Review of Cambodian American Experiences: Histories, Communities, Cultures, and Identities edited by Jonathan H.X. Lee Kendall Hunt Publishing

Cambodian American Experiences: Histories, Communities, Cultures, and Identities.  Edited by Jonathan H.X. Lee.  Dubuque: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2010.  484 pages including text and annotated videography; accompanied with a Study Guide, 136 pages. ISBN: 9780757584176

Cambodian Americans are dark, dirty, poor, pitiful, hopeless, and helpless victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.  How often have these claims been made in the media and even within the U.S. classrooms?  Do these assertions hold any truths as to why Cambodian Americans continue to suffer from poverty, high unemployment rates, and low academic achievements?  Is it fair to continue blaming the Khmer Rouge regime over 30 years after their defeat for contemporary issues and conditions that persistently plague Cambodian American communities?  Are there other ways of interpreting the histories, communities, cultures, and identities of Cambodian American experiences?  Lee’s textbook engages these ongoing debates by examining, challenging, and ultimately, demystifying these erroneous assumptions.

Organized into 12 sections with a total of 34 chapters, an epilogue, and an annotated videography, the textbook focuses on various aspects of Cambodian American histories, cultures, experiences, and communities.  Also, the textbook’s pedagogical features are further highlighted in the Study Guide that accompanies it.  The Study Guide is a space for students to review key terms, to paraphrase and summarize each chapter’s main idea(s), and to grapple with ten critical thinking questions that assist with reading comprehension, enhance analytical skills, and stimulate evaluative readings of each text.

Section One, entitled “Cambodia,” serves as a backdrop for the subsequent 33 chapters.  The first chapter sketches Cambodia’s two thousand year history beginning with the Folktale of Kaundinya and Soma and ending with the Khmer Rouge regime.  In the folktale, a Brahmin prince and a nagi-princess fall in love and become the first ancestral pair to rule over Nokor Phnom, the royal dynasty from which all Khmer kings are descended (Lee 2-3).  Lee’s decision to begin his textbook with this folktale is cogent and compelling because, like all nations, Cambodian’s tales of origin ties them closely to their values, culture, and identity.  Folktales and myths unite people and create a collective national identity.  In the case of Kaundinya and Soma, their union of “foreign and native, human and animal, culture and nature, and male and female” (Ibid 3) became the essence of what it means to be Khmer and to derive from Khmer ancestors.  Themes of assimilation and reconciliation derived from this folktale are prominent in the history of Cambodia (Ibid).  During Cambodia’s Indianization, the trade posts consisted of Cambodia commingling, accommodating, and integrating some of Indic  arts, languages, religions, and cultures (Ibid 4).

Lee further expounds on Cambodia’s Funan and Chenla period, the Angkor Empire, the decline of the Angkor Empire, French Cambodia, Sihanouk and Independence, Lon Nol era, and Khmer Rouge.  Although the first chapter is steeped in distant, historical facts and is seemingly unrelated to Cambodian American experiences, it is significant in the way it resuscitates the rich and resilient cultures and histories of Cambodia that have been overshadowed by the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge’s  genocidal programmes. .  Learning about Cambodia’s history is imperative since historical context is needed to build a strong foundation in understanding and mapping Cambodia’s origins and changes.  Furthermore, knowledge of traditional Cambodia is beneficial when studying  subsequent revolutions and what the revolutionists were fighting against and fighting to change.  This chapter does not merely inform the public about Cambodian history; it recovers and inserts such history back into the human narratives.  In the efforts to reclaim a buried past, Lee erodes the ongoing stereotypes of victimization attached to Cambodian Americans.  Far from being victims, Cambodian Americans are survivors and descendants of a once powerful empire.

