Afterward by Michael G. Vann, PhD.
This memoir strikes hard on multiple levels. It is a reflection of contemporary America and the transnational, transcultural, immigrant experience that many Americans live, whether themselves or vicariously (as Zochada Tat did), as the children of immigrants. Migration is a traumatic event, (sometimes positive, sometimes not, but always) one that reaches across several generations. Oum Ry’s memoir toggles forward and back in time, threading a connection in time between father (Oum Ry) and daughter (Zochada Tat). From this perspective, I Am Oum Ry is an emotional read, a subjective vacuum in which the characters are the primary focus, separate from the context of their world in a way. Tat and Somekh portray Oum Ry, his many lovers, his wife, his children, and the myriad of people who came, left, or stayed in his orbit, in all their flawed perfection; the logics behind his and their behavior as consequences of individualized trauma: parental abandonment, grief of loved ones lost or killed, sexual desire and exploitation.
But people do not exist in vacuum. The individuals in these pages are not ahistorical; they are deeply embedded in histories of patriarchy, Colonialism, the Cold War, the Khmer Rouge genocide, the American/Vietnam War, Cambodian traditions, and collective desires for modernity, belonging, and security.
The memoir takes the reader to Cambodia in the mid-twentieth century, beginning just after WWII. The French stubbornly cling to Indochina. Then ahead to the American War in Vietnam a decade later. It lingers on the five golden years of the 20th century when Cambodia perched on the edge of modernity, part of a larger Southeast Asian moment of revivalism and decolonization and prosperity in the early 1970s. After that the reader follows Oum Ry into the dark age of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the suffering that followed as Oum Ry, like so many thousands of other Cambodians fled to Thailand to seek asylum elsewhere, anywhere. Oum Ry, like many other fortunate refugees makes his way to the United States where he finds both happiness and deep disappointment. The life of a migrant is bittersweet, filled with hope and longing.
The histories I Am Oum Ry excavates are powerful, a fisted punch to the gut. Oum Ry holds nothing back. The currents of forced migration, war, genocide, and racism that underpin Oum Ry’s words and experiences will knock the wind out of readers. This is an important memoir, not because it is unique — it isn’t, there are many Cambodian-American/Cambodian memoirs written by survivors of the Khmer Rouge — but because it neither indicts or glorifies the past or the present. The Khmer Rouge are not the sole villains of the genocide, though they are largely responsible for the horrors Oum Ry and other Cambodians experience; the Vietnamese and ordinary, fellow Cambodians are part of the horrific milieu of that moment too. America is not hailed as the land of milk and honey; it too is a dark land of racism, crime, poverty, and disappointment. But it isn’t all bad either; Oum Ry and his family find a place in California and become new Americans.
It is also significant in that it highlights pradal serey/muay thai, and centers around this sport. It is unique in this aspect. Oum Ry occupies a unique cultural position as a fighter, a sports icon in Cambodian history and 20th century Cambodian culture; his memoir gives us a rare glimpse into a world of sport and celebrity that was exclusive before the war and certainly much more so afterwards as a result of the loss of so many Cambodian stars.
For me, as a Southeast Asian scholar and a historian of Southeast Asian sport, I Am Oum Ry possesses academic significance. Sport is an often overlooked aspect of history and culture, seen as purely recreational. I Am Oum Ry proves how wrong this assumption is; pradal serey deserves attention as a historical artifact of a lost moment and in the present as a vital element of Cambodian-American identity and Cambodian cultural revival.
For almost every reader, I Am Oum Ry will evoke a multitude of emotions ranging from sad to inspired. Oum Ry’s life has been a rollercoaster in and out of the fighter’s ring. It has been dramatic in positive and negative ways. His is a life worth the reading.