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  • Fifteen Years after Buddha Is Hiding:Gesturing Toward the Future in Critical Refugee Studies
  • Emily L. Hue (bio)

Dedicated to the memory of Daw Hlaing Hlaing


According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, as of early 2017, less than 1 percent of the world's refugees receive visas to resettle (UNHCR 2018). In the United States, recent travel bans and escalated rates of deportation of undocumented immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East have made the distinction of citizen status increasingly unattainable. Among the underreported numbers of refugees recently deported from the United States for minor crimes or botched adoption and/or resettlement paperwork from the Cold War, include those of Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Korean descent (Yam 2018; Pearson 2018; Sang-Hun 2018). The alarming uptick of punitive anti-immigration policies highlights the price of citizenship: the discriminatory freedom implicit in the process of holding citizenship itself, in that others may fall short of it.

Anthropologist Aihwa Ong's critical ethnography, Buddha Is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America (2003), elaborates on the term "refugee," pushing it beyond a static descriptor for political status for those seeking refuge from religious, ethnic, and/or political persecution. The monograph features in-depth interviews with twenty Cambodian American women who escaped the Khmer Rouge and were resettled by the U.S. federal government in Oakland and San Francisco, California.1 Rather than build her work around a dichotomy between the dangers of postconflict Southeast Asia and the safety of resettlement, Ong's analysis reflects on the continuum of interviewees' experiences as they resist the legal, medical, social, and economic violences of resettlement in spaces such as refugee camps at the Cambodian-Thai border, hospitals in the U.S., and refugee [End Page 219] processing centers along the way. Reflecting on Ong's work fifteen years after its initial publication reveals a multitude of ways in which the work remains relevant to how scholars theorize the movement of refugees and asylum seekers in relation to the fraught political landscape of migration. This essay focuses on two of the book's important contributions to scholarship on migration and refugee subjectivities: firstly, setting the stage for the multivalent notions of queerness situated between the concepts of "refugee" and "citizen"; and secondly, invoking the multiple temporalities of "freedom" that are possible for diasporic subjects under the conditions of the unending War on Terror.

Ong's ethnographic approach models a methodology that accounts for refugee life in relation to the concept of "citizen" that exceeds the legal definitions of both terms. The author reorients the fields of migration studies and Asian American studies away from their fraught investments in citizenship as an inviolable status such that

the idea of citizenship [is] not only the idiom of rights articulated in the legal context, but also in the context of the ways in which a set of common (in this case American) values concerning family, health, social welfare, gender relations, and work and entrepreneurialism are elaborated in everyday lives.

(Ong 2003, xvii)

While the figure of the refugee emerges in the U.S. consciousness after World War II, and reemerges after the Vietnam War, Ong reconciles how women refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge resist the totalizing discourse of rescue and transformation in the U.S. state's account of its own humanitarian benevolence after its role in wars in Southeast Asia.

Ong turns to the machinations of what she calls "refugee love" or a "liberal variation of humanitarian domination, as enacted by refugee workers, social workers, the police, and some health providers, who in their various capacities provide pastoral care in the broadest sense of the term to refugees" (2003, 146). Ong critiques how social workers engaged Western feminist projects that attempted to regulate economic and family relationships, or intersectional performances of gender and race, within Cambodian refugee communities. Her transnational feminist analysis of interviewees' experiences with social workers suggests that some social workers defined Cambodian refugees as not yet possessed of purportedly singularly American values such as autonomy, gender equality, and [End Page 220] nuclear family relations in the face of social welfare's intrusions upon their lives. Ong argues that the prescribed suggestions for...


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