Mid-April review, Part 5/5: “Khmericans?”

Here we are with yet another event from UCLA’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, this time with their colloquium, “Are We Khmericans?” based on a study of the largest community of Cambodians in the United States, Long Beach, California.

The research grew out of the question as to why Cambodian American and Cambodian French returnees take different approaches when returning to Cambodia: the former prefers to start or work for an NGO, whereas the latter would rather work for the Cambodian government.

From her findings in Long Beach, California, Gea Wijers brought up the concept of the melting pot vs. the salad bowl analogies for diversity and how that provides one of the first foundations for understanding and analyzing the Cambodian community: the melting pot in which the cultures mix and assimilate into one new culture, or the salad bowl where all the cultures mingle but are separate and distinct?

The big issue she highlighted was that immigrants and refugees have a very different experience, and it is what creates a divide within the community. Cambodian refugees are analogous to the hermit crab: they have to grab shelter first and quickly, before another hermit crab does; refugees thus don’t leave for opportunities and a new life in another country, nor do they bring their belongings with them, they are forced to leave and would rather return to Cambodia, as their migration was for survival rather than for opportunities.

Another framework she shared was on the ethnic community: a network of voluntary and autonomous social organizers, which is useful for stronger communities ties, but can restrict access to others, which creates division and tension with other groups, who see them as others. It’s ironic that this attempt to build a strong community has a side effect of being too parochial; it developed as a survival mechanism that reinforces the alienation that the Cambodians in Long Beach faced. This prejudice came from the city government and other ethnic groups, who viewed them with suspicion as a result of the federal government giving them preferential treatment due to their refugee status. In other words: to counter the ostracism from others, they try to develop a stronger community that ends up being parochial, which reinforces the idea of them being “others” and forever foreigners, because it seems they are the minority of minorities.

An issue of the attempts to bring stronger community ties is that there is already a huge gap separating refugees and voluntary migrants due to their different reasons for migrating and attitudes toward American culture and assimilation, leading to difficulties in relating to one another and maintaining solidarity. This led to the creation of mutual assistance associations critical to helping both groups in the greater community adapt, acting as brokers for finding social support and surviving. However, it’s not without its drawbacks: these programs don’t help the unmotivated newcomers to become socially mobile or to assimilate; they end up as free riders who play along and reap the benefits of others’ hard work, in addition to lack of improvement on the question of poverty and education of individuals. It also does not help that many of these migrants still need to work toward U.S. citizenship, because even those who spent a lifetime in the U.S. who speak no Khmer and know nothing of their ethnic motherland run the risk of deportation to a country they never knew for committing minor offenses, which creates more pressure on the magical amulet known as the certificate of U.S. citizenship.

Currently, Wijers finds that on top of these divisions within the “community” of Cambodians, there is also the traditional cultural belief that the first community is not the state, because as in many Southeast Asian cultural groups, their loyalties are not to leaders or a nation, because the concept of a state and territory was foreign to them; influence could change at any given time based on people, because land is useless without people to work on it and nobody owned it. So where did their loyalties lie first? The family, the first and most important community. Calls for strongmen and leaders nowadays bring back bad memories of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime that led to the genocide of their fellow countrymen and their forced migration to pockets of Toronto, Canada, Long Beach, California, and Paris, France.

Other current conclusions based on what people said in response to her research were that the best way to help Cambodia was to stay abroad, build social and financial resources, and stay out of politics. This ultimately shows why overseas communities with ties to their ancestral homelands (which is most of the current generation of Asian-Americans) are influential due to the money they send home and dual loyalties, especially in this community.

One of the questions I raised was on another group within them, the Chinese-Cambodians, whether they are those of mixed heritage or ethnic Chinese who assimilated into Cambodian culture. I know several people who are ethnic Chinese but consider themselves Cambodians. One friend from Paris speaks Chinese in her home because nobody knows how to speak Khmer, yet she considers herself first and foremost Cambodian: her grandparents immigrated to Cambodia, her parents grew up there, then they fled as Pol Pot took over and ended up in a refugee camp before settling in France. How she considers herself Cambodian is that she and her peers in the Cambodian community shared the experience of having parents who came out of refugee camps. As a result, her interaction with people whom she and her family related to were Cambodians more than Chinese, and thus it is because of her peers and neighbors that she became Cambodian, from shared experiences and values, making her blood have no effect on her culture.

So ultimately, where will this study go? Lots of questions arise, but this is definitely something I’m going to be following, especially when there are individuals and goals of mine that are both directly related to this research. More info can be found at www.cambodiaresearch.org.

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