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PhallyChroyPhally Chroy

Phally Chroy is a Khmer refugee who was raised in Philadelphia. He describes himself as a “vigilante with a camera that does not take lives but instead tells lives.” The Asian Arts Initiative provided Phally a catalyst for his work through the Something to Say and Seeing Voices programs when he was a teenager. The experience has had him seeing voices and always finding something to say for all his life.

Do you believe art can facilitate connections between people and their communities?

I remember when we had the Scribe [Video Center]'s "Street Movies," and I showed my film about Cambodian dance. And I was watching the Cambodian people around and they were so captivated by it. They didn't have to say anything; they got it. It was more relevant for those people, the artists who were Cambodian, the Khmer watching. The kids, the little kids-5 or 6 years old-stood up real quick when they heard somebody speaking Khmer. They were watching everything. Understanding the words, understanding what they were seeing.

The older adults just folded their hands and stood there and watched. They didn't walk away. Not enough stories for everybody else, but stories for your own people. If they think you're crazy, you can be crazy, you know, and they won't pay attention. But for them to fold their arms and look at it for the whole 20 minutes, that was something very important at work. It's a personal story of mine and maybe some folks don't get it, but the folks who are in my community get it, and those are the ones I want to get it.

What was your first experience wth the arts?

I remember going to school. I didn't realize this until now, but I realized that at a young age, I only went to afternoon school, afternoon kindergarten. Because in afternoon kindergarten, I realized all my friends were either Hispanic or other refugees-Chinese and Vietnamese. And I found out I really didn't have a lot of American kindergarten friends growing up. Even in the afternoon. The morning classes were filled with American kids who spoke English. And we were the struggling kids. And I realized, at a young age, wow, I had a really good introduction to race dynamics, you know? They put us all bunched together-and we didn't get to go on some field trips because they were in the morning. For us to make the field trip, we had to come in the morning. And our parents couldn't bring us in the morning because they didn't understand what a field trip was . . .

I had a vivid imagination, which helped me cope with my growing anger as a youth. That's all you can really have. When you see stuff you try to you create understanding. You imagine things, you know? I used to draw because drawing was easy. I had a bunch of three-hole papers with the lines, never had the paper with just white. Just drawing, drawing, wasting paper. And playing video games. Letting my imagination manifest itself. I used to go daydreaming, thinking about stories, "What if this? What if that?" Growing up, I didn't really talk a lot until I just couldn't handle it anymore. Until I just couldn't understand, "Why is this? He got a new pair of sneaks, why don't I have a new pair of sneaks?"

Good thing it was just jealousy or envy, but I just started manifesting. He had new sneakers, but I imagined my sneakers to be way better than that. You just let your imagination run. I'd go out and draw sneakers, stuff. It helped me put stuff into an outlet. I started to talk a lot more, not just because it's English but because that's the way I can bring it out. I was lucky I didn't get put in ESL: "He talked a lot, he knows enough English so he doesn't really belong in there." You know, a lot of kids, they didn't really grow up talking in front of people, teachers and stuff like that. But they always talked among friends. I just couldn't stand it, I had to break that. People were always like, "Oh he's talkative." I couldn't stand it anymore. I had this stuff built up . . . it was crazy. So imagine when I came across Asian Arts Initiative.

What issues do you care about in the APIA community?

You know the problem with what I see between the elders and the young kids? The young kids are going to be American, you know? The elders don't want to be American. And the thing is that you're going to lose it, it's lost. That middle ground right there is the culture. The culture is not getting passed on straight away because adults are trying to preserve arts and culture when they don't even know the arts and culture anymore.

Growing up, my parents didn't really have any art sense in the house. The only art sense they really had was some karaoke songs, stuff like that. But you have no art sense of classic Cambodian poetry, comedy. I had to go to Cambodia to find all this stuff out and then come back and have a different perspective on my heritage. I didn't know about classic Cambodian folk dance and then all of a sudden I want to get a Ph.D. in Cambodian folk dance. I didn't think about that a year ago until I saw that this was my culture. Maybe not my Cambodian culture but definitely my Khmer culture, as a person who ethnically is Khmer.

I don't even call myself Cambodian. I am ethnically Khmer. I come from a Cambodian family, but I am ethnically Khmer. Because there's a lot of stuff that comes with it, the bad stuff and the good stuff. These people lost a sense of what it is to be Khmer. Buddhist in thought and tradition. Not being solid but being flexible. But old people don't want to be flexible. Young kids think they can just move on the way that they live, they can adopt American names, do American things . . . I understand. That's why as an artist I try to bring it out of them, like my film "In My Heart I'm a Dancer." It's like you know deep inside that you're Khmer, and you have a righteous heart.

How do you seek to grow as an artist?

The most important stories are the ones that you feel are most hardest to tell. Telling a story about not wearing underwear for 14 years is a hard story; it's an embarrassing story. But there's so much stuff in it that you can take out of it, you know? So much cultural stuff, so much societal stuff. One of the hardest stories is a painful story. My mom-she's disabled, she's an alcoholic, she gambles. That's a really hard story. All of my stories have been about my dad, easy stories about how he really worked hard to support the family, but never about my mom. And I think that's the hardest story to tell because you will hurt people. Not just the people who you do the story about, but the people who see it. Because they see that the stories are true. They are true stories. When you think about them, I want you to ask, "Is that how we put people in society to live?" So that's the story I want to tell, but it's really hard.

It's easy to be a film maker, you know, pick a camera up, document a subject or have a story you want to write a script about-but do the hard ones. Those are the ones that people really need. The ones people leave and are like, "Wow, it is really hard to convey that pain." You can do happy stories too. But the stories growing up in South Philly, a lot of people share those stories because we lived in the same place. You hang around people who are bad, you're going to be bad. You hang around people who are good, you're going to be good. You hang around people who suffer the same stuff as you, you're going to suffer the same stuff as them.

What is your connection to the Asian Arts Initiative?

I recall I was at Asian American United when I first heard about AAI. I was introduced by Lai-Har [Cheung] to the program. What else was I going to do? I wasn't really a good kid at that time. I was around 15 or 16 years old. I was in a gang and everything. You know, that was my support. And so I made some new friends, I started going to these programs, like awareness programs, to become politically aware. And I thank AAU for that, for giving me that, but especially because it was led by Lai-Har. Lai-Har was one of the people who I really looked up to. Because she was funny, and she always challenged me. I had these "Whys?" but I was never able to defend them. And Lai-Har, AAU gave me the space to defend them.

There was an open house that somehow got passed through from AAU to Asian Arts Initiative, and that's how I heard about the program. I was like, "I have all these stories. Let me put them to good use and see what can happen." And that's what happened. If you start putting yourself around good people, people who think differently, you're going to start to think and feel differently. I was put in a place that challenged me and these questions that I had. I was with a bunch of other people who were in the same place, with the same kind of questions too. So we were sharing and understanding and I'm thinking, "No longer am I by myself with these questions, I have people who have these questions too."

I thought. "If I stay here, I'll have a chance to say it. If I don't, I'll go back and keep this all inside and it will just manifest into something even more negative. Let it come out, see what happens." And so I came through the door of AAI. This was one of the institutions that gave me a chance to see different perspectives to these questions I had that were always around and always gave me anger. But now I have anger and answers, which is more important. I've become more solemn, more calm now. I just take it and understand that's how it was growing up.

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