Cambodian americans

by Carl L. Bankston III


The Kingdom of Cambodia is a country of about 8,000,000 people, approximately the size of the state of Missouri, located in Southeast Asia. It is bordered on the west and northwest by Thailand, on the north by Laos, on the east by Vietnam, and on the south by the Gulf of Thailand. The climate is tropical, with monsoon rains from May to October and a dry season from December to March. There is little variation in temperature, which is hot most of the year. There are mountains in the southwest and north, but most of the country consists of low, flat plains. Three-quarters of the land is covered with forests and woodland, and much of the land is cultivated with rice paddies. Cambodia has few roads and bridges, and many of the existing roads and bridges are in poor condition due to years of war and political upheaval. Aside from rice, the main crop, Cambodia also produces rubber and corn.

The Cambodian people and their language are also known as "Khmer." About 90 percent of the people in Cambodia are ethnic Cambodians, or Khmer; five percent are Vietnamese; one percent are Chinese; and four percent belong to other ethnic groups, including the Cham who are predominantly Muslims and who migrated from Vietnam long ago. Most Cambodians are wet-rice farmers. Eighty percent of them live in the countryside and practice subsistence farming. It is estimated that about 48 percent of Cambodian men and about 22 percent of Cambodian women can read and write. Cambodia is an overwhelmingly Buddhist country; 95 percent of the population practices Theravada Buddhism, the type of Buddhism found in many of the countries in southern Asia. Other faiths include Roman Catholicism, Islam, animism, and Mahayana Buddhism— the type of Buddhism found most often in northern Asia. The flag of Cambodia contains two horizontal blue stripes divided by a wider, red stripe in the middle. In the center of the red stripe is a white temple, representing the main temple of Angkor Wat, the capital city of the Khmer empire from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries.


Before 1975 almost no people of Cambodian ancestry lived in the United States. The 150,000 Cambodians who immigrated by 1990 settled in the United States as a result of the tragic events in their native country in which the United States was deeply involved. Because Cambodian Americans are such a new part of America, to know something of their history is especially important in order to appreciate their culture and their unique situation.


Cambodia is an ancient country with a long history that has been a source of pride and pain to the Cambodian people. The Cambodians probably lived originally in western China, but they migrated down the Mekong River valley into Indochina sometime before the common era. In Indochina, they came into contact with the highly developed civilization and culture of ancient India. From India, they took the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism and the idea of state organization as well as the concept of kingship. These religious and political ideas became the basis of the early state of Funan (second to fifth centuries) whose territory encompassed present day Cambodia and the southern part of southern Vietnam. Funan's port city of Oc Eo received traders coming from India and China. Funan was also well known for the irrigation and drainage canals that crisscrossed its land.

The greatest period in Cambodian history was the Angkor period, named after a huge complex of religious and public monuments. Funan's two capital cities, Angkor Wat (City-Temple) and Angkor Thom (Great City), were the most spectacular of these monuments. Most scholars date the Angkor period as having lasted from about 802—when its founder declared the independence of Cambodia and conferred on himself the title of God-King (Deva-Raja)—to about 1431 A.D. During much of this time, Cambodia, or "Kambuja-Desa," as it is called in old inscriptions, was the most powerful kingdom in Southeast Asia, governing great expanses of territory that are now part of Thailand and southern Vietnam, as well as the land that constitutes Cambodia today.

By the end of the Angkor era, the kingdom of Kambuja-Desa came under increased pressure from the Siamese (Thai) on the west and the Vietnamese on the east. The ability of the royal bureaucracy to manage the complex irrigation system may also have weakened. Gradually, the center of the kingdom shifted from Angkor to Phnom Penh, today's capital city. Trade had become more important for the Cambodians, and Phnom Penh was located where the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap come together, an easier location from which to control trade with Laos and China.

From the 1400s on, the Cambodians lost territory to both the Siamese and the Vietnamese. By the 1800s, Cambodia had fallen almost entirely under the control of Vietnam and Siam, and Cambodia was sealed off from the outside influences that were beginning to affect other Southeast Asian countries. In 1864, Cambodia became a French protectorate.


King Norodom, the King of Cambodia at the time the French established control, appears to have seen French protection as a way of keeping his neighbors at bay and perhaps also as a help in defeating the numerous revolts against him by his own subjects. France gradually tightened its control over Cambodian political life, though. After Norodom died in 1904, the French made his half-brother, Sisowath, the king instead of Norodom's son, whom the French considered too independent. French officials also hand picked and placed in office the two kings who followed Sisowath.

While there was a steady growth of Cambodian nationalism, the country remained at peace through the early part of the twentieth century. When World War II broke out and France was occupied by Germany, the French remained in control in Indochina, with the agreement of Germany's allies in Asia, the Japanese. In 1941, Monivong, the king who had followed Sisowath, died, and the French made Monivong's grandson, Norodom Sihanouk, king. Sihanouk was only 19 years of age at the time. Although he was highly intelligent, artistically talented, and apparently sincere in wanting to be a good ruler, Sihanouk had had no training for the throne and relied heavily on his French advisors in the early years of his rule.

Sihanouk was to dominate Cambodian history for most of the half century following his coronation. He also developed from a protégé of the French into a determined, if cautious, adherent to the cause of Cambodian independence. The occupation of Japanese troops over Southeast Asia provided many Asian colonies with evidence that the European colonists could be defeated. Anti-French feelings intensified in Cambodia when the French attempted, in the 1940s, to replace the traditional writing system with a system based on the letters used by Europeans. In 1945, Japanese troops disarmed the French colonial forces in Cambodia. At their instigation, Sihanouk declared Cambodian independence from France on March 12, 1945.

The French reestablished themselves in Cambodia after the defeat of Japan, but their power had been seriously weakened. Nationalist feelings continued to grow stronger in Cambodia. In France, some young Cambodian students, influenced by the French Communist Party, began to formulate ideas that combined extreme nationalism with Communist ideology. Three of these students were to become the most important leaders of the Khmer Rouge: Saloth Sar, later known as Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, and Ieng Sary. All nationalists looked back to the time of Angkor Wat as a symbol and ideal of Cambodian greatness.

