship reminds us that actions like standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag reasserts the values of the nation-state and affirms a sense of belonging. But for minority groups, a notion of cultural citizenship is also a means to assert the "right to be different and to belong in a participatory democratic sense” (Rosaldo 402). Thus, it offers “a route toward restructuring and reordering society” in ways that allow for the minority groups to partake under their own terms (Lopez 12).

While productive in its foregrounding of the rhetorical processes undergirding and enacting citizenship, discursive theories of citizenship and cultural citizenship downplay citizenship's institutional and structural aspects that are predominantly based within a nation-state framework without considering its centrality. Such a framework subscribes to a notion of inclusion that falls within a status quo version of citizenship. Karma Chávez’s attempt to move rhetoric’s intellectual history beyond inclusion and Aiwha Ong’s conception of cultural citizenship provides a theoretical foundation for thinking about citizenship outside of the nation-states and previews what it could be within a diasporic and transnational sense. Ong views “cultural citizenship as a process of self-making and being-made in relation to nation-states and transnational processes” (737). Whereas Rosaldo’s cultural citizenship assumes an entry into full citizenship despite one’s differences, Ong’s notion takes seriously the power of the state to “define the different modalities of belonging” and recognizes cultural citizenship as "a dual process of self-making and being-made within webs of power linked to the nation-state and civil society” (738). Chávez directs critics towards a theorizing of citizenship in ways that center difference, otherness, and alternative conditions and thereby allow for a reconceptualization of who is a citizen and what citizenship can be. Following Chávez and Ong and returning to Jung’s call to attend to the politics of national belonging, deportees (or the exiled Americans in this case) call upon the feeling of “belonging” that is present in cultural citizenship but situate it as part of subject-making within a nation-state engaged in transnational politics. Khmer American deportees’ presence in the US is because of its involvement in Southeast Asian, and their return to Cambodia is because of the US immigration policies that increasingly wipe clean the legacies of empire and imperial motives. Thus, Khmer American deportees negotiate the contradictory feelings of “belonging” to the US while being exiled from a US nation that serves as an almighty savior to immigrants elsewhere. Deportation sets up the tensions and relations between “citizenship and alienage, belonging and deportability, entitlement and rightlessness” (Peutz 34-35). It is within these tensions and relations that the Asian-immigrant body stands.

The Memorandum of Understanding with Cambodia and Obama’s deportation policies pose a unique conundrum for the Asian-immigrant body that is “often racialized as an ‘illegal’ national security risk” (Chambers-Letson 175). In this case, “illegality” is the “condition of political subjectivity that places migrants outside the law” and not necessarily actual legal status according to Junaid Rana (qtd. in Chambers-Letson 175). In a study of Asian American racial subjectivity and formation, Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson contextualizes the racialization of Khmer Americans and the Khmer immigrant as “illegal” and “subject to the intrusive and often violent legal regulation of the state” (175). Simultaneously, the category of “Asian American” has been, according to Karen Shimakawa, “produced through and in reaction to abjection within and by dominant US culture” (2). As a subcategory within Asian America, Khmer Americans are figured as abject, illegal subjects, and those most threatened by deportation are those who have committed criminal acts. Denied the protection of the state while conversely targeted by the state, these Khmer Americans are deemed forever foreign and subject to being sent back to Cambodia—what some have called being “sentenced home”—despite having no memory of living in Cambodia and despite being unprepared to live a country that the US has simply deemed to be their “home.”

Despite having little to none of the legal protections against deportation granted to formal citizens, that does not prevent permanent residents from strongly identifying with and living out their lives as US citizens. As Many Uch from the documentary Sentenced Home states, “When we get to America, we thought we were American. Like the rest of…Americans” (00:02:40-00:02:51). Uch’s quote describes the mere presence of being within the US, living within its culture, and partaking in its traditions as sufficing to be American despite being different. I purposefully use the adjective “Americans” to denote these Khmer nationals as “Khmer American,” particularly as they identify as culturally “American.”

