There has been much misunderstanding between local and overseas Khmer for a long
time. This has caused a great deal of friction and confusion that has led to conflict,
resentment and jealousy.
I hope this letter helps set things straight, even if just a little.
To fully understand this problem, we must look at the issues facing overseas Khmer
and what are the perceptions held by local Khmer. First lets explore what local Khmer
The United States is the Number One nation in the world. Living in the US is like
being in "heaven"; money grows on trees and is there for all; one doesn't
have to work because Uncle Sam provides; everyone has many material goods. There
are no worries, poverty, crime. There is only freedom.
Sounds like a dream world? You bet. These are some of the perceptions I hear from
many local Khmer (including my own relatives) about life in the US for all people,
including Khmer-Americans. Locals often see a few overseas Khmer flash their large
US dollar bills and brag about their extravagant lives in America. Some of this might
be true, but it is far from reality for most Khmer-Americans. What is the reality?
Most Americans would like to think that the US is the number one country on this
planet. It is not. There is no "heaven" on planet earth, and certainly
not on US soil.
Money does not grow on trees. Most everyone still has to work for a living. The minimum
wage is now $4.25 an hour, and very few are able to survive and raise a family on
this. Uncle Sam is still alive but he is just about broke and heavily in debt. The
Social Security is on its way into space as there is very little money left in the
Not everyone has an expensive house packed with furniture, with cars, televisions,
and other material goods. There are more than a million Americans who are hungry,
homeless and penniless.
Life in the US is not as grand as local Khmer believe. There are problems. It's just
on much, much bigger scale than in Cambodia.
Compared with Cambodia, the crime rate is much higher in the US. There are over two
million hard core criminals being locked up at the cost of between $15,000 to $20,000
per convict, annually. Other parole criminals (between three to four millions more)
are on the street simply because there are not enough prisons to hold them in. That's
about one-half of Cambodia's total population!
Yes, the freedom is here, but many take it for granted or abuse their privileges.
The late former President Richard Nixon, whose policies were partly responsible for
Cambodia's problems, is a classic example. He is rewarded for his abuse of power
by having his picture on a US stamp and a library in his honor.
Let's get the facts straight about Khmer-Americans such as myself.
Who are these people?
Most of us came to America as refugees following bitter history of the 1970-75 civil
war, the Khmer Rouge genocide, and foreign intervention. We are among the most recent
immigrants to arrive on American soil.
These Cambodians are traumatized people whose pride and dignity have been taken away
over two decades. Their lives were ruined and their families - the center of daily
life - destroyed. No-one escaped from events that no human should ever have to endure.
Many became homeless and spent years in refugee camps where conditions were not even
suitable for animals.
The lucky ones came to America and other countries to begin a new life in a strange
culture, a choice they neither wanted nor needed. Most do not regret that they emigrated,
but they are very sorry that they had to make that choice in the first place. It
is a choice that cannot be reversed. They must move on forward with their new lives
in their new homes.
When Cambodian refugees first arrived in America, most only had the clothes on their
backs and an uncertain future. Many suffered from "Post Traumatic Stress,"
a disorder only recently recognized to have occurred among Cambodian immigrants.
For most of these simple rural folk, America is a frightful urban jungle. They must
relearn just about everything to survive. Things such as the culture, custom, language,
food, extreme climate, and prejudice.
Opportunities are limited. Many survive on meager handouts of welfare. Others who
are young or wise enough manage to learn the language and new skills and are able
to adapt to their new environment much better than the rest. However, they are the
exceptions. For every success, there are many more failures.
Some say living in their new country is like night and day. It was and still is a
very difficult adaptation, especially for older immigrants longing to return to their
old country. They realize it is not possible to go back. No one can really go back,
at least not to the same place that he or she remembered. Each and everyone can only
look forward and remember their past. It is a pitiful feeling for the "first
The Khmer strength is the family. When it fails, everything goes down the drain.
Families break apart and there are divorces, something unspeakable in Khmer culture.
Many are unable to go on forward with their new lives. They live below the poverty
line and on welfare. Alcoholism, and child and spousal abuse are common problems.