The debates surrounding political refugees have been saturated with scapegoating, self-interests, and reneging of social responsibilities.  Sections Two and Three identify the push and pull factors that forced Cambodians to abandon their country in order to stay alive.  In addition to the egregious and oppressive conditions of the Khmer Rouge regime, according to the General Accounting Office in 1971, the main reason that Cambodians stated for relocating was massive bombings (Hein 20).  Hein’s article, “Bombings in Cambodia, 1971-1973,” reveals the U.S.’s heavy, covert involvement in Southeast Asia through their implementation of the “secret wars” and their bombings of Cambodia.  Not wanting international attention and the financial responsibility for re-building Cambodia, the U.S. government initially asserted that they would not get involved with Cambodia.  Knowing that they bombed Cambodia without just cause, the U.S. government denied their involvement because they broke the Geneva Conference agreements and international laws.  As a pedagogical tool, this disclosure confronts the U.S.’s irresponsible behavior and should persuade the public to remember the victims and hold the U.S. accountable for their reckless, audacious, and destructive conduct in the name of “democracy.”

Endless bombings and massive killings forced the escape of a total of 145,149 Cambodian refugees from 1975 to 1999 into U.S. borders and an additional 42,000 non-refugee status were recorded and admitted within the same period (Cahn and Stansell 51).  The succeeding chapters in Section Three discuss and theorize “How Long Beach Became the ‘Cambodian Capital in America’” and the “Cambodian American Secondary Migration and Community Growth.”  The gravity of these discussions lies in the emphasis of Cambodian refugees’ agency and resilience that are lacking in preceding scholarship which had a tendency to accentuate their victimized status due to the turpitude of the Khmer Rouge regime.  Contrary to previous beliefs, Chan, Needham, and Quintiliani’s articles suggest that Cambodian Americans defied the U.S. government’s dictates of how and where they were to live by ignoring the U.S. government’s ultimatums and threats to discontinue monetary aid.  In contrast to popular beliefs, Cambodian Americans were not content to leech off the U.S. government’s diminutive and insufficient stipends.  Pulling together personal resources and resolve, Cambodian Americans executed a secondary migration in order to reunite with family, friends, and relatives, and to form ethnic enclaves for protection from violence, interracial tensions, and discrimination.

In addition to coping with U.S. government regulations, Cambodian Americans struggled with personal adjustments and societal integration.  Section Four delves into various aspects of Cambodian American resettlement, such as patterns of migration, societal reception, psychological illness, and gang activities.  In discussing the characteristics of an ethnic group, it is a common error to treat them as a homogeneous entity which results in obscuring and exacerbating the misunderstandings and stereotypes of an ethnic group.  Mortland’s article, “Cambodian Resettlement in America,” rectifies these misperceptions by considering the different experiences of the four waves of Cambodian refugee migration to the U.S.  Furthermore, her arguments eloquently weigh both the philanthropists and the belligerents, ultimately concluding that despite the opposing positions, both the disdainers and the welcomers agreed that Cambodian refugees lacked the necessary characteristics for success in America (80).  These  studies  have sought to convey to  the U.S. government what was appropriate treatment toward these perceived dependent and defenseless people.  Past scholarship heavily cited the Khmer Rouge regime as the predominant reason for Cambodian Americans unsuccessful personal adjustments and societal integration.  This section aims to rectify what previous scholarship overlooked by accentuating the magnitude of the U.S. government’s involvement in the resettlement of Cambodian Americans and their attempts to regulate the Cambodian refugee populace.

Consequently, Cambodian Americans suffered from both the past traumas of the Khmer Rouge regime and the U.S.’s social control and (mis)management of their resettlement.  These troubling encounters needlessly created mental and emotional strife within the Cambodian American communities.  Nou’s article offers explanations for the mental health conditions of Cambodian Americans while Lay’s critique postulates that some Cambodian Americans turned to gang activities as a coping mechanism against their social, economic, and political disadvantages in the U.S.

Education has been the main portal to equalize the social disadvantages of marginalized groups in the U.S. through promising social and economic mobility.  Many refugees and immigrant families depend on their children’s academic success in order to escape poverty.   But many Cambodian American children perform poorly at school.

