by Russell Jeung
A Cambodian exorcism in Oakland
“Wanna see a ghost dance?”
The kids—four Cambodian children who lived in my Oakland neighborhood—frantically beckoned me to come quickly.
Having never seen a dancing ghost, much less a standing ghost, I chased them to an apartment upstairs. A dozen youth stood crowded around the front window of Bech Chuom, a Khmer native healer. I peered in, and I saw a ghost dance.
Inside the community leader’s home, a young teenager, Sarah, was dancing by herself in silence. Her hands, cocked at the wrists, waved about languidly, like sea anemone swaying in a current. She circled a room with no furniture, decorated only with a bamboo mat covering the floor.
I stared fascinated for a few moments and then felt self-conscious for ogling. She should have her privacy while dancing with a ghost, I thought.
That evening, Sarah’s mom told me in halting English that we needed to go to Long Beach in Southern California to buy a crown.
“A crown?” I asked puzzled.
“Yeah, a crown.”
I was very confused. Why was Sarah mutely dancing by herself, and why was I being told to drive 400 miles to pick up a crown? Fortunately, another Cambodian neighbor provided a partial explanation: an ancestral spirit had become angry and possessed Sarah because of a family conflict. They needed to offer a headdress—the crown—in order to appease the ancestors. Sarah wasn’t dancing with a ghost. The ghost inside her was the one doing the dancing.
Two years before Sarah’s ghost dance, I had moved into Oak Park Apartments in East Oakland to study Cambodian youth gangs. I was pursuing a graduate degree in sociology. But I was also an evangelical Christian hoping to replicate the work of the Christian Community Development Association, a progressive group that works to transform low-income communities. In their model, Christians go to live among the people they are serving and try to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, empowering local leaders to build economic self-sufficiency.
Our ministry at Oak Park included intentional Christian practices of hospitality and presence. My roommate, Dan, had moved in to the complex two years before me had started a housecleaning business that employed local residents. When I arrived, a Spanish-speaking congregation was using his living room as a food pantry for new immigrants to Oakland. Dan, who had grown up in the white, middle-class San Francisco suburb of Burlingame, wanted to develop solidarity with the poor and welcomed newcomers any way he could.
Since my family had been in California for five generations, I too felt like I was in a position to host and receive others to our state. In fact, we were upwardly mobile beneficiaries of government programs designed to help families like mine. The GI Bill, which overwhelmingly benefited nonblack veterans of World War II, enabled my dad to attend San Francisco State College for free, where he met my mom. He then used his veteran’s benefit to purchase a home outside of Chinatown, enabling my siblings and I to attend excellent public schools. The GI Bill shaped our fortunes.
Just as we benefited from certain racial privileges, we also stood on the shoulders of African Americans who fought for civil rights and political empowerment. I got a job working for Mayor Art Agnos even though I never studied political science. I was a native San Franciscan and Asian American, and he needed a community liaison. Even though I couldn’t speak Chinese, I at least looked the part!
Because of the extraordinary but unearned advantages I had benefited from, I came to believe that I could offer help to my neighbors in Oak Park. I could share the love of Christ by empowering those whom I hosted. I could use my social capital to connect my neighbors to the resources and networks they needed to get ahead.
Living in Oak Park Apartments with Cambodian refugees and undocumented Latinos transformed me in several ways. I was accustomed to getting things done my way. At Oak Park, though, nothing seemed to change. Known by local kids as the “Murder Dubs,” the neighborhood had long been a segregated ghetto where poverty was passed down from generation to generation. Newly arrived refugees and immigrant families had no means to get off of welfare or into something more stable than day labor work.
Even though Oak Park kids clearly wanted to learn, they had difficulty in school. Our living room became a mini-classroom, complete with alphabet wall borders. Kids came for tutoring every day. We attended the local school’s open houses to stress the importance of education. Later, my roommates and I received a family literacy grant to teach English as a second language to parents. The rationale was that if students saw their parents modeling learning behaviors, the students would also succeed. We started separate boys and girls groups to mentor them. Since we lived right next door, we figured we could be positive role models.