The term “Asian American” was established and used to reap formal recognition. First coined by activist Yuji Ichioka at the San Francisco State University Third World Strike in 1968, the term “Asian American” voiced the kinds of concerns Asian American students had about the political position of people of Asian descent living in the United States (Kim). Espiritu argues that “Asian American” asserts “pan-ethnicity” across the diverse ethnicities of Asia as a means of attaining political power. “Asian American” conceptualized and articulated a community whose presence was already longstanding and relevant to US politics. If Asian American operates as rhetorical identity category, Asian American rhetoric is this community’s development and deployment of its symbolic resources to assert and exercise citizenship despite their perceived foreignness (Mao and Young 3). It also negotiates the tensions of difference while desiring unity and calls the audience to recognize the “ambivalence experienced by Asian Americans” who desire to belong in the US imagination even as they recognize their differences (Mao and Young 10). Hence, Asian American rhetoric operates as a “rhetoric of becoming” and in many cases as a rhetoric of “becoming” American.

This rhetorical attempt to be seen as “American” rightly calls into mind the many critiques of the term “Asian American.” For one, the term “Asian American” is now institutionalized as a racial identity incorporated into categories of state power (Kwon 137). Additionally, the term “Asian American” reeks of nationalist undertones and a commitment to a US citizen-subject since it is only possible through the “expulsion of Asianness in the figure of the Asian immigrant” (Shimakawa 5). Nguyen and Chen attempt to displace the “primary importance of an American national identity” by drawing on a postcolonial approach. Chuh argues for a disowning of America and its nationalist undertones even while one has the freedom to disown afforded by that same nation-state (125). These authors highlight the centrality of the US nation-state and the national identity that supports it to conceptualize a belonging within the US that assumes one can disavow such nationalisms while maintaining the structural benefits of being associated with the US national project. In the case of deportees, they do not have the privilege of disowning America as America has disowned them. Instead of Asian American rhetoric as a rhetoric of becoming American, Khmer American deportees engage in a rhetoric of (un)becoming, whereby they address being disavowed by the US nation-state and therefore unbecoming “American” while still feeling “American” in their exiled status. The use of “Asian Americana” by Khmer American deportees reconfigures how Asian American can function independent of the state. Even as it deploys an idea of “America” as part of its terminology, this use of “Asian Americana” is effective by deploying the affective dimensions of belonging independent from and critical of nationalism as the foundation of belonging. Khmer American deportees featured by Studio Revolt’s “My Asian Americana” situate themselves within this mix of cultural belonging with the nation-state coupled with formal dissociation from the nation-state.

The Politics of Remembering, Transnationalizing, and Belonging to (Asian) America in Cambodia
Studio Revolt’s “My Asian Americana” is the brainchild of Anida Yoeu Ali from her time in Cambodia for a Fulbright award. Anida Yoeu Ali is a first generation Muslim Khmer woman born in Cambodia and raised in Chicago. In addition to being one of the founding members of the late-1990s/early-2000s pan-Asian spoken word group I Was Born With Two Tongues and APIA women’s poetry collective Mango Tribe, Ali’s subsequent artistic turn toward interdisciplinary artmaking, installation, and performance emphasizes and investigates transnational identity (Studio Revolt, “About Us.”). Despite her early influence on Asian American slam poetry and post-9/11 critiques of anti-Muslim sentiment, her work is woefully understudied. Schlund-Vials concludes her book, War, Genocide, and Justice: Khmer American Memory Work, on Khmer American cultural producers in the time of deportation with an analysis of Ali’s poem “Visiting Loss” to draw attention to the unstable webs of fragmented histories, transnational politics, memory, and citizenship. More recently, Loan Dao briefly addressed the “My Asian Americana” video as part of a larger argument about the role of hip hop in challenging acculturation models for Southeast Asian American youth and resisting deportation and detention in their communities. I build upon this work about Khmer American cultural producers and turn my attention to Ali’s work and this video for its articulation of citizenship and belonging—one that is uniquely and specifically Khmer American but is directed to a broad Asian American community and the politics of the White House itself.

