Before we left, we watched a short documentary created by a Cambodian youth who grew up in East Oakland. Mainstream media coverage of East Oakland has created the image of dangerous streets with gangs hanging out in the streets, gambling, and daily shootings. The filmmaker explained that there isn't anything for youth to do in East Oakland -- there is no library and no amusement park, but there are lots of liquor stores. Sometimes, there are three liquor stores on one corner. "Why do we need three liquor stores on one corner? They're all selling the same stuff. Why not put a library or something there?!"
R2W Alumnus and Resource Assistant, Ravy Kong, a working class Cambodian woman who grew up in and still lives and works with youth in the Oak Park apartments in East Oakland, also gave us some perspective on the neighborhood. Many families living in Oak Park are Cambodian refugees who had to leave their country during the Vietnam War. Post-traumatic stress disorder and poverty still plague the community. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deportation are a threat for many.
Prepared with the knowledge of East Oakland's context, we piled in the vans and drove 20 minutes south of Berkeley. Throughout R2W, we have been intentional about honoring our diverse faith traditions, including Indigenous traditions and Buddhism, so our first stop was a Cambodian Buddhist temple. As we sat on the floor on a patchwork of rugs, a monk in a bright orange robe gave us a blessing with chanting, water, and red bracelets.
We then had the opportunity to ask the monk questions about the tenets and symbolism of Buddhism, how he became a monk, and what it's like to be a monk in East Oakland. Through translators (Cambodian R2W Resource Assistants), he shared that, to him, Buddhism is not a religion, but a choice about how to live your life -- a choice to live peacefully. He explained that to create peace in the world, we must start within ourselves -- wars like the War in Iraq are merely wars within individuals magnified to a massive scale. He also explained why we pay respects to our ancestors as opposed to God, "God is busy doing other things in the world, so ancestors walk with you. Our ancestors are a more concrete entity taking care of us and watching over us, so we pay respects to our ancestors."
We also enjoyed some Cambodian curry, vermicelli, French bread, watermelon, and coconut rice and red bean dessert graciously prepared by Ravy's yay (Cambodian elders/grandmothers) under huge origami cranes in the community room.