The Acculturation of Cambodian Families of Different Generations
By Saroeun Earm
When I was in Cambodia for the first time, my mother twisted my ear
after I came back from the woods that still had land mines that weren’t
yet clear. During the ride across the southern part of Cambodia,
I finally realized how much I had stepped into my parent’s
history. I watched the farmers jump into their rice paddy, and
replant their green stalks, evenly distributing them in the muddy
waters. I realized that these labors had once enslaved people, held
them in captivity, and tortured their human spirit during the
three-year genocide. Among the survivors were my parents and all
of the subjects that I interviewed in the Twin Cities area.
Many Cambodian refugees have a survival story and through these stories
I discover a new set of survival stories they experience in the United
States. The intent of this article is to present the history and
perspective from Cambodian refugees and their children’s generation in
order for progressive and future dialogue. I wanted to discover
and learn how Cambodian American families adapt, assimilate, or
acculturate themselves into a different and unfamiliar culture and
society. I use my personal resources, my ability to speak Khmer,
my knowledge, and my sensitivity to both generations to find certain
cultural values and traditions that are important and why they are
important to Cambodian parents. I want to find a solution to close the
gap that was created by cultural stigmas and language barriers that
hampered the communication and understanding between the Cambodian
parents and their children.
I discovered in my research three main challenges that Cambodian
refugee/immigrant families encounter. They are moral values, gender,
and language. These are the obstacles that parents want their children
to sustain while adapting to American society. A cultural
practice of moral values occurs when there is a Khmer community to
inculcate them. Khmer girls and boys are socialized differently
because of the cultural expectation. Bilingualism differs according to
whose foreign-born parents choose to, or choose not to speak their
native language. The success of immigrants depend ‘on the density of
ties among them”( Portes & Rumbaut 65) As in Cambodia, many
Southeast Asian “immigrants of modest endowments can successfully
overcome challenges to their children’s mobility when they can count on
strong families and communities supporting their efforts” (Portes &
After the Vietnam War in 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge swiftly
engulfed Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge started their guerilla group
in the jungles of Cambodia as the Vietnam War went on. They
became a powerful group under the leadership of Pol Pot. He ruled
Cambodia from 1976 to 1979 and killed over 1.7 million Cambodians,
about a third of the country’s population. Pol Pot’s ideologies
and reasoning behind his massive killings was based on Marxism and
Maoism. Pol Pot wanted to build the nation into a Utopia.
He felt that Cambodia was intoxicated and poisoned by outside
influences like the West, Vietnam, different forms of religion, and
other ethnic minorities that had settled in Cambodia. He went on
a crusade of ethnic cleansing and massacred millions of people.
His goal was to start over from the “year zero.” Under him the
government changed from a monarchy to totalitarian rule. He
turned Cambodia backward into a solely agricultural country. The
Khmer Rouge literally destroyed the structure of Cambodian society,
politics, culture, and values. They implemented this by causing a
massive resettlement of people from Phnom Phen and large cities to the
rice fields and rural areas. Those who lived in rural areas lost
all their land and worked in industrial and labor camps. The Vietnamese
overran the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and hundreds of thousands of Cambodian
refugees were forced to leave Cambodia for camps in Thailand or the
Philippines. Many died on the way. Those who ultimately left the
refugee camps are now living in the U.S., France, Australia, or Canada
I conducted my interviews with friends of my family. The
Cambodian American married couples ranged from 28 to 70 years old and
were interviewed at their homes. The subjects include 4 elders, 2
young couples, 1 interracial couple, and 4 middle age couples. I
used a tape recorder for 6 interviews that were done in Khmer and then
translated to English. The rest of the interviews were documented
with hand notes.
I formed my questions in various ways in order to gather stories and
personnel experiences. I wanted the people to tell me their
stories. I asked about their life in Cambodia, their struggles
and challenges as they immigrated to the U.S. The second part of
the interview focused on the cultural values that they found to be
important for their children to learn. Some of my questions may
have channeled my subjects’ answers in different directions from one
another depending on the language I used.
The book, Contemporary Asian Americans showed a
graph reported that “the Cambodians suffered the greatest number of
family losses and violent events,” and the “demoralization rate was the
highest for the Cambodians” (Zhou & Gatewood 195) compared with
other Asian immigrants. When they arrived in the U.S. it was
encumbering to learn and adapt to an unfamiliar society and cope with
their trauma. Some Cambodian refugees that I interviewed adapted
more successfully than others but had to give up cultural values in
order to do so.
