Is the Foreigners’ Imposition on Cambodians to Stop Using the Word Yuon a Form of Colonialism of the Mind? By Kenneth T. So

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Dear Readers,

I assume by now most of you have read the article “Yuon: What’s in a Xenonym?” that was posted in the Phnom Penh Post (PPP) on February 8, 2010. Since then, there were some comments made on the article, specifically those made by Mr. Peter Starr ( and Mr. Michael Hansen (

After reading the two comments I decided to respond to them by sending my letter to the PPP on February 14, 2010. Until this day I have not heard anything from the PPP, not even an acknowledgment saying that they have received my letter. I know that the PPP cannot please all its readers and in general it has done a fair and decent job in its reporting. However, I think the PPP made a mistake in its judgment for not publishing my rebuttal letter. In spite of this, I still consider the PPP to be a good newspaper because it has not only enriched our Khmer culture but also opened up our society to the rest of the world. However, in order to be a great newspaper it must not only fix its mistake whenever there is one, but it must also learn from it.
I believe the reason the PPP refused to publish my letter because the insights and statements I brought up in the letter hit the nail right in the head and they were too close to foreigners’ feeling towards Khmers for the PPP to feel comfortable. Below please find my letter that the PPP refused to publish.

Is the Foreigners’ Imposition on Cambodians to Stop Using the Word Yuon a Form of Colonialism of the Mind?
By Kenneth T. So

Dear Sir:
February 14, 2010

This article is in response to all Westerners and/or foreigners who keep on insisting that the word Yuon is a pejorative and/or racist word. I was hoping the article that Dr. Sophal Ear and I wrote (Yuon: What’s in a xenonym?) would clarify any misunderstanding concerning this word, but some comments I read in your newspaper still leave me somewhat uneasy.

I appreciate the comments that Westerners and/or foreigners made in your newspaper very much and furthermore, I understand that they are constructive ones. In light of that, I still need to make the following points to defend our usage of the word Yuon when we speak or write in Cambodian. Personally, I do not support people using the word Yuon when expressing it in the English or French languages, but I do respect their freedom of choice.

Respectfully, I would like to specifically respond to Mr. Peter Starr in his article “Yuon may be neutral, but it’s not diplomatic” (Phnom Penh Post, 10 February 2010) and Mr. Michael Hansen in his article “Is the use of the term yuon constructive?” (Phnom Penh Post, 11 February 2010).

The story that Mr. Starr told about the Sino-Vietnamese Cambodian cook called Samlor Machou Yuon in the kitchen, but had to switch to calling it Samlor Machou Vietnam when he (she) brought it to the guest was very poignant to me. Mr. Starr said that the cook switched the name out of courtesy to the guests. I assume that the guests were mostly Caucasians. This is where Mr. Starr and I differ in opinion and understanding of Khmer culture. From my point of view, the cook did not do it for courtesy but rather for fear of being branded a racist by white foreigners. To me, this is a form of colonialism of the mind.

Additionally, if the word Yuon is pejorative or racist why would we honor the Vietnamese with the name of a dish that we love and consider as one of our national dishes? In my opinion, it is incorrect to call the soup Samlor Machou Vietnam (or Yuon) because this national dish does not taste or resemble the Vietnamese soup Canh Chua, which is sweeter and includes bean sprouts. I feel it is more appropriate to call this soup Samlor Machou Péngpoas.

When Mr. Starr mentioned that it was not statesmanlike for a member of a parliament to use the word Yuon (I assume the member of the parliament was speaking in Khmer and not in English or French), the only existing Khmer word to designate a Vietnamese, I also call this a form of colonialism of the mind.

Mr. Hansen explained his objection on the usage of the word Yuon by saying that the language changed over time, or that the context in which the word was used must be considered, or that one must listen to the tone of the voice carefully. Mr. Hansen is correct. This is true in any language and/or words one used. Replacing the word Yuon with Choun Cheat Vietnam (National of Vietnam) will not make any difference if one is loud, vulgar, and abusive.
Allow me to ask the following questions to Westerners and/or foreigners who think that the word Yuon is either pejorative or/and racist in nature.

Is it racist to say Lauk Neung Yuon (A respectful way of saying “He is a Vietnamese”)?
Is it racist to say Neang Srey Yuon Neung Sa’art Nas (That Vietnamese lady is beautiful)?

Is it racist to say Yuon Klas Chit La’or (Some Vietnameses have good hearts)?
As I have explained earlier, Yuon is a xenonym and is not a racist or pejorative word. Why is it alright for Westerners and/or foreigners to tell Cambodians to stop using this word, but they would not dare telling the Americans or the British to stop using the word German (and the French to stop using the word Allemand) and replace it with the word Deutsch instead? Is this the case of a double-standard because Cambodia is a small and defenseless country? Isn’t this the case of colonialism of the mind? Why won’t Westerners and/or foreigners also criticize the Thai for using the same word Yuon to call the Vietnamese? Isn’t it that they cannot harass the Thai like they can easily do it to the Cambodians? Yes, I call this a form of colonialism of the mind.

Colonialism does not just pertain to a powerful country occupying and ruling a smaller and defenseless country, but it also includes the rules and moralities that a powerful country imposes and dictates on a smaller and weaker country.


Post a Comment