Being in the middle here in America is not always easy. Although my adventure as an international student has been in “Cambodia Town,” as Long Beach, California, is often called due to being home to the highest density of Cambodians in America, I have still faced plenty of challenges, many of which I couldn’t have predicted.
My family in Cambodia is neither low-income or elite, and I proudly embrace the challenges and rewards that come with being a middle-class Cambodian.
Yet, most Cambodians I run into in my neighborhood assume that I was sent to America for financial reasons and advise me to work hard to support my family back home. Some even offer to help me find jobs that require little or no skills believing that I must have very limited educational background. I was asked if I could read and write English so often that I learned not to feel offended when the question came up.
Once they let me respond I would explain that I came to the States for a degree as a full-time college student. My parents would not be pleased to find out that I am working instead of focusing on my studies, and even if I wanted to work, employment is highly restricted for international students with F-1 visas.
To my surprise, this explanation often led them to a completely opposite conclusion. They believed that if I was pursuing a college education abroad without a scholarship or grants, I must come from a very wealthy family. The more I tried to clarify my background, the more they seemed to suspect that I wasn’t telling the truth. This too I have learned to get used to.
Trying to blend into a culture very different from my own has proven to be another challenge. I appreciate and even adopt a certain degree of individualism and separation from American culture that come from following the collective values I have been brought up with. Yet, quite often I find myself torn between these two conflicting cultural views.
While many of my former classmates in Cambodia become more financially independent by gaining scholarships and landing well-paying jobs, I feel more dependent than ever living in America. The fact that I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, as some people falsely assume, makes my tuition fees and living expenses in California a huge financial burden to my family. Although I try to convince myself that what I am doing will eventually make them proud, my feelings of guilt keep piling up.
However, these difficulties are balanced by social, intellectual and psychological rewards. In addition to the high-quality education, living in America provides an environment where I can interact with individuals from various ethnic backgrounds. With increasing globalization, the ability to communicate across cultures and respect and appreciate each other’s differences is a big advantage.
The hardships do not impair my spirit, but instead help boost my self-esteem. Given the many stressors I encounter, I still manage to keep things in harmony and maintain desirable academic standing. For this, I am proud of myself.
Without my parents’ greatest efforts and sacrifices, this journey would not have been possible. At the very least, I hope my academic success will speak for me and let them know that their hard work wasn’t in vain.