In the WHIAAPI competition, many of the videos, including the six videos that were considered finalists, utilized a biographical and/or documentary style of storytelling to express their unique experiences, contributions, and community concerns about pertinent issues. “My Asian Americana” eschews the documentary format of storytelling and centers around a spoken word performance instead in an unspecified location highlighted with skillful editing replete with visual tropes of Americana. Studio Revolt challenges the cultural assumptions about “Americana” and the legal assumptions about citizenship by presenting this performance in which “Exiles and ex-pats unite as a community to present images of an Americana they left behind” (“My Asian Americana …”)

In addition, the opening scene of the “pledge of allegiance” and the visual trope of the flag, either in the background or draped around the people themselves, serve to set up, deny, and reconfigure the performers’ and viewers’ relationship to nationalism and patriotism. Both the flag and the “pledge of allegiance” function as pro-US symbols and transport many viewers to a childhood when such rituals and symbols were a part of daily life. The video’s foregrounding of the flag and the performance of the pledge situate nationalism and identification with the state as part and parcel of citizenship. With an explicit pro-nationalist stance in the introduction, it presupposes uncritical patriotism as part of Americanness. Yet, the shift to “Asian Americana” displaces whiteness as the primary characteristic of the default, assumed “American” and thus shifts it towards a hybrid vision incorporating racial experiences of belonging as part of the “American” experience. In doing so, it denies a white-centric and nativist identification of “American” and reconfigures it as a racialized, diasporic one. Thus, “Asian Americana” is Asian “American” and Asian “diasporic” and is not easily distinguishable or separable from the politics and policies that permit and made such identification possible. In this case, the Asian American experience is marked by imperialism, marked by deportation, and sustained by “Asian Americana” from a transnational site of home established in Cambodia.

Although Studio Revolt’s video participates in a critique originating from Khmer American deportees’ experiences, it is also an Asian Americanist critique—one that begins with a “refusal to be in the ‘margin’ that speaks itself in the dominant forms of political, historical, or literary representation” (Lowe 28). By speaking to the White House competition, it injects the conversation with concerns about deportation, its effects on deportees, and the larger question of cultural, national, and political belonging. It calls into question and reconfigures the very idea of “belonging” and its relationship to citizenship, which is akin to the cultural citizenship’s goals when they engage in participatory processes of democracy.

Yet, these deportees cannot engage in the democratic processes because of their citizenship status. Their exiled status counteracts the political potential of cultural citizenship as “American” with the emphasis on inclusion and belonging. However, the identification with and deployment of the panethnic “Asian American” alludes to the still-productive possibilities and potential of “Asian America” and the community of Asian Americans. In one critique, “Asian American” is a term coopted by the state for essentialist categories that often mask or hide differences within the diverse community and demographic of “Asian American” or inadvertently silences those on the margins of the Asian demographic. As stated earlier, “Asian American” foregrounds nationalistic identification with “America” and places belonging within this framework as a main concern.[3] Yet, “Asian American” is a form of critique that attempts to move us away from essentialist ways of thinking about “Asian America.” While “Asian American” might mask or hide very real differences, it does not deny those differences nor does it disinvite or exclude those who seek to identify with Asian America. As the Studio Revolt video reminds us, “Asian American” is a term of belonging—one that constructs and imagines “Asian America” in its time, place, and value. Their video and participation in the WHIAAPI challenge beckons the predominantly Asian American audience not to forget those who were deported to placate mainstream America’s fear of racialized criminality, for their lives are intertwined with mainstream American culture as it constructs a hybrid Asian Americana that is fully part of the US experience. Importantly, “Asian Americana” signals a relation to “Asian America” and “Asian American.” “My Asian Americana” posits the possibility of both “Asian America” and its inhabitants and community of “Asian Americans” who experience its “Asian Americana.” It also indicates a belonging to Asian America even as “America” forcibly and legally denies a legitimate status for exiled Khmer Americans. Their invocation of “Asian Americana” as part of mainstream “Americana” positions “Asian America” as part of “America;” thus, they are part of America even as they are physically exiled from America. 

Although this Asian American cultural rhetoric repositions the hybridity, multiplicity, and heterogeneity of Asian American culture and communities as part of mainstream US culture, the performances within the video and declarations of exile challenge the structural aspects of citizenship. By arranging the pairs of Khmer Americans as exiled and non-exiled, it calls attention to these structural, formal aspects by beckoning the viewer to ask, “Why can’t they come home if they are “American?” Questions of deportation, criminality, and belonging in spite of the stigma from criminality arise as a result. Even as the exiled Khmer Americans understand that they will most likely never receive the benefits of US citizenship despite their history growing up in and identifying with US culture, they simply state that they “can’t go back to the place where they call home” even to visit and partake in their memories and experiences of home. Thus, they invoke the “right of return” while reconstructing what the country of origin means. The country of origin is not Cambodia but rather the United States despite the system of deportation inverting that relationship.