In Section Five, both Chhuon and Kim’s articles present the two main arguments, cultural and structural, commonly used to explain why Cambodian American students’ do not achieve in academic settings.  While Chhuon’s article emphasizes the importance of not including Cambodian Americans under a pan-ethnic Asian American label because they do not fit the “model minority” stereotype, Kim’s article takes a comparative approach by examining the commonalities and differences between Cambodian American and Vietnamese American children in education.  Despite their different approaches, both scholars agree that there is a danger in focusing heavily on one factor while neglecting the other and they advance that research which integrates both cultural and structural factors provide a more comprehensive answer to Cambodian American youths’ academic needs.

Beyond the need for economic stability through education is the need for expression and creativity.  Section Six recognizes the importance of Cambodian American dance and music.  Underlying this entire section is hope and the belief that healing is possible through observing and participating in performance, music, and the memorialization of Cambodia’s history.

The arts fuel  many cultures. Artists were the first to be targeted and executed by the Khmer Rouge regime which was dictated by communist ideals of a classless, agrarian society.  Sam’s article captures the challenges of reviving and maintaining the nearly nonexistent cultural producers of Cambodian dance and music.  He traces the revival movements and different priorities between musicians in Cambodia and North America.

On the other hand, Schlund-Vials’ article pays homage to praCh Ly’s transnational powers through his content, technique, and the literal transportation of his music from the U.S. to Cambodia.  He uses trauma as a means to re-define selfhood in hopes of conjuring memory and eventually healing the Cambodian and Cambodian American communities.  praCh’s memorialization is significant because he understands that healing cannot happen without remembering.  He demands that his listeners remember their past which is the first step towards reconciliation (Schlund-Vials 197).

Dance and music were not the only mediums for self-expression and healing.  Section Seven reviews Cambodian American literature consisting of testimonial autobiographies, literature for the young, and college students’ narratives of experience.  The article on testimonial discourse by Yamada is especially noteworthy in the way she allows the voices of the survivors to speak while juxtaposing different stories and experiences and blending them together into a cogent and coherent synthesis.  Some Cambodian Americans turned to testimonial autobiographies to unburden themselves from the horrific images and nightmares that constantly plagued them.  The testimonial autobiography was popularized by Cambodian Americans’ need to bear witness to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and their need to seek justice for all the families who were affected by such senseless cruelty (Yamada 219).

Section Eight moves away from the arts and letters and towards Cambodian American economic integration.  Consisting of four different authors and articles, each scholar takes a unique approach in constructing their arguments.  Smith-Hefner employs a comparative study; Ong demystifies the abrupt and flourishing doughnut shops owned by Cambodian Americans; Truong analyzes welfare reform and its use as a tool for social control; Fujiwara takes a gendered lens to examine the politics of welfare reform and how it most adversely affects Cambodian American women.
Smith-Hefner takes on the difficult task of comparing the economic behaviors between Khmer and Sino-Khmer in the U.S. through examining the groups’ divergent religious practices despite their common Buddhist faith.  While Smith-Hefner’s position that Buddhist practices affect Khmer and Sino-Khmers’ economic success and/or failure is attractive, her article raises more questions than it answers.  For instance: Why do her conjectures not translate to other ethnic Asian American Buddhist-centered communities who are economically prosperous?  Are there different economic results between practitioners of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism?  Are Khmer-Buddhists socially stigmatized with regards to the workforce while other Asian American Buddhists escape unscathed from censure?  How does reception into U.S. society affect economic success and/or failure?

Besides economic hardships, Cambodian Americans grapple with identity issues that have emerged after they were allocated a specific place in the spectrum of American peoples. through their racialization in the U.S.  Section Nine presents three fascinating approaches to wrestling with Cambodian American identities.  The first author, Ly, was propelled by his father’s ailing condition to return home to Massachusetts to be with him and to celebrate his nephew’s birth, the first American born in his family.  This event prompted the author to reflect upon his father’s life, his own life, and the life of his nephew.  For Ly, identity becomes interwoven with family legacy, writing, and recording history.

