A Diaspora in Focus
An exploration of the Asian American experience in Connecticut
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
Connecticut is home to more than 170,000 Asian residents.
Asian Americans are the country’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group and are projected to be its largest immigrant group by 2055. Connecticut is among the first states in the nation to pass a law requiring public schools to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, history, set to take effect in the 2025-2026 school year.
In recognition of this landmark legislation, CT Mirror photojournalist Yehyun Kim launched a project to interview and photograph one Connecticut resident from each of the 21 Asian ethnicities as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.
It would be impossible for any single project to capture the totality of the Asian American experience in the state. But, when woven together, the lives of the people represented here provide a glimpse into the richness and diversity of Connecticut’s Asian residents.
A Diaspora in Focus
As the state develops an Asian American history curriculum for public schools, the CT Mirror profiled and photographed residents as a way to learn more about Asia’s 21 ethnicities. In this story, we highlight residents from Southeast Asia.
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Lives in: Bristol
Born in: Cambodia
Age: Did not respond
Languages spoken: Khmer
Works at: Nail salon, manufacturing company
One thing Khan loves about living in Connecticut: Chanting the scriptures at the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut in Bristol
It was a big day for the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut in Bristol — the day they raised money to run the temple.
After sharing rice with monks, the group prayed and hung dollar bills on lines of trees, signifying the act of performing good deeds for others, and the temple members took seats on the floor or in chairs. Dany Khan was there, holding a mic and introducing monks before they started chanting scriptures.
Khan was introduced to Buddhism at a young age in Cambodia, where Buddhism is the state religion. More than 90% of the population practices the religion, according to the Embassy of Cambodia. Ironically, Khan didn’t become as devout as she is — enough to say that chanting the scripture is her favorite thing to do in Connecticut — until she moved to the state, where fewer than 1% of residents are Buddhist.
“It teaches you how to control your suffering,” she said.
This fundamental lesson in Buddhism resonated with Khan, especially because she was going through hardships when she moved to Connecticut from Cambodia in December 2019. She didn’t meet her husband before their arranged marriage in the U.S., which is a tradition and norm in Cambodian culture. It took some time and effort to understand one another since they had lived in different countries with different lifestyles.
And while she could bring her biological son from her first marriage to the U.S., her adopted daughter had to stay behind with Khan’s brother because of a problem with her visa. Throughout all of this, Buddhism reminded her that she has a strong will that allows her to adapt to any community and practice kindness with everyone she meets.
Going beyond settling in her new community and working two jobs, she now hopes to pursue a goal of spreading the lesson to people back in Cambodia by being a Buddhist missionary in the country.
Lives in: West Haven
Born in: Worcester, MA
Languages spoken: English
Works as: Student
One thing Putra loves about living in Connecticut: “That feeling of home,” said Putra. “I have a lot of memories here. A lot of good ones and a lot of bad ones, but all of them matter because they made me who I am.”
Adam Putra’s parents and brother came to the U.S. from Indonesia in 2000 when his father, Boyke, who worked in computer science, landed an IT job.
Shortly after they arrived, the dot-com bubble burst, and Boyke got laid off. Today, Boyke works full-time at Trader Joe’s, as well as a couple days a week doing rest area and highway maintenance.
“As long as I am healthy, I will do whatever I can to support my kids,” he said.
As the only member of his family born in the U.S., Adam felt frustrated by the obstacles his parents and brothers had to face.
Growing up, people told him that his parents’ retail jobs were somehow a sign that they weren’t hard workers. But watching his parents work nights and weekends, Adam knew that wasn’t true.
“I can confidently say they worked harder than most people,” he said.
Adam also watched as his brother, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipient, struggled to navigate the college admissions process. Despite being the high school valedictorian, Adam’s brother, Alif, got turned down for scholarships because of his immigration status.
“My focus changed from going to the best college to finding basically any college that would be willing to help us,” explained Alif, who eventually managed to get financial aid from UConn, where he graduated with a degree in computer science.
