Saturday, April 26, 2008

Cambodian-Americans are changing their parents' homeland


Next time the Massive Monkees mesmerize you with their break dancing, check out the lanky boy with the waves of curly hair, nicknamed Peanut, the one known for his windmills.
· Photo gallery of the B-boys of Massive Monkees
He's also the one moving to a country he never visited before last year, the country his parents fled during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror.
Peanut, whose real name is Phanna Nam, is following a dream to dance in Cambodia and teach poor kids the moves that have been second nature to him since he was a child growing up in Mount Baker. The Franklin High School grad, 23, was born in Tacoma and visited Cambodia for the first time in 2007, for a month.
Behind the moves of Massive Monkees, one of Seattle's top B-boy groups (B-Boy is hip-hop slang for break dancer), is the story of how Cambodian-Americans like Nam are changing their parents' homeland. Although Nam is going back by choice, others forced back by deportation are finding redemption in a country torn apart by genocide, war and violence.
Nam and his crew -- the tight-knit 19 or so young men and women of Massive Monkees -- perform Saturday night at the Greenwood Collective. Proceeds will go toward Tiny Toones, an organization in Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh that reaches out to about 600 at-risk and street children through break dancing.
Tiny Toones uses any donations it receives to provide food, shelter and education to these kids, who learn about HIV, sex and drugs -- and how those things can't fit into a life of dancing. Kids also meet with other volunteers/deportees and the group's founder, Tuy Sobil (nicknamed KK) every day after he gets off work to practice moves, which can last all night. Nam met Sobil in January on his second monthlong visit to Cambodia -- and they hit it off.
Sobil is an ex-Crips gang member from Long Beach, Calif., who, after a felony conviction for armed robbery at 18, spent a decade in jail and immigration detention centers. He wasn't even born in Cambodia, having come into the world in a Thai refugee camp.
His story isn't so different from that of Many Uch, 32, a local Cambodian man whose life has been in limbo as he waits to be deported. He served 40 months in prison because, at 18, he also was involved in an armed robbery -- as a getaway driver -- and also was running in a local gang. Uch spent an additional 28 months detained by immigration officials after his release from prison in 1997.
"I regret making poor choices, but not that I went to prison. Prison changed my life, in a way that it saved me," said Uch, who will speak at Saturday's fundraiser. "Not religiously, but mentally, in growing up."
Uch is no longer in custody, but his situation hangs over his head daily. As coordinator for the Seattle-based Refugee Justice Project, he works closely with other Cambodian-Americans facing deportation.
The father of a 21-month-old daughter, Uch is engaged to be married and has a full life in this country with all the family he has ever known. He arrived in the U.S. when he was 4, and says he has no memory of Cambodia.
"I feel for KK. He mentioned one time that he would be hanging out in the streets if he was in America and would likely fall back in jail," Uch said. "I admire people that try to make a difference in children's lives. Most deportees are not really making it in Cambodia, and KK tries really hard to change his life and others.
"We made poor choices when we were younger and that's what I can relate to. I spent time in prison and now changed my life. But Immigration doesn't understand that and won't give me another chance. What else can you do but make the best out of it?"
Although he's never been in the kind of trouble that sent Sobil back to Cambodia, Nam knows what it's like to grow up in a rough neighborhood, and is able to relate to the kids in Phnom Penh.
"It's just like the projects, but a lot worse. You gotta be street smart," he said. "I realized I was more Cambodian than American. I don't go to McDonald's. I eat pho or Thai food. I always prefer Asian food. When I was in Cambodia, I ate like a Cambodian, went to the bathroom like one, rode mopeds like one."
Growing up surrounded by other Cambodians, Nam retained his culture and traditions, kept them close. The oldest of four children -- all of whom dance -- he set an example for his siblings by staying out of gangs and finding work taking care of mentally disabled clients. But dancing has always been in his life and being part of Massive Monkees has exposed him to other crews around the world. They've even been world champs, once, in London, in 2004. But Nam jokes, "We're like the Seahawks, we're the masters of second place."
"Seattle B-boys and girls are world class, there's no doubt about it," said Charles Peterson, a counterculture photographer best known for capturing grunge. Later this year a new book on break dancing, "Cypher," comes out. Peterson will be at the fundraiser Saturday, showing his work.
"A large part of the scene are Asian and Hispanic-Americans, and we have such a big Asian-American community here," he said. "There's always a Seattle contingent. They definitely hold their own."
Stuart Isett, another Seattle photographer, who's been working on a 15-year photo essay about Cambodian gangs in the U.S. and the deportation of young Cambodian refugees to Cambodia, also will be showing his work.
Isett's work has concentrated more on B-boys like Sobil, and not as much on B-boys like Nam who choose to go back.
Nam says he will miss his crew in Seattle, but he feels his place is halfway around the world.
"I always had this calling, this sense of destiny to go back to Cambodia. My mom thinks I'm crazy and my dad just tells me to stay safe. But I'm tired of the American dream. It's a fantasy. I feel more real living in the 'hood," said Nam, who's going to Alaska this summer to make money fishing, then making the big move abroad.
"I don't know how to do anything else but break dance. If I'm gonna shed tears, blood and sweat, it might as well be for Cambodia. I can't change Cambodia, but these kids can. ...Through dancing, these kids are going to be inspired to do more."
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