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The Cambodian Experience in the United States

Cambodian KidsIt is estimated that 150,000 Cambodians fled to the United States to escape the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge (Levin & Hott, 1991). There are several large communities of Cambodian Americans: Lowell and Amherst, Massachusetts; Long Beach, California; Providence, Rhode Island; and San Antonio, Texas (Migration World Magazine, 1995). 

Perhaps the most revealing overview of Cambodians in the United States is the documentary film, Rebuilding the Temple: Cambodians in America by Claudia Levin and Lawrence Hott (1991).  This documentary examines the struggle of new Cambodian immigrants to retain their cultural identity and preserve their heritage in a harsh environment that is totally at odds with the Buddhist way of life that is integral to a true Cambodian identity. 

Cambodian immigrants were often overwhelmed with the relatively competitive and materialistic American urban environment. Insofar as family is central to every Cambodian, requiring all personal desires and ambition to be subordinate to the wishes of parents and elder, many Cambodian youngsters have faced constant conflicts between the environment within their home and that of school.  Eventually, many strive to find a balance and a bridge between the Cambodian identity, on one hand, and their new American life on the other. The experience of Ben Bao and Salang Mak of Lake Ridge, Virginia and their children illustrates this issue. (Andrei, 2004).

As Cambodian students sail through the acculturation process, they go through stages of cultural adaptation to the U. S. society. Some may identify themselves as Cambodian, others as Americans, others as Cambodian-Americans, or they may not identify with either American or Cambodian culture (anomie stage).

The teacher fellows in this project reported that many of the students they work with in the Lowell Public Schools in Massachusetts tend not to identify with either Cambodian or American culture. This observation reveals a huge challenge for schools as they strive to educate these students fully. This lack of a sense of belonging turns into fertile ground for young people to seek a sense of belonging elsewhere, sometimes in gangs. What are schools going to do about this challenge? How are educators being prepared to address culturally responsive pedagogy? Why that important for our children?

In conclusion, Cambodian background students in the United States may be experiencing cultural identity challenges that need to be studied further and addressed in teaching and learning in order to provide them with an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment

Life may change, but it may fly not;
Hope may vanish, but can die not;
Truth be veiled, but still it burneth.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Prominent Cambodians

Here are some examples of prominent Cambodian-American people:

Dith Pran – Photojournalist who survived the Cambodian Holocaust and was the subject of an Academy-award winning film, “The Killing Fields.”

Haing S. Nor – Academy-award winning actor and doctor who portrayed Dith Pran in “The Killing Fields.”  He was also a survivor of the Cambodian Holocaust. He survived by hiding the fact that he was a gynecologist/obstetrician, a fact that would have resulted in his death by the Khmer Rouge.

©2005 Maria de Lourdes Serpa.
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