Cambodian Americans

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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
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Cambodian Americans

Carl L. Bankston III


Cambodian Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from Cambodia, a nation in mainland Southeast Asia 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 a total land area of 181,035 square miles, which is approximately the size of the state of Missouri.

The Kingdom of Cambodia had a population of about fifteen million people in July 2012, according to the CIA World Factbook. Cambodia is an overwhelmingly Buddhist country; 95 percent of the population practices Theravada Buddhism, the branch of Buddhism found in many countries in southern Asia. Other faiths include Roman Catholicism, Islam, animism, and Mahayana Buddhism—the branch found most often in northern Asia. An estimated 2.1 percent of the people in Cambodia are Muslim, mostly members of the Cham ethnic minority. Although the Cambodian economy grew rapidly from 2004 to 2008 and continued to improve even during the global economic troubles after 2008, it is still a poor country. Nearly one-third of its people live below the poverty level, and subsistence farming is still the most common occupation. Cambodia has a wealth of natural resources, including timber and minerals, and oil deposits have been found in its territorial waters. Most of its economic growth during the 2000s, though, came from the expansion of the garment industry and tourism.

Before 1975 there were almost no people of Cambodian origin in the United States. Small numbers of Cambodians, also known as Khmer, began to arrive as refugees in the late 1970s. After the U.S. Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, many more Cambodians began to resettle in the United States, along with rapidly growing numbers of refugees from Laos and Vietnam. In 1981 more than 38,000 Cambodian refugees reached the United States. By the time of the 1990 U.S. Census, the Cambodian American population had reached an official estimate of 150,000 people. The flow of refugees decreased in the late 1980s, but an established Cambodian American population became a basis for regular migration from Cambodia to the United States. Although Cambodians Americans were initially a greatly disadvantaged population, suffering from the traumas of

Adapting to the American economy was difficult for many people of Cambodian ancestry who arrived in the United States during the 1980s. Most had been farmers in their previous country, and in the United States they were generally settled in cities.

war and dislocation and often with little formal education, they showed a notable trend toward socioeconomic adaptation and upward mobility.

U.S. Census figures placed the Cambodian American population at 225,497 in 2010, or equal to the total population of a mid-sized American city such as Reno, Nevada. Although Cambodian Americans live in almost all parts of the United States, the largest concentrations are in California and Massachusetts. Long Beach, in southern California, and the area around Lowell, Massachusetts, are home to the nation's largest Cambodian communities.


Early History 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.

The greatest period in Cambodian history was the Angkor period (ninth through fifteenth centuries), named after a huge complex of religious and public Page 382  |  Top of Articlemonuments. 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 had come under increased pressure from the Siamese (Thai) on the west and the Vietnamese on the east. From the 1400s on, the Cambodians lost territory to both the Siamese and 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.

Modern Era Although there was a steady growth of Cambodian nationalism, the country remained at peace through the early part of the twentieth century. After 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 the Cambodian king, Monivong, died, and the French made Monivong's grandson, Norodom Sihanouk, king.

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 in Southeast Asia provided many Asian colonies with evidence that the European colonists could be defeated. 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 soon thereafter, 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. 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. The policies of Prince Sihanouk were primarily aimed at keeping Cambodia out of the war, 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 suspicion of him on by the American government.

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 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 had 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 one hundred thousand tons of bombs on the country. In April 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. 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

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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.

Democratic Kampuchea, in addition to espousing an extreme form of socialism, was also committed to extreme nationalism. The Khmer Rouge wanted to re-create 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 anticommunist 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, the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea was formed with the participation of forces loyal to the then-infamous Khmer Rouge and to the Khmer People's National Liberation Front. In 1991 all Cambodian parties signed a peace agreement in Paris that 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.

