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Buddha Is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America

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Fleeing the murderous Pol Pot regime, Cambodian refugees arrive in America as at once the victims and the heroes of America's misadventures in Southeast Asia; and their encounters with American citizenship are contradictory as well. Service providers, bureaucrats, and employers exhort them to be self-reliant, individualistic, and free, even as the system and the culture co Fleeing the murderous Pol Pot regime, Cambodian refugees arrive in America as at once the victims and the heroes of America's misadventures in Southeast Asia; and their encounters with American citizenship are contradictory as well. Service providers, bureaucrats, and employers exhort them to be self-reliant, individualistic, and free, even as the system and the culture constrain them within terms of ethnicity, race, and class. Buddha Is Hiding tells the story of Cambodian Americans experiencing American citizenship from the bottom-up. Based on extensive fieldwork in Oakland and San Francisco, the study puts a human face on how American institutions—of health, welfare, law, police, church, and industry—affect minority citizens as they negotiate American culture and re-interpret the American dream. In her earlier book, Flexible Citizenship, anthropologist Aihwa Ong wrote of elite Asians shuttling across the Pacific. This parallel study tells the very different story of "the other Asians" whose route takes them from refugee camps to California's inner-city and high-tech enclaves. In Buddha Is Hiding we see these refugees becoming new citizen-subjects through a dual process of being-made and self-making, balancing religious salvation and entrepreneurial values as they endure and undermine, absorb and deflect conflicting lessons about welfare, work, medicine, gender, parenting, and mass culture. Trying to hold on to the values of family and home culture, Cambodian Americans nonetheless often feel that "Buddha is hiding." Tracing the entangled paths of poor and rich Asians in the American nation, Ong raises new questions about the form and meaning of citizenship in an era of globalization.


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Fleeing the murderous Pol Pot regime, Cambodian refugees arrive in America as at once the victims and the heroes of America's misadventures in Southeast Asia; and their encounters with American citizenship are contradictory as well. Service providers, bureaucrats, and employers exhort them to be self-reliant, individualistic, and free, even as the system and the culture co Fleeing the murderous Pol Pot regime, Cambodian refugees arrive in America as at once the victims and the heroes of America's misadventures in Southeast Asia; and their encounters with American citizenship are contradictory as well. Service providers, bureaucrats, and employers exhort them to be self-reliant, individualistic, and free, even as the system and the culture constrain them within terms of ethnicity, race, and class. Buddha Is Hiding tells the story of Cambodian Americans experiencing American citizenship from the bottom-up. Based on extensive fieldwork in Oakland and San Francisco, the study puts a human face on how American institutions—of health, welfare, law, police, church, and industry—affect minority citizens as they negotiate American culture and re-interpret the American dream. In her earlier book, Flexible Citizenship, anthropologist Aihwa Ong wrote of elite Asians shuttling across the Pacific. This parallel study tells the very different story of "the other Asians" whose route takes them from refugee camps to California's inner-city and high-tech enclaves. In Buddha Is Hiding we see these refugees becoming new citizen-subjects through a dual process of being-made and self-making, balancing religious salvation and entrepreneurial values as they endure and undermine, absorb and deflect conflicting lessons about welfare, work, medicine, gender, parenting, and mass culture. Trying to hold on to the values of family and home culture, Cambodian Americans nonetheless often feel that "Buddha is hiding." Tracing the entangled paths of poor and rich Asians in the American nation, Ong raises new questions about the form and meaning of citizenship in an era of globalization.

30 review for Buddha Is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    Ong’s look at Cambodian refugees in California contributes an important critique to our understanding of migration studies—centrally, that the systems of aid and placement present in American society do little to mitigate the challenges facing refugees, and actually add to the pressure to assimilate in order to secure the basics of survival in the American workforce and culture. This is centrally a book about cultural citizenship—what are the parameters of securing it, of “figuring out the rules Ong’s look at Cambodian refugees in California contributes an important critique to our understanding of migration studies—centrally, that the systems of aid and placement present in American society do little to mitigate the challenges facing refugees, and actually add to the pressure to assimilate in order to secure the basics of survival in the American workforce and culture. This is centrally a book about cultural citizenship—what are the parameters of securing it, of “figuring out the rules” to survive that fundamentally change the way one lives, works, and worships? She uses her extensive fieldwork in Northern California in the mid-1980s to think critically about each space of encounter that forces refugees into a new sense of self. In each space—the volunteer-run resettlement organizations, the welfare system, the hospitals, legal systems, churches, and workplace—the Cambodians she interviews find themselves being located along dramatically different gender and racial lines than what they have been accustomed to, finding themselves forced to perform a model of eager Americanness that stands counter to many of their traditional practices and beliefs. (This is all layered on top of a refusal to have their histories of trauma recorded, a choice that is itself evidence of the cultural rupture that Western doctors fail to respect or recognize.) Ong does particularly strong work in drawing our attention to the paternalism inherent to the Western gaze, the “refugee love” that makes women and children into objects of pity while also pushing them into ethics of self-subsistence they have no way of achieving without substantial government support. The best chapters for teaching are likely those in Chapter 4 (on the limits of Western medicine, particularly psychotherapy on Cambodian Buddhists), and Chapter 6, on the particular kind of aid work between feminist volunteers at welfare agencies and Cambodian women & children.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sam

    Part of my intro to anthropology class curriculum and it was one of the best texts I’ve read, I learned so much and the way it is written is incredibly engaging. Can’t wait to read more later. Prologue through Chapter 2 and Ch 4-6 done!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Karpiak

    Say what you want about Ong, but she has the uncanny ability to take a concept--such as "governmentality"--that in the hands of most writers turns into utter opacity and explain it so that even 17 year old university freshman with no background in social science can begin to use it to understand their own lives and see the world around them in a new way. Say what you want about Ong, but she has the uncanny ability to take a concept--such as "governmentality"--that in the hands of most writers turns into utter opacity and explain it so that even 17 year old university freshman with no background in social science can begin to use it to understand their own lives and see the world around them in a new way.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    Great title!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Such a good read! Cambodian Mormons in Oakland - and as doughnut kings around the Bay... who knew?

  6. 5 out of 5

    Brianna Cox

  7. 5 out of 5

    Alix

  8. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  9. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

  10. 5 out of 5

    Suraiya

  11. 4 out of 5

    Hong Deng

  12. 4 out of 5

    Bianca Beyrouti

  13. 5 out of 5

    Soojin Jeong

  14. 5 out of 5

    Brandon Fryman

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

  16. 5 out of 5

    Suepattra

  17. 4 out of 5

    Christien

  18. 4 out of 5

    Avie

  19. 5 out of 5

    Dianna Shandy

  20. 5 out of 5

    Linda

  21. 4 out of 5

    Monster

  22. 4 out of 5

    Aanika

  23. 4 out of 5

    sholeh

  24. 4 out of 5

    Evangeline Reyes

  25. 4 out of 5

    Alyssa

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

  27. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

  28. 4 out of 5

    Judith

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ann Suk

  30. 4 out of 5

    William

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