There have been ugly and largely irrelevant conversations in the press and blogosphere on the Khmer word “yuon.” យួន. Only two major arguments are advanced. Both are incomplete and largely incorrect.
On the one side, some Vietnamese (though rarely, in my experience, ethnic Vietnamese with much experience in Cambodia) find the term terribly offensive and claim it must always be considered an intended linguistic assault on their person or ethnicity. This is more frequently raised by ethnic non-Vietnamese from a “Western” background.
On the other side, Khmer nationalists line up to defend the term as ‘non-racist, because its linguistic inheritance (variably derived from either “yavana” (Sanskrit: Newcomer) or “Yueh-*” (Southern Chinese term for Vietnamese). Because Yuon can be derived from a term which is arguably non-racist in origin, it cannot be racist in use.
Bollocks: a term can be ‘innocent’ in conception and ‘racist’ in use, as terms are all the time. Usage and context is always at stake. Yuon is “sometimes” racist, and “sometimes” not. My favorite example on this front is the wonderful meal:
This is politely referred to as “Sour Yuon Soup,” and rudely referred to as “Our Friend’s Soup”
Samlar Mchu Yuon (សំឡម្ជូរយូន): “Vietnamese Sour Soup,” which differs in some important ways from its obvious cousin (and probably antecedent) Samlar Mchu (សំឡម្ជូរ): “[Khmer] Sour Soup.” If you go to a Vietnamese-run restaurant in Phnom Penh, this dish is more frequently listed on the menu in Khmer as “Samlar Mchu Yuon.”
As those familiar with Khmer language are aware, Khmer language relies and has a great deal of fun with puns and rhyming schemes: these word games are a primary means of signification in everyday speech. Thus, the name of the soup “Samlar Mchu Yuon” (Yuon Sour Soup) can be transformed into “Samlar Mitt Youeng” (សំឡមិត្តយើង): “Our Friends’ Soup.” Think about those options for a minute. One of them contains the contested word “Yuon,” and the other replaces this term with “Our Friend.”
When Khmer call “Samlar Mchu Yuon” “Samlar Mitt Youeng” in a Vietnmase restaurant, they are being aggressive and racist. Let me repeat that: In a situation where “Yuon” is the expected designation, replacing it with the word “Friend” is hostile, aggressive, and racist, precisely because it plays on the term in a way that highlights the way in which the Vietnamese Government (not the Vietnamese people) have portrayed themselves as “Friends of Cambodia” while constantly taking advantage of it.
On the other hand, Sam Rainsy and the people I have called “Khmer Nationalists” are completely disingenuous when they insist that no usage of the term “Yuon” could be construed as racist and offensive. They are wrong. The word “Vietnam” is *now* a part of the Khmer language (with a standard spelling: វៀតណ៉ាម), just as are many other words from outside of the Khmer language (An astonishing amount of the Khmer vocabulary comes from “outside” of the Khmer language: influx from Sanskrit, Pali, and Malay are most influential and common, but many other origins, including Vietnamese, exist). The meaning of Yuon has evolved in relationship with this new word, “Vietnam.” In certain contexts, most especially when one is speaking English, for example, the word Vietnam is easily replaced for Yuon, and the problem disappears.
The Nationalists will object. Too bad. Awareness of the mental state of one’s audience and the reception of one’s message is a crucial part of the Buddha’s own teachings on Right Speech. Suck it up: if you want to act morally according to those suggestions, you should use language skillfully, rather than defensively attempting to back up your own reflexive practices. This doesn’t mean one must always replace the word in one’s usage: I myself use the word Yuon all the time when speaking Khmer with Khmer people: it is, indubitably, the sole common word for Vietnamese in Khmer. But Sam Rainsy and others are not stupid, and their insistence on preserving and reclaiming this term for the Vietnamese cannot be understood in isolation from the hateful rhetoric and speeches made about Vietnam, coming from the SRP on a regular basis.
Finally, if morals are not persuasive, perhaps a comparison in which the shoe is on the other foot will be effective. Insisting that Khmer should feel ‘innocent’ and blameless in all situations where the word Yuon is used is precisely like insisting that the Thai should feel free and comfortable in all situations using the words “Khmen” and “Khom” to refer to Khmer. Both words have a ‘real’ linguistic origin, have become deeply confused in etymology, and are regularly used in everyday speech in a bivalent manner – sometimes merely referring to the ethnic group of Cambodia, and other times containing a very precise nuance of “dirty, stupid, impoverished, and sneaky.”
- Kenneth So, “Is using the word Yuon justified and beneficial for Khmers?“
- Vietnamese Studies Group, “Perjorative terms ‘Yuon’ and ‘Mien.'”
- Details are Sketchy, “Yuon“
- Meng Ly, “Suggesting that yuon is a racist word incites racial hatred.”
- Sophal Ear and Kenneth So. “Yuon: what’s in a xenonym?“
…and, I should hasten to point out, the name Samlar Mchu Yuon is largely taboo in my own current hometown of Saint Paul, MN, home to large refugee communities of both Vietnamese and Cambodian (as well as Lao and Hmong, and lots of other folks…). My son, who grew up eating and referring to the soup as Samlar Mchu Yuon, asked for it in a Cambodian restaurant here, in Khmer. The owner was very sweet when she corrected us, kindly, pointing out that there were “No ‘Yuon’ here: we all get along here.” That latter explanation yet another example of the importance of context and consideration. In her highly mixed community of Chinese, Lao, Hmong, Khmer, and Vietnamese, where they are all minority groups and inter-group solidarity is relatively high, the word has dropped out of non-racist usage. Now, when a Khmer in my hometown uses the term, it is likely to be an older person, and/or a person using it with explicitly hurtful intent. That’s different from the usage in Cambodia, by and large (and I have no idea how it compares to other cities in the USA).
The soup here has been renamed “Samlar Mchu Angkor,” which is even more interesting, since it re-appropriates from the Vietnamese/”Yuon” their innovations on the basic Khmer sour soup recipe, by eliminating “Yuon” (beneficently, no doubt) from the title but choosing to replace it with the icon of Khmer nationalism instead of the new political ethnonym Vietnam.