The video advances a role for diaspora and imperial histories in the articulation of conceptions of citizenship and belonging. As Schlund-Vial states, “diaspora is one site where individual and collective memory is incubated, enhanced, edited, and transmitted” (6). By focusing on the consequences of the intertwined histories of Cambodia and the United States, Studio Revolt revises the results of deportation, bringing its collective experiences back to the US community. Much like the music and performance of the Khmer lead singer of the indie band Dengue Fever, Chhom Nimol, Studio Revolt centralizes the Khmer (and Asian) immigrant as a “transnational figure who moves across boundaries, destabilizing them in the process” which in turns disrupts US imperial amnesia (Chambers-Letson 180). Instead of solely shining a positive light on the AAPI community, this video serves “to remind the public of untold stories about Asian Americans ordered into exile.” Thus, the video critiques US deportation policies by calling attention to a stigmatized, criminalized, and deported community that the state would prefer to forget. In contrast to the attempts of the WHIAAPI to apolitically connect and support AAPI communities, the video returns us to the political possibilities of Asian America, its potential for constructing a transnational belonging, and a re-envisioning of citizen-state relations in a time of diasporic communities.

A Studio Revolt Powered by Social Media

Although the Studio Revolt video is aesthetically pleasing and rhetorically astute, much of the video’s power comes from its presence within the WHIAAPI competition, its circulation in a digital social media environment, and its skillful inversion of the logics of the competition’s participatory format. The effectiveness of Studio Revolt’s “My Asian Americana” video relies on social media’s logic within the context of the competition. Contemporary social media orients towards convergence and spreadable media powered by participatory media environments and assumptions. The relationships among technologies, markets, audiences, and industries have switched from being top-down to more bottom-up by relying on the audience/users to generate content, consume media, and share such content in active ways throughout the community (Jenkins). Given this convergent media culture, media that can circulate and “spread” across media platforms and social networks is given priority. Thus, media is made with “spreadable” practices in mind to cultivate connections and to build the participatory media environment.

Often user-driven and user-generated, participatory media environments rely on audience-turned-producers who create and circulate media for the sake of their community (Burgess and Green 90). Although the aesthetics can blur the lines between professional and amateur, the personal and “authentic” expressions for and about a community become the central point of such kinds of content that avoid corporate influence. YouTube is considered one of the pioneers of this type of participatory media in video form although more recent technologies of the now-defunct Vine or currently popular Instagram also rely on participatory frameworks and logics for its proliferation. 

This White House competition relied on the participatory impulse to generate community-based APIA stories in ways that allow for their own representation. This is a well-intentioned and even commendable act considering the absence of APIA stories from government and US history. Yet, the stories that are submitted under the guise of being community-driven and community-selected are nonetheless facilitated and deemed viable for and by the state. For the competition, spokespeople Miya Saika Chen and Eddie Lee appeared on YouTube where they asserted the diversity of the AAPI community and invited the AAPI community to submit a three-minute video focused on three questions: “How have your unique experiences shaped who you are today? What issues matter to you? (i.e. Arts, immigration, civil rights, public service, health, education, etc.) In what ways are you making a difference in your community?” While setting up the parameters of the submission, they stated that submissions can take any form such as “music video, public service announcement, short film, video blog, interview & more. **Essays will also be considered” (00:01:11-00:01:27). From submissions, WHIAAPI will review them, select finalists to post videos on the White House website, and bring the top videos to Washington D.C. to share their stories in person. In partaking in the challenge, the AAPI community was called upon to produce short films meant to spread through social media’s digital space and bring to light community challenges and, perhaps more importantly, community successes. In being selected, their experiences of struggle and success would be validated by the WHIAAPI and the AAPI community.

