Christine Leonard finds that despite persecution, many Vietnamese change their
lifestyle, beliefs and language to become "Cambodian".
"TO be Cambodian," Seanglim Bit wrote, "is to be a descendant of
a people that produced architectural masterpieces of the Angkor era which rival the
achievements of any of the ancient civilizations" (1991:3). Cambodian is the
ecumenical term usually used to describe the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Cambodia
(as well as former inhabitants now living in other countries). However, while the
word Cambodian "in the sense of nationality includes Chinese, Chams, and other
groups," as Ebihara, Mortland, and Ledgerwood point out (1994:161), Bit arguably
refers more specifically here to ethnic Khmers. The self-defining Khmer language
term is Khmaer, which can be used interchangeably to refer to both Cambodians in
the sense described above and to ethnic Khmers, as well as to Cambodia itself (srok-Khmaer).
And yet, as Prasso suggests, as a group [Khmaer] seek to define the "pure"
ethnic Khmers among them and then accord status to other associated ethnic groups,
or groups of mixed origin, who are granted citizens' rights according to their historical
association with or intermarriage with Khmer people over long periods. (1995: 4)
Prasso posits a "descending hierarchy of relatedness to the Khmer," and
according to this hierarchy, the ethnic Vietnamese occupy the lowest rung, with "mixed"
Vietnamese-Khmer at a slightly higher level. Khmers and Vietnamese speak languages
from different linguistic families: Mon-Khmer as opposed to Viet-Muong (Lebar, Hickey,
and Musgrave 1964). Phenotypically (and thus, genetically or "racially,"
although the accuracy of scientific differentiation and categorization will not be
debated here), Vietnamese are believed to be more Sinicized, descended from North
and East Asia (i.e., China/Mongolia) as opposed to South Asia (i.e., India). Vietnamese
(women) wear wide-legged black trousers and conical straw hats; Khmer women wear
silk skirts. Bit concludes that Vietnam and Vietnamese "[offer] cultural contrasts
on almost every point... Distinctly different traditions govern everything from styles
of dress to values and codes of behavior" (1991: 12). Indeed, many Khmers believe
that the very essence of what it means to be Khmer lies in direct opposition to that
of the Vietnamese. Many of the ethnic Vietnamese thus may be Cambodians, but in the
minds of the majority ethnic group, they are certainly not Khmer.
As a result, the ethnic Vietnamese have faced physical intimidation, verbal harassment,
disenfranchisement. On a regular basis, they must deal with the fact that to many
Khmers they are yuon, with all of the term's negative connotations. It is unfortunate,
but not surprising, then, that in wanting to continue living in Cambodia the ethnic
Vietnamese have made some "cultural" changes, away from traditional Vietnamese
and toward Khmer culture.
This essay explores some of the effects of anti-Vietnamese sentiment and action on
the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. The interpretations and conclusions here are the
results of fieldwork conducted both within the various districts of Phnom Penh and
in various provincial centers and rural villages throughout Cambodia.
One of the most critical means of gaining acceptance into a culture other than one's
own is mastering that culture's language. As a Khmer of mixed ancestry whose physical
appearance often stopped others from believing my "Khmerness" (Prasso 1995),
I personally witnessed the "increase" in the level of other Khmers' acceptance
of me as I gained proficiency in Khmer language. The same holds true for the ethnic
Vietnamese here. When I asked Khmers about their relationship with Vietnamese, if
their feelings were positive they would say, as did one village chief: "there
are no problems - they live with us, they speak Khmer like us, their children study
in school with Khmer children", attesting to the importance of language as a
part of Khmer cultural identity. In areas in which police are attempting to "weed
out" Cambodians from non-Cambodians, the Khmer language is used as one gauge
of "Khmerness." If one can speak Khmer clearly, he or she is more likely
to be believed as Khmer - physical appearance, name, and other indicators notwithstanding.
Not surprisingly, then, while many of the ethnic Vietnamese individuals and families
use Vietnamese in the home, many do not encourage their children to learn Vietnamese.
