Thousands of miles away from my homeland of Cambodia, who would imagine seeing a cultural show from their own nation? However, the Cambodian Student Society, created by a group of university students, is dedicated to keeping Cambodian art alive on stage. For 27 years it has been hosting a Cambodian Cultural Show several weeks before the Khmer New Year.
The Cambodian Student Society was founded in Long Beach, California, in 1959 and its original name was Cambodian Student Association. It was the idea of an exchange student from Cambodia who came to the United States to study. Then in 1984, the name was changed to Cambodian Student Society (CSS), established in California State University, Long Beach.
According to the vice-president of the club, Chhou Ou, 22, about 50 active members helped brainstorm ideas, perform and set up the show, and hundreds of alumni always support them from a distance.
“Participants of the club teach each other performances and dances from one generation to another since there is no professional school that teaches all of these Khmer traditional dances. Students learn from their peers, do some research on how to dance and get advice from the elders,” Chhou Ou told LIFT.
CSS wants to grant this opportunity to all fellow Cambodians to interact with one another. The mission of this show is to raise the awareness of and preserve Cambodian culture and traditions, not only among the Khmer community, but also among other nations who are living in the United Sates. Nevertheless, the purpose of the show goes beyond this mission statement.
“This is like a bridge between young generation fellows, like me and my peers, and the older generation, like my parents,” she said.
For Chhou Ou’s generation, they were growing up in America, disconnected from the mainstream. Their knowledge and awareness of their own culture is almost non-existent. Thus, this cultural show provides them with opportunities to learn and understand the original culture and where they were from.
Moreover, there is always misunderstandings between the older generation and the younger generation. Since the young were more Americanised, some of their concepts are contradictory with the elders. Thus, the show is not just showing the traditional skits alone, but also the skits from modern society. They want their parents to also understand what they are dealing with when they are caught in between American and Cambodian culture.
In the show, the four major dances were the Apsara dance, Chhoun Por dance, Chai Yam dance and Krap dance. The major skit in the show was one that shows the conflict in a Khmer family living in America. The characters of the parents in the skit showed a dislike that their daughter who was dating a guy who was very Americanised.
Chhou Ou also talks about the drive that keeps her staying in the club. All the positive feedback that the association receives after each show, the support from the community and the opportunity to interact with friends and help out the community keep every member hanging around the association.
Marian, a Chai Yam dancer, said: “First my friend really had to encourage me to come, but after a while I felt attached to it and I kept coming back.”
Through the club, the members get many benefits, such as the opportunity to learn the Khmer language, understanding more about the culture and their parents and getting a chance to travel to places like Cambodia.
However, no one is perfect. The group also gets criticism from the audience. But the club takes that negative feedback as constructive criticism and always tries to make it better next year.
It was quite impressive to see Cambodian youths born in America performing traditional Khmer dances. The audiences reward the performers with applause and cheers.