Anida Yoeu Ali’s “Excuse Me Amerika” and the Cambodian American Experience
Joy Sanchez-Taylor, LaGuardia Community College (CUNY)
Keywords: Immigration, Identity, Assimilation
This semester, I am teaching a writing and literature course with the theme “Aliens” and Aliens: Literature of Otherness. The goal of this course is to teach students writing and critical thinking skills while also introducing them to basic literary criticism. My research specialty is science fiction and fantasy literature written by U.S. authors of color, and I wanted to find a way to introduce my students to the science fiction and fantasy texts I enjoy by linking these texts to the overall experience of alienation and diaspora that immigrants coming to the U.S. face. Therefore, the course has science fiction and fantasy short readings, but also includes poetry and a play discussing themes of alienation that are not science fiction and fantasy works. Since many of my students at LaGuardia are immigrants or the children of immigrants, I felt that they would be able to relate to this course theme.
In my literature courses, I strive to reflect the diversity of my classroom. I wanted to incorporate a more diverse representation of Asian culture in my readings, so when I decided to add Anida Yoeu Ali’s poem “Excuse Me America” to my course readings. Ali is a Cambodian refugee who came to Amerika with her parents in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. In order to help my students understand the U.S.’s involvement in the region, I asked students to give presentations on Ali’s biography and the history of the Khmer Rouge regime. Before this institute, I did not know that the U.S. bombed Cambodia during the Vietnam War, which led to the rise in power of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime. After the Vietnam War, the U.S. created The Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 to allow refugees from Cambodia to resettle in the U.S. However, many Cambodians ended up resettled in low-income, urban areas. Without language skills or community aid, many Cambodians living in the U.S. still face severe poverty and many young Cambodians drop out of school and end up in prison. I wanted my students to understand the historical references in the poem, and the group presentation gave my students the context to understand the difference between immigrating to another country and fleeing from war as a refugee.
To help my students understand the literary merits of the poem, I also assigned the terms “alliteration,” “tone,” and “imagery.” We began the class by reviewing the definitions of these terms and finding examples of all three in the poem. Because my students had the historical context presentations at the beginning of class, I was able to guide them in a discussion of how Ali uses literary devices to express her anger at America and to draw attention to specific words and images in the poem. Ali’s poem covers a number of topics, including her personal experiences with feeling alienated from U.S. culture, her parents’ exploitation in the workplace, stereotypes of Asian women in film, colorism, and police brutality against minorities. The poem could therefore be used in a number of different courses and discussed over several class periods. My focus for the day was on discussing Ali’s experience as a Cambodian refugee and her feelings of alienation from U.S. culture. I also highlighted the connections she made between her experiences with racism and the experiences of many people of color in the U.S. My overall goal was to help students understand two points: 1. The experience of Cambodian refugees in the U.S. is different than many other immigrant experiences but 2. Ali’s experiences as a woman of color in the U.S. can be connected to the experiences of many minority peoples living in the U.S.
Overall, my students enjoyed the poem; four students chose to write about the poem for their final research projects. The poem helped me to successfully discuss Asian culture in my classroom while also giving students of other ethnicities a lens to help them connect to the author’s experience as an immigrant and a woman of color. I plan to teach the poem again the next time I teach this class.
I have attached a lesson plan with a recommended supplementary reading and a copy of the poem.