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Bringing Khmer language to Khmer-American kids

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Brandy Myers established Khemara Kids to provide Khmer learning materials to Cambodian-American youth in the US. RICHARD GRANT, SIGNAL TRIBUNE

Bringing Khmer language to Khmer-American kids

As a mixed-race person with Cambodian heritage, Brandy Myers grew up hearing Khmer songs and wished she could learn the language despite the lack of resources to do so. Her struggles from childhood and her teaching herself Khmer inspired Myers to pave the way for others by establishing Khemara Kids to promote Khmer-language learning to youths in the US.

Born in 1993 and raised in the small Cambodian community in Columbus, Ohio, Myers taught herself Khmer even though she had to put great effort into finding resources to learn her mother’s native language.

Her mother was born in Kampong Chhnang province and resettled in the US in the 1980’s following the upheaval of the Khmer Rouge period and the refugee crisis they created. Her father is an African-American born in the US.

As a mixed-race Cambodian/Africa-American she has faced a lot of challenges growing up and today. Myers has had to deal with racism and colourism from people on both sides of her ethnic backgrounds on top of growing up in poverty.

“A lot of Khmer people don’t accept or respect me because I am half-black, so they don’t see me as a Khmer person. Even when I go to Cambodia, I always have to explain to others that I am actually Khmer.” Myers tells The Post.

She remembers growing up very poor and being raised by a single mother who worked a lot when she was very young. On the brighter side, Myers got to enjoy leisure time with her family and was entertained by Khmer music.

“Some of my best childhood memories are fishing with my mom and aunties, listening to Khmer music and making Khmer food together and playing with my cousins,” Myers tells The Post.

Myers’ interest in Khmer music sparked her interest to learn how to speak the language. However, her mother could not teach her Khmer because she never went to school in Cambodia due to the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime which saw the whole educational system was in a state of collapse.

Myers eventually taught herself Khmer by watching Khmer karaoke constantly because the videos with lyrics scrolling along the bottom of the screen always playing from morning to night and she loved the songs.

“I was about 8 years old when I started to recognise Khmer words on the screen. Some of the first words I learned to read were bong and aun,” says Myers.

She loves all Khmer music from classical to tradition folk-dances like romvong and kantrum. She listens to Khmer music across generation from the golden-oldies by the legendary Sin Sisamuth and Ros Sereysothea to modern day artists like the rapper VannDa.

“It’s impossible to say which song is my favourite. I have so many favourite songs and genres, I love it all. However growing up my favourite singer was Touch Sunnix. To this day she is my favourite singer, I still listen to her music,” Myers says.

Despite her eagerness to learn Khmer, Myers unfortunately did not get to grow up with books that were written in Khmer. She only got to read about Cambodia in brief textbook excerpts or in whatever books she could find about Cambodia in the local library.

“When I was about 10-years-old someone gifted me the book by Loung Ung ‘First They Killed My Father’ and it was one of the first books that I actually read all the way through on my own,” Myers says, adding that it gave her new insight into what her mother and relatives must have experienced and how her mother ended up in the US in the first place.

Beyond the Khmer language, Myers feels attached to her roots as a Khmer person and has always known that she wanted to work with Cambodian youths. She has visited Cambodia multiple times since 2015, and she recently came to the Kingdom for Khmer New Year in April.

“What I love about my roots as a Khmer person is the beauty of our culture and people. How we were able to persevere from ancient times until now. Khmer culture is so mystical and magical, that’s why it’s called the Kingdom of Wonder. We are definitely a wonderful people worth getting to know,” she says.

Myers has always wanted to open a school for underprivileged children in Cambodia, however, she doesn’t have the financial resources to do something like that herself right now, so she has thought of other things.

“Somehow my attention turned to the lack of Khmer-language learning resources that we have here in the states. I thought how can we get Khmer learning materials into the hands of Khmer families that want to pass the language onto the next generation,” she says.

During the lockdown in May 2020, Khemara Kids was started as an online shop primarily offering bilingual story and picture books in Khmer and English by the Cambodian publishing company Sipar, which Myers called the best quality children’s books she could find in Cambodia.

The learning materials she sells also include Khmer wooden alphabet letters and a numbers puzzle, flashcards and an electronic sounds book.

“We also have Khmer consonant, vowel and numbers puzzles and we create original YouTube content for kids in Khmer and English. You can also find us on YouTube our channel is called Khemara Kids,” Myers says.

Right now most of the books that Khemara Kids sells are those published by Sipar books, but Myers plans to eventually produce some original books of her own such as children’s workbooks and storybooks that teach the Khmer language.

“So far it’s been all positive feedback, mostly families are just happy to have access to learning resources in Khmer,” she says.

Myers has only taken beginner Khmer lessons herself briefly for about two months, but she speaks Khmer whenever she can and is past that level of fluency.

“I speak Khmer with my friends as much as we can and I speak Khmer with my family and I’m trying to pass it on to the next generation like my nephew who learns Khmer from me,” she says. “I would just like to encourage everyone young and old to try the Khmer language and keep Khmer culture alive however and whenever you can.”

Right now Myers is reading Earth in Flower, a history of Khmer classical dance also known as the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, but her parting words reference a part of Khmer culture of more recent origins.

“My message to other Cambodian-Americans would be that it’s ‘Time to Rise’, like the popular rapper VannDa says. It’s time that we come together as a people and put more value on our culture and project ourselves forward in today’s society,” she says.

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