Communities become infested with gangs, and trouble with the law is common. It has
become a vicious cycle that can be, in some way, blamed on their past traumas and
new ones found in America.
Along with that sour note of failure, however, there are hopes and successes that
must be celebrated.
Many Khmer immigrants are able to piece their lives back together, despite all the
problems. They manage to use every available opportunity. Here are just a few examples:
- Community organizations are set up by the refugees themselves to assist and support
newly arrived refugees. People work hard to improve their fledgling communities throughout
- Community centers, temples, churches, and other places for social gatherings,
especially for the elders who have been plagued with isolation and loneliness, are
- Religious and cultural events with traditional music, classical dance, song,
food, and arts are organized.
- Student organizations and clubs at all levels help promote higher education and
to bring youth closer as an ethnic group. More and more Cambodians finish high school
and continue on to college and university. A few mange to complete post graduate
degrees in highly technical fields.
- Many become naturalized citizens, tax payers, and fully integrated into society.
Many are affluent. They find specialized employment and establish businesses. Cambodia's
loss is America's gain.
- Some have returned home, many to help with the country's reconstruction.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to go to a "third" country often
found a place more inhospitable than what we are used to - socially, culturally,
economically and environmentally. What other choice do we have? We can't stay in
a "second" country because we are neither wanted nor needed. A "third"
country, no matter how strange or foreign, offered a ray of hope. We went blindly
into a frightful unknown.
I too came to a "third" country. It was not by choice or design, but simply
fate. I (and I'm sure many others) am not sorry that I came to a "second, then
third" country. I am, however, very, very sorry that I had to come in the first
place. I regret that I was forced to leave my beloved birth country, and relearn
and rethink everything in order to adapt to my new home, my new country. It meant
no turning back. I wish that I could go back home again, but it is not possible.
I have to go forward and adapt to my new environment as best I possibly can.
Many Americans consider people such as myself as foreigners, aliens, minorities -
NOT as an American. "Go back to where you come from, you yellow!" They
often yell this at me. I am sometimes harassed or beaten by "Americans"
simply because I am different. The US is home, but it is not the permanent home as
I would like it to be. It is more a halfway home, at least that is what some "Americans"
make people like me feel. I am just an unwelcome and unwanted guest. People like
me don't belong here, not really. We are just newcomers.
Where do I belong to then? Do I belong to Cambodia? From what I have seen and heard,
local Khmer don't consider me a Khmer anymore. They call people like me "aliens"
who need permission to enter and stay in Cambodia. I now have as much rights as an
alien in a land from which I have never left in my heart. It is more painful than
one can imagine. Where do people like myself belong now? I am still seeking for the
answer to this question. Please let me know if anyone has a good answer out there.
Sad to say, a few local Khmer often say people like me are traitors. They say we
ran away from Cambodia when we should have been protecting her from her enemies.
They curse us for bailing out when times were rough, only to return when the situation
improved to "steal" what they had sacrificed to protect.
It is always painful for me to hear such accusations. Little do they realize the
circumstances beyond one person's control. They did not really understand what I
had to go through to escape with my life. They do not comprehend the need for me
to run. I would have perished like the rest of my family, friends, neighbors, and
thousands or perhaps millions other Khmers if I had stayed. It was not by choice
but by destiny, if one believes in such a thing.
For the information of local Khmer in Cambodia, life in the US and other places is
only as grand as one's hard work and luck. It is not much different from Cambodia,
only bigger, faster, and more complex. If you're equipped for such a life style and
adaptable, then you are all set.
For most overseas Khmers, life here is too fast to adapt to. Many got left behind
and fell in the many cracks of the Western society where sunlight almost never reaches.
As far as I am concerned, Cambodia is still one of the best places in the world despite
all her problems. If Cambodia could improve her social, political, and economic situation
slightly, she would be the Number One country to raise my family; like my parents
and their parents before that.
I am still hopeful.
- Ronnie Yimsut, Oregon, USA. A native son of Cambodia.