America was a place for the Cambodian refugees to establish their hopes
and dreams. There is a “distinction often made between refugees and
other classes of immigrants.” They have “different motives for
migration and traumatic nature of their flight experience. Refugees are
said to be motivated to flee by fear of persecution (political
motives), whereas immigrants are defined by their aspirations for
better material opportunities and self-advancement” (Zhou &
Gatewood 193). Cambodians that came to the U.S. prior to 1970 had
different motives than the Cambodians that I interviewed. The
Cambodians I interviewed are refugees that fled from rural Cambodia and
came to the U.S. through various sponsorships. They came to the
U.S primarily to search for safety, but they also seek better lives and
For most Cambodians, the U.S. is a symbol of freedom, and it is freedom
that all of the older generation appreciate in this country. “They have
justice. They have health care and education for my
children. It’s safe here,” were some of their thoughts living in
the U.S. So closely was freedom associated with in the new
country, that whenever they spoke of it, they always used the English
name of the country.
One would think that the most traumatic experiences
would be the most difficult to talk about. I did not find it to
be that way with my subjects. Oum Han told me that she and
her husband walked from Kompong Chhnang, south central Cambodia, to the
Thai border in 8 to 12 months. One family traveled in a truck for one
month. My parents, Bong Samnang’s family, and Yai Rann’s
family traveled on foot between 3 to 11 months through rivers,
mountains, and jungles. They would travel by night and sleep by
day. If they were traveling by foot, there was a chance that they
could step on landmines or get killed by the jungle booby traps.
Many of the refugees were lucky if they found food.
Bong Samnang’s family would go days without food, moving from one
village to another. He and his family would not have survived if
it weren’t for the generosity of the villagers who gave them one can of
rice that they shared among eight or twelve family members. Yai Rann
said that when she didn’t have any pots to cook her rice, she used a
cylinder aluminum can. Oum Han said that she ate leaves and corn
stalks when there was nothing else to eat. Bong Khorn’s parents
died from eating unknown mushrooms.
Food wasn’t the only dilemma. When Oum Han was escaping, she gave
birth in the jungle. There’s a traditional practice that after
each labor, a woman has to be “steamed” to ensure that when she gets
older she will have a healthy life. It eliminates blood clots and
allows for the skin to be flawless and to continue its firmness. It is
performed when the mother either lies or sits on top of a straw bed
with thick covers above her. Underneath the bed there are two or
three pots of boiling water. As the steam rises she collects it with a
blanket over her.
After the day Oum Han gave birth, she was lying in
bed as her friends burned the wood underneath to heat up the
pots. They did not know that there was ordnance buried in the
ground. When the fire was made, it set off the buried ordnance,
and it exploded. Everybody was outside, and she was left alone on
the bed. She laid still and saw the sharp segments of the
ordnance shoot out from the sides like fire crackers in all different
directions except the top. Fortunately they didn’t strike her.
The Khmer Rouge had set up agricultural labor camps
that enslaved many people. Almost all of the Cambodian families I
interviewed were rotated at least to 3 different labor camps. The
Khmer Rouge solders would wake them up at three in the morning and
would not let them sleep until at least midnight. Buu
Somphoul was eight years old when he was separated from his mother to
work at a labor camp watching cows and horses. His mother worked
at a different camp. His father had committed suicide with his oldest
bThalyer because they knew that since they were former soldiers for the
royal family, they would be killed. His mother later died because of
her poor physical health. She was forced to go back to work the day
after she delivered a baby.
Some families found it easy to cross the border into
Thailand, and some didn’t. Bong Samnang’s family knew that they
crossed into Thailand when they saw the Red Cross stations. They
received medical attention and food. A week later UNICEF took them to a
refugee camp called Sra Keo.
When my parents came to the Thai border for the first time, the Thai
soldiers wouldn’t let the refugees enter. Then they allowed the Khmer
Rouge to take the refugees back into Cambodian territory. The
second time they attempted to cross the border, many of the Khmer Rouge
fused in with the fleeing refugees to avoid the attacks from the
Vietnamese solders. My parents were unable to cross because at
the same time, the Thai soldiers were shooting their guns in the air to
prevent the Cambodian refugees from entering their country while the
Vietnamese soldiers mistakenly attacked them while targeting for Khmer
Each family’s history has its own traumatic and
complex dynamics, and none was worse or better than the other. The
comment that was common among all of the families about their stories
was “It was so difficult, so difficult. No one suffered as much as we
did” shows that each family occurrence of suffering is a similar event
in a broader whole. It is also crucial to note that it is an
individual’s story that shapes who they are today. Yai Rann
describes her hardships as “jchong slap, jchong rorh” because it
was a chapter in her life where she didn’t know if she should live or
die. The memories from these tragedies were painful for everyone to
relive, but they were more than willing to share them with me.