Alif now works as a software engineer. Adam hopes to do the same when he graduates from UConn, where he is a sophomore, also majoring in computer science. Both of them chose to work in the same field that brought their father to the U.S.
“I was so proud of them, of course,” said Boyke of seeing his sons follow in his footsteps. He hopes his sons reach a level of success that he never did, where they have time to find joy outside of their work.
“More [success] in life … [so] life is not just about working, but also you can explore more outside the work, like hobbies,” he said.
In West Haven, Adam was one one of the few Asian kids in school and often shied away from his Indonesian identity. But in recent years, Adam has developed pride in his family’s culture.
He credits the shift to the rise in popularity of Asian celebrities in pop culture but also to the people he surrounds himself with.
“I don't really feel like I have to hide anything anymore,” said Adam. “I guess the world seeing that Asia exists allows me to try to be myself sometimes. But I've also been hanging around more people that just accept me for who I am.”
Lives in: Windsor
Born in: Luang Prabang, Laos
Languages spoken: Lao, Thai, English
Works as: Retired
One thing Phouthasack loves about living in Connecticut: “I do a lot of gardening in my backyard. I grow up something, I give it to my neighbor,” he said, adding that his neighbor often returns the favor. “We share together.”
The Vietnam War is a pillar of American history, but far fewer people know about the covert U.S. operation in Laos — known as the Secret War — that occurred in its shadow.
In an effort to prevent the spread of communism in Laos and block North Vietnamese supply routes, the CIA secretly recruited, trained and deployed a Special Guerrilla Unit, made up of Lao, Hmong and Thai fighters. The arrangement allowed the U.S. government to preserve its interests in Laos without the use of American troops, which would have violated an international treaty that declared the country neutral.
Sar Phouthasack served as part of the Special Guerilla Unit, or SGU, and the combat missions he participated in still live in his memory as some of the proudest moments of his life.
In 1964, he parachuted out of a plane into North Vietnam and spent the next three months and 25 days in the jungle. During his time in service, he blocked convoys, stopped North Vietnamese troops from advancing into South Vietnam and thwarted their operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Communist army’s main supply route between North and South Vietnam, which passed through Laos and Cambodia.
“I’m so proud of what I did and what I’ve done,” said Phouthasack. “We help a lot of American troops.”
The effort came at an immense cost to Laos. More than 35,000 SGU soldiers lost their lives. In an effort to block the North Vietnamese troops, the United States dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos between 1963 and 1974, making it, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in history.
Laos fell to the Communists in 1975. The new government began rounding up people from the opposition into prisoner of war camps. Phouthasack, along with hundreds of thousands of his fellow Laotians, fled the country for Thailand.
In February 1983, Phouthasack moved to Connecticut. During his first three years in the United States, he worked as an inspector at an aerospace manufacturing company every day from 5:30 in the evening to 7 in the morning, eventually earning enough to bring his wife and eight children to the country as well.
Now retired, Phouthasack dedicates his time to preserving the legacy of the Special Guerilla Unit for future generations. He organized the construction of a monument in Middletown to honor the efforts of the SGU soldiers during the Secret War.
“You never, ever forget history. You have to learn from history. Learn from bad to good,” Phouthasack said.
The monument — a restored Huey helicopter that was used in combat — sits outside the Greater Middletown Military Museum. It was installed in 2018, and Phouthasack still has more additions he wants to make, including a wall that displays the five branches of the U.S. military.
“I honor them,” Phouthasack said of the American troops. “We fought together.”
Lives in: Vernon
Born in: Rockville, CT
Languages spoken: English, Hmong
One thing Yang loves about living in Connecticut: Hmong people are organized into clans where everyone shares the same last name. In other states with larger Hmong populations, like California and Minnesota, Hmong people tend to spend time with their own clans. But, in Connecticut, the roughly 150 Hmong residents operate as one clan. “I think that's one of the great things about being from Connecticut and being small is we're all family,” said Yang.
