Understanding how culture affects our lives helps us develop a sociological imagination. In 1954 the U.S. Agency for International Development created a program to educate Cambodian nationals at American universities. Many of the 187 students who came settled in Long Beach and enrolled at the California State University of Long Beach. The USAID program was later discontinued due to the Vietnam War. Cambodian history is filled with many horror stories and much pain. In April 1975, a French teacher Pol Pot, and his communist soldiers began systematically destroying Cambodia and its government. With the help of the North Vietnamese, Pol Pot, and his soldiers, which later became known as the Khmer Rouge, set out on a horrific journey to ” purify the Khmer race and create a classless society. The migration of Cambodians into the U.S. began in 1979.
Every day in Long Beach, Cambodian families mix culture as they would a plateful of lemongrass, chicken, and rice (press-telegram, 5). Cambodian parents face a seemingly never-ending battle of traditional rules and culture-correct behavior with their children. Westernized Cambodian-American children have become more abundant as the years go by. Today, many say that the most important issue facing Cambodian families is generation gaps. Traditional parents and Americanized children, more often than not, disagree daily with appropriate dress codes, music, behavior, and education.
Many Cambodians who escaped from Cambodia now find themselves in a land of few similarities. Many of these parents in Long Beach are happy to raise their families in a land free of war and dictatorship. However, freedom comes cuts both ways, says Jams Pok, a Cambodian pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Long Beach. Sometimes, it means children feel free to disregard, destroy and ignore elders- behavior that would not be tolerated in Cambodian, he says (press-telegram,5). Some parents believe that when children are exposed to American values, it becomes problematic for parents to keep Cambodian traditions within children.
Take into consideration cultural rules and regulations traditional parents try to instill within their children. Cultural rules and regulations of Cambodians can be categorized into three parts: correct behavior of young males, correct behavior of young females, and correct behavior toward elders.
Many Cambodian families in Long Beach say that girls are more difficult to raise than boys. Cambodian parents believe that through sexual misconduct, girls can disgrace a family’s reputation. Therefore, girls learn to mute their sexual desires at an early age. Often time Cambodian parents try to constrain undesirable behavior as early as infancy. For example, mothers often stop breastfeeding their daughters earlier than they would their sons. This is due to a Cambodian cultural belief that girls are more emotionally passionate than boys. By breastfeeding girls longer, it is believed that their passion will grow so intense that it becomes almost impossible for parents to control them later.
When discussing the upbringing and behavioral expectations of girls, Cambodian parents often times refer to the “Chbab srey” or “rules for girls.” Chbab srey generally refers to the appropriate behavior for girls. Chbab srey also describes ideal behavior for girls. For example, girls are expected to be quieter than boys, and while boys are discouraged from dating, many girls are banned from it entirely. In Long Beach, many Cambodian families still practice arranged marriages. This Cambodian tradition has brought a hard line against dating (press-telegram, 4). Girls are expected to stay at home when they’re not at school or holding down a job. Take into consideration Crystal Mong, currently attending Long Beach Poly High School. She has experienced this gender gap firsthand. She constantly complains about receiving less freedom and leniency than her twin brother. Though she studies hard and stays out of trouble, she is often expected to stay at home. Her parents feel that they must keep constant vigilance on her, and her grades are always scrutinized.
While there is Chbab Srey for Girls, there are corresponding “Chbab Proh,” or “rules for boys,” which emphasize correct behavior for boys. These rules place to focus on physical strength, knowledge, and discipline. However, these rules are given less emphasis in boys’ society than the Chbab srey for girls. Cambodian parents in Long Beach generally believe that masculinity is less rule-encumbered than femininity. (Smith, 107). Though parents place strict discipline on daughters, boys tend to be subjected to more physical punishment.
Cambodian parents value strength and education in sons. Many Cambodian parents complain that their teenage sons would rather spend their time and money amusing themselves with a friend instead of studying. Nearly all Cambodian parents in Long Beach would rather their son’s place to focus on studying and preparing for a career than squander their time away.
Most problematic situations between sons and parents arise due to generation gaps. When teenage sons are raised in American society, parents complain that they lose control of them. In Long Beach, the main concerns between parents and sons are dress code and behavior. Parents discourage sons from dressing in baggy clothing. When speaking to most Cambodian parents in Long Beach, their greatest concern for teenage sons is a possible involvement in gangs or causing trouble in school.