By 1953, the war in neighboring Vietnam was becoming a problem for the French, exacerbated by its momentous unpopularity in France. Cambodian resistance and the prospect of fighting another full-scale war in Cambodia led France to grant Cambodia independence on November 9, 1953, while retaining much control over its economy. In 1954, after the French had failed to reimpose their rule on Vietnam, delegates to the Geneva Conference agreed that elections would be held in all three of the countries of Indochina. In order to participate in the elections, Sihanouk abdicated his throne in 1955 in favor of his father, and assumed the highest office in the country as its Prime Minister.

Sihanouk managed to keep his country neutral during many of the long years of war that raged in Vietnam and Laos. He was, at the same time, intolerant of Cambodian leftists, whom he labeled the "Khmer Rouge," or "Red Khmer." Many of these leftists fled into the countryside.


The United States became involved in Southeast Asia to preserve a non-Communist regime in South Vietnam. In Laos, Cambodia's northern neighbor, there was an extension of the Vietnam war in the 1960s, in the form of an armed conflict between Pathet Lao forces allied with North Vietnam and the Royal Government of Laos which was pro-American. The policies of Prince Sihanouk were primarily aimed at keeping Cambodia out of these wars and, until about 1970, he was largely successful. His constant attempts to play the different sides in the Vietnam conflict against each other, though, resulted in hostility toward him by the pro-American governments of Thailand and South Vietnam and in a suspicious attitude toward him on the part of the Americans. By 1966, Sihanouk had forged a secret alliance with North Vietnam because he felt certain that the Vietnamese Communists would win the war and because the North Vietnamese agreed, under the treaty, to respect the borders of Cambodia, to leave Cambodian civilians alone, and to avoid conflicts with the Cambodian army.

War in the surrounding countries undermined the economy of Cambodia and threatened to spill across the border. Prince Sihanouk blamed the United States for engineering the 1963 coup against the Vietnamese government that resulted in the killing of its leaders. He subsequently refused all forms of American assistance and severed diplomatic relations with the United States. With regard to Vietnamese communists, in a secret treaty, Sihanouk agreed to allow them to station troops inside Cambodia, along the border with south Vietnam, and to receive weapons brought from China and North Vietnam through the port of Sihanoukville. South Vietnam and the United States were greatly concerned about the presence of Vietnamese communist troops in Cambodia and the facilities reserved to them by the government of Cambodia. In a secret move, the United States ordered a carpet bombing of Vietnamese communist sites in Cambodia that caused untold sufferings for the Cambodian population living in these areas.

In 1970, apparently with American support, General Lon Nol staged a coup while Prince Sihanouk was on his way to France for health reasons. As the United States welcomed a more cooperative Cambodian regime, the Vietnam War had finally overtaken Cambodia. In May of 1970, American and South Vietnamese forces invaded eastern Cambodia, driving the Vietnamese communist forces farther into the country.

Out of power, Sihanouk joined forces with the Khmer leftists whom he formerly persecuted. Having the prince on their side gave the Khmer Rouge an enormous advantage in drawing support from the peasants, many of whom still regarded Sihanouk as an almost divine figure. At the same time, American aerial bombing in the Cambodian countryside, directed against both the North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge, caused enormous disruption of the traditional society. In the first half of 1973, before the U.S. Congress prohibited further bombing in Cambodia, American planes dropped over 100,000 tons of bombs on the country.

It is difficult to say to what extent the extreme radicalism of the Khmer Rouge was due to the bombing, or to far-left Maoist ideas developed by Khmer Rouge leaders as students in France, or to the carrying out of these ideas by generally very young and uneducated peasant soldiers. However, the Khmer Rouge appears to have already been uncompromising and brutal in the areas it controlled even before it took control of the whole country. In April of 1975, with the United States having pulled its troops out of Vietnam and Saigon about to fall to the Vietnamese Communists, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh.


Cambodia became an experiment in revolutionary social change known as Democratic Kampuchea (D.K.). In order to create a completely new society in which everyone would be equal, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, ordered everyone, including the elderly and sick, out of the cities and towns of Cambodia and into the countryside. Family life, all traces of individualism, and all attachments to old institutions, including religion, were abolished. A new calendar for a new era was invented, with 1975 renamed "Year Zero." All Cambodians were put to work at agricultural labor in order to build up the agricultural surplus of the nation to finance rapid industrialization. In effect, these uncompromising ideals turned the entire country into a collection of forced labor camps: soldiers whose young lives had consisted mainly of bitter warfare acted as armed guards.

Estimates of the number of people who died under Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea regime vary from one million to two million. The number of people actually executed by the Khmer Rouge is unknowable. How many people died of starvation and poor living conditions, some of which may have been the after-effects of war and U.S. bombing, also remains uncounted. Still, the period from 1975 to 1979 was traumatic for all Cambodians. Cambodians in the United States and elsewhere tell of seeing close friends and family members being killed by the Khmer Rouge and of enduring great suffering.

Democratic Kampuchea, in addition to espousing an extreme form of socialism, was also committed to extreme nationalism. The Khmer Rouge wanted to recreate the greatness of the Angkor period, which meant retaking the areas that had become parts of Vietnam and Thailand. Border skirmishes between Cambodian and Vietnamese forces led Vietnam to invade Cambodia on Christmas Day in 1978, and by early January the Vietnamese held Phnom Penh. In the chaos of war, the rice crop went untended and thousands of Cambodians, starving and freed from the Khmer Rouge labor camps, began crossing the border into Thailand. Television cameras brought the images of these refugees into the homes of Americans and other westerners, and immigration from Cambodia to the United States began as a response to the "Cambodian refugee crisis."