On the other hand, Lee’s discovery that he is part Cambodian preoccupied him with questions related to the types of responsibilities that come with identifying with a group.  His “ethics of identity formation” stemmed from his musings over his newfound kinship.  The process began with Lee piecing his identity together through learning about his historical background and how it connected with his present life situation.  With this historical awareness comes ownership of his identity and the desire to actively participate in sustaining his community.  More specifically, Lee emphasizes that since  second generation Cambodian Americans are further removed from the trauma than their parents, they must lead their communities toward healing.  He expands Ly’s conception of identity and family to include social responsibility and a collective effort towards community building.

While both Ly and Lee’s articles were personal reflections of their journey into selfhood, Su approaches identity methodically through listing distinct characteristics that determine a person’s sense of Khmerness.  Su has written an important and timely article on Khmerness and Cambodian American identity during a time when the 1.5 and second generations are questioning their positionality in the U.S.  Despite her ambitious feat of synthesis through encompassing diverse theories of identity formation, there are a number of weaknesses in this concept.  A couple of weaknesses include handling identity as a fixed, static entity and the exclusion that may result from listing qualifications for Khmer membership.  In terms of rigidity, identity is a constantly fluid and dynamic process that cannot be confined by a catalogue.  Su’s first premise states that: “To be Khmer is to love Cambodia and its heritage” (357).  While this may be true for many Khmers, it is unlikely that all Khmers embrace Cambodia and its heritage wholeheartedly.  Her claims do not take into account those Cambodian Americans who have ambivalent feelings towards their history because they are unable to reconcile that their own people were responsible for the atrocities inflicted upon them.  In this case, the individual may still identify as Khmer, but simultaneously disassociate with Cambodia and its heritage.

Within the scope of identity formation are the institutions of family, gender, and sexuality.  Section Ten raises some of the following questions: How do Cambodian Americans navigate their parents’ expectations and implementation of traditional practices of marriage arrangement?  What does it mean to be gay and Cambodian American within a hetero-normative society?  Are there alternative ways of being for Cambodian American women?

Especially interesting in Section Ten is Smith-Hefner’s article on Cambodian marriage arrangements.  Not only has she presented some valuable information about these traditional marriage practices, the author has also exposed the double standards inflicted upon Cambodian women.  Much less expected was the reasoning behind these marriage arrangements.  Despite popular beliefs that parents want to see their children settled, Smith-Hefner’s study reveals that, in fact, parents are more concerned with securing their children for care taking purposes in old age (377).

Most noteworthy is Sar’s disclosure of his intersections as a gay Cambodian American.  Existing in a heteronormative society, Sar’s courage in exposing his private life to the public cannot be overstated.  By mapping his painful childhood memories of living in shame, by re-telling his liberating moment of coming out of the closet, and by fully claiming his identity as a gay Cambodian American, Sar has not only healed his own wounds, but he has also opened the closet for other gay Cambodian Americans who are still afraid to speak openly about their homosexuality.

Perhaps, the difficulties of this section are quite telling by what has been expressed, but even more so by what has not been voiced.  Beyond Sar and Quintiliani’s discussions about Cambodian American gay communities and subversive spaces for alternative gendered/sexual identities are queers, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered identities, who are not directly addressed in this textbook.  Rather than viewing this as an oversight by the editor, it is more plausible to hypothesize that the Cambodian Americans within these marginalized communities choose to remain reticent about their sexualities.  Sar’s personal account is merely an opening for the gay Cambodian American communities, but more heteronormative barriers must be smashed in order for other marginalized identities to articulate, confront, and find a voice to transcend and dismantle states of denial, repression, and oppression.

Religion has not only been a means to counter oppression through seeking refuge and finding comfort in a higher entity, but has also remained a significant institution in constructing identity.  Section Eleven advances our understanding of religion in terms of its ability to negotiate identity for Cambodian Americans.  Lee’s article articulates religious culture-work within Cambodian American communities.  Through transplantation and the reconstruction of religion on U.S. soil, Cambodian Americans thereby merge their Cambodian and American identities.