In 1993 Norodom Sihanok again became king, although the monarchy had relatively little real power. In 1993 Sihanouk's son, Norodom Ranariddh, was elected prime minister, but he was forced to share power with Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge leader who had allied himself with the invading Vietnamese. Ranariddh became first prime minister, while Hun Sen became second prime minister. In 1997 Hun Sen staged a coup and Ranariddh fled to France. Page 384  |  Top of ArticleRanariddh was able to return and participate in elections in 1998, becoming chairman of the Cambodian National Assembly. Hun Sen became sole prime minister. In 2004 Sihanouk abdicated, and his son Norodom Sihamoni, a half-brother of Ranariddh, became king. Sihanouk died on October 15, 2012. In November 2012 President Barack Obama became the first American president to visit Cambodia.


Large numbers of refugees from Cambodia started arriving in the United States only after 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 U.S. Census, 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, 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.

By the 2000s the flow of refugees from Cambodia to the United States had essentially stopped. Between 2002 and 2011, only 84 individuals of Cambodian nationality were admitted to the United States, according to the 2011 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, published by the U.S. Homeland Security Office. The number of people born in Cambodia admitted to the United States under the standard immigration category of “legal permanent residents” reached an average of roughly 3600 people per year during that same ten-year period. This modest but stable immigration flow was largely due to the fact that U.S. immigration policy favors family members of citizens and legal residents, and a fairly large Cambodian American population had by then been established.

By 1990 the Cambodian American population had reached almost 150,000, according to the U.S. Census count, although those active in working with Cambodian immigrants warned then that the census may have undercounted this group, as the Cambodians were so new to American society and many may not have responded to the census. Ten years later, the Cambodian American population had grown to 183,769. By 2010 the numbers had grown to 255,497.

The largest concentration of Cambodian Americans is in California, where about 85,000 Cambodians, or roughly one-third of the national population, resided by 2011, according to estimates from the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau. This national population of Cambodians had grown less concentrated over time, though, since about nearly half of the people of Cambodian ethnicity had lived in California in 1990. The largest Cambodian community was in the Los Angeles–Long Beach area, where over 33,000 Cambodians lived by the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, according to the U.S. Census. The area of Long Beach along the Anaheim and Atlantic corridors is known as “Cambodia Town.” Outside of California, the greatest number of Cambodian Americans were found in Massachusetts, where nearly 29,000 lived. About half of the Massachusetts Cambodians (14,000) lived in and around the city of Lowell. Other states with large Cambodian populations included Washington (26,600), Texas (at least 15,200), Pennsylvania (at least 12,200, mostly in Philadelphia), Rhode Island (8,200), Connecticut (5,500), Minnesota (5,500), Georgia (4,900), Oregon (4,600), Virginia (4,100), North Carolina (4,000), New York (4,000), and Florida (3,900). Cambodian population growth in the southern states, such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida had been especially notable since the 1990s.

In the early 1990s only about 20 percent of foreign-born Cambodians in the United States had become naturalized U.S. citizens, but by 2011 that figure had grown to 65 percent (according to the American Community Survey estimates for 2009–2011). As of 2011 about 46 percent of Cambodian Americans had been born in the United States.


Cambodian, or Khmer, is classified by linguists as an Austro-Asiatic language, related to Mon—a language spoken in Burma (Myanmar) 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 Page 385  |  Top of Articlethey do not change the meanings of words. The Cambodian alphabet, which has forty-seven 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.

Census estimates from 2011 showed that over three-quarters of Cambodian Americans aged five or older spoke Khmer, or Cambodian, at home. Only 60 percent of those under eighteen reported speaking their ancestral language at home, though, reflecting the beginning of a shift toward English among younger people. Although an estimated nine percent of adult Cambodian Americans could speak no English and 29 percent of adults could not speak English well, only a tiny proportion of children could not speak English, and over one-third of Cambodian American children spoke only English.

Greetings and Popular Expressions 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—Good-bye.


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 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 continues to be an important part of the national culture.