Under pressure from the United States and other anti-communist and anti-Vietnamese nations, Vietnamese troops pulled out of Cambodia in 1989, leaving behind the Cambodian government they had created—the People's Republic of Kampuchea. In the meantime, with the help of anti-Vietnamese governments, a Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea was formed with the participation of forces loyal to the now infamous Khmer Rouge and to the Khmer People National Liberation Front. In 1991 all Cambodian parties signed the Paris Peace treaty, which called for United Nations Transitional Authorities in Cambodia to prepare the country for a general election. In 1993 the elected representatives voted to form a coalition government composed of the two political parties that had garnered the most votes. They also decided to reestablish the monarchy with Sihanouk as king and head of state. The Khmer Rouge refused to take part in this election and continued to oppose the new government.


Large numbers of refugees from Cambodia have come to the United States only since 1979, when the U.S. refugee program began accepting Cambodians from refugee camps in Thailand. Most of these arrived in the early 1980s. Of the 118,823 foreign-born Cambodians identified by the 1990 Census in the United States, only 16,880 (or about 14 percent) had arrived before 1980. As thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia began to come into the United States each year, the United States developed organizational procedures for resettlement. Voluntary agencies (or VOLAGS), many of which were affiliated with American churches, had been set up by 1975 to assist the first wave of Vietnamese refugees. These agencies had the task of finding sponsors, individuals, or groups who would assume financial and personal responsibility for refugee families for up to two years. By the early 1980s, refugee camps had been set up in various countries throughout Southeast Asia. Most Cambodians stayed in refugee camps in Thailand, but many who were being prepared for resettlement in the United States were sent to camps in the Philippines or elsewhere. Agencies under contract to the U.S. Department of State organized classes to teach English to familiarize refugees with American language and culture. In 1980 and 1981, 34,107 Cambodians entered the United States. From 1982 to 1984, the influx continued, with 36,082 Cambodians entering the United States. After that time, the numbers began to diminish. In 1985 and 1986, 19,921 Cambodians reached American soil, and from 1987 to 1990, only 11,843 Cambodians were admitted. By the early 1990s, prospects of a political settlement in Cambodia removed much of the perceived urgency of accepting Cambodian refugees, and immigration from Cambodia to the United States decreased to very small numbers.


The 1990 U.S. Census found almost 150,000 Cambodian Americans in the United States, although those active in working with Cambodian immigrants warn that the Census may have undercounted this group, since the Cambodians are so new to American society and many may not have responded to the Census. The largest concentration of Cambodian Americans is in California, where close to 70,000, or nearly half of the people of Cambodian ethnicity, appear to have settled. The largest Cambodian community was Long Beach, California, where over 17,000, according to Census, made their home. Again, however, Cambodian American spokespersons maintain that these estimates are dramatically low and that the actual number of Cambodian Americans was probably closer to twice that many. Nearby Los Angeles also had a significant population of Cambodians of at least 4,250. Stockton, California, had the second largest Cambodian community, numbering at least 10,000. Outside of California, the greatest number of Cambodian Americans were found in Massachusetts, where over 14,000 lived. About half of the Massachusetts Cambodians lived in the city of Lowell. Other states with large Cambodian populations include Texas (at least 6,000), Pennsylvania (at least 5,500, located mostly in Philadelphia), Virginia (at least 4,000), New York (at least 4,000, over two-thirds of whom lived in New York City), Minnesota (at least 4,000), and Illinois (over 3,000). Despite their large numbers, Cambodian Americans remained very

These Cambodian immigrants are sisters who travelled to this country together.
These Cambodian immigrants are sisters who travelled to this country together.
much newcomers and often strangers in their adopted country. Only about one in every five foreignborn Cambodians in the United States had become a naturalized U.S. citizen by the early 1990s.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Cambodian Americans are members of one of the youngest ethnic groups in American society. According to the 1990 Census, the median age of people of Cambodian ancestry in the United States was only 19.4, compared to 34.1 for other Americans. Almost half of the Cambodian Americans counted in that Census year were under 18 years of age. About 42 percent of these Cambodian Americans below the age of 18 were born in the United States; most of the others arrived between 1980 and 1986.

Cambodian Americans also live in larger families than other Americans. The average number of people in their families was 5.03, compared to an average of 3.06 in white American families and 3.48 in black American families. Both the youth of Cambodian Americans and their large families indicate that, small though their numbers are, they will continue to grow as a proportion of American society.

Adjusting to American society has been difficult for most Cambodians, who come from rural areas and have few relevant job skills and little familiarity with mainstream American culture. One of the difficulties has been the problem of differences between generations, between older people who see themselves as Cambodians and sometimes speak little,

Actor Virak Ui is sitting on the set of a Cambodian home at Boston's Children's Museum. The exhibit, called "From Time to Time: Celebrating 75 Years at Our House," traces the city's diverse immigration history.
Actor Virak Ui is sitting on the set of a Cambodian home at Boston's Children's Museum. The exhibit, called "From Time to Time: Celebrating 75 Years at Our House," traces the city's diverse immigration history.
if any English, and younger people who have either been born in the United States or have no memory of Cambodia and consider themselves entirely American. According to Cambodian American scholar and activist Dr. Sam-Ang Sam, many Cambodian young people are plagued by identity problems, leading them to discard their Cambodian first names in favor of English first names, and they must often deal with racism from classmates and with being teased about their "foreignness." To help maintain a sense of ethnic identity, many Cambodian community organizations offer Cambodian language classes, the most active of which are maintained by Cambodian Buddhist monks.

Cambodian Americans won the sympathy of many Americans in 1979 and in the early 1980s, when the plight of Cambodian refugees in Thailand became world news. Since their arrival in the United States, though, some unfortunate stereo-types of Cambodians have developed. Because Cambodian culture places a high value on courtesy and avoidance of direct confrontation, other Americans sometimes stereotype them as passive. Among older Cambodian Americans some of this appearance of passivity results from their unfamiliarity with the larger American society or with the English language.


Music is important to traditional Cambodian culture, and Cambodian Americans put a great deal of effort into maintaining this link with their heritage. Traditional music ensembles perform in almost all large Cambodian communities in the United States. There are six types of music ensembles, but the type known as areak ka is considered the most traditional and is used for popular religious ceremonies and wedding ceremonies. The instruments used in the areak ka ensemble are a three-stringed fiddle, a type of monochord, a long-necked lute, and goblet-drums. Other instruments that may be found in Cambodian ensembles include a quadruple-reed oboe, several types of gongs, a large barrel drum, a flute, a two-stringed fiddle, a three-stringed zither, hammered dulcimers, cymbals, and the xylophone. Cambodian music may sound somewhat strange at first to those who are unfamiliar with Asian music.

