Cambodian Community Shifts Focus
By Eric Fujimori, Editorial Intern
Jenny Tae was only a teenager when she and her family left Cambodia in the 1980s. Without much money or steady plans for the future, they settled in California and started a new life.
Tae needed to work right away to help support her family. Since she didn’t speak English or have a formal education, her options were limited to low-paying jobs that required arduous labor. She first found work in a sewing factory before her father opened a small donut shop in Los Angeles. At Sammy Goodie’s Donuts, Tae worked tirelessly, often up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Since profits were low, her family couldn’t afford to hire any outside employees. Despite the difficult circumstances, she persevered.
Tae now lives in Long Beach, home to the largest Cambodian population in the United States.
Like Tae, many Cambodian immigrants in Long Beach rely on their proven work ethic and business-savvy tactics to make a life for themselves. As more businesses continue to open, competition is getting stiffer. Inevitably, this means less money for the owners. This dilemma has inspired the younger Cambodian-American generations to pursue success with an approach more focused on education than entrepreneurship.
Reasons for Immigration
Large numbers of Cambodians started immigrating to Long Beach in the 1970s. Most of them were uneducated. This trend can be directly traced back to Cambodia’s dark era of persecution under the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist regime that aimed to establish an agrarian utopia.
During its reign, the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a prison state, holding people in work camps and orchestrating large-scale massacres in the so-called “killing fields.”
“In the killing fields, they took everyone who was educated and murdered them,” said Kiry Kravanh, prevention coordinator at the Cambodian Association of America in Long Beach, the largest and oldest nonprofit Cambodian organization in the United States.
Kravanh, a second generation Cambodian-American, said his parents were well educated before the Khmer Rouge came into power. However, they had to pretend not to be in order to survive.
Progress in America
To compensate for their lack of education, Cambodian immigrants relied on their perseverance to obtain jobs that required strenuous labor and extremely long hours. In time, they began to open their own businesses.
Since her days of working at the family donut shop, Tae has owned several of her own. By the time she was 22, she opened the first of three donut shops in the Los Angeles area. She’s also owned a Vietnamese restaurant, a meat market and a discount store. During this run of business endeavors, Tae also found time to raise her children and earn a college degree from the University of Phoenix.
Tae said that her children, as well as future generations of Cambodian-Americans, are the reason she’s always worked so hard.
“I don’t want my children to have the same life I did,” Tae said.
To make sure that doesn’t happen, Tae pushes her children to focus on getting a good education. She wants them to be able to choose what they want to pursue in their lives, instead of being confined to working at the family business for long hours and little pay.
This shift from a business-minded to education-based mentality is becoming increasingly apparent among second and third generation Cambodian-Americans.
“Now that Cambodians are more educated, more outgoing, more ambitious, we’re starting to put ourselves out there,” said Keo Uy, youth coordinator at the United Cambodian Community in Long Beach.
Uy, a second generation Cambodian-American, is inspired by the progress being made.
“We’ve come a long way from being just immigrant refugees with no education, to being doctors, lawyers, leaders and people who aren’t afraid to have pride in their culture,” Uy said.
Maintaining Cultural Ties
Why is this shift in mindset happening now? Victory Heng, a first generation Cambodian-American, has pinpointed one of the major reasons.
“The second generation grew up going to school where the primary language is English,” Heng said.
As the mental health coordinator at the United Cambodian Community, Heng has seen how language barriers make it difficult for Cambodian immigrants to ease into American society. He often serves as a translator for Cambodian members of the community, helping them go through their mail and fill out forms.
While he’s glad that the younger generations are able to speak English and communicate well, Heng thinks it’s important for Cambodian-Americans to stay in touch with their culture.
“You try to assimilate because that’s what made this country great,” Heng said. “But at the same time you don’t want to completely erase your background or where you came from.”
This doesn’t seem to be a problem.
In Long Beach, Cambodian culture is present all around. It’s found in authentic restaurants like PhnomPenh Noodle and grocery stores like KH Supermarket. But perhaps more than anything, it’s found in the people.
Every year, organizations and individuals from the Cambodian community come together to present several events, such as parades and culture festivals during the time of the Cambodian New Year.
Sandy Nou, who is one of the main organizers for this year’s Cambodia Town Culture Festival on April 12, said these events help develop strong connections between young Cambodian-Americans and their heritage.
“It’s really uplifting for our culture because younger generations are getting involved,” Nou said. “We even have high school students who will be displaying projects from their Cambodian class for everyone to see.”
Whether it’s the old family businesses or the young educated activists, there’s a humble sense of pride among the Cambodian community.
The Ninth Annual Cambodian New Year Parade will take place from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. April 12. The parade will take place along Anaheim Street in Long Beach, starting at Junipero Avenue and ending at Warren Avenue. The Cambodia Town Culture Festival will immediately follow the parade at MacArthur Park.