The assimilation process for each family was
different when they arrived to the U.S., but they had two common
struggles: reading, and speaking in English. Three families told me
that they always would wait at the wrong bus stop for their children to
be picked up for school because they could not read the street signs
and did not know the right stop. Oum Han and her son waited three hours
before a police car noticed them and finally dropped her son off at
school. From that day on, the bus picked her son up and dropped
him off in front of their home.
Discrimination against Asian Americans is very common in the U.S.
After six years working at an insurance company, Thaly sued them for
discriminating against her. She felt humiliated and that her dignity
was stolen from her. Thaly came to the U.S. when she was twenty
years old and only learned a little bit of English prior to her
arrival. She had a positive attitude about her new life in a different
country. She was happy to work hard and determined to achieve
what was best for her and her family. The hardships in the U.S.
could not be comparable to the hardships in Cambodia, she thought.
When Thaly was discriminated against at her work place, her attitude
changed dramatically. She questioned the American value of “equal
opportunity” and found it to be false and misleading. She had worked at
the insurance company for six years and applied ten times for a higher
position. She did not get the job and the people who were hired
were less qualified than she, had less experience, but were Caucasian.
She filed a lawsuit, asking for an apology from the company. She
did not want their money. She wanted them to recognized that they
have done wrong, and to admit it. She became depressed when she
quit the job, but she knew she had to do something to regain her
dignity. She said that she sok chit cee dom mbal hy dom gcruy,
mean oy gay meuh yeeih . She fought on and won her lawsuit, not
only regaining confidence, but also becoming a voice for all Cambodian
immigrants who face discrimination.
Freedom was good in many ways, but too much freedom made the Cambodians
feel they were losing control over their own children. Four elders
express that there was too much ‘freedom’ for girls. This will be
elaborated and discussed later in the paper.
“Follow the Buddha’s teachings. Know what is “bob” and
what is “bunn.” What is “goon” and what is “thoque.”
Phoke mae day mean goon leugh goan.”
Every one told me that one of the most important values in Khmer
culture is to respect your elders. “To know what is sinful and
meritful. To know what are the good deeds and the bad deeds. Our
parents have given us life and love and when a child grows up, he/she
must reciprocate that care when their parents are older.” Many
Khmer cultural values are adapted from Buddhist teachings. One of the
greatest philosophies in Buddhism is for a child to repay his/her
parent’s good deeds. This is a sign of respect, love, and duty.
There are certain cultural practices that one must perform to show
respect. Tha Som told me that he could tell which young
Cambodians were respectful by their use of the traditional practice of
greeting an older person. He/she will sompeah . The
Cambodians who have lost their tradition would not know how to do that
and would say “Hey! Hello Tha,” and wave. This practice is very
important for people to know because it is a sign of respect.
Yai Ramm told me that when they arrived in the U.S. her son used to
sompeah her before he left the house and would always tell her where he
was going. When he returned home, he greeted her again with the
sompeah. Gradually he discontinued the practice.
The respect for your family and your extended family creates a bond.
“Family comes first,” Buu Somphaul emphasized. “It’s always been a
Cambodian tradition.” Bong Thol told me, “Your parents are
like your god. You respect them by taking care of them when they are
older.” He did not like the fact that the U.S. have nursing homes
to place your elders. Nursing homes took away the dignity of
elders and treated adults as children. It is the duty of the children
to take care of their parents, not someone else. Bong Rann, Bong Thol’s
wife describes American people as Kbal na nah sawh nah nung which
in this content describes one who is selfish and only thinks of
themselves and doesn’t care for what needs to be done for their
parents. They have no “filial responsibility.”
I interviewed two grandparents who lived by themselves and were
retired. They stayed occupied by taking care of their grandchildren.