The best known Cambodian dance is called the "masked dance," because the dancers wear the masks of the characters they portray. The masked dance always tells the story of the Ramayana, an epic that the Cambodians took from ancient India. All parts in the masked dance, even those of women, are played by men. Cambodian classical ballet, or "court dance," on the other hand, has traditionally been danced by women, although men have been entering classical ballet since the 1950s. There are a number of Cambodian dancers in the United States, and the art of dance is also beginning to revive in Cambodia. Bringing this part of the culture back to life, however, is difficult, since an estimated 90 percent of all trained dancers died during the Khmer Rouge regime.


Linguist Karen Fisher-Nguyen has observed that proverbs in Cambodia before 1975 were so important a means of educating the young that they could be found in almost all of the teaching materials of the public schools, and that studying proverbs was actually a part of the school curriculum. Many Cambodian Americans continue to treasure their proverbs as expressions of the traditional wisdom of their people. The sayings below reflect many of their values and ideals: The new rice stalk stands erect; the old stalk, full of grain, leans over; Travel on a river by following its bends, live in a country by following its customs; The small boat should not try to be a big boat; Don't let an angry man wash your dishes; don't let a hungry man guard your rice; Drop by drop, the vessel will fill; pour it, and everything will spill; Men have words—elephants have tusks; If you don't take your wife's advice, you'll have no rice seed next year; Don't rush to dump your rain water when you hear the sound of thunder; Losing money is better than wasting words; If you are an egg, don't bang against a rock; Gain knowledge by study, wealth by work.


For three days in mid-April, Cambodians observe Chaul Chnam, the solar New Year, which is the most important and most common Cambodian holiday. Many parties and dances are held during these three days, and traditional Cambodian music is usually heard. The game of bos chhoung remains a popular New Year's tradition among Cambodians in the United States. In this game, young men and women stand facing each other, about five feet apart. A young man takes a scarf rolled into a ball and throws it at a young woman in whom he is interested. She must catch the scarf, and if she misses it, she must sing and dance for him. If she catches the scarf, she will throw it back to him. If he misses it, he must sing and dance. For Buddhist Cambodians, the New Year Festival is an important time to visit the temple to pray, meditate, and plan for the coming year. The Water Festival, held in November when the flooding has stopped and the water starts to flow out of the great lake into the river again, is celebrated in both Cambodia and the United States. It usually involves boat races and colorful, lighted floats sailing down the river.


In addition to the health problems faced by other poor groups in the United States, Cambodian Americans face special mental and physical health problems resulting from their tragic recent history. Almost all lived under the extreme brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979, and their native country has been in a state of war both before and since that time. Most Cambodian refugees also spent time living in refugee camps in Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries. Health professionals and others who work with Cambodian Americans often note that these experiences have left Cambodians with a sense of powerlessness that affects many, even in America. Physical ailments often result from the emotional anguish they have suffered and continue to suffer. Among those who have been resettled in Western countries, there has appeared a strange malady often referred to as the "Pol Pot syndrome," after the leader of the Khmer Rouge. The "Pol Pot syndrome" includes insomnia, difficulty in breathing, loss of appetite, and pains in various parts of the body.

The stress that has led to such illnesses often tends to create a low general level of health for Cambodian Americans. In the entry on "Khmer" in Refugees in the United States: A Reference Handbook, May M. Ebihara reports that 84 percent of Cambodian households in California have reported that at least one household member was under the care of a medical doctor, compared to 45 percent of Vietnamese households and 24 percent of Hmong and Lao households. The syndrome known as "post traumatic stress disorder," a type of delayed reaction to extreme emotional stress that has been found to affect many Vietnam veterans, is also common among Cambodian refugees in the United States.

Traditional Cambodian healers, known as krou Khmer, may be found in many Cambodian American communities. Some of the techniques used by these healers are massages, "coining," and treatment with herbal medicines. "Coining," or koh khchal, is a method of using a copper coin dipped in tiger balm to apply pressure to acupuncture points of the body. Many Western doctors believe that this actually can be an effective means of pain relief. Coining does leave bruise marks, however, and these can alarm medical personnel and others not familiar with this practice.


Cambodian, or Khmer, is classified by linguists as an Austro-Asiatic language, related to Mon—a language spoken in Burma and western Thailand—and various tribal languages of Southeast Asia. Although many major Asian languages are tonal languages, Cambodian is not tonal: as in the European languages, tones of voice may indicate emotion, but they do not change the meanings of words. The Cambodian alphabet, which has 47 letters, is derived from the alphabet of ancient India, and it is similar to the Thai and Laotian alphabets, as the Thai and Lao people borrowed their systems of writing from the Cambodians.


Cambodian has many sounds that are quite different from those of English, and these are represented by the letters of the Cambodian alphabet. Linguists usually use a phonetic alphabet to write these sounds in the characters used by English and other European languages, but the phrases below are written in a fashion that should provide nonspecialist speakers of American English with a fairly close approximation to their actual pronunciation: Som Chumreap Sur —Good Day; Loak sohk suh-bye jeeuh tay? —Are you well, sir?; Loak-srey sohk suh-bye jeeuh tay? —Are you well, madame?; Baht, knyom sohk suh-bye jeeuh tay —I'm fine (from a man); Jah, knyom sohk suh-bye jeeuh tay —I'm fine (from a woman); Som Aw Kun —Thank-you; Sohm toh —Excuse me, or I'm sorry; Meun uh-wye tay —Don't mention it, or you're welcome; Teuh nah? —Where are you going?; Niyeh piesah anglay bahn tay? —Can you speak English?; Sdap bahn tay —Do you understand?; Sdap bahn —I understand; Sdap meun bahn —I don't understand; Som Chumreap Lea —Goodbye.