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,

The Cambodian Buddhist Temple in Hampton, Minnesota. 2007 The Cambodian Buddhist Temple in Hampton, Minnesota. 2007 ZUMA / ZUMA PRESS, INC / ALAMY

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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 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 Cambodians settled in this country and established their own communities, observing their religious rituals became easier. In mid-1979, the Washington, D.C.–area Cambodian Buddhist Society founded Wat Buddhikarama, reportedly the first Cambodian Buddhist temple in the United States. Three years later, in 1982, the expanding Cambodian population of Long Beach, California, led Cambodian refugees to establish Wat Kemara Buddhikaram. In mid-1985, the Khmer Buddhist Society opened the first Cambodian Buddhist temple in New York City in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx. During the following decades, Cambodian American Buddhist temples proliferated. By 2009 there were at least 109 Cambodian temples in the United States. 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. Cambodian Americans often see their temples as cultural centers as well as places for religious activities. Buddhist monks in the United States do not beg; rather, laypeople bring food donations to the temples.


Traditional Cambodian cultural practices were disrupted during the Khmer Rouge years. Since then, there have been efforts to reconstruct traditions and culture by people in Cambodia and by Cambodian Americans. This has been a special challenge for the latter, as they live in a new country surrounded by members of other ethnic groups. Young people, in particular, assimilate into wider American practices and often have relatively few links to ancestral practices. Nevertheless, Buddhist temples have been especially important in maintaining some aspects of traditional culture.

Traditions and Customs Traditional Cambodian culture emphasizes courtesy and respect, especially respect for elders. The hierarchical character of the culture is expressed in concepts of the body. As in neighboring Thailand and Laos, the head is conceived of as the highest part of the body spiritually as well as physically. Because the head is thought to contain the human soul, touching someone on the head is an expression of disrespect. The feet, on the other hand, are the body's lowest parts, and pointing the soles of the feet at another is extremely discourteous.

Although Cambodian Americans do shake hands when meeting other Americans, their tradition for greeting is to place both hands together at the chest or in front of the face and give a slight bow of the head. Known as the sampeah, this gesture is the same as the wai in Thailand. The greater the respect one owes to the person greeted, the higher one holds one's hands. In traditional Cambodian culture, it is considered impolite to make eye contact with an older person or with someone of superior status.

Cuisine As in other parts of Southeast Asia, rice is the basic dish in Cambodian cooking. Meats and vegetables are generally meant to accompany rice. Noodle dishes are also common. A fermented fish sauce or paste, known as prahok, is commonly used as a flavoring. Prahok is added to foods in cooking and used as a dip. The cuisine is often spicy, employing chili peppers, lemongrass, ginger, and mint. Because bananas, papayas, mangoes, and other fruits are abundant in Cambodia, these are traditionally common in the Cambodian diet. Cambodian Americans families often prepare traditional dishes in their homes. The ingredients are generally available in stores specializing in Asian foods. Some Cambodian Americans grow spices and vegetables in their own gardens.

Cambodian restaurants have not become as fashionable as Thai restaurants in the United States, but many cities with Cambodian American communities do have excellent Cambodian eating establishments, and the Los Angeles region has several Cambodian restaurants. Cambodian restaurants often serve Thai dishes as well as Cambodian dishes.

Traditional Dress The basis of traditional Cambodian dress is a tube-shaped piece of cloth that resembles a skirt. Known as the sampot or the sarong (a Malay/Indonesian term), this article of clothing derives from the historic Indian influence on Cambodia. Made of cotton or silk, it is fastened around the waist and comes in a variety of patterns and styles. A variety of shirts or tops accompany the sampot.

The krama is one of the most characteristic articles of Cambodian dress. It is a checkered scarf worn around the neck, about the shoulders, or turban-style on the head.

Among Cambodian Americans, the sampot and krama are usually only seen on older people or on relatively recent immigrants living in ethnic neighborhoods. Elaborate versions of traditional dress, however, are used in dances and on holidays and ceremonial occasions.

Traditional Arts and Crafts Cambodian crafts suffered during the Khmer Rouge period, but these began to make a comeback in the following decades. The production of traditional arts and crafts by Cambodian Americans is often limited by their participation in a modern economy of mass consumption. Nevertheless, Cambodian Americans remain proud of their traditional arts, which are often displayed on ceremonial occasions.