But despite our efforts, not one of the boys in our group graduated from high school in the eight years we held our informal classes. Meanwhile, in the two years I had known Sarah’s family, 332 people were murdered in Oakland. Only one or two refugee parents were able to land a job that paid a living wage. We saw the cycles of violence and poverty, and the intensification of inequality. These patterns were not just grim statistics that we read about, but dire situations facing our friends and neighbors, who by now had come to feel like family.
But now I was confronted by a ghost, and I didn’t know how to react.
When Chouen, Sarah’s mom, asked for the ride to Long Beach, I immediately protested and said I couldn’t go so far from Oakland. I wanted to avoid this situation altogether. I came to show God’s love by doing community development, not by casting out spirits. I didn’t believe a headdress was going to fix Sarah’s problem, and I said so.
At six the next morning, however, Chouen showed up at my door and said, “Time to go!” Something must have been missed in the translation. The family really wanted to get rid of the ghost.
And it was a family affair. Everyone showed up for the drive to Long Beach: Sarah; her mom; her younger sister; her father, who had been paralyzed by a land mine in Cambodia; her grandmother; and Bech Chuom, who brought along a boom box to play Buddhist chants to keep the ghost at bay. I didn’t feel like I could say no to the family; Sarah, all this time, had been staring blankly and didn’t respond to any of my attempts at conversation.
Of course, I had no experience in dealing with ghosts, except for chauffeuring them around.
Reluctantly, I borrowed a van and we were off. About halfway down I-5, near Los Banos, Chouen told me to pull off the freeway and get the girls and myself some lunch at McDonald’s. When I returned with Big Macs, the family had already spread out a mat in the parking lot and had begun to eat the lunch they’d brought for themselves. Bech Chuom took the boom box from the car and continued to blast the chanting. Meanwhile, locals in cowboy hats parked their trucks beside us. If they had known that—in addition to the bald man in a white robe with a saffron sash, a man in a wheelchair wearing a sarong, and a grandmother eating little rice from an ornate, silver rice-bowl caddy—there was a spirit-filled girl squatting with us on the ground, their uncomfortably long stares might have lasted even longer.
As a Chinese American in California, I don’t often feel like a minority. That lunchtime, I did.
Bech Chuom, the Cambodian healer, looked like the stereotypical Buddhist monk. Yet he wasn’t cloistered in a temple leading Buddhist sutra chanting. He lived across the courtyard from me and acted as a Kru Khmer, a traditional healer and community leader. His tattoos, which lined his arms and crossed his belly, were yantra, Sanskrit geometric figures that protected him from evil spirits. When people had bouts of illness, he would use a technique called coining to “catch the wind” and draw out their bad air. If they had bad luck, he would make flattened rice-dough figures, much like gingerbread men, and call out the spirits from the individuals’ bodies. The hope was that the spirits would enter the dough figures and quit harassing the humans.
Bech Chuom would also bless amulets and spirit strings for protection. Some believed that the amulets could make gang members bulletproof, so that they were emboldened in fighting for turf. One Cambodian young man whom I knew swore that his spirit string around his waist made a bullet miss him by a whisker.
Because Bech Chuom was the most colorful man in our complex and had a huge, brightly lit shrine in his living room, and happily accommodated guests, I would occasionally bring visitors to meet him. One was a student of mine, a 300-pound nose tackle on the Cal football team nicknamed Pee Wee. He had injured his neck in a car accident and desperately wanted to play again, so he asked Bech Chuom for a healing session.
Bech Chuom consented, motioned Pee Wee to kneel before the shrine, and then took a sip of water. I thought the kru was just for clearing his throat so that he could begin chanting. Instead, he began to spit, directly over Pee Wee. I froze, aghast, wondering if Pee Wee would blitz and tackle this eighty-year-old man. Fortunately, Pee Wee took the spitting ceremony in stride. He told me he’d never let anyone disrespect him like that on the football field, but since Bech Chuom was an elder, he gave him his props. The healing didn’t fix his neck, but Pee Wee, a sociology student, had a great experience.