Much of the early literature of Cambodia is written in Sanscrit and known by modern scholars primarily from inscriptions on temples and other public buildings. Classical Cambodian literature is based on Indian models, and the Reamker, a Cambodian version of the Indian poem the Ramayana, is probably the most important piece of classical Cambodian literature. The Reamker is still known by Cambodians today. In the years before 1975, episodes from this poem were often acted out by dancers in the royal court or by villagers in village festivals. A collection of aphorisms, known as the Chbab (or "laws"), exists in both written and oral literature. Until recently, children were required to memorize the Chbab in school. Similar to the Chbab are the Kotilok (or "Art of Good Conduct"), which are fables designed to teach moral lessons.

European literary forms, such as novels, had taken root in Cambodia by the 1970s, but almost no literature was produced under the Khmer Rouge, and many intellectuals were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Since 1979, suffering under the Khmer Rouge has been a major theme in Cambodian literature, both in Cambodia and abroad. Among Cambodian Americans, also, the urge to bear witness to the horrors of the years from 1975 to 1979 has inspired many to write, and as a result, the autobiography is the most commonly employed literary form. Many of these Cambodian American authors have taken coauthors, but some have mastered English sufficiently to write solely authored works.

Family and Community Dynamics

The family is extremely important to Cambodian Americans, in part because so many of them lost family members in their previous countries. They tend to have very large families. Children—especially young children—are treasured, and parents treat them with a great deal of affection. Despite the importance of family for Cambodian Americans, they have relatively high numbers of households headed by a single, female parent; in 1990 about 20 percent of Cambodian American households were headed by women, a factor that contributes to their poverty. This high proportion of female-headed households does not appear to be primarily the result of divorce, but rather of the fact that women outnumber men in the Cambodian population, due to years of war.

In Cambodia, men are responsible for providing for their families. Only men can occupy the prestigious status of the Buddhist monk. They also receive formal education, whereas Cambodian women are trained certain tasks in the home. Contrary to other Asian cultures, the Cambodian woman occupies a key position in the household. Generally, the wife budgets the family assets, and cares for the children. She is highly regarded by the men in her own family and by Cambodian society at large. In the refugee camps, many Cambodian women had their first taste of formal education. In the United States, young Cambodian American women are pursuing their educations in large numbers, and they have often become important as breadwinners for their families.


Traditional Cambodian wedding ceremonies are still held by Cambodian Americans, and even members of other ethnic groups who have married Cambodians have celebrated these ceremonies. Although in Cambodia marriages are often arranged by the parents, it is becoming common for Cambodian American young people to choose their own partners. The bride in a Cambodian wedding wears a sampot, an ornate brocade wrap-skirt. She also wears many bracelets, anklets, and necklaces. Grooms sometimes wear the traditional kben (baggy pantaloons) and jacket, but western-style suits are becoming common.

A procession will bring gifts of food and drink to the bride's home. At the beginning of the wedding, the couple sits at a table covered with flowers, fruit, candles, and sometimes with a sword to chase evil spirits away. Friends and relatives take turns standing up in front of the crowd to talk about the new couple. A Buddhist monk cuts a lock of hair from the bride and the groom and mixes the two locks together in a bowl to symbolize the sharing of their lives. Gifts, frequently in the form of envelopes with money in them, are offered to the couple by the guests. At the end of the wedding, the couple goes through the ritual known as ptem, in which knots are tied in a white string bracelet to represent the elders' blessing.


Because Cambodian Americans have settled most often in urban areas, they have frequent contact with disadvantaged members of other minority groups. Often these encounters are troubled by cultural misunderstandings and by the social problems frequently found in poor communities. In some areas where there are large Cambodian communities, Cambodian youth gangs have developed, in part as a matter of self-protection. Older Cambodians often see that they have much in common with their poor Asian, black, and Hispanic neighbors and will frequently distinguish these areas of "poor people" from the comfortable middle-class neighborhoods of "the Americans." Most Cambodian Americans are fairly dark-skinned and they are acutely aware of prejudice in America. They sometimes internalize this prejudice and express feelings of inadequacy because of it.

It has been noted that Cambodian Americans in Texas have frequent contacts with Mexicans or Mexican Americans, and that the members of the two ethnic groups accommodate one another easily. Cambodians may frequently be found as participants in Mexican American weekend markets. Many Cambodians in Texas have learned Spanish and follow Mexican customs in interacting with their Spanish-speaking peers.


Buddhism is the traditional religion of Cambodia. Before 1975, the ruler of the country was the official protector of the religion and the monks were organized into a hierarchy overseen by the government. Monasteries and temples were found in all villages, and monks played an important role in the education of children and in passing on Cambodian culture. The people also supported their local monasteries, through gifts and by giving food to monks. Monks were forbidden to handle money and had to show humility by begging for their food. Every morning, the monks would go from house to house, with their eyes downcast, holding out their begging bowls into which the lay people would spoon rice. Although the religion was attacked by the radical Khmer Rouge during their regime and many monks were killed, the vast majority of Cambodians remain Buddhists and the faith remains an important part of the national culture.

Buddhism in India is divided into two schools of thought. The "Northern School," known as Mahayana Buddhism, is found most often in China, Japan, Tibet, Korea, and Vietnam. The "Southern School," called Theravada (or Hinayana) Buddhism, predominates in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Theravada Buddhists stress the importance of becoming a monk and achieving Nirvana, a state in which there is no self or rebirth, through one's own efforts. Mahayana Buddhists lay more emphasis on help from Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who have delayed achieving Nirvana in order to help others become enlightened.

Fundamental to the Buddhist doctrine are the Four Noble Truths: (1) Existence inevitably leads to unhappiness which follows from the impermanence and disintegration of all living elements; (2) Unhappiness is caused by desire inherent in human nature; desire causes man to become attached to the impermanent; (3) Unhappiness can be avoided by the crushing of desire; and (4) Desire can be crushed by strict adherence to a prescribed moral path. In Buddhism all worldly things are considered changing and impermanent. Those who are not aware of the impermanent nature of the world become attached to worldly things, and this leads to suffering. The suffering will continue as the soul goes through a cycle of rebirths, continually drawn back to worldly desires. Meditation and a moral, disciplined life can enable a believer to overcome desires. The soul that successfully overcomes all desires may reach Nirvana.