One grandma was feeding her six-year old grandson with her own
hands. One would assume that a six-year-old boy is old enough to
feed himself, but by this interaction, she created a filial bond so
that when he gets older and she needs his assistance, he can remember
what his grandma did for him. He is responsible to fulfill his duty and
care for her when she is old.
I found it really challenging to interview the older generation because
I was always anxious. I grew up knowing that I had to give them
the utmost respect because they were my elders. Now, if I wanted
to challenge them with a certain idea, I had to be extremely careful
with the Khmer words I decided to use. I asked Tha Tree and
Yai Oun to explain their thoughts rather than to challenge them
abruptly. With this in mind, I tried to question their ideas on the
inequality between Cambodian females and males.
Phomma jarey literal translation is taken from Pali meaning
“body, creation judged, innocent, pure, conduct.” Tha Tree
introduced me to this phrase. I asked him to explain the meaning of
those words. He started off saying, “I will tell you what it means
since a lot of your generation don’t know what it means.” Tha described
phomma jarey as the women’s virginity.
“It is the most important aspect of a woman’s reputation. It is because
of a woman’s phomma jarey, she is not allowed to go to parties and
dances because there could be a chance that someone likes her, and take
away her phomma jarey. When that is gone everything is gone.”
My understanding is that phomma jarey is a status symbol for a woman
who is not married and has already reached puberty. It represents
her physical body, her attitude, and conduct. However she
presents herself in public is her phomma jarey. It is considered
her reputation. This reputation is very hard to live up to in the
United States. One of the ways she could lose that reputation is
if someone, especially an elder, would see her with a man that is not a
family member, would then assumed that that person is her boyfriend or
has had an intimate relationship with. This lowers her
reputation. It is everyone’s duty to protect a reputation.
A man must avoid physical contact with women in public places. He
has to refrain from physical affection until they are married in order
for her phom be-ja ray to remain pure. If she is seen to have a
culturally accepted and admirable reputation, the marriage is approved
When I asked Tha if there is a concept of phomma jarey for men, he
frankly answered, “No, there isn’t.” He said men are like jewels.
“They can be dropped into the mud and dirt, but when they are picked up
and washed, they look brand new and beautiful again.”
When the Khmer traditions confront the American value of independent
women who relate to men on a daily basis, cultural conflicts are
inevitable. Bong Khorns story is a stern case of social control
over a female in the U.S. Bong Khorn’s parents died before they
reached the Thai border. Her and her older brother was left for her
aunt to take care of. When they came to the U.S., Bong Khorn’s
aunt and her husband became their foster parents. She doesn’t
know if her aunt’s strictness and control had to do morew with the
culture or the compensation they received from the government for
taking care of them.
As a young Cambodian woman growing up with her foster aunt and uncle
she found it hard to do anything. She wasn’t allowed to do any
school activities and sports. Bong Khorn had wanted to join the
volleyball team, but her aunt told her that girls don’t play sports,
and it was a waste of time. She was to go straight home after
school. The only time she was able to play volleyball was through her
church league. Their pastor asked her aunt and uncle for
permission. Therefore she was able to play. She wasn’t allowed to talk
on the phone for if she did, her aunt assumed that she was seeing or
dating someone. Bong Khorn is an attractive woman and during high
school she had a lot of secret admirers. One of her secret
admirers sent her a dozen roses. Her aunt scolded her and accused
her of having a boyfriend. Ff this information was leaked into the
Cambodian community, it will be seen as a disgrace upon her and the
incompetence of her guardians.
The cultural control restricted Bong Sopheap from independence. She was
not allowed to go to her high school lock-in. A lock in is an
overnight celebration for graduating seniors where they are literally
locked in the high school building with food and fun activities to
do. Bong Khorn was frustrated and can’t comprehend why she was
not allow to go. When she went to college she decided to live on
campus. She felt that her aunt and uncle did not have an open mind or
wanted to understand.
Her aunt and uncle felt that if they didn’t control her, she would be
influenced by society. If others see that her phomma jarey has
been touched in any way, her reputation and her guardian would lose
face. She thought that her treatment was unfair. She did
not deserve to be imprisoned and have her independence taken away. She
wanted to make her own choices. She rebelled by leaving her aunt and
uncle’s house and going to live on her own. Now her relationship
with her aunt and uncle’s family is much more amenable and reputable.