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Cambodian American Nhep Prok is a master of the Cambodian “khimm,” or stringed dulcimer. He and 100 other community members participated in an event at Peralta Hacienda Historic house, titled Cambodian American Nhep Prok is a master of the Cambodian “khimm,” or stringed dulcimer. He and 100 other community members participated in an event at Peralta Hacienda Historic house, titled “Rhythm of the Refugee, a Cambodian Journey of Healing” in California, 2011. MATT VAN SAUN / DEMOTIX / CORBIS

Textile weaving has a long history in Cambodia. Sampots are woven from both silk and cotton. Cambodian weavers also make pictorial tapestries, known as pidan, usually of silk. The krama is traditionally woven from cotton. In addition to these cloths, Cambodians also weave baskets and floor mats from strips of bamboo. These traditional crafts have become rare in the everyday life of Cambodian Americans, but they are still practiced in temples and cultural centers. Cambodia Town, in Long Beach, California, holds an annual Cambodian Arts and Culture Exhibition in November, in which the arts and crafts from the previous homeland are displayed.

Dances and Songs 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 three-stringed fiddle, a type of monochord, a long-necked lute, and goblet-drums. Other instruments that may be found in Cambodian ensembles include 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, has been difficult, since an estimated 90 percent of all trained dancers died during the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, traditional Cambodian dances are taught and practiced at Cambodian American temples. The classical dance troupe Cambodian-American Heritage, based in Washington D.C., has achieved wide recognition in the contemporary American art world.

Literature Much of the early literature of Cambodia is written in Sanskrit 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

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Cambodian American Muslim woman and children at Khmer New Year celebrations in South California. Cambodian American Muslim woman and children at Khmer New Year celebrations in South California. NIK WHEELER / ALAMY

(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.

Holidays For three days in mid-April, Cambodians observe Chaul Chnam, the solar New Year, which is the most important and most common Cambodian holiday, and it is widely celebrated by Cambodian Americans. 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 in Cambodia has stopped and the water starts to flow out of the Great Lake (Tonlé Sap) 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.

Health Care Issues and Practices Many older Cambodian Americans faced 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 was in a state of war both before and after. Most Cambodian refugees also spent time living in refugee camps in Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries. Health professionals and others who worked with Cambodian Americans often note that these experiences have left Cambodian refugees with a sense of powerlessness that affected many, even in the United States. Physical ailments often resulted from the emotional anguish they suffered and continued to suffer. Among those who resettled in Western countries, a strange malady appeared, often referred to as the “Pol Pot syndrome,” after the leader of the Khmer Rouge. The Pol Pot syndrome included insomnia, difficulty in breathing, loss of appetite, and pains in various parts of the body.

The stress that led to such illnesses often tended to create a low general level of health for the Cambodian Americans who arrived in the refugee waves of the late twentieth century. In the “Khmer” entry in Refugees in the United States: A Reference Handbook (1985), May M. Ebihara notes that 84 percent of Cambodian households in California 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 affected many Vietnam veterans, is also common among older 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 Page 389  |  Top of Articlehealers are massages, “coining,” and treatment with herbal medicines. Coining, or koh khchal, is a method of using a copper coin dipped in balm to apply pressure to acupuncture points of the body. Some 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.

Death and Burial Rituals Cambodians and other Theravada Buddhists normally cremate the dead. In a traditional Cambodian funeral, the body of the deceased is washed, dressed, and then displayed in a coffin, usually surrounded by flowers. A photograph of the deceased accompanies the body. White, not black, is the color of mourning, and family members dress in white for funeral ceremonies, and white flags are placed outside the house.

Buddhist monks are essential to performing the rituals for moving the dead from the present life to the next. The monks form part of a procession to bring the body to the place of cremation. In the United States the rituals are somewhat modified. Some Cambodian Americans have adopted the practice of wearing black as the color of mourning. Because laws in the United States do not permit bodies to be kept at home, the bodies are displayed at funeral homes, which take charge of cremations. Buddhist monks will often recite prayers by bodies at the funeral homes in the evenings or immediately before the body is taken to the crematorium or burial place.