The law of Karma ( Kam in the Cambodian language) controls life and rebirth. This law may be seen as a kind of spiritual accounting; good deeds, or "merit," help the soul to be reborn in better circumstances and to earn rewards in the present life; bad deeds cause the soul to be reborn in worse circumstances and can bring about bad luck. For these reasons, "making merit" is a central part of religion for Cambodians. Cambodian Buddhists see making merit as more than simply piling up spiritual credits by performing good works. Correct behavior and merit-making activities such as attending religious ceremonies or donating money to temples and food to monks are seen as upholding the order of the universe. These beliefs have often led Cambodians to wonder if the sufferings of their people might be due to some collective fault of the nation.

Some Cambodian Americans have converted to Christianity, either in the refugee camps, or after arriving in the United States. Often these conversions have been the result of spiritual crises brought about by the tragedies of recent Cambodian history. In many cases, people felt that Buddhism had somehow failed because of the death and destruction that had occurred in their country. In other cases, Christianity has seemed attractive because it is the religion of the majority of Americans, and conversion has seemed a good way to conform to American society and to express gratitude to the religious organizations that played an important part in resettling refugees in the United States.

The majority of Cambodian Americans, however, continue the practice of their traditional religion. As more of them have settled in this country, and as they have established their own communities, observing their religious rituals has become easier. In 1979, there were only three Cambodian temples in the United States. By the early 1990s, more than 50 of these temples had been established in Cambodian communities throughout the United States. Even in those communities in which no temples exist, living around other Cambodian Americans has made it possible for Buddhists to observe their rites in private homes or in community halls and other meeting places. Monasteries, or places where Buddhist monks live, are usually attached to the temples, or places of worship, and the monks are in charge of the temples and the religious rituals held in them. Most American Buddhist temples are in houses or apartments, but there are some more traditionally styled temples, such as the large temple-monastery complex in Maryland.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Adapting to the American economy has been difficult for many people of Cambodian ancestry in the United States. Most of them were farmers in their previous country, and in the United States they have generally been settled in cities. They have high rates of unemployment and the jobs found by

Angelina Melendez is learning the parts of the body from a chart written in the Cambodian language of Khmer. Angelina attends the Demonstration School, which was developed to meet the educational needs of students who speak English as a second language.
Angelina Melendez is learning the parts of the body from a chart written in the Cambodian language of Khmer. Angelina attends the Demonstration School, which was developed to meet the educational needs of students who speak English as a second language.
first-generation Cambodian Americans are most often low-paying jobs in service and manual labor occupations.

Cambodian Americans are, for the most part, a poor group. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, 42 percent of the families of Cambodian ethnicity were living below the poverty level and 51 percent of all Cambodian households rely on public assistance income. The median household income of Cambodian Americans in 1990 was only $18,837, compared to $30,056 for Americans in general. Cambodian Americans have a high rate of unemployment: About ten percent of those in the labor force in 1990 were unemployed. This high rate of unemployment is largely a result of having arrived in this country so recently. If rates of unemployment are examined by years of arrival, it is clear that the longer Cambodian Americans have been in the United States, the higher the probability they will be employed. Nearly 17 percent of Cambodians in the labor force who arrived in the United States between 1987 and 1990 were unemployed in 1990. Among those who arrived in 1985 or 1986, though, only about 12 percent were unemployed. Among Cambodians who arrived between 1982 and 1984, the percentage of unemployed in the labor force dropped to 11 percent. Only about nine percent of those who arrived in 1980 and 1981 and only about seven percent of those who arrived before 1980 were unemployed. These figures provide evidence for a trait noticed by many familiar with Cambodians in the United States: their eagerness to find work, even low-paying work, as soon as they have acquired sufficient language skills and familiarity with American society.

Lack of formal education is a serious handicap for Cambodian Americans. Census statistics show that about 53 percent of Cambodian American men have a sixth grade education or less and 90 percent have less than 12 years of schooling. Women are faced with even more serious difficulties, since 66 percent of them have sixth grade educations or less and 95 percent have completed less than 12 years of schooling. Even when Cambodian Americans are from highly educated backgrounds, however, they often find that their educations are not relevant to the American workplace, and they are handicapped by their language skills. Author Someth May, for example, worked before the publication of his book as a janitor, despite his elite background in his home country. Regardless of the limited educations of their parents, however, Cambodian American young people often do quite well in school and show themselves dedicated to acquiring more education. Only about six percent of Cambodian Americans between the ages of 16 and 19 are high-school dropouts, compared to about ten percent of white Americans and about 14 percent of African Americans in the same age group.

Politics and Government

Most Cambodian Americans are concerned with questions of survival in the new country. They are not actively involved in U.S. politics but remain keenly interested in the reconstruction of their native country. Some Cambodian American organizations, such as the Cambodian Network Council, contribute to the rebuilding of Cambodia by sending trained Cambodian Americans and others to Cambodia as volunteers.

Individual and Group Contributions

Im Proum is a prominent linguist who taught at Cornell University. There he coauthored several of the standard texts on the Cambodian language with Dr. Franklin Huffmann. Sam Ang-Sam is a scholar, musician, and activist. He studied music at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh and afterward continued his studies in the United States, where he received a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University. He served on the faculty at the University of Washington in Seattle until becoming director of the Cambodian Network Council in Washington, D.C. He travels around the world performing and teaching about Cambodian music. Chinary Ung is a scholar and musician who teaches about Cambodian culture at Arizona State University. As a musician, Dr. Ung specializes in playing the Cambodian xylophone.

Maha Ghosananda is a Buddhist monk who lives in the United States but frequently travels to Cambodia. Founder and director of the Khmer Society of New England, he is one of the world's most prominent peace activists and has organized two marches for peace in Cambodia. He has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Vora Kanthoul is an authority on contemporary Cambodian issues and an influential figure in the Cambodian American community. He is executive director of the United Cambodian Community and teaches comparative world cultures at Long Beach City College. He studied in France, Russia, and Taiwan, and earned a Cambodian law degree in Phnom Penh and a Master's degree in political science from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. From 1973 to 1975 he served in the Cambodian Foreign Service. In 1983 he served as minister and counselor of Cambodia's permanent mission to the United Nations.

