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Interview for

Jenny Chhim


Interviewed By:

Noa Bolmenäs

Date Interviewed:

Audio Recording of Interview
00:00 / 1:12:55

Summary coming soon!

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Other interviews of this person can be found below:

Additional Notes

Narrator: Jenny Chhim

Date: 09/14/2023

Location: Seattle, WA (via zoom)

Length of Interview: 1:12:55

Content Warning: Self-harm and suicidal ideations

Summary: Jenny Chhim shares her journey of growing up in the United States while grappling with her family’s ties to Buddhism given their Cambodian heritage. She expresses how rediscovering Buddhist practices and traditions as an adult allows her to retrospectively understand her relationship with her parents, being the first generation of her family born in America, and how she now interacts with her family as a mother and wife.

Topics: Childhood, education, family, generational differences, historical context, identity, language, mental health, pandemic, religion


Section 1: (00:00-06:58)

  • Historical context - Talks about her parents escaping Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime in around 1979. Briefly recounts their sites of resettlement including Thailand, the Philippines, and ultimately Bowling Green, Kentucky and Seattle Washington in the States. Shares that her mother was pregnant with her during her parent’s migration journey.

  • Childhood, religion, family - Shares her experience growing up in the U.S. and her frustrations with being unable to extract details about the migration experience from her parents, given that she was not born until after they had arrived in Kentucky. Speaks about learning about the history of Cambodian animism and discovering via a conversation with her father that her grandmother sought for the family to orient towards the Dhamma.

Section 2: (06:59-30:15)

  • Religion, education, family -Discusses her internal development and shifts in relation to her religious and spiritual practices in Buddhism. Speaks about how even though one of her earliest memories is a Buddhist ceremony where she strongly remembers the sandalwood incense and being in the temple with her mom, she found that many of her questions regarding Buddhism as a practice and her family’s migration history were not answered until her years as a student.

  • Mental health, childhood, family - Talks about becoming a mother and sought to address the depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and self-harm that began as a teenager in order to be the best mom possible for her son. Shares that her therapist encouraged her to rediscover her childhood curiosity which brought her to a new understanding of Buddhism and to answer lingering questions regarding how the tradition’s practices can fit into her life as a family member.

Section 3: (30:16-57:00)

  • Religion - Speaks about how she sees religion fitting in with her broader community through volunteerism and the display of Cambodian and Buddhist traditions.

  • Identity, childhood, family, religion - Jenny discusses having an identity issue as a young person in America who felt a clash between her Cambodian conservative identity in the household and the American individualistic identity she was encouraged to explore alongside other American children. Shares how she never felt pressure from her parents in the development of her identity and she finds that Buddhism now helps her to feel secure in her decisions for herself. She also looks up to certain Cambodians such as Maha Ghosananda to serve as a role model and source of inspiration as she develops her identity as a Buddhist.

  • Language - Talks about being able to express herself in Khmer as further contributing to her frustration of not feeling as a full member of her Cambodian community despite the comprehension of Khmer words.

Section 4: (57:01-1:12:55)

  • Family, religion, pandemic - Talks about her conversations with her mother-in-law surrounding spirituality and religion despite them practicing different faith traditions (Buddhism and Catholicism). Shares about the dynamic of being of a different religion from her husband and how she continues to integrate time for the temple and meditation into her life. Expresses how the pandemic allowed her to even join online classes to strengthen her meditation practice.

  • Religion - Urges listeners to look for the connections between their faith tradition and the practices of their ancestors in order to honor and venerate their heritage.


  • (5:07)/ “However, I finally have gotten to a place where I am mostly at peace with it, with my family's story, my family, like, what I do know of is enough, now. And my focus is just carrying on my great grandmother's wish, which—I was able to talk to my dad. And one day, he opened up to me that, because I asked him like, "did we, you know, I know the history of Cambodia that there are people who practice animism, but when did we become Buddhist?" And that's when he told me about how his, his grandmother I believe, or maybe his great grandmother, I don't know... she wanted us to turn towards the Dhamma. And... I, luckily, when my dad shared with me that information I had already kind of started to learn about Buddhism myself, and really have dedicated myself to the practice. And so, when he shared with me that information, it was almost like that closure that I really needed because I always wondered why I was pulled towards that. As much as I resisted it, when I was younger, you know, I still came back to it. And I don't know why, so when my dad told me that, it was deeply, I think "profound" is the word. But... I was just even more, more grateful and in gratitude, that my grandmother, my great grandmother, pointed us in that direction.”

