Phatry Derek Pan first heard the term “Khmerican” in the mid-90s when Phanit Duong invented the term as a martial arts kick. Pan reinterpreted it, and began popularizing the word beginning 2003 and then immortalized it in print in The Phnom Penh Post.
The term was tossed around the newsroom as a catchy way to identify a Cambodian American. When his girlfriend at the time held a photo shoot called, “I am Khmerican,” Pan wrote a profile for the Phnom Pehn Post titled, “Rapper In Search of the Khmerican Dream.”
“This was a completely invented term and I wasn’t sure how the general public would perceive it,” he recalled. “I am happy to see the word evolve and even more eager to see the term interpreted in the decades ahead.”
Nobody knew at the time that the nickname would become the name of the leading online media outlet for Cambodian Americans. Not even Pan himself, the CEO and co-founder of Khmerican.com.
Pan’s then-girlfriend purchased the Khmerican web domain and Pan continued to renew the domain for years, not knowing exactly what he would do with it. It took six years of reporting in Cambodia and returning to the United States for it to hit him.
“Why aren’t Cambodians in these other communities aware of what is going on?” Pan said. “Why was Philadelphia stuck in its own bubble and not knowing what Lowell Cambodians were doing, people who were running for office, people who were winning?”
Pan, who had left Cambodia as a refugee when he was four years old, grew up in a family of nine in Kelso, Wash. outside Seattle, one of several enclaves of Cambodian Americans that settled in the United States after the takeover of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Under the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), nearly one-fourth of the country’s population was murdered by young, would-be Communists looking to create a classless society.
Although he had always stayed connected to the burgeoning Cambodian communities across the U.S., he realized that there was no media outlet for people like him – young Cambodian Americans who had escaped the mass genocide and destruction in their homeland, and were building something new for themselves in America.
In 2011, Pan picked up his phone, called up his lifelong friend, Sophath Oun, and said, “Make a website for Khmerican.”
Once those plans were in motion, Pan flipped through his contact book and called his friends living in different regions to help write stories and take photographs of Cambodian American news happening across the United States. Khmerican was officially born.
“I realized what Khmerican stood for,” Pan said. “One hundred years from now, people might say we were the first historians of Khmer America.”
Although he started out in Seattle, Pan soon packed up his things and headed to Long Beach, Calif., the city with the most Cambodians outside of Cambodia. “This was the epicenter of Khmer America,” he said.
Khmerican was soon reaching an average of 750,000 readers each month, according to Pan. The website gave Cambodians who grew up in the United States something they weren’t able to get anywhere else: images of themselves.
“Mainstream media typically produce the same visuals about Cambodian Americans as gang members, troubled, and survivors of the genocide. We want to change the landscape of how the world views us,” said Pan.
Khmerican was one of the first media outlets to showcase images of success — an entrepreneur, a model or a rapper. The website features successful Cambodian Americans, from rapper praCh Ly and filmmaker Caylee So, who created the first ever Cambodia Town Film Festival in 2013, to Brooklyn-based comedian Hella Chluy, whose real name is Phanit Duong.
Chluy’s Youtube video, “Sh*t Cambodian Folks Say” introduced Hella Chluy’s now famous phrase “Haing jong tver gang eh?” (Do you want to be a gangster?). Duong released a mix tape of music parodies titled “Chluymatic” in July 2012 that included remakes of Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend” (Boypren) and PSY’s “Gangnam Style” (Sra Tnam Style).
Khmerican also featured a profile of half-French half Cambodian fashion model Daphnee Lucenet, who also happens to have degrees in IT engineering and business. In an interview with Khmerican, she said she also visits Cambodia every year and helps with projects to give back to the country.
Khmerican.com is in the process of rolling out a new website in April. In the meantime, it’s active on Facebook, publicizing students’ annual cultural shows that celebrate and keep their Cambodian heritage alive, from the Cambodian Student Society at California State University of Long Beach to the Khmer Student Association of the University of Washington.
This April, Khmerican will also launch an awareness campaign to commemorate the Cambodian genocide’s 40th anniversary. Teaming up with the media partner Generation Forward for the April 17th Initiative, named after the date in 1975 that the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, Khmerican will cover the ways Cambodian Americans are commemorating the anniversary in cities across the U.S., including speaking at colleges in Riverside, Calif., on April 15 and Boston on April 17.
With Khmerican acting as a hub for Cambodian-American news, it has also gained a diverse readership that expanded beyond the Cambodian community. Today, two-thirds of the readers are not of Cambodian descent, according to Pan. American readers make up about half of the audience, and about one-fifth of the audience are in Cambodia. The remaining percentage comes from the Cambodian diaspora around the world, including Australia, Canada and France.
Pan says the next step is to expand the Khmerican brand to Cambodia. Cambodian Americans will still be featured on the site, but Pan plans to add reporting from of Cambodia in English, targeting the growing population of Cambodian Americans living in Cambodia who don’t speak Khmer. Pan believes this reporting will influence Cambodian Americans to return to Cambodia and give back to Cambodia’s revival.
Also in the works are plans to launch a sister company called Aneakajun. Aneakajun is a Cambodian word that roughly translates into a traitor or one who abandoned his roots. It’s a term that Cambodians in Cambodia have used pejoratively to describe those who left the country and never returned. Pan hopes to reclaim the word by showcasing the positive contributions that Southeast Asian Americans have made to their home countries. Aneakajun’s focus will include all oversea Cambodians (e.g. Khmer Americans, Khmer French, Khmer Australian, etc.) in Cambodia.
“When Cambodians got independence in 1953 from France, Cambodians had the opportunity to study abroad, mostly to European countries, here to Long Beach and other western countries. When they finished their studies, a small percentage actually stayed in France, Australia, U.S,and people back at home called them traitors.”