Haing Ngor is among the most famous Cambodian Americans, best known for his Oscar-winning portrayal of the Cambodian interpreter and journalist Dith Pran in the film, The Killing Fields. Born in rural Cambodia, he worked his way through medical school and became an obstetrician and surgeon in Phnom Penh. After the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, his family was killed by their execution squads. He escaped to Thailand in 1979 and came to the United States in 1980. Aside from a successful acting career, he headed six organizations devoted to caring for Southeast Asian refugees and resettling them in the West. In 1996 he was murdered outside his home in Los Angeles, California.

Dith Pran, the subject of the film The Killing Fields, worked as an assistant and interpreter for New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg in Cambodia. When Pran's family escaped from Cambodia on the eve of the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, Pran stayed behind to help save Schanberg and other journalists from execution. While Western journalists were able to leave, Pran was trapped in Cambodia. In 1979 he escaped to Thailand, where he reunited with Sydney Schanberg. In the United States he has continued work as a photographer and journalist. His book of interviews with Khmer Rouge survivors entitled Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, was published in 1997.


Angkor Borei News.

Cambodian community newspaper in English.

Contact: Mr. Diep Ly, Manager.

Address: 2565 East Chapman Avenue, Suite F, Fullerton, California 92631.

Telephone: (714) 773-5519.


Semi-annual journal that contains academic news of Thai, Laotian, and Cambodian studies.

Contact: Michael R. Rhum, Editor.

Address: Association for Asian Studies, Thailand-Laos-Cambodia Studies Group, Department of Anthropology, Northern Illinois University, Dekalb, Illinois 60115.

Telephone: (815) 753-8577.

Vatt Khmer.

Newsletter that discusses Buddhism and Cambodian culture and civilization. Text is primarily in Khmer but partly in English.

Address: Cambodian Buddhist Society, Inc., 13800 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring, Maryland 20904.

Telephone: (301) 622-6544.

Organizations and Associations

Cambodian Americans have formed a wide variety of organizations during the short time they have been a part of American society. Most of these exist to help newly arrived Cambodians adjust to American society, but they also provide information about Cambodian American culture, business, and other aspects of Cambodian life in this country.

Art of Apsara.

Encourages the development and exhibition of contemporary Cambodian art. Runs a gallery in Long Beach, open to the general public.

Contact: Mon Duch, Director.

Address: Suite 105, 2338 East Anaheim, Long Beach, California 90804.

Telephone: (310) 438-3932.

Cambodian Association.

Serves Cambodian Americans in the Philadelphia area. Helps newly arrived Cambodians with problems in education and housing, assists in preserving Cambodian culture, acts as an advocate for the interests of Cambodian Americans.

Contact: Walter Chin, Director.

Address: 5412 North Fifth Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19121.

Telephone: (215) 324-4070.

Cambodian Family.

Serves Cambodian Americans in the Santa Ana area. Offers English language training to Cambodian refugees, provides help in finding employment, gives classes in health education and parenting skills. Also offers programs for Cambodian American youth, including a gang prevention program, after-school classes, and Cambodian language classes.

Contact: Rivka Hirsch, Director.

Address: 1111 East Wakeham Avenue, D, Santa Ana, California 92705.

Telephone: (714) 542-2907.

Cambodian Network Council (CNC).

The primary national organization of Cambodians in the United States. This is an umbrella organization that seeks to facilitate communication among local Cambodian organizations, to help set up new local organizations, and to build coalitions. The CNC hosts an annual convention of Cambodian American associations. It also maintains a data bank of Cambodian American professionals and runs an international program sending volunteers to Cambodia to help in rebuilding the country.

Contact: Dr. Sam-Ang Sam.

Address: 713 D Street, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Telephone: (202) 546-9144.

Folsom Cordova School District.

Provides educational materials, such as bilingual texts for Cambodian Americans.

Contact: Ms. Judy Lewis.

Address: 2460 Cordova Lane, Rancho Cordova, California 95670.

Telephone: (916) 635-6815.

National Association for the Education and Advancement of Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans (NAFEA).

Seeks to provide equal educational opportunities for and advance the rights of Indochinese Americans; encourage appreciation of Indochinese cultures, peoples, education, and language.

Contact: Ms. Ngoc Diep Nguyen, President.

Address: 1855 Mt. Prospect Road, Des Plaines, Illinois 60018.

Telephone: (708) 803-3112.

United Cambodian Council (UCC).

The largest Cambodian agency in the United States, the United Cambodian Council is located in Long Beach, the site of America's largest Cambodian community. Organized in 1977 by a group of Cambodian intellectuals to serve the needs of the Cambodians in Long Beach, the agency now helps anyone who needs its services. Although most of its clients are Southeast Asians, it assists low-income Americans of all ethnicities. In addition to the employment and language training generally offered by Cambodian service organizations, the UCC is a partner with St. Mary's Church in the Long Beach Southeast Asian Health Project, which provides a wide variety of health services and information.

Contact: Mr. Vora Kanthoul, Executive Director.

Address: 2338 East Anaheim, Suite 200, Long Beach, California 90804.

Telephone: (310) 433-2490.

Museums and Research Centers

Indochina Studies Program

Integral unit of Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California at Berkeley. Focuses on contemporary and historical Indochina, Vietnam, Cambodia (Kampuchea), and Laos.

Address: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2223 Fulton Street, Sixth Floor, Berkeley, California 94720.

Telephone: (510) 642-2809.

Fax: (510) 643-7062.


Sources for Additional Study

Cambodian Culture Since 1975: Homeland and Exile, edited by May M. Ebihara, Carol A. Mortland, and Judy Ledgerwood. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Chandler, David P. A History of Cambodia. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. 1992.

Criddle, Joan D., and Teeda Butt Mam. To Destroy You Is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.

