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SPECIAL ISSUE: How generations of Cambodian Americans in Long Beach are embracing two cultures

Laura Som was just six years old when she was kidnapped and abandoned during one of the bloodiest atrocities in history: The Khmer Rouge.

She saw her mother surrounded in a pool of her own blood, beaten to near death. Som was kidnapped and never saw her father again. She fainted, lost her memories and repressed her experiences of the Cambodian genocide until they recurred in her nightmares.

These experiences are not uncommon for the many Cambodians who lived through the genocide.

In just four years of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of power, nearly two million people died as a result of mass executions, abuse, malnutrition and disease. The Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot’s regime lasted from 1975 to 1979 and obliterated approximately 25% of the country’s 1975 population.

Paul San, a Los Angeles resident, lived through the killing fields from ages 9 to 13. He still has dreams about it and likens his experience to Loung Ung, author of “First They Killed My Father.” To cope, San refocused his energy into education. He’s an engineer today.

“Oh my God, it’s a nightmare,” San said. “When I was still young, I used to have nightmares, and as I get older, it became less.”

While each person has a different way of coping with the aftermath of the genocide, Long Beach’s MAYE Center looks to heal the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that permeates within the first generation Cambodian populace, while bringing them back to their roots.

Som, who founded the center in 2014, said it works in a cyclical way. Its purpose is to integrate elder Cambodians to modern American life and to introduce the second generation to traditional Khmer lifestyles.

Woman sits in the garden.
[/media-credit] Laura Som, survivor of the Cambodian genocide and founder of the MAYE Center, sits in the community garden surrounding the MAYE Center on East Anaheim Street.

The MAYE Center aims to mirror households in Cambodia, according to Som. Its garden boasts a sea of green Khmer and American vegetables and fruits, including a java plum tree and four miracle trees over 20 years old. Som recalled seeing Cambodian gardens everywhere in the motherland and in Long Beach.

“When I was kidnapped and abandoned in the jungles, I realized the people who have never been exposed to civilization … their entire life is based on gardening and farming and their education is actually from nature,” she said.

Alongside bearing Khmer herbs and produce, the center grows American vegetables for first generation migrants to recognize unfamiliar food at local grocery stores. This way, Som hopes the center’s vegetation can help elder Cambodians settle into Long Beach.

A study abroad program started in the 1950s is a cause of Long Beach’s large Cambodian population. In their book “Cambodians in Long Beach,” anthropologists Susan Needham and Karen Quintiliani document that Cambodia’s brightest students studied at various California universities such as: University of Southern California; University of California, Los Angeles; California State University, Los Angeles; and Long Beach State.

Although most students returned to Cambodia after graduating from the study abroad programs, participants in the mid 1970s were caught torn between settling in Southern California or going back home to help their families during the killing fields.

“Some of the students were told by the teachers … ‘Don’t go back to Cambodia. You’re gonna be killed.’ But a lot of them had family there, so they went anyways,” Som said.

Those who stayed primarily decided to do so in Long Beach because of its stable weather conditions and its established Cambodian community, which Som said made refugees likely to reacquaint with lost friends and relatives. She found her uncle after he saw her and her mother pictured on the back of a local Khmer newspaper.

Today, Long Beach is home to the largest Cambodian population outside of Southeast Asia; the group accounts for 4% of the city’s population of 486,000, according to the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.  

Long Beach resident Song Tan noted the ethnic group did not initially land in Long Beach. He said his generation of migrants was scattered to prevent different cities and states from being overburdened with people who either had no work skills or relied on public assistance.

Tan arrived in America in 1980. Although he was a graduate practicing medicine during the mid-1970s, Pol Pot’s regime made him a field worker.

“Everybody [was] forced to work in the field. No exceptions,” Tan said. “As a matter of fact, you don’t want to show your identity. You have to hide. The lower [your] class, the better. The lower level of work, the better for the chance of survival.”

None of Tan’s immediate family members survived the killing fields. When Tan came to America, he took a social services interpreter job since all his medical education documentation was destroyed. Tan had to regain his medical license, eventually becoming the first doctor to survive the killing fields and practice medicine in America.

Every year, Tan and a group of doctors, nurses and pharmacists under the Cambodian Health Professionals Association of America travel to Cambodia and provide free general medical treatment to its citizens. Today, he sits as president of CHPAA and acts as an advisory member to the MAYE Center.

The center is only one way Cambodians are championing their culture. Since the turn of the millennium, the Cambodian community goes to El Dorado Park once a year to celebrate Khmer New Year, where multiple generations perform traditional dance and music.

Performances like these are a way to retain dying centuries-old Khmer art, like the masked theater genre Lakhon Khol. Coupled with the deaths of many masked theater playwrights during the genocide and the looming invasion of Vietnam to the motherland in 1979, Cambodians feared their culture would be lost, Needham and Quintiliani noted. But the Khmer-American community is making sure that traditions are passed down generations.

“I love [Khmer Arts Academy] because they don’t teach just the dance, but they teach you the custom, the culture, the proper way to act,” said Monorom Neth, president of the Cambodian Coordinating Council. “It’s passed down and that’s important. [The second generation] has to know where they came from.”

While retainment of cultural art is important for preserving tradition, the generations who grew up during the killing fields and in America are actively searching for ways to raise the community’s political voice.

Currently, the Cambodian community boasts two of its women as Democratic delegates of the 70th Assembly District. In February, Khmer American community leader Suely Saro announced her 2020 bid for Long Beach’s 6th city council district seat.

Vanndearlyn Vong, one of the two delegates and a second generation Cambodian American, believes her age group is putting its own spin on rediscovered roots.

“I’m learning the language and the culture,” Vong said. “I know we got to go to temple for new year, but why not go with [Cambodian Student Society] and make it more social, not just with family.”
Vong said she feels she can bridge the gap between city council leaders and her community with her knowledge of the law and her cultural background.

An extension of the new generation’s power can be seen through November’s passing of Measure DDD, an initiative that would create a citizens redistricting panel to redraw city boundaries in 2020. Conceptualized by the MAYE Center’s civic engagement class, the initiative seeks to resolve the muffled power of the Khmer community, which is currently divided into four different districts.

Som, who spearheaded the measure, co-chaired a group of 14 different Cambodian organizations called Equity for Cambodians. The group collected over 3,000 signatures for the city to redraw boundary lines and was integral in the measure’s passing.

“She’s like the Rosa Parks of Cambodia Town,” said Alex Norman, MAYE Center board member. “Measure DDD, she was the reason. And it started all in here in a class where she raised the question: ‘How do we get more services for our community?’”

Som attributes part of her healing process to sharing experiences with Norman, who is a grandson of a slave. She identified with the struggles of Africans’ assimilation to America as slaves, which became the turning point for her civic engagement.

Her father was a general who sought to rebuild Cambodia. He died before he could accomplish this feat, and Som was warned by her elders to choose between being alive or being civically engaged. She chose the latter.

“Our freedom and who we are is a lot more important than just surviving,” she said.

For more coverage of the Khmer community in Long Beach, look through our gallery below on the Cambodian New Year Celebration at El Dorado Park Saturday.

One Comment

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    Thanks for this insightful article.

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