In Cambodia, respect for elders means almost blind obedience. When an elder is speaking to a younger person, they must refrain from speaking and interrupting. Elders oftentimes make final decisions on family matters, which can even override the opinion of other adults. Arguing with elders is prohibited. To correctly greet elders, younger people must clap their hands together, bring them to their forehead and say “chum reap sue.”
Children are always expected to address elders in a respectful way. They may say hello but “Hi” is unacceptable. “Uh-huh” is considered disrespectful, whereas “Yes” is acceptable. Using “Sir” or “Ma’am” when children speak to elders is preferred. Marry-Ann Seg, the Long Beach School District’s first Cambodian counselor, says, according to Cambodian tradition, “Children are encouraged to express themselves as individuals.
Being respectful and displaying correct behavior is important to a Cambodian family. In a community where many Cambodians reside, as in Long Beach, parents feel that they must push their children to learn correct behavior. When a child disregards their parent’s commands or opinions, the parent often times feels humiliated in front of other Cambodians. Stability in Cambodian families relies on a parent’s ability to instill in their children how to behave, which usually includes a dress code and a focus on education to prepare for a career.
Reeling from trauma and culture shock, the Cambodians who stepped off American airplanes in the 1970s and 1980s have now gone from welfare to college to work. Many are beginning the transition from poverty to the middle class. Many Cambodians in Long Beach have moved from cramped apartments to comfortable homes. Some have become doctors, engineers & business owners. Twenty years after the Khmer Rouge slaughtered already 2 million in Cambodia, survivors in Long Beach look to their children to achieve the American dream. Generation gaps are being bridged every day.
Cambodian culture and tradition in Long Beach are being rejuvenated. For instance, in Cambodia, dance holds deep religious and cultural meaning by reflecting Cambodian creation stories. The Khmer Rouge sought to completely disintegrate dance entirely during its rise to power. Today, young Cambodians can learn to dance just as their ancestors once did through classes lead by Shapiro and the Cambodian Arts Preservation Group.
A couple of days a week, Shapiro teaches young women how to hold their heads, how to arch their feet, and how move their hands. Their goal is to be as grateful as the mythical “Apsara” dancers, who are believed to have given life to the first Cambodians.
Take into consideration Keo, who started these dance lessons as a child, who says that through the dance, she connects with her Cambodian roots. “If I didn’t have to dance,” she says, “I wouldn’t know anything about my culture, my heritage. This keeps me more Cambodian.” Cultural rejuvenation, such as these dance classes, is important to Long Beach. It helps younger children understand and appreciate Cambodian culture. Thus it helps to bridge the generation gap in families.
In Long Beach, Anaheim street is the “cultural corridor” leading into the sights and smells of a country 9,000 miles away. Here, Cambodians can buy supplies that are native to the land. Such supplies as lemon grass, Cambodian karaoke, artwork, and jewelry can be found in abundance. The Riverside Market, located at 1842 E. Anaheim street, has serviced local Cambodian residents for seven years. Anaheim Street is also known among Cambodians as “Little Phnom Penh.”
Many religious ideas and morals have altered since the migration of Cambodians to California. The change coming from a society with one set of beliefs to one where values differ and ritualistic ideas interact was a major culture shock for Cambodians. Many Cambodians found it hard to accept American ideas and ways, while others had no problems whatsoever adjusting to the demands of their environment. Those who did not adjust well to the technological advances were held back and held in. Much less allowing them to adapt the racial diversity. At the same time, those Cambodians who took advantage of their social standards alterations began to interact with other minorities and races. Cambodians began to marry out of their race; those who were traditional believed that this was wrong and the couple was considered a disgrace. Now interracial Cambodian marriages are normal and accepted. The roles in families have also changed due to social values and standards.
From the destruction of their homeland and the near genocide of the Cambodian culture to the adaptation to a new, unfamiliar land, Cambodians have gone a long way. The slaughter of 2 million Cambodians in such a small land is equivalent to the deaths of all the residents of the city of Los Angeles and New York City. Here, the Cambodians in Long Beach are piecing together a torn culture and are trying to reassemble a broken country. Through conversations with many of these Cambodians, it is evident that they are thankful for being given a chance to survive. They thank the community in which they reside and the Nation for its support. They, in turn, are striving to better the city through various culture awareness programs and funding support for various needs of their community. It is without a doubt that these people are strong to have come so far.
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