Pheng Yang serves as the vice president of the Hmong Foundation of Connecticut, which connects Hmong people in the state and works to preserve Hmong culture in the United States.
For hundreds of years, Hmong people lived high in the mountains of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, harvesting and farming enough crops to sustain the community while maintaining a culture centered around the belief in a deep connection between the spiritual world and physical world.
“In our culture, we have a strong belief in spirits and our ancestors,” said Yang, explaining that Hmong people pray to their ancestors in the same way that other religions pray to a higher being. “We ask them to help us, to protect us and watch us.”
While the Vietnam War raged, a much less public war took place in Laos. In what came to be known as the Secret War, the CIA recruited, trained and deployed a Special Guerilla Unit to fight against communist forces in the country. The vast majority of these fighters were Hmong.
In 1975, the communists took over Laos, and many Hmong fled the country, with over 100,000 dying in an effort to reach Thailand. Those who migrated successfully ended up in refugee camps. Eventually, about 100,000 Hmong people settled in the United States.
In the late 70s, Yang’s elders started what would later become the Hmong Foundation of Connecticut, a community where Hmong immigrants in the state could connect to share resources on how to navigate their new home, from finding a job to getting a driver’s license.
“It was just, ‘We're in a new world. Let's help each other. Let's stay close. And if you learn something, you can help us learn something,’” said Yang, explaining the idea behind the organization at the start.
Now Yang’s generation, many of whom were born in the United States, has begun to take over the organization. With that passing of the torch, the mission has shifted from resource sharing to cultural preservation.
Over the past few months, the foundation has held classes led by elders meant to instruct younger generations on how to lead a spirit calling, or Hu Plig, which combats illness and bad luck. Yang said the foundation recorded the classes so they can serve as resources in the future, as well.
“We may, and probably already are, losing a little bit of our cultural touch,” said Yang of his generation. “We want to make sure that our or the next generations continue to at least understand and practice some of the cultural customs.”
— Katy Golvala
Lives in: West Haven
Born in: New Haven, CT
Languages spoken: English, Korean, Malay, Spanish
Works as: Interpretation Manager at the Yale Peabody Museum
One thing Ghazali loves about living in Connecticut: “For me, all the love and energy that I feel like I got when I was raised here,” Ghazali said. Growing up in West Haven and New Haven, adults in her community would say that after graduating from Yale, she should get out of here and go make a big change. “Why would I leave? I want to be part of that too … I want to care about the place that I grew up in. I'm in no rush to leave.”
The Malaysian community has been a constant presence in Natasha Ghazali’s life, even though she was born and raised in Connecticut.
“I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t surrounded by Malaysians,” said Ghazali.
The child of two Malaysian immigrants, Ghazali grew up in West Haven, where her family and the other Malaysian families nearby would get together often for potlucks, community events and holiday celebrations.
Her parents would often drop Ghazali off at a friend’s house in town, in an apartment complex where several Malaysian families all lived close by. Ghazali, her brother and the other kids would spend their days bouncing from house to house.
Ghazali attended school at New Haven Academy and ACES Educational Center for the Arts, where she said she didn’t see many other Malaysians. But at home, it was the opposite.
“It felt like I had school friends and home friends. And my home friends were almost all Malaysian,” she said.
Even though Ghazali and the friends she grew up with are spread out now, they still make time to see each other often. They take an annual camping trip together every summer, a tradition started by their parents that they continue. And they often get together in small groups to try their hand at Malaysian cooking, which Ghazali said never tastes quite as good as when their parents make the dishes.
When Ghazali was 16, she landed her first job at the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, a museum fondly known as "the dinosaur museum" because of all the fossils in its collection. After graduating from Yale last May with a degree in Ethnicity, Race and Migration, Ghazali took a full-time position with the Peabody on its exhibitions team.
“It feels full circle coming home to the museum, but in a very different role,” said Ghazali.