The story around the neighborhood was that Bech Chuom had found his daughter abandoned and tied to a tree in Cambodia during the war, and that he saved her while under fire. I had heard many dramatic, tragic stories about the Cambodian “killing fields,” but this story was one of the few with a happy ending. When I got a chance to talk to Bech Chuom through an interpreter, I wanted to learn more about his heroic act.
“Oh, that story!?!” he guffawed, “That’s just a joke. I tell her that when I’m mad at her. When she doesn’t listen to me, I say I’m going to return her to the bush where I found her.”
Sarah’s family and I made it to Long Beach and back—headdress in hand—in fourteen hours. I didn’t participate in any ceremony or witness any exorcism that evening. But the next day Sarah was back to her sweet self again.
I asked her what she remembered of the experience, and she couldn’t recall any of the entire past week’s events.
The following week, I spoke to a Cambodian American counselor at Asian Community Mental Health Services about the spirit possession. She nonchalantly told me, “Oh, yes, we see that a lot. The girl may have been recently abused.” When refugee youth face traumatic experiences, she explained, they often disassociate from the experience and act in culturally scripted ways.
Had Sarah been abused, or was she really possessed by a spirit?
If pressed, I would say yes to both. Abuse is all too common among families dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. But many of my neighbors, Cambodian and not, have said they have seen spirits hovering around the neighborhood. Both explanations are possible.
It was around the time of Sarah’s ghost dance time that I stopped writing about Cambodian Americans for sociological journals, because I knew it would take me years to learn the language and to grasp their spiritual worldviews. Dan, my roommate, and I also understood that if we wanted to really address the “felt needs” of our neighbors, as advised by Christian urban ministry strategies, we should focus less on economic development and more on our neighbors’ spiritual fears, including evil spirits and magic.
Of course, I had no experience in dealing with ghosts, except for chauffeuring them around.
After that week, I never saw Sarah again. I heard that she entered an arranged marriage somewhere in the Midwest. Bech Chuom and I kept busy. Together, we once made the New York Times when we were lobbying against welfare reform.1 With Bech Chuom’s support, Dan and I organized two hundred of our fellow tenants and won a landmark housing settlement at Oak Park.
But in the years since, I’ve come to temper my grand ambition to transform the community. In my search to be a more faithful Christian witness in the “Murder Dubs,” I’ve reclaimed my own status as a Hakka.
The Hakka were a landless Chinese underclass that migrated and settled wherever they could—Hakka literally means “guest family.” Local residents resented them so much that war broke out in the 1860s, and more than one million people were killed. Afterward, instead of resettling on a government reservation for the Hakka, my great-great grandparents sailed across the Pacific to build a new home in Monterey, California, in 1868. Four decades later, after establishing one of the largest fishing businesses in the area, my great-grandparents had to move again. Along with the entire Chinese fishing village, they were evicted and driven out of by the white townspeople.
Just as the Hakka are guest families, often at the mercy of those already living on the land, evangelical followers of Jesus are sent out as guests. This identity, as a guest rather than a Christian colonizer and as a lamb instead of a lion, helped me to reconcile my role at Oak Park. My gift was not that I brought upward mobility or resources. It was that I could be a Hakka refugee, too, a fellow nomad in our pilgrimage through California. Our role as guests is not to remake our host community, but simply to receive and reciprocate peace.
Eventually, Bech Chuom would take his settlement funds to retire in his hometown in Cambodia. I’m sure that when he got there, he saw more ghosts dance.
Following the protocols of the sociological research I was undertaking at the time, Sarah is a pseudonym, as are the names of her family members and others in this story.
1Tim Golden, “If Immigrants Lose U.S. Aid, Local Budgets May Feel Pain,” New York Times, 29 July 1996.