For the observer, Cambodian-Americans are known mostly as survivors of the Pol Pot genocide of 1975, the Khmer Rouge. The brutal four-year regime indiscriminately took the lives of men, women, children, the disabled, the elderly and the Cambodians who managed to escape to the United States lost everything. But, as I grow older, I’m realizing that Cambodian history is what we make of it.
“We had a life before the Khmer Rouge,” said Merry Touch, a Social Media Associate for Khmerican. “I wish, especially the younger generation now, will learn more about that instead of always connecting us back to the Khmer Rouge era.”
Every year throughout my childhood, I joined droves of Cambodian Americans who rebuilt their lives to celebrate the Khmer New Year and reflect on challenges facing the community.
I always believed that the Cambodian community was strong. There are many Cambodian community organizations operating in Long Beach, home to the largest Cambodian community outside of Cambodia, and in the Cambodian culture, instead of viewing one another as strangers, Cambodians refer to non-relatives as aunts, uncles, brothers and sister.
But when I went to find out for myself what issues were percolating in the community, the responses of the community leaders I approached, baffled me.
“There is a lack of civic engagement,” said Chad Sammeth, a board member of both the United Cambodian Community and Khmer Arts Academy. “We don’t register to vote, we don’t participate and we don’t engage in civic matters.”
Others community leaders echo Sammeth’s observations.
“You always hear about the [Cambodian] residents of Long Beach complaining about this and that but they’re not making enough of an effort to change anything or do anything about it. That’s something I see a lot,” said Marian Na, a Cam-CC community leader and former president of the Cambodian Student Society.
Voter apathy among Cambodian Americans might have an even deeper cause: The grisly past still haunts them.
“A lot of the turmoil and so forth exists back at home. We bring that mentality here to America thinking politics is an area we don’t trust and something we don’t want to deal with,” Sammeth said. “The idea of voting, registering to vote, for the people by the people-for us in the states we understand that. But for those in Cambodia, it’ll be hard to expect them to understand what that all means.”
My own lack of involvement in the Cambodian community proves that many Cambodian Americans are still detached. But here is where that changes for me, starting with this story.
Instead of dedicating only the month of New Year’s to get involved with the Cambodian community, leaders urge Cambodians in Long Beach to approach the United Cambodian Community and Cambodia Town, Inc. to see where they can get involved in growing the community throughout the year.
In the video above, Cambodians of all ages are asked what they believe challenges Cambodians face in Long Beach in 2014. The younger, more involved interviews reveal a surprising side to the seemingly strong community in Long Beach.