Anthropological Quarterly 77.2 (2004) 349-353
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Cambodians and the New American Citizenship
Nancy J. Smith-Hefner
Aiwa Ong's Buddha is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America is an ethnographic exploration of the requirements of American citizenship as seen through the experiences of Khmer refugees living in northern California. Ong takes citizenship to be a social process—the mediated production of values concerning freedom, autonomy, and security. Her aim is to examine the construction of citizenship in the course of everyday interactions between Cambodian immigrants and the social agencies that facilitate their becoming American. Drawing heavily from Michel Foucault's work on the social technologies of governmentality, the book examines the ways that the state and its agents attempt to instill American values and habits in its "citizen-subjects" (6). For newly arriving Cambodian refugees the domains in which this disciplining takes place include—among others—encounters with immigration officials, social workers, medical practitioners, the police, and church workers.
The ethnographic focus of Ong's study is the Khmer community living in Oakland and San Francisco, metropolitan regions that are, together, home to some 15,000 refugees. She conducted her research intermittently throughout the mid-1980s with more sustained fieldwork conducted in 1988-89. While many of the Cambodians Ong interviewed were from rural backgrounds and [End Page 349] had had little education in Cambodia, a few were members of the Khmer middle class. Ong also spoke with various social service providers who worked with refugees. During this same period of research among Khmer, Ong was also carrying out research among affluent Chinese immigrants, and she devotes the final chapter of her book to considering the place of Cambodian refugees within the larger context of California's new Asian immigration.
In the preface to her book, Ong reveals her own ambivalences as a Chinese Malaysian immigrant about the process of becoming American. Her remarks set the analytic tone for the book's broader narrative:
In the fall of 1987, on a rainy afternoon, I was called to take my citizenship test in an office of the Immigration and Naturalization Services in San Francisco. My examiner happened to be Vietnamese American, perhaps a newly minted official whose English was still rough and uncertain. When my name was called, I stepped up to his desk, but before I could prop my umbrella against the chair and remove my damp raincoat, he barked at me to stand straight and raise my right hand. He curbed his contempt when he read the line that indicated my profession, a professor. Then, with some chagrin, he led me through a perfunctory review of questions about the president, Congress, and the Bill of Rights. Perhaps, I thought to myself, I had been right to have deferred this process for seventeen years (and, ironically, had done so fundamentally as a protest against the Vietnam War).... [I]t was not until I became a mother that I decided, with some qualms, to commit myself to my children's future. I could not decide whether the curt, military treatment was a routine part of the dominating process one must experience in order to be considered eligible, especially for the nonwhite foreigner. Nor could I disentangle this ritual humiliation from the official's instant judgment about my social standing, my "race," my gender, and my body. His job was after all about policing the national body and subordinating the deviant other who may attempt to gain entry
Against this backdrop of personal ambivalence toward the disciplines of American citizenship, Ong sets out to explore how Cambodian refugees, "came to interpret, embrace, and critique in different contexts of everyday life what they perceived being an American person to be all about" (xiv).
What refugees quickly learn, Ong argues, is that being an American is most importantly about becoming a flexible homo economicus; work, consumption, [End Page 350] and productivity lie at the heart of American identity. The ideal of citizenship enjoined on...