Khmer is considered more important. As one woman in a farming village in Takeo noted,
"[My children] know how to use Vietnamese because we speak it at home, but I
don't teach them. They learn Khmer in school and that is important because we are
in Cambodia." The individuals whom I spoke to showed little regret about the
"disappearance" of their mother tongue among their children. A cake-seller
in Kampot notes: "No, I'm not sorry if my child forgets Vietnamese language
because we live in Cambodia and so we must know Khmer language." The lack of
regret about her child not knowing her mother tongue is reinforced by the fear of
others' dislike. She continued: "Some [Khmer] people say they don't like to
hear the Vietnamese language. Some people who went to Phnom Penh told me that if
you speak Vietnamese there the police will penalize you so I don't want to speak
it ... No, the police have never forbidden me to speak Vietnamese, but this is Cambodia
so I don't want to speak it."
One bilingual man noted that while he personally was glad that he knew both Vietnamese
and Khmer, particularly because knowing both helped him in business, others felt
that because he could speak both he was untrustworthy. When he was with his Vietnamese
cousins, they didn't like him to speak Khmer, and if he did they insulted him as
the "enemy". "They tell me that if I want to speak Khmer I should
go to Khmer peoples' houses and not to their houses, to eat with Khmers and not with
In a village in Kampot, a middle-aged man said "we are near the border and really
we must know all the languages. Vietnamese come here every day to trade so we must
know Vietnamese. Some speak Chinese so it's good to know that, also." But, "we
live in Cambodia, so we must know Khmer language. So my child goes to Khmer school."
Others reiterated that while everyday life may require that they speak Vietnamese,
Khmer was more important. Most of the children went to Khmer schools if they went
at all (and many do not). And even in areas where there are Vietnamese schools, such
as in Phnom Penh, much of the stress is on learning Khmer with only a secondary emphasis
Thus one ethnic Vietnamese response to the pressures placed upon them culturally
is to adopt a new linguistic identity. Their mother tongue or that of their ancestors
is abandoned, without much remorse.
Before the destruction of the Pol Pot regime, there was a significant number of
Vietnamese Catholic churches throughout Cambodia. One elderly man in Kratie told
of a French missionary "David" who attracted a lot of converts. "We
loved David!" he said. "Many, many Vietnamese followed him to the church...
I can remember him well. When he died we were all very, very sad." To judge
by the number of Catholic churches, as well as by the testimony of those who were
in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge period, there were a great number of Vietnamese
Catholics. (While there were also many Vietnamese Buddhists, the congregations of
churches were almost entirely comprised of ethnic Vietnamese). Like most other religious
structures in Cambodia, most of the Vietnamese churches were defiled by the Khmer
Rouge. And while many of the Vietnamese who had fled from these areas returned during
the Heng Samrin PRK/SoC regime, they rebuilt almost none of these. Vietnamese Buddhist
temples similarly destroyed have also been left to decompose. In Kompong Cham province,
for example, all that remains of what was once a large Catholic church is a cluster
of large stones from what once formed the church's foundation. Several families of
Khmers returning after the Khmer Rouge regime literally built their homes on top
of them. Some did not know that the rubble was the remains of a church. Some did
know, however, and led me to the rear of the remains of a graveyard. All of the gravestones
that were decipherable had inscriptions in Vietnamese. In Kratie, a former Vietnamese
pagoda is now used as a district hospital; a former Catholic church is used as a
provinical and district government meeting-house.
Most of the Vietnamese, moreover, claimed that the majority of the Vietnamese in
Cambodia now are Buddhist, and furthermore, they now follow Khmer Buddhism. Several
claimed that "Vietnamese Buddhism and Khmer Buddhism are the same" or "close
enough." In fact, the Vietnamese follow the Mahayana school while the Khmer
are Theravada Buddhists. With the exception of one large Catholic community in Phnom
Penh, Catholic disciples seem few and far between, or at least, do not wish to be
identified. A large Catholic charity organization refused to lead us to the several
Vietnamese communities to which it ministers for fear of less-than-benevolent motives
on our part. A elderly fortune teller said she was "Khmaer in every way,"
and at first told me she followed "Buddhism just like the Khmers." I later
noticed pictures of Catholic saints in her room, after which she admitted that she
was a "follower of Jesus Christ." Most who admitted they were Catholic
noted that they practiced or prayed in their own homes or in the homes of others
who were also Catholic because there were no churches in which to pray. A Vietnamese
man in Kratie noted that when he was single he followed Christianity, but after he
married (he married according to Khmer tradition), he "became" Cambodian,
which also meant becoming a Buddhist. A respondent in Kompong Cham said that several
years ago, a Christian missionary came to town hoping to convert the ethnic Vietnamese
population, but he attracted almost no followers. He thus left the province, and,
the respondent continued, "Now no one comes here and there is no church."