These issues became confrontational as the influence of modern feminism
arises in the Cambodian culture. When Khmer women find themselves
more independent, ambitious, and adamant in the wave of the 21st
century feminism, they are challenging the stigmas put on them. There
are many women who are choosing to live on their own and move away from
their families. There are many women who are pursuing a higher
degree in education. There are women who are making their own
choices about when to marry and whom to marry. These women would
less likely fit the ideal of phomma jarey..
It was interesting to talk about dating and relationships with the
Cambodian parents. The older generations oppose dating because it ruins
their daughter’s reputation. The rest of the couples believe that it
has become the choice of their children. They can’t control them
anymore because they have become American, and they feel that their
children have crossed over to the other side. However one young
couple that is soon to be parents made a comment that they approbate
the old ways because when they are parents they can explain what is
good and what is bad.
When I asked Buu Somphaul and his wife what he thought of his children
(ages 5 to 12 years old, the eldest is the daughter) dating
interracially or dating in general, they answered, “She can date.” They
will allow her to choose who she wants to love and marry. As
parents their role is to explain to her Khmer cultural expectations and
values. It was interesting when they automatically thought the
question was for their daughter when I used the word, “children.”
It is interesting to see how dating and going out is more taboo for
daughters than sons.
Most of the people I interviewed expressed that they want to have their
children married according to the Khmer cultural customs. There was one
Yai who opposed interracial marriages. She claimed that if she can’t
communicate with her non-Cambodian in-laws, it would be hard to form
relationships. All of the couples except for two had an arranged
marriage. It was also interesting to find out that some parents
who have lived almost half of their lives in the U.S still wanted their
children, who were born and raised Cambodian-American, to have a
traditional wedding regardless of who they married. One of the
young couples opposed arranged marriages because they considered they
to be forced love that would eventually end up in a divorce or domestic
Language is thoughts and concepts put into spoken symbols. It is
not only important how one speaks but also how the words of a language
are used to empower an individual. Language is a powerful tool, and it
enables us to exchange thoughts and ideas to resolve and create
conflict. The Khmer language is held in the highest esteem and
reverence by all the generations I interviewed. The younger couples
with newborn babies wanted to personally teach their American born
children and show them cultural traditions as they are growing
up. One of the traditions is language. Bong Samnang and his
wife said that they would find a way for their son to learn Khmer
whether it was at the temple or in a class. The Khmer language is
so important to them because it connects them to their cultural roots
and heritage. It allows them to understand the history of
Cambodians. Bong Samnang brought up a point that if one doesn’t
know their history, they don’t know who they are.
According to some of the subjects, an identity of a Cambodian-American
depends on their ability to speak Khmer. Bong Thol said that a Khmer
person has to know how to speak Khmer. To him a Khmer person is one who
is faithful to his/her cultural responsibilities. When the younger
Cambodian generation becomes assimilated into American culture they
might be ethnically Cambodian but their thoughts and actions are
American. If they still have their Khmer cultural knowledge and
sensitivity, then they would be considered to be bi-cultural.
He described how he could enforce the use of Khmer language with his
children when they are at home. When they leave the house, they
can speak English. “At home I want my children to speak Khmer and
learn from my mom, my wife and me.” As he was describing his plan to
instill Khmer in his children, he also brought up the issue of Khmer
pride. There are many young Cambodians who claim to have Khmer pride
but can’t speak Khmer. Bong Thol said that the younger generation does
not know what it really means to have Khmer Pride when they don’t
attempt to speak the Khmer language.
One of the hardest challenges for young generation Cambodians is to
maintain their language. Parents are the most effective tools for
their children to continue Khmer. Parents who live around a
community of their own culture will most likely produce children who
are bilingual. Parents who choose to live outside the community
tend to have children who have assimilated into the mainstream.
Studies show that children that grew up in a homogenous ethnic
community would likely be bi-cultural and/or bilingual. “In the
case of southest Asian refugees, this result was readily attributable
to the recent arrival of these groups and the children’s bond with
parents, cemented by dramatic experiences of flight and resettlement”
(Portes& Rumbaut 124).
Bong Thol stressed how speaking Khmer is distinctive and a part
of the culture. He described how the house is like a square, and in
that square one must only speak Khmer. Once one leaves the house, they
can speak English. He knew this would be arduous to accomplish since he
didn’t know how to enforce this in the future with his children. I see
this as an obstacle for future Cambodian parents who want their
children to speak their native language.
Difficulties in communication cause miscommunication and
misunderstanding. A great example occurred during one of my interviews.