In such fashion, the format of the WHIAAPI competition avoided telling a story of the Asian American community from the perspective and position of the state. Rather, it facilitated stories generated by the targeted Asian American audience and positioned the WHIAAPI as the curator. However, this gatekeeping function also allows the WHIAAPI to define the terms of “success” by curating what gets to be seen and revered. Stories coming from the community would be considered “authentic” or “real,” and they would allow the WHIAAPI to avoid critiques of overlooking or constructing narratives that serve the interests of the White House. In addition, the AAPI community was instructed to vote for its top videos and thereby provide the stamp of approval for the videos (and their issues) that best resonated with them. Such a format sustains the engagement with and commitment toward the AAPI issues as dictated by the grassroots community within the space of the WHIAAPI.

On February 14, 2012, the WHIAAPI released a YouTube video called ‘“What’s Your Story’ Finalist Announcement” revealing the top eleven finalists. Amazed by the submission of over two-hundred unique videos that document and share individuals’ and organizations’ experiences with the WHIAAPI, spokesperson Eddie Lee states, “Ultimately your stories represent what makes the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities so strong. But we may have our different backgrounds and different stories, we all share common bonds that each has a stake in helping those in our community that need it the most.” They proceed to ask the viewers for help to “select the videos that most inspire you” by viewing and voting (00:00:48-00:01:15). The selected finalists would be invited to the White House to share their stories with members of the President’s staff as part of the “Champions of Change” event.[4]  Despite receiving the most web traffic, Studio Revolt was not invited to the White House to celebrate with other finalists. Rather, the WHIAAPI did not release the vote tallies and simply announced six videos as the “Champions of Change” on the WHIAAPI blog.

Studio Revolt utilizes the logic of social media—its participatory nature and ability to go viral—as a mode of critique. The video is three minutes long—perfectly timed for the WHIAAPI competition but also easily shareable and viewable for internet audiences. Studio Revolt abided by the WHIAAPI “what’s your story” rules to craft a story of Asian America from the marginalized and stigmatized members of Asian America—convicted criminals who have served their sentence, who do not abide the model minority but rather the perpetual foreigner, and who also deeply identify with the US cultural production. Yet, it inverted the purpose of the competition—one meant to praise and celebrate AAPI achievements—and utilized the logic of the contest’s structure to critique deportation and our assumptions about belonging in America. It took the assumptions about participatory media—its focus on community engagement and support—and the competition’s promise that it was going to be “from the people” and the “community” to put the state in the position to either censor the critique or grant it the governmental platform. It relied on the people and the community to spread and vote for the video to critique US deportation practices and formal citizenship (as it connects with US foreign policy) through discourses of cultural belonging (i.e. cultural citizenship). The video does not necessarily argue for “citizenship” but rather uses notions of belonging as a foundation for home and the right to return. This “right to return” reframes the issue of who belongs and who doesn’t and calls for a reconciling with US history and the Asian American diaspora. By shifting the judgment to the audience, it relies on the audience’s conception of justice—an understanding of “time served” as a sufficient consequence—to determine what it means to belong in America but not be allowed in America because of the policies of the White House.

Conclusion: Returning to Sender and the Diasporic Configurations of Citizenship 

Figure 2. “Return to Sender” video from Studio Revolt

On April 4, 2012, Studio Revolt released an eight-minute long video on YouTube titled “Return to Sender.” This video opens with the bald eagle E. Pluribus Unum insignia with the text “The United States of Exiled America” circling it. Eight different exiled Khmer Americans recite a variation of “Dear Mr. President,” “Dear Senator,” “Dear Judge,” and finally “Dear my fellow Americans;” thus, they publicly address the politicians, people, and institutions they represent. Because the video is narrated in a fragmented fashion, no one singularly tells their story. Rather, the video is organized by sections in which each person tells one part of the story: from introducing their name, to describing the feeling of having their citizenship stripped, to descriptions of where they were born (either in Cambodia or in a refugee camp), to the limited recollections of that experience juxtaposed by the full experience of growing up in the US, to their crimes and served jail time followed by a post-incarceration life of kids, family, and small businesses, to the various struggles of the family left behindUS, and finally to the experience living in exile. It concludes with a plea for visitation rights, a public address of “Dear” as done in the beginning, and a resignation that they know they can’t return to live in the US The video fades to black before the following text appears: “This is the video we would have presented at the White House’s ‘Champions of Change” event on April 5, 2012. Had they not silenced our voices.” Despite their exclusion from the official discourses of “Champions of Change,” Studio Revolt reinserted themselves into the discussions about what constitutes a “champion of change” within an institution like the US government when one is relegated to the margins.

