Cheryl Yin

Hello my name is Cheryl Yin and my pronouns are she/her/hers. I do have Chinese name, my Chinese name in mandarin is 袁珍珠, and in Cantonese, 袁珍珠. I grew up in Long Beach, CA, which is the largest Cambodian community in the United States. I was so fortunate to be surrounded by other Cambodians, going to Cambodian supermarkets and restaurants, and Cambodian Buddhist temples.

At home, I spoke Mandarin Chinese with my parents and my parents actually forced me to go to Chinese school on Saturdays, so I learned to read and write in Chinese. My parents, however, spoke Khmer (or Cambodian) to each other, so I also picked up Khmer from listening to them and my relatives speaking Khmer. And of course, I grew up on Long Beach, California, so I was just surrounded by the Khmer language all the time. Growing up in Long Beach helped me understand Cambodian history and why my family resettled in the United States. Although the Khmer Rouge history was not taught in schools, I was fortunate in that my parents were really open and honest about what they went through under the Khmer Rouge, and so I have a deep understanding what Cambodians had to face and the trauma that they have. And still be able to thrive and survive in the United States.

My heritage has always been an important part of my life, and I have always been curious about my background, both with my Chinese and Cambodian. My grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated from China to Cambodia in the 1920s and 30s. My grandparents on my dad’s side are from Guangdong province and my great-grandparents on my mom’s side are from Hainan and Chaozhou. In Long Beach, not only did I celebrate Cambodian holidays like Pchum Ben and Cambodian New Year, but my family also celebrated Chinese holidays like QingMingJie, ZhongQiuJie, and ChunJie, which is Chinese New Year.

When I was in college, I was more interested in China, so I studied abroad in China at Peking University. I got to travel all around China, but my biggest regret is not visiting my ancestral villages in southern China. After graduating from college, I decided I wanted to transition toward Cambodia, so I decided to learn how to read and write in Khmer. I enrolled in a very intensive summer language program in Wisconsin. And I pretty much learned how to read and write in two months.

And then I enrolled in a PhD program in the University of Michigan; my specialty was linguistic anthropology, and I decided to make Khmer language the focus of my study. Because growing up, the Khmer language’s honorific register gave me the most trouble. So, for me as a kid, I just thought oh, you know, Cambodian has too many words for “eat” or too many words for I and me. And I always used, you know, the informal, when Cambodians kept telling me I should’ve used the formal. And so I decided, hey, why don’t I study this aspect of the language? Why do Cambodians care which word for “eat” you use for certain situations? And so, through my PhD program, I was able to live in Cambodia for 2.5 years, where I conducted ethnographic fieldwork to collect data for my dissertation. So, not only did I get to study and investigate Khmer language and Cambodian culture, but I also got to reconnect with family in Cambodia, and I also used my Mandarin Chinese and Khmer language while conversing with family there.

Now, I also want to expand and transition toward China again. I have a new project where I hope I can visit my ancestral villages in Guangdong and Hainan. My great-grandfather on my mom’s side left behind a wife in China before he went to Cambodia, and so this project is kind of looking at his life in China and also the woman he left in China and what happened to her. And so, being able to navigate between being American, Chinese, and Cambodian, and navigating between different languages, have given me a lot of insights as a researcher and academic. And a lot of people in my family actually come to me for a lot of questions about our family history or a lot of my cousins and second cousins who don’t speak Chinese or know how to read or write in Khmer would often come to me and say hey, how do we write our last name, or how you know, how did we end up in Cambodia, or why did we end up in the United States? And so, I feel kind of special and proud that I’m kind of a keeper of my family’s kind of like memory, and so having the opportunity to reconnect with my culture by traveling to Cambodia and hopefully to China
again is something I really, really value.