Her responsibilities also include thinking about how to shift the museum’s relationship to its community ahead of its 2024 reopening.
The Peabody closed at the end of 2019 to allow for a three-year, $200 million renovation. During the closure, the museum isn’t just focusing on upgrades to its physical space. It also wants to emerge from the renovation as a better community member in New Haven by creating a more welcoming and inclusive space with better representation.
“I do see the work I’m doing as directly related to my upbringing and my passions and interests,” said Ghazali. “I'm always sort of thinking about power and how to make the Peabody a more inclusive space, a welcoming space and also a space that can just talk critically about our history.”
— Katy Golvala
Lives in: Hartford
Born in: the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand after his parents fled Myanmar
Languages spoken: English, Karen
Works as: Student
One thing Smee loves about living in Connecticut: Living in Hartford near the Asian grocery store, A Dong, Smee likes that everything is close. He can get around to places on his bike, including the Central Baptist Church in Hartford.
Jet Smee, 15, spends his weekends with the band at Central Baptist Church in Hartford. He joined the group earlier this year as a guitarist.
“Sometimes I mess up when I play, but you get used to it. You get better. You can improve,” he said.
The band practices for two hours every Saturday and then plays during the church’s Karen-language service every Sunday. Smee and his family belong to the Karen ethnic group of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
The Karen, one of the country’s largest ethnic minorities, suffered years of ethnic and religious persecution at the hands of the Burmese Military Dictatorship. Many, including Smee’s parents, fled the country for refugee camps in Thailand. In 2007, Smee was born. Six months later, the family left for the U.S. and were among the first Karen refugees to settle in Hartford.
Today, there are roughly 200 Karen families living in Hartford, many of whom are Baptist. Karen congregants make up more than half of Central Baptist churchgoers.
John Endler, the pastor at Central Baptist for over 20 years, remembers the Sunday in 2008 when the first Karen refugees came to church. It was the middle of winter and Hartford was blanketed in snow, quite the opposite of the hot, tropical climate of Thailand.
“People came wearing flip flops,” recalled Endler. “We quickly mobilized to get people winter clothing.”
Smee has been attending church since he was around 5. His father, Sha K Paw, a missionary who teaches Sunday school at the church, encouraged him to join the band and become part of the next generation of church leaders.
“When they get older, I’ll take over [and] start with other younger people,” Smee said of his father’s generation. “That’s how the cycle begins.”
Smee said music is one of his favorite parts of Sunday service. He’s able to speak Karen fluently with his family, but he said he sometimes finds it difficult to follow the services because there are religious words he doesn’t recognize. But he always connects with the music.
— Katy Golvala
Lives in: Bristol
Born in: Baguio, Philippines
Languages spoken: Ilocano, English, Kankanaey
Works as: Student
One thing Turtem loves about living in Connecticut: The job and educational opportunities that he wouldn’t have had in the Philippines, such as studying nursing at school and having a great chance of getting a well-paying job after graduation. “I learned to love nursing so much I’m just really excited to graduate soon,” Turtem said.
When Zaheer Turtem started as a freshman at UConn, he wanted to become a doctor. But he began to realize that he wasn’t as interested in medicine itself as much as he was interested in working closely with patients. Soon enough, his ambitions turned to nursing.
“A lot of the time, the person that patients have the easiest access to in a health care setting is the nurse. And so I wanted to be in that privileged position,” explained Turtem, now a third-year nursing student.
Once he starts working, Turtem will join a rich legacy of Filipino nurses working in the United States.
Following the colonization of the Philippines in 1898, the United States-controlled colonial government established Westernized nursing schools and hospitals. During the mid- to late 20th century, several factors, including the end of World War II and the launch of Medicare and Medicaid, created a greater demand for nurses in the U.S. Easing immigration policies also allowed for more people to come in from other countries to fill those roles.
