TV Reviews : ‘To Be an American’ Is Not Easy for Cambodian Refugee

‘To Be an American,” airing tonight at 10 on Channels 4, 36 and 39, puts a face on the often faceless stories of Southeast Asian refugees. The very human face in this case belongs to one Tong Chiv, who, at 17, has made remarkable strides dealing with the myriad problems of assimilation.

At age 9, Tong left her family behind in Refugee Camp No. 2, a wretched way station for some 160,000 Cambodian refugees in Thailand, coming to the United States with an older sister and the sister’s husband. “To Be an American” is the story of Tong’s attempt to reunite with her family, to bring them to join her in America.

Living with a foster family in Lowell, Mass., Tong, a resourceful, intelligent young woman, manages to get the assistance of her classmates, neighbors and Rep. Chet Atkins (D-Mass.), as well as financial aid from local agencies. She is successful--the family is reunited in the “freedom country.”

But as producer-director Tom Spain makes clear in this NBC News special, the family’s journey is just beginning. The new land has its own brand of problems: culture shock, racism, isolation for “outsiders.” Interviews with whites who see the Cambodians as trouble--they’re OK, but let ‘em live elsewhere--and with a textile manufacturer who is thrilled with his docile work force are illuminating.


“To Be an American” is subtle when it needs to be, letting the camera tell the tale in many scenes--as when Tong explains a microwave oven to her mother, and when the family first encounters snow. It is very moving at times, particularly when the soft-spoken Tong recounts the horrors the family has seen and her love for her sister.

The issues that “American” raises won’t simply go away. The camps in Thailand are swollen with refugees and are growing every day. Many of these people will wind up in the United States, mostly in Southern California. How we--a nation of immigrants--treat this latest wave of newcomers will say a lot about whether this is truly a kinder and gentler era.