Smith-Hefner’s article provides conjectural statements to explain the reasons behind Khmer conversion to the Christian faith, but she does qualify her claims by stating that Cambodians have not been in the U.S. long enough to make definitive conclusions regarding their faith patterns and how these are  affected by the interaction of various social factors (438).  Some of Smith-Hefner’s hypotheses include: the coercive practices of Christian sponsors and evangelists who pressurize Cambodian Americans to attend church, the desire of the refugees to please their sponsors in order to maintain good relations for continual social support, and the need to secure their children’s education (436-438).  Especially interesting is her link between Christian values and the need to uphold the nuclear family unit (437).  This is to say that maintaining family values inadvertently resulted in Cambodian Americans having access to social support and mobility, rather than from philanthropic intentions of the Christian support groups to  rescue these refugees from remaining permanently trapped in working class status ( 438).

The final article grouped within Cambodian American Religion may initially seem out of place because of its preoccupation with the photographs of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng, but Nyitray and O’Connor elegantly insert Buddhist principles and allusions in their discussion.  The use of Buddhist principles are intended to explain the suffering experienced by the prisoners, but ultimately accentuates the viewers’ privileged position, and appeals to the viewers’ sense of justice to fight the numbness that will inevitably take over from the bombardment of the repetitive photos and the viewers’ unconscious need to shut down and maintain emotional distance from the victims’ past suffering (Nyitray and O’Connor 448).  Underlying this discussion is the message to not forget the victims who have suffered because although Buddha’s teachings expounded on dukkha (the principle truth of suffering), these deaths were premature, unnatural, and deserving of remembrance and the seeking of justice by those who are still capable of feeling.  We can choose to be agents rather than merely passive viewers of a distant history.

The final section brings readers up-to-date with Cambodian American contemporary issues.  In 1996, changes were made to the U.S. immigration laws affecting many Cambodian refugees residing in the U.S.  With the changes to the law, deportation became mandatory for “all legal permanent residents who are sentenced to a year or more for ‘aggravated felonies,’ ‘moral turpitude,’ or use of controlled substances” (Cowan 455).  These stipulations socially stigmatized the Cambodian American communities and created misconceptions about them in the larger public.  This final section dispels the mysteries surrounding the forced returns of Cambodian refugees from the U.S.  Contrary to popular belief, many deportees are not a menace to society, but rather people who had served their time in jail and who had turned their lives around; they were productive, responsible members of society before their deportation.  This is portrayed in Cowan’s article on the deportation of former Cambodian refugees from the U.S.  Despite her brief coverage, she skillfully confronts the devastation caused by changes in the U.S. immigration laws by conveying two personal accounts and capturing the complexities of these individual cases.

The “Epilogue” lends a unique perspective from an American soldier during the 1970s, who was later employed by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, and currently a professor of Anthropology at George Mason University.  David Haines’ personal and professional experience allows him to articulate some of the key tensions in Southeast Asia and the U.S.   However, instead of bringing closure, Haines delivers a synthesis of the text, incorporates his own personal accounts in Southeast Asia, encourages readers to maintain their curiosity, and invites them to look forward to an exciting, hopeful future for future Cambodian American generations.

In addition to the many merits listed above, this textbook is unique and original.  The only textbook in the market which draws together contributions from 20 Cambodian American scholars, Lee’s text presents multiple perspectives in a complex, rigorous manner and confronts and advances subversive and revolutionary sets of interconnections.  This textbook is useful for the general public and for students and scholars of Asian History, Asian American Studies, Southeast Asian and American Studies, Sociology, Refugee and Migration Studies, Psychology and Trauma, Intercultural Studies, and Race, Class, Gender, and Sex Studies. Lee’s textbook offers alternative interpretations that serve as a pedagogical tool which invite questions, invoke discomfort, impel action, and ultimately, incite reform, justice, and liberation.


Reviewed by Mary Thi Pham, San Francisco State University
Edited by Dhara Anjaria

(c) The Middle Ground Journal, Number 4, Spring, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]