Filipino nurses, who were fluent in English and trained in American nursing, were a natural fit. But the opportunity didn’t come without a cost. Like other nurses trained abroad, Filipino nurses were often sent to work at understaffed and under-resourced hospitals. A March 2021 study estimated that Filipinos comprised at least a quarter of the nearly 330 nurses that had died of COVID, even though they make up just 4% of the workforce.
Since 1960, 150,000 Filipino nurses have immigrated to the U.S. and, as of 2019, 1 in 20 registered nurses identified as Filipino. Turtem’s mother is one of them.
In 2011, when Turtem was 9 years old, his mother, Tracy, got a nursing job in the U.S. and immigrated with her husband and four children. As a child, Turtem would see her return home from 16-hour shifts. She seemed tired, but also as if she knew she had chosen a worthwhile path.
“The biggest influence that I have in terms of my choice in pursuing nursing as my major was actually my mother,” he said. “I can only hope to be her one day, where I can come back from tiring and strenuous work but still know that it is what I wanted to do.”
— Katy Golvala
Lives in: Middletown and New York, NY
Born in: Singapore, Singapore
Languages spoken: English, French, Mandarin
Works as: Author, assistant professor
One thing Heng loves about living in Connecticut: The English department at Wesleyan, which she said feels “extremely warm, yet, I would say, rigorous at the highest level creatively.” In particular, she enjoys the energy she gets from her students. “I find it hugely inspiring. It’s very, very dynamic. Students are really passionate.”
The idea for Rachel Heng’s latest novel, "The Great Reclamation," began with a vision of the coast extending out into the sea.
Published in March, the novel tells the story of a young boy growing up in Singapore in the two decades before the country gained independence. It grapples with the phenomenon of land reclamation, the process by which the government has expanded the size of the tiny island nation by essentially dumping sand into the surrounding sea.
“It’s just a really interesting part of Singaporean history that I find fascinating,” said Heng. “The sense of ‘We don’t have enough land? We’ll just make more land.’ This sense of ‘We can do anything.’ To me, that feels very Singaporean.”
Since becoming independent in 1965, Singapore has grown in size from 224 to 277 square miles. And land reclamation is just part of its staggering economic progress. Today, the country is one of the richest in the world, but until very recently, that wasn’t the case. Heng’s mother grew up in a home without running water. Her grandparents never learned to read.
“If you told me when I was younger, or you told my parents’ generation that, today, what Singapore would be most known for globally was the super rich, that would have been totally mind-boggling,” she said.
There’s also a cost to all that development.
“All these places that you associate with personal memories or a sense of identity or who you are, they just vanish within the span of a number of years,” she said. “In Singapore, the pace at which it happens is so quick and there is something dislocating about it. And there’s a grief that comes with that that I think isn’t talked about much.”
Today, Heng splits her time between New York City and Middletown, where she teaches English at Wesleyan University. She first came to the United States to attend college at Columbia University. It was only in leaving Singapore that she began to question the country’s approach to what she refers to as “economic progress at all costs.”
“My relationship with Singapore is a complicated, loving one, I would say, in the way that it can be with your closest family. And so there are many things about it that I struggle with,” she said. “But, at the same time, it doesn’t mean that I reject it all.”
Heng said writing "The Great Reclamation" helped her explore the complicated parts of her relationship to her home country. And she’s been excited about the reception it's received, particularly from other Singaporeans.
“It helped me articulate a lot of things that I had lived with or was carrying but never put into words,” said Heng. “And then finding myself in conversation with other people, which is arguably what all of literature is about.”
— Katy Golvala
Lives in: West Hartford
Born in: Bangkok, Thailand
Languages spoken: English, Thai
Works as: Server and cook, Sweet Chilli
One thing Juntorn loves about living in Connecticut: The nature. In Thailand, he explained, houses are close together. “We have a backyard. We have more space,” said Juntorn of life in West Hartford.
Theeradej Juntorn, 47, and his wife, Peiama Juntorn, arrived in Connecticut from Thailand in 2011, the year before the birth of their son, Caney.
