Humans of Khmer America

Kalean Ung

I am Kalean Ung, an actress, singer and writer based in Los Angeles, California. I do a lot of theatre as well as new opera. I am also a part-time college professor in acting. I have taught at California Institute of the Arts, California State University, Los Angeles, and currently at California State University, Northridge.

I am half Khmer and half Sicilian (mostly). My father is Khmer and came here in 1964 on a scholarship to Manhattan School of Music. Although I did not grow up speaking Khmer, I was exposed to Khmer food and learning Khmer customs. I did not grow up near a large Khmer community. As some one who is biracial, I grew up being asked “what I was” all the time. As an adult I have been trying to immerse myself more in the culture and with the community especially since I am now near Long Beach.

I just wrote and performed my first solo show “Letters from Home.” It is a collaboration between my father and I, composer Chinary Ung. The show is about uncovering letters written to my father (who was here in the US) from our surviving relatives who had made it to the refugee camps after the Khmer Rouge. My father had not revealed that he had had these letters buried away in his closet for almost 4 decades–they were so painful to read. It is also about being a first generation American, being biracial and the cultural trauma that is passed down through generations. Through the show I also pay tribute to my father who took off eleven years from composing music not only to help his family escape from the refugee camps but also to persevere Cambodian arts and culture to refugee children.

I hope to tour “Letters from Home” around the country and connect to other Khmericans who are both refugees and first generation. In ten years I would like to have had a successful life with this show and to make a film adaptation. I would also like to be teaching full time at the college level working with singers and actors and interdisciplinary artists.

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