Khmers swear that they can automatically tell the difference between Khmers and Vietnamese,
and even between Vietnamese and Chinese. Vietnamese (women), Khmers say, wear pants,
and in particular, wide-legged black pants. Khmer women wear skirts. Vietnamese wear
conical straw hats; Khmers wear kramas.
Apparently there are other indicators as well; one Khmer informant told me that even
if someone could speak Khmer fluently and dressed like a Khmer, he would still be
able to tell by the way that individual walked, sat, moved, and ate that that individual
For those less astute at determining the differences, however, the lines between
Vietnamese and Khmer, at least in terms of the more visible cultural indicators,
are becoming more and more blurred. Vietnamese eat Khmer food, and vice versa. More
and more Vietnamese women have begun to wear traditional Khmer silk skirts. Particularly
in the countryside, ethnic Khmers have been seen wearing the typically-Vietnamese
conical straw hats. As mentioned more and more Vietnamese can speak Khmer. Most Vietnamese
go to modern Khmer or western doctors and hospitals rather than to traditional Vietnamese
healers. Intermarriage with Khmers over generations has led to a "blurring"
of physical features which in the past enabled one to differentiate between Sino-
or Viet-Khmers and "pure" Khmers (see Prasso 1995:4). And, moreover, and
perhaps most importantly, the ethnic Vietnamese themselves have for the most part
chosen to identify with Khmers and as Cambodians.
A recurrent theme in my research was an inability, or at least, a lack of desire,
to discuss Vietnamese customs or traditional stories and legends. An elderly Vietnamese
man in Kampot who came to Cambodia in the early 1980s stressed that he and his wife
would live in Cambodia forever, and would never even go to visit Vietnam, even though
most of his children live there. One of his sons happened to be visiting him at the
time of the interview, and he commented: "This son is still single. I want him
to marry a girl who lives in Cambodia. She can be [ethnically] Khmer, Chinese, or
Vietnamese - that's up to my son, but he must get married in Cambodia and then live
in Cambodia because I don't want to go to Vietnam! Even though I'm poor, if I knew
that I could go to Vietnam and become a rich man I still would not go back... I want
to die in Cambodia."
Some ethnic Vietnamese have even begun to ascribe to stereotypes about Vietnamese,
despite the fact that many have faced discrimination on the basis on these stereotypes
themselves. I spoke to a young ethnic Vietnamese woman in Kampot who is now married
to a Khmer. She was pointed out as an ethnic Vietnamese by some Khmers in the village,
but described herself to me as a "Khmaer," and made several unflattering
comments about the Vietnamese. She remarked: "Here in Cambodia most people dislike
Vietnamese, and I don't blame them because some of the Vietnamese who come here are
bad people - mostly prostitutes and thiefs. I hate them. Yes, some people discriminated
against me when I first came because they thought maybe I was a prostitute... but
now I am married and I don't have this problem anymore.
In areas in which there is a substantial Chinese as well as Vietnamese population,
some ethnic Vietnamese identify as Chinese because they perceive that to be Chinese
is more acceptable to Khmers than to be Vietnamese. The long-time ethnic Vietnamese
residents of Cambodia make generational distinctions between themselves and those
Vietnamese who have just come (while many Khmers arguably do not). As encapsulated
in the words of one woman, speaking about her husband and herself, "We are Cambodian!
We have lived here our whole lives except for Pol Pot. We are not like the [Vietnamese]
prostitutes who have just come. Compared to them, we are Khmaer-sot ("pure"
In conducting this research effort, I found a recurrent theme in what I might term
yearning, or even desperation on the part of the ethnic Vietnamese to be considered
Cambodian, if not Khmer. This desperation is the result of the historical and current
socio-economic and political contexts in which the ethnic Vietnamese found and find
themselves in Cambodia. As a result of the "threats" to their existence
based upon their "Vietnameseness," the ethnic Vietnamese have begun to
"lose," or at least have attempted to lose, their identification as such.
They return to Cambodia, their homeland, in the face of physical danger. They pay
fines and taxes levied especially upon them and endure police harassment - anything
to avoid being expelled from Cambodia.
In essence, many ethnic Vietnamese want to become "Cambodians."