A mother misunderstood what dating meant. She thought that it was boys
and girls hanging out with other friends, and so she said it was fine
for her two high school daughters to “date.” Then her daughter had to
tell her that dating was when “boys and girls go out together, all
alone. Then they start making out and having sex. It’s what you
see on T.V. mom. That’s dating.” The mother shrieked and said,
“No! I don’t like dating. No dating.” These emphasizes how some parents
speak English, but have limited understanding of the things their
children say. When they reply to each other, the message is
misunderstood. Some young people become frustrated and give up.
The communication gap with their parents widens.
Buu Tha shared a story about a 6 year old girl who was bi-racial. She
was half African-American and Cambodian. He assumed that the girl was
African American. She was standing outside on the sidewalk and
was feisty and rude at Buu Tha. Young people aught to respect their
elders” Buu tha thought. He felt that the young girl disrespected
him. Later Buu Tha realized that the little girl was the granddaughter
of his Cambodian friend. His friend spoke to the girl in Khmer and she
was able to understand him. He was dumbfounded that the little
girl knew and understood Khmer. He realized that skin color was
inconsequential to her learning Khmer. Because she spent time with her
grandparents, they had a cultural and linguistic effect on their
All the Tha and Yai believed that the third generation of Cambodians
would lose their native language. They know that it’s hard to maintain
a foreign language when a more dominant language is spoken in the
society. They said that once their grandchildren are born in the U.S.,
then they are American forever, even though they look Cambodian. “They
will always be Khmer but they are American too.” Tha Som believed that
if he continued to speak Khmer and give his grandchildren videos or
movies that are dubbed in Khmer, then he could help maintain a little
bit of the language.
“Joel stung tham pbort. Joel stroke tham pra-thet“
Buu Tha explained how he as one of the parents could not control
and force his children to abide in the traditional Khmer gender values
and culture. The significance of this phrase is that no matter where
one is living, the culture and traditions that were once held in
previous society will have to be altered because the forces and
influences of the present society that one resides in are stronger.
Among the old and the young there is definitely a generational
gap. It occurs in part because the “parents’ conflicting
demands to assimilate and yet to stay traditional” (Zia 212) creates
pressure on the younger generation between the first Cambodian
generations and their children born in the U.S. While parents
might demand that their children marry a Cambodian through a
traditional engagement, the children do not know how to refuse and most
often will feel they have no other choice but to leave the
family. It does not always happen this way, but unfortunately
when parents are too demanding and controlling of their cultural
traditions, it often occurs.
Culture is affected by “ethnic socialization that is practiced through
the parents, extended families and the presence or absence of other
members of the cultural group” (Lee 50). The community plays an
important part in preserving culture. The social interaction in a
community allows language to endure, cultural events to be celebrated,
and for Khmer values to be perpetuated and practiced.
It is evident how the family bonds and why connection is so important
in Khmer culture. Through these bonds and interactions, cultural ties
are established. “The use of an Asian language can affirm the
interpersonal ties within the ethnic social network” (Lee 49). Language
is spoken and practiced between cousins and siblings, aunts and nieces
and nephews, and grandparents and grandchildren. Most of the
Cambodian families I interviewed expressed how language was a powerful
connection to their cultural roots and heritage.
I discovered that traditional culture and family ties fall most heavily
on the female members in the family. I have observed that three of the
families had a grandmother living with them. Parents depend on
their daughters to take care of them when they are older. Women are
obligated to marry a Cambodian man. Women are responsible to
respectfully guard their phomma jarey.
Independence and freedom is highly attractive to young Cambodians who
feel they are suffocated in old Cambodian traditions carried on from
their parents’ country. Many young people learn to accept their
lot and others rebel. Cambodian parents, who believe that control
is really important, are able to keep their children socially
constructed the way they desired. Yai Oun and Yai Ramm both
raised their daughters to be “traditional”. Their story was a success
because their daughters were culturally constructed already from a
different society, and when they came to the U.S. they were able to
create a balanced relationship to both cultural entities.
One of the parents used an interesting strategy to raise their
Cambodian children in the United States. He used the metaphor of tuning
a violin. “If you tune it too tight it will snap apart.