May, Someth. Cambodian Witness: The Autobiography of Someth May, edited by James Fenton. New York: Random House, 1987.

Scott, Joanna C. Indochina's Refugees: Oral Histories from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 1989.

Southeast Asian-American Communities, edited by Kali Tal. Woodbridge, Connecticut: Viet Nam Generation, 1992.

User Contributions:

D. Sao
Chemreap Su, my names David aka A-Vit lol, i just want to say that this site was very well informed and constructed! It was really accurate and true, when i read it, i felt like it was my life story lol. Great facts! Great job! I will spread the site around! Thx bye Chem reap leah KHMER PRIDE
Good for cambodia that live in USA and don't forget khmer blood. We should attend cambodia to improve. now cambodia is best
Big camboDian
NEED MORE KHMERS IN DALLAS! COME TO DALLAS, were lonely :(, there are only about 2000 of us here...

I was wondering if you can provide information on where I can get either textbooks or find a class to learn to read and write Cambodian. As a child, my aunt taught us, but its been over 10 years and I have now forgotten. I would like to relearn the written language.

Thank you very much for your help,

Lao Movlak
Dear Sir or Madam

I think all this article is very good that i can know clearly about cambodian live in USA that caus War and i have some question to ask u about how i can find my relative in USA that before he went to USA during the war.

I thank u in advance for ur checked my email and reply to me to know about this problem because now i want to find my family but i dont no how to find.

With regards,
Lao Movlak
Famous Cambodian Americans:

Haing Ngor is among the most famous Cambodian Americans, best known for his Oscar-winning portrayal of the Cambodian interpreter and journalist Dith Pran in the film, The Killing Fields. Born in rural Cambodia, he worked his way through medical school and became an obstetrician and surgeon in Phnom Penh. After the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, his family was killed by their execution squads. He escaped to Thailand in 1979 and came to the United States in 1980. Aside from a successful acting career, he headed six organizations devoted to caring for Southeast Asian refugees and resettling them in the West. In 1996 he was murdered outside his home in Los Angeles, California.

Dith Pran, the subject of the film The Killing Fields, worked as an assistant and interpreter for New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg in Cambodia. When Pran's family escaped from Cambodia on the eve of the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, Pran stayed behind to help save Schanberg and other journalists from execution. While Western journalists were able to leave, Pran was trapped in Cambodia. In 1979 he escaped to Thailand, where he reunited with Sydney Schanberg. In the United States he has continued work as a photographer and journalist. His book of interviews with Khmer Rouge survivors entitled Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, was published in 1997.

Read more: Cambodian Americans - History, Origins, Cambodia under the french
I'm a second generation Cambodian/Thai American. I came to the US when I was four years of age and grew up here, but I never forget where I come from or who I am. The article that I have read is very informative to me because I have no idea one person can do that to the other. I'm currently working on my Nursing Degree and Doctor Degree very interested to to back to Cambodia and help the people in rural area or work in the hospitals there.
My family hosted a Cambodian refugee family in the early 1980's in Seattle. When my family moved in 1983 to Arizona, we lost contact with them. I have tried to find them and was wondering if you had any ideas of where to look. I remember their names and know approximately how old each of them would be now. Someone please contact me.
Hoeuth Kim
I stumbled upon this site after searching for a database that could possibly contain cambodian ancestry information; my cambodian ancestry. If only time could turn back before the war.

I really appreciate the information you provided on this website. Very, very well informed facts; at least according to both my parents and my brothers and sisters who lived during that time. Born in Khoul-Dang in 1981 and immigrated to the USA in 1985, I have no recollection of the events prior to my arrival in the USA let alone my parents willing to retell the horrifying stories of the past. It wasn't until recently in 2011 that my dad told me that my two older brothers were murdered at gun point in front of him; all because they didn't comply to bare arms; they were young boys!

I will share this link with family and friends to keep the information circulating.
This is a wonderful source of general information that anyone could use as a platform to dive deeper into any specific issue. I'm actually a UC Berkeley student studying Molecular and Cell Biology but am taking a class in urban planning that focuses its influences on race, immigrant settlement and so on. My research paper is about how the pioneer Khmer immigrants led the effort that result in the settlement of the Cambodian refugees of the second wave we see today in Long Beach or more obviously in the 1980s. It's just exciting to learn about all these things about my homeland since I couldn't while in my adolescent years due to the shortage of information and the lack thereof. If anyone would like to read about what I'll have finished by May 2012, please contact me and I'll be more than willing to share the paper and sources.
How can I find out who was the first Cambodian person born in the USA? I been searching the net but no luck. Could someone give me a website if possible?
this site is very helpful for me; thank you for your great resourcefulness in the cambodian culture. I am a cambodian/ chinese american and i never really realized how bad it was for the victims of the khmer rouge that they'll suffer from so many health problems and how disadvantaged they were when they first came to America
Bunnary Heng
Please my fellow Khmers, get as high an education as you can so that you can be employabe and help improve our statistics. People everywhere look down on us, without knowing our tragic past, but we have come a long way! We came from farming villages and are thrown into city life in the scariest, poorest parts of country where there is high crime, drugs, robberies, and bad influences. Other people are afraid to venture to these areas at night but this is our home now! My hope is for the next generation to become educated, have decent jobs, have homes and raise good families so that other Asians won't see us as the black sheep. We can do it...we are a resilient people and we have survived. Now, it is time to shine! Let's help each other succeed.
Hi, my cambodian daughter in laws parents are coming to visit us in america for 5 months. What kind of gifts would they appreciate besides money?
Hi everyone. I came across this website trying to do a research project for my school. This site gave me some ideas what I would like to do for my project. Thank you. P. Sam
I recently worked in Cambodia and met a young woman who is trying to locate her grandfather who went to San Francisco in 1979. Can you tell me of any organization who helps to locate Cambodian refugees?
Very accurate about my parents immigrating to America as refugees and their stories of survival and coming to a new country...on top of that my parents and families was the last wave of Cambodians, the 11 thousands refugees in 1987-1990 luckily they were permitted to come and I was born here

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