This article tracked the history of Khmer Americans’ presence in the United States—one born of imperial pursuits and overseas interventions that created a refugee population and bestowed on them the “gift of freedom.” However, this gift is not without the danger of being rescinded as evidenced by the deportation regime and the processes it incurs on racialized bodies. For Khmer Americans who were unaware of the naturalization process, committed crimes in their youth, and atoned for them, the “gift” is rescinded, and they are now expelled from the home they know to the “homeland” and country that they have little to no knowledge of. By considering how they identify as “Asian American” in light of and in critical response to deportation policies, exiled Khmer Americans invite the US public and the Asian American community to revisit questions of citizenship, its privileges, and its relationship to those who have been part of but are now excluded from formal participation and presence within the US nation-state.

This article takes up Stuart Hall’s call to consider, “What does it mean to take seriously, in our present conjuncture, the thought that cultural politics and questions of culture, of discourse, and of metaphor are absolutely deadly political questions?” (289-290). Importantly, what does it mean to push back against state-sponsored attempts to appropriate community stories and ideas with one’s own cultural productions through the technologies of social media? Studio Revolt’s videos displace the nation-state and citizen-subject as the locus for belonging; rather, it draws on a notion of diaspora that destabilizes fixed and static notions of the citizen-subject. This video provides a window into what “home” and “Americana” mean when they come into contact with a familiar but lacking term of “diaspora” and homeland meaning. Their recollections of “Americana” take on a different relevance when their Asian difference and foreignness is now rendered “American” foreignness and difference within Cambodia. Their bittersweet memories and engagements with “America” are laced with critiques of US deportation practices and formal citizenship (as it connects with US foreign policy) through discourses of cultural belonging that connect to fond memories of the US Yet, Studio Revolt’s videos does not necessarily argue for “citizenship” but rather uses notions of belonging as a foundation of home and the right to return. This “right to return” requires a revisiting of who belongs and who doesn’t formally belong as well as a reconciling between US history and the Asian American diaspora.

Studio Revolt’s “My Asian Americana” uses complex migrations, intertwined with histories of war, immigration, refugee, and deportation, to illustrate the messiness of an “Asian American” subject and to engage in an Asian Americanist critique as a “subjectless discourse” (Chuh 9) that does not essentialize the concept of being Asian American but rather expands its political potential.  “My Asian Americana”, through its language of “Asian Americana” and a seemingly intentional foregrounding of “Asian American”, refocuses our attention on the non-essentialized deportee and diasporic subject. In such ways, Asian American rhetoric orients our attention to citizenship, transnationalism, and the border in ways that align with Latinx communities and Arab American communities who are also targeted and expelled by the state.

In the current age of mass deportation and Muslim bans, politics of national belonging are the centerpiece of US national concerns. While the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients rests at the hands of Congress, President Donald Trump and his senior advisor, Stephen Miller, also attempt to curtail and limit legal immigration. Ever present in these discussions is the issue of citizenship—who has it and who deserves to have access to it.

Asian American rhetoric can refocus our attention to the limits of the nation-state, the residual effects of historical imperial wrongs, the ethical obligations and moral responsibilities of its consequences, and the discursive and performative modes of citizenship that establish, dictate, and re-envision what national belonging means when we live in diasporic communities.

[1] The documentary Sentenced Home follows the lives of two Khmer refugees who are in this in-between state of having served their sentences and living their lives while waiting in fear of deportation.          

[2] There are various types of green cards: From 2-year conditional green cards that cannot be renewed without removing said conditions or 10-year renewable green cards.

[3] It would be remiss to overlook the fact that “Asian American,” at its initial articulation, was part of a transnational movement of anti-Vietnam War and solidarity with Third World movements abroad.

[4] The Champions of Change event was President Obama’s series on profiling Americans who made an impact on their community and help America deal with challenges of the 21st century.

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