When it gets loose you tighten it up a little bit at a time. So you
tune it to complement the sound of the orchestra.” This proves
that parents have moved away from extreme control to “tuning
control.” It’s not too tight or too loose. In my
observation it is a common method used by Cambodian parents in the
I discovered that the parents found it easier to speak to me using
Khmer proverbs to state their facts. It allowed them to make
sense of their lives and make sense of the life that they are living
now, coexisting with two cultures. They feel sometimes that they
are not American. Many parents feel that being fully American means
being born and raised in the U.S. The parents’ experiences of
exile from Cambodia and the acculturation into American culture as
refugees and immigrants were also different. Therefore the social
location of children and parents are different. This is where the
miscommunication and misunderstanding takes up its roots.
Each family has assimilated differently. Some don’t speak Khmer
and others married interracially improve the effectiveness of
socialization in American society. Cultural values change and
alter. Attempts at maintaining Khmer culture in the U.S. are visible in
the Cambodian community in Minnesota. The temple, the United
Cambodian Association of Minnesota (UCAM), Khmer youth groups, and the
Khmer Radio Station are evidence of a growing community.
Acculturation is a framework that is used to describe the level of
adaptation of a certain generation according to their parent’s
“socioeconomic achievements, family compositions, and modes of
incorporation” (Portes &Rumbaut 54). There are three types of
acculturation. Dissonant acculturation is when children
simultaneously learn the English language and lose their culture while
their parents retain their native culture. Then the parent
becomes dependent on their children. Consonant acculturation is
when the parent has enough resources for their children to maintain the
culture but the children gradually adapt to the new culture and abandon
their home language. The last type is selective acculturation that
focuses on how culture and language is maintained by the children
because of the “ethnic network” or the community influence that filters
to the children. They are able to assimilate and adapt and be
bicultural and bilingual. Most of the families I interviewed fit
into the “selective acculturation” framework.
There is wisdom in each person I interviewed. They captured an
immense historical power in their story. I believe that there needs to
be a cultural relativity in values and understanding from different
perspectives. I learned that the Khmer language brought me to a
different level of analyzing and comprehending the Khmer culture. The
use of language and how we understand one another bonds people
together. I sensed a connection with each family that I talked
about. It brought us together for that (? moment which should be
everyday that they spent with their children and family). The battle of
a young Cambodian American’s identity in the U.S. and the battle for
the lost identity of their parents are equally difficult. This research
allowed me to look at the problem from a different perspective. With
good intentions and an open mind I learned the intricate dynamics of
value, tradition, and cultural history of the Cambodian
Clark, Thelka. (1998). Children in Exile: The Story of a Cross-Cultural Family. New Jersey: The Ecco Press.
Earm, Saroeun. (2001). Theravada Buddhism. St. Olaf College research paper.
Kiernan, Ben. (1996). Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide, 1975-79. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Lee C. Lee, and Nolan W. S. Zane. (Eds.). (1998). Handbook of Asian American Psychology. London: Sage Publication.
Portes, Alejandro, and Ruben G. Rumbaut. (2001). Legacies: The Story of
the Immigrant Second Generation. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Pran, Dith. (1997). Compiled. Kim Depaul (Eds.). Children of Cambodia’s
Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors. New Haven and London: Yale
Ritzer, George. (Eds.), (2000). Modern Sociological Theory. (5th ed.). U.S.: McGraw-Hill Companies.
Takaki, Ronald. (1993). A Different Mirror. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Zhou, Min, and James V. Gatewood, (Eds.). (2000). Contemporary
Asian American: A Multidisciplinary Reader. New York: New York Press.
Zia, Helen. (2000). Asian American Dream: The Emergence of an American People. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
1. What was your greatest challenge/fear raising your
children in the American society when your cultural background is
2. What cultural values do you teach your children? Are the values Khmer or American? Why?
3. What do you think about American culture? Do you like it or hate it?
4. Do you think you and your children are less
Khmer/American because of the values you taught them or how you raised
5. Are there any American cultural values and beliefs
that you strongly disagree with or prefer over Khmer culture?
6. What do you think about interracial dating or
marriage? What are your thoughts if one of your children decides to
marry someone not Cambodian?
7. What do you think about the next generation after you, if they lose their Khmer culture?
8. What are some of your thoughts about the Khmer language, and whether or not it was spoken in the house?
9. Do you think that if people stop speaking Khmer, they would lose the culture also?
10. How do Cambodians identify themselves? American or Khmer?
11. What is the language spoken at home? What is the
significant of speaking Khmer/English? What kind of effect does it have
on maintaining the culture?
12. What do you think of the future of Khmer culture and language in the U.S.?