Recreational Activities Cambodian Americans enjoy the same sports and games other Americans do. Traditional recreations, such as the game of bos chhoung mentioned above, are usually enjoyed during ceremonial occasions around temples or other cultural sites. Khmer kickboxing, known as pradal serey, is very similar to Thai kickboxing. This sport can be found in many Cambodian American communities, and there are Cambodian kickboxing schools in several locations in the United States.

Soccer is very popular with Cambodian American men. The Cambodian American Soccer Association is based in the Washington, D.C., area.; it is not ethnically exclusive and is open to members of other racial and ethnic groups.


The family is extremely important to Cambodian Americans, in part because so many of them lost family members in their previous country. They tend to have very large families. Children—especially young children—are treasured, and parents treat them with a great deal of affection. However, Cambodian American families often experience stress because of conflicting expectations on the part of parents, many of whom are immigrants or grew up in immigrant families, and children, most of whom were born in the United States and have no memories of Southeast

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  • 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 rainwater 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.

Asia. As younger Cambodian Americans grow up and establish their own families, Cambodian American families are becoming more similar to those of other Americans in cultural orientations and practices.

Gender Roles 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 for certain tasks in the home. Contrary to other Asian cultures, Cambodian women occupy 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. However, many Cambodian women had their first taste of formal education in the refugee camps. In the United States, young Cambodian American women pursued their educations in large numbers, and they have often become important as breadwinners for their families.

The active roles of Cambodian American women are reflected in contemporary statistics. The 2011 American Community Survey of the Census Bureau showed that 70 percent of Cambodian American women between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-five were in the labor force, compared to 83 percent of Cambodian American men. Cambodian American women had even higher levels of college attendance

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Two Cambodian American girls stand on their front steps in Seattle, Washington, 1994. Two Cambodian American girls stand on their front steps in Seattle, Washington, 1994. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAN LAMONT. CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

than men, as 57 percent of women in this ethnic group aged nineteen through twenty-one attended college in 2011, compared to 50 percent of men.

Education Lack of formal education was a serious handicap for most Cambodian Americans arriving in the United States as refugees. This continued to be a problem, especially for older group members. In 2011 over one-fourth of Cambodian American aged at least twenty-five had less than a high school education, and about 17 percent had no formal schooling. Among those aged forty or over, 40 percent had not finished high school and over one-fourth had not been to school at all.

Although Cambodian American young people did not show the high educational achievement and attainment levels of some other ethnic groups, they had made progress since group members began arriving in the United States. The majority of young people aged nineteen through twenty-one were in college by 2011, and over one-fifth of those aged twenty-five through thirty had finished four years of college.

Courtship and Weddings 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 now common for Cambodian American young people to choose their own partners through the wider American practice of dating. 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 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 a sword to chase evil spirits away. Friends and relatives take turns standing in front of the crowd to talk about the new couple. A Buddhist monk cuts a lock of hair from the bride and groom and mixes the two locks together in a bowl to symbolize the sharing of their lives. Gifts, frequently envelopes with money, are offered to the couple by 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.

Relations with Other Americans Because Cambodian Americans have often settled in urban areas, they have frequent contact with members of other minority groups. Sometimes these encounters are troubled by cultural misunderstandings and the social problems frequently found in urban communities. In some areas with 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 “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 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 when interacting with their Spanish-speaking peers. The area known as “Cambodia Town” in Southern California also has a substantial Mexican American population.

Cambodian Americans have high rates of intermarriage with members of other groups. By 2010 over 25 percent of married Cambodian American women and an estimated 13 percent of married Cambodian American men had spouses from another group, most often white Americans. Almost 40 percent of children with a Cambodian American mother and about 18 percent of children with a Cambodian American father had a parent who was non-Cambodian, and thus the number of people who were partly of Cambodian ancestry was growing rapidly.

Cambodian Americans tend to welcome non-Cambodians to activities in Buddhist temples and to Page 391  |  Top of Articleholiday celebrations. Several Cambodian temples in North America offer meditation classes in English for the benefit of non-Cambodians.