“Education for the kids,” said Juntorn when asked why he decided to come to the U.S., explaining that, in Thailand, “if you want to give your kids opportunity, you have to pay more.”
In Thailand, Juntorn explained, schools charge tuition, and the better the school, the more expensive it is. International schools that teach English, which Juntorn wanted his children to learn, can cost as much as $30,000 a year — a fortune, especially considering his salary in Thailand was roughly $12,000 a year.
Juntorn works as a server at Sweet Chilli, a popular Thai restaurant in West Hartford. He works six days a week, from 11:30 in the morning to 9 or 9:30 at night, depending on the day. His cousin owns the restaurant, and nearly all the employees are family members.
Every day, he gets an afternoon break from 2:30 to 4:30. He lives near the restaurant, so he typically goes home to spend time with his kids, Caney, 10, and Kyly, 6. He takes a few days off every year for vacation, and his family enjoys making trips to Rocky Neck State Park in the summer.
Juntorn said he’s gotten used to restaurant work and doesn’t find it all that difficult, though lately, it’s been hard to find extra cooks and servers to staff up for weekend shifts. On particularly busy nights, he helps with the cooking.
Yelp reviewers rave about how authentically Thai the food is at Sweet Chili, but Juntorn, with a laugh, said that’s not quite true. He’s noticed Americans eat more butter, bread and cheese than Thai people but tolerate far less spice.
“Thai food is sometimes so spicy,” he said. “You need to adapt for the American people.”
— Katy Golvala
Lives in: New Britain
Born in: Hartford, CT
Languages spoken: English, Vietnamese
Works as: Communications coordinator at End Hunger Connecticut!, portrait and wedding photographer
One thing Nguyen loves about living in Connecticut: The people that are here. There are so many change-makers, creative people and activists who come together for a common cause, she said.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic in late 2020, Kimberly Nguyen joined the Chinatown project, an Instagram account started by her friends, Aubrey Tang and Billy Chen. They created the page to introduce businesses in Boston Chinatown to others through photos, videos and interviews of business owners on Instagram. They wanted to help the businesses survive during the arduous time when the rising hate crimes against Asians, along with the pandemic, were taking a toll on them.
‘Why not Connecticut?’ she thought to herself. She recently joined the SPARC project as a photographer with the goal of building a database for Asian businesses across Connecticut, and eventually, the country.
But just a few years ago, Nguyen did not envision herself as a storyteller helping the local Asian community thrive. She was instead taking prerequisite courses in college to apply to medical school. Her parents never told her to pursue a medical career, but she assumed that was what they wanted. Her parents immigrated from Vietnam to the U.S. more than a decade after the Vietnam War.
“Your parents have sacrificed to come here for you — your goals and your dreams,” Nguyen said. “Do I pursue my own goals and dreams that might not be a clear-cut path to what you do to ‘succeed’, like lawyer, engineer, doctor?”
Growing up in Newington, a predominantly white town, learning about the Vietnam War in school would make her uncomfortable. “I felt like I had a responsibility to represent Vietnamese people when we talk about the Vietnamese War. But I couldn't, because that's not like my lived experience.”
It was later in her life at the University of Connecticut that she could read books by Asian American authors and talk about the experiences of Asian Americans in class that she could relate to. “I was like, ‘Wow, I've never been in a class like this before,'” she said. “It was sad that I didn't grow up with those kinds of classes, because then I would have felt like there's more space for me.”
— Yehyun Kim
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
Part 3: In these stories, we highlight Connecticut residents with roots in Southeast Asia, which includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Hmong ethnicity, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Photography: Yehyun Kim.
Reporting: Yehyun Kim, with additional reporting by Katy Golvala.
Project management: Katy Golvala.
Web development: Stacey Peters.
Editing: Keila Torres Ocasio, Elizabeth Hamilton and Stephen Busemeyer.
Social media: Gabby DeBenedictis.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Connecticut was the first state to pass a law requiring public schools to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander history. Connecticut is among several states to pass this measure.