  • (16:38)/ “And it was out of the encouragement of my therapist that I kinda like she encouraged me to get in touch with my childhood. My childhood curiosity, what brought me joy as a child. And eventually, it was: What brought you joy with your mom? And I just thought to myself, I really liked going to the temple with her. And, along with that though... I always—she encouraged me to, again, address some of like that childhood curiosity. Like, "if you could do it all over again, what would you want to do?" And one of them was, like, "I want to know what the hell we were doing at the temple (laughs).”

  • (38:17)/ “I think a lot of the issues I had was having an identity issue... Ever since I was young, you know, I was born here in America. So, I didn't have any accent. So, I just remember, like, the childhood friends and cousins would make fun of me and tell me that I was whitewashed. I didn't really know what that meant. And I actually learned how to read and write and Cambodian at a very young age. And... I don't think it's because of my intelligence. I think it's mostly because, you know, I learned how to do it at about four-five years old when I was learning how to identify symbols with letters and sound and things like that. So, that learning process was already there. And so, I naturally just absorbed it and picked it up. And yeah, and because of that, I was just like, "How can I be whitewashed? I know how to read and write better than you." You know, I don't speak as much or whatever, but I can still, you know, and I remember if some dude like, like, testing me or something, we walked in this hallway, and it was like, a board with all the translation. And he's like, "Oh, this is Khmer word. I bet you don't know how to read it." And I was like (makes buzzing noises), I looked at him I was like, "And?" You know? "Can you read that shit?" "No." So, yeah, there was a lot of that type of anger of, like, not belonging within my own community, too. And then, as an American. The thing—the issues that I have with it is because I realize now is that I was brought up in a pretty conservative household. And American, at least in Seattle progressive area, it's not conservative. And... and so... I realized that... the issue, that identity issues was the clashing of the two identities, my Cambodian conservative identities, and the American individualism, individualistic identity, and it's clashing. And I'm trying to figure out, you know, trying to, for a long time, it was: "Where do I belong?" But now, I'm at a point in my life, where, "How can I integrate the best of both worlds together?"”

  • (26:29)/ “Yeah, so I came out to one person in ninth grade over Facebook. Before that, I spent a lot of time up at night, like thinking of, that's when like, kinda like, I started. Like, not expressing but like, actively suppressing my queer...I don't know what to call it. Or my sexuality, then, like, fifth grade, because I felt like, I was just like, okay, so it was like, from like, fifth grade to ninth grade that I had like this. Like, something was weighing me down. And I just, it just didn't feel right. And with everything, like, it was just really rough, knowing that, like, every time I stepped into a church, I didn't feel welcome. So I didn't feel comfortable in those spaces for a little while, now I'm perfectly fine, because like, I understand, like, the complexity and stuff. But like. I remember spending a lot of like, late nights, thinking about like, like eternal damnation, and that kind of thing, or being or like, expressing who I innately am. So, and that didn't really sit right with me, because I didn't do anything wrong.”

  • (50:00)/ “That was when I started to be able to kind of differentiate the two, between—well, the three. Cambodian culture, then Buddhist culture, like Buddha's teachings, and then American and the American value system. And to me, the American value system is, again, it's very much about material and sensual pleasures, sensual desires. Go after what you want. Go after what feels good to you. Go after what's going to make you happy. And in Cambodian Buddhist culture is being in community with your people, your village, being of service to your neighbor, being of service to your parents, being grateful, being grounded in that. And that's where I have begun to... So, that's how I separated but now I'm able to bring it together, because like I said, there is a certain value in that independent… but I hold back on the or, I try my best to hold back on the sensual desires, because now I do see how it plays out.”

  • (1:11:01)/ “And so, if you were born into a Cambodian household, that were practicing Buddhists, just know that your ancestors shared wholesome deeds with you, and that is in your DNA, that is ingrained in you. You just got to clear out all of the fog to really hear their message. There is something to our practices, our rituals of honoring and venerating our ancestors, and our parents. And to me, I felt like this passing of the teachings of the Buddha, this is the gem that you know is often spoken about in Buddhism. And they gave us this jewel for us. But we need to, we need to buffer it. It's been hidden. It was almost destroyed in our culture... And it's there, we just got to open ourselves up to it.”

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