Philanthropy Cambodian mutual assistance associations were established in many locations with substantial Cambodian populations during the 1980s. These generally provided help with family problems, homeless prevention, care for the elderly, translation, preparation for citizenship, and general issues of adaptation. Cambodian Buddhist temples regularly engage in philanthropic and charitable activities.

The Devata Giving Circle, an organization of Cambodian American women dedicated to raising funds to help Cambodian American girls and women, was founded in 2010. The group provided grants to community organizations dedicated to advancing the rights and opportunities of Cambodian American women.

Surnames In the United States and Europe, surnames (or family names) follow given names. Traditionally, the order is the opposite for Cambodians, with the surname first and the family name second. Cambodian Americans frequently conform to the Western practice, though. Most Cambodian family names have a single syllable. These names are numerous, but some of the most common are Chea, Lim, and Sy.


Adapting to the American economy was difficult for many people of Cambodian ancestry who arrived in the United States during the 1980s. Most had been farmers in their previous country, and in the United States they were generally settled in cities. Cambodian refugees had high rates of unemployment, and the jobs found by first-generation Cambodian Americans were most often low-paying jobs in service and manual labor occupations. As Cambodian Americans became a more established part of the American economy, though, they achieved substantial upward mobility, although they still tended to be concentrated in blue-collar types of employment.

By 2011, according to the American Community Survey, Cambodian Americans who were in the labor force had an unemployment rate of only about 6 percent among those aged between twenty-five and sixty-five who were not in some form of schooling. This was lower than the general American unemployment rate of 8.6 percent in that year. Cambodian American workers tended to be concentrated in semiskilled and skilled blue collar occupations. Their most common jobs, according to 2011 estimates, were assemblers of electrical equipment, machine operators, cashiers, supervisors and proprietors of sales jobs, nursing aides and orderlies, hairdressers and cosmetologists, truck drivers, and janitors. These jobs were held by about one-third of Cambodian American workers.

Cambodian Americans in the early twenty-first century were not members of a wealthy group, but they were substantially better off than the first arrivals from Cambodia. In 1990 an estimated 42 percent of families of Cambodian ethnicity were living below the poverty level; according to 2011 U.S. Census estimates, about 20 percent of all Cambodian Americans lived below the poverty level. This was somewhat higher than the poverty rate for all Americans (16 percent), but significantly lower than the poverty rate for African Americans.

The median household income of Cambodian Americans in 1990 was only $18,837, compared to $30,056 for Americans in general. By 2011, though, the median household income of Cambodian Americans was $60,000, compared to just over $50,000 for Americans in general (according to the American Community Survey). This comparatively high income level was probably due to the low unemployment rate of Cambodian Americans, to their having multiple workers per family, and to their concentration on the West Coast, a geographic region that generally had higher incomes and higher costs of living than the rest of the country.


Over the first decades after their arrival, most Cambodian Americans were concerned with questions of survival in the new country. They were not actively involved in U.S. politics but remained keenly interested in the reconstruction of their native country. Some Cambodian American organizations, such as the Cambodian Network Council, contributed to the rebuilding of Cambodia by sending trained Cambodian Americans and others to Cambodia as volunteers.

By 2013 most Cambodian Americans were U.S. citizens, by birth or naturalization, and involvement in American politics and government had become more common. In 2010 Massachusetts businessman Sam Meas, a Republican, became the first Cambodian American to run for U.S. Congress.


Journalism 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. After 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. Although Western journalists were able to leave, Pran was trapped in Cambodia. In 1979 he escaped to Thailand, where he reunited with Schanberg. In the United States he continued to 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. Dith Pran died of cancer in New Jersey in 2008.

Music Sam Ang-Sam is a scholar, musician, and activist born in Pursat Province in Cambodia in 1950. He studied music at the University of Fine Arts in Page 392  |  Top of ArticlePhnom Penh and afterward continued his studies in the United States, where he received a PhD 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 (later the Cambodian American National Council) in Washington, D.C. He traveled around the world performing and teaching about Cambodian music. Chinary Ung (1942–) is a composer and professor of music at the University of California, San Diego. As a musician, Ung specializes in playing the roneat ek (Cambodian xylophone). He was principal curator for the 2013 Season of Cambodia Festival.

