This question often meant life or death in my old neighborhood. It was a question that came before a ‘jumping‘ or a shoot-out.

You never wanted to be caught saying the wrong thing.


When the street lights came on, you can hear the popping sounds of guns going in the distance. Sometimes they were illegal fireworks and sometimes they were gunfire. For the latter, the sirens from firetrucks and ambulances would follow if the bullets landed in their intended ‘ targets.’  It was normal.

For a long time, gang violence puzzled me. I never understood what could compel a young man/woman to take part in such heinous crimes and activities. When I moved away for college, I spent a great deal of time researching Southeast Asian gangs. I read graduate theses, watched documentaries, and interviewed former gang members.

In my findings I discovered a common word, survival. 

They needed each other to navigate a world of disadvantages: poverty, poor education, and lack of parental guidance.

Whenever I ask: Would you become a gang member if you can do it all over again? Most responded with regret and shared their childhood dreams.

It was water under the bridge for most former gang members who turned their life around after their teenage years.

(This is a small snippet is from my ongoing project addressing the phrase: Where Are You From?)

Photo taken: Battambong, Cambodia, May 2013