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Confessions of an American-born Cambodian

Every year, we honor our ancestors and Buddha with offerings of fruit and drinks.

To my fellow Cambodians I just want to say, Suor Sdey Chnam Tmey! Or to my non-Khmer-speaking friends, Happy New Year!

Wednesday was the beginning of Cambodian New Year, which ends today, and like pretty much every other Cambodian family in the world, my family has plans this weekend to welcome the Year of the Rabbit. From attending temple to big events to home get-togethers, Cambodians always gather come mid-April.

Having lived through more than two dozen new years (though honestly, only truly aware of roughly 20), I have to say Cambodian New Year tends to bring out my Khmer pride. I like knowing there is a part of me that’s different.

Growing up in a Cambodian household in the United States has definitely been an interesting experience. And after 25 years of straddling a cultural fence, I have learned a few things about myself and my Cambodian heritage:

Confession #1: I wish I was better with the language.

  • Khmer, or Cambodian, was and is always spoken in my house. And while I can (somewhat) hold my own in a conversation, I do occasionally struggle with finding the right words. One of the little boys my mom watches knows more Khmer and speaks better than me. He’s 3. That’s just sad. Although, I admit my Khmer has probably improved just from hanging out with him.
    And when I have kids, the Cambodian culture will be part of them and I want them to be able to speak the language. I also know I’m going to pass it on to them no matter what as speaking Khmer to babies comes natural to me, even if said baby has not a single drop of Cambodian blood in them. It would be nice to be able to speak it without a very noticeable American accent (slight is okay).

Confession #2: I wish I could cook more of the  food.

Bien houy is one of my favorite Cambodian dishes. My mom made it for me right before I left for Italy for three months.

  • My mom was a stay-at-home mom, which meant home cooked meals pretty much every day. There were definitely times I wished we had gone out to eat at restaurants more, but as a whole, my sister and I were very lucky. My mom is an awesome cook and oftentimes better than the various Cambodian restaurants I’ve visited over the years. It was always fun bringing Cambodian food to school for lunch because I liked explaining to (and sometimes grossing out) my classmates about what I was eating.
    Be that as it may, my mom’s expertise in the kitchen hasn’t really been passed down to me — at least when it comes to Cambodian food. It’s no secret that I like to cook. I just haven’t had much opportunity to try my hand at Cambodian cuisine. I can prepare basic stir-fries, fried rice and fried noodles, but nothing really fancy. And sadly, my mom — or any of the other Cambodian mothers I know — has not shared her recipes with the next generation. One of the reasons for this, I know, is because everything is done by sight and taste. Barely anything is written down and ingredient portions and measurements are done by estimate.
    I’m hoping this blog may help make things easier.

Confession #3: The Cambodian community is very close knit, which is not always a bad thing.

  • Having your parents’ friends looking out for you when they’re not around may not always seem ideal, but that support system is very nice to have when it matters.
    Earlier this year, my parents went to Cambodia for a month. I had the house to myself and while the first thing that comes to many people’s minds (my friends’ included) is PARTY!, that wasn’t mine. Since they were gone for a month, I had a lot of grown-up responsibilities in paying bills, taking care of things around the house, etc.
    And because they would be gone for awhile, my parents wanted to make sure I would be okay (despite being an adult and having lived on my own before). So, many of our family friends called to check on me on a regular basis — some even invited me over for lunch or dinner. This may sound irritating and maybe a bit overprotective, but I was honestly touched with everyone’s concern. It was nice to see how the community truly takes care of its own.

Confession #4: I may be Buddhist and go to temple, but I really couldn’t tell you much about the religion.

  • Like many Cambodian families, we are Theravada Buddhist. I grew up going to temple on a fairly regular basis. We have Buddha statues on our mantel and we light incense and pray at home when we can’t make it down to Tacoma, where our temple is located.
    But honestly, besides a very rough idea about karma and reincarnation, I really don’t know much about Buddhism. Compared to what I’ve heard about other faiths, my experience with the religion has been far less structured. There was never any sort of school for youngsters to attend and with everything in Sanskrit, the language barrier has always been an issue as I never know what we’re saying in the prayers.

Confession #5: I can look at the Khmer Rouge with a somewhat objective eye.

  • My family visited Cambodia in 2005. It was mine and my sisters first time there and our parents first time back since they left in 1975 and 1980.

    Now, I will be the first to tell you that the Khmer Rouge was a horrible and tragic part of Cambodian history. Families were torn apart; country sides were destroyed; and millions were killed.
    The regime also  affected my family in a big way: my parents lost two children and other relatives and friends during this time; they were separated for about five years; and ultimately, they fled their homeland. I have heard their stories a few times but it’s not really a topic of discussion in our house.
    But having been born several years after its downfall and in another country, I’m a bit removed from the Khmer Rouge. I’m not saying it hasn’t affected my beliefs or the way I see things, I’m just saying it’s all been through secondhand experience — as I’m sure many other young Cambodians of my generation would say.
    Over the past few months, I’ve come across articles and documentaries about the Khmer Rouge. I’ve found them very interesting, but besides a general sympathy and empathy for the victims and their families (including my own), I am not that affected.
    I’m sure for my parents, who lived it, it’s a different story.

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One comment on “Confessions of an American-born Cambodian

  1. […] things that I’ve learned, though that’s not to say I haven’t realized it before. I have. But this appreciation has been about being part of a family and others with similar backgrounds. […]

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