Politics Sam Meas, Massachusetts businessman and politician, was born in Kandal Province of Cambodia between 1970 and 1972. In 2010 he became the first Cambodian American to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, in an unsuccessful campaign. Two years later he ran unsuccessfully for the Massachusetts state senate. Sichan Siv, American diplomat and author, escaped from Cambodia in 1976. He served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state from 1989 to 1993. Siv was appointed ambassador to the United Nations by President George W. Bush in 2001 and served until 2006. In 2009 he published Golden Bones, his memoir of life under the Khmer Rouge and his new beginning in the United States.

Stage and Screen Haing Ngor (1940–1996), actor, physician, and author, 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 (1984). 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 execution squads. He escaped to Thailand in 1979 and came to the United States in 1980. Besides having 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.

Soben Huon, from Los Angeles, is part of a new generation of Cambodian Americans. Born in 1983, she attended Brigham Young University in Utah. A Cambodian classical dancer, Ms. Huon became the first nonwhite contestant to win the title of Miss Utah in the Miss USA contest of 2006.


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Cambodian Radio Broadcast (106.3 KALI FM)

Radio broadcast in Khmer language on Sundays, in the Long Beach area.

The Khmer Post Media Center

Online source for Cambodian language radio, video, and other media.

P.O. Box 4073
Long Beach, California 92896
Phone: (562) 728-8972


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Cambodian American Resource Agency (CARA)

An umbrella group that brings together volunteer organizations to provide support for community-based events involving Cambodian Americans.

Philip Lim, President

Cambodian Association of America (CAA)

Established in 1975 to help new arrivals, the CAA today provides education outreach and social programs to both Cambodians and non-Cambodians.

2390 Pacific Avenue
Long Beach, California 90806
Phone: (562) 988-1863
Fax: (562) 988-1475

Cambodian Family

Serves Cambodian Americans in the Santa Ana, California, area. Offers English-language training to Cambodian refugees and immigrants, 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.

Sundaram Rama, Executive Director
1626 E. Fourth Street
Santa Ana, California 92701
Phone: (714) 571-1966
Fax: (714) 571-1974

The Cambodian American Heritage, Inc.

An organization founded in 1980 to preserve Cambodian arts and culture in the United States. The centerpiece of the organization's work is its classical dance troupe and music ensemble.

129 Canoe Court
Fort Washington, Maryland 20744
Phone: (301) 292-6862


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Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial

Museum devoted to raising awareness of the Cambodian genocide and to celebrating the heritage and renewal of the Cambodian American community.

2831 W. Lawrence Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60625
Phone: (773) 878-7090

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Khmer Art Gallery

A Philadelphia gallery specializing in Cambodian art that displays both traditional and contemporary works in a variety of media.

319 North 11th Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107
Phone: (215) 922-5600

Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC)

A national organization that advances the interests of Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans. The organization's resource center is one of the best sources of information on these groups.

1626 16th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
Phone: (202) 667-4690


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———. “Temple and Society in the New World: Theravada Buddhism in North America.” In North American Buddhism: Social Scientific Perspectives, edited by Paul D. Numrich, 51–86. New York: Brill Publishers, 2008.

———. “The Waves of War: Immigrants, Refugees, and New Americans from Southeast Asia.” In Contemporary Asian America, 2nd edition, edited by Min Zhou and James V. Gatewood, 139–157. New York: NYU Press, 2000.

Chan, Sucheng. Survivors: Cambodian Refugees in the United States. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

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.

Das, Mitra. Between Two Cultures: The Case of Cambodian Women in the United States. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

Hein, Jeremy. Ethnic Origins: The Adaptation of Cambodian and Hmong Refugees in Four American Cities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006.

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

Tal, Kali, ed. Southeast Asian-American Communities. Woodbridge, CT: Viet Nam Generation, 1992.

Yimsut, Ronnie. Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300040