Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Classical Cambodian Dance and Music Help Children Embrace Heritage

Holding a three-foot wood dowel, Madame Sam-Oeun Tes studied the children as they practice thier poses.

"Straighten!" shouted Oeun, touching the small of young girl's back with the dowel.

Oeun founded the Cambodian American Heritage group, which teaches and performs Cambodian classical dance. She and the other Dance Masters teach Cambodian dance to second generation Cambodian American children at the Cambodian Buddhist Society in Silver Spring and the Arlington Mill Community Center in Arlington. (for more information about the group, go to

Ouen's job, and that of the other Dance Masters, is to keep alive a culture that was nearly erased by Cambodia's forgotten genocide.

The Washington area has some 5,000 Cambodian Americans, many of whom immigrated to the United States during or after the fall of the Communist Khmer Rouge government in 1979. They left their homeland to escape a ruined society in which some 1.7 million people were murdered by Pol Pot's regime.
The refugees brought with them vestiges of Cambodian culture, which they now pass to the children.

"My kids don't know the culture yet," said Nalen Smith, 38, who arrived in the United States in 1988 after spending five years in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp on the Thai border. "I bring Meghan to dance because I want to keep the culture alive. Also, I want her to behave herself as Cambodia woman."
The youngest children, such as Meghan, 5, (pictured left) and Grace, are in the beginner's classes. The oldest students are in their mid-20s. Nearly all are second-generation Cambodian Americans.

"Grace wailed at first because she doesn't understand the importance," said Kathy Rafferty of her daughter, 5. Rafferty adopted Grace in Cambodia in 2003. Now she brings Grace to classes on Sundays to learn Cambodian dance.
"Ninety percent of dancers were killed," Rafferty said of the Khmer Rouge slaughter of artists in the mid-to-late 1970s. That's what makes these lessons so important, Rafferty said. "Passing it on to this generation."

Cambodian musical lessons are also part of the cultural education held on Sunday's in Silver Spring and Arlington.
Jonathan Dos, left, a fifth grader at Carlin Springs Elementary, practices playing the roneat ek, a xylophone-like instrument with a rich eastern tone.
The instructor, Ngek Chum, closed his eyes and listened to Jonathan play.

"I use my ear," Chum said.

Many of the children are unaware of their parent's past.
"I've not really been told about it," said Paula Chea, 12, a dancer in the advanced class.
Like most adult Cambodians, the parents here—with the exception of Rafferty—have seen unthinkable hardship. Many lost mothers, fathers, siblings and friends to the Khmer Rouge labor camps, prisons, and execution squads. It seems to some parents that the past has been forgotten.

Most of the parents think the children should be older before they hear the stories. Others want to forget about the past altogether.
"Day by day it fades away," Smith said of her people's hardship. "People don't pay attention anymore."
"Some parents are fed up," said Victoria Yap, whose children learn dance on Sundays. "They say, 'I don't want my kids to know or speak the language.'"
Yap and Smith, however, disagree.
"We want them to know," Yap said. "We are the bridge."
And some of the children, particularly the oldest, are starting to understand. "I know that all of my grandfathers and grandmothers died. All my mom's brother and sisters died," said Chea. "I like to dance because I don't want to lose my Cambodian identity."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cambodian Dance Keeps Traditional Culture Alive in Arlington

The piece below was my first published piece since starting Journalism school at Georgetown. It was published on 03/13/08 by the press service Radio Free Asia, which predominantly provides news (radio and internet) to politically-repressed Asian nations.
The piece was translated in Khmer (Cambodian) and posted on the Khmer page. Here is the link:

Here is the full text in English:

For Cambodian Americans in the Washington area, keeping traditional culture alive is a fight against long odds. The battle’s fought, however, week after week at the Arlington Mills Community Center, where Cambodian-born parents bring their American-born children for lessons in ancient heritage.

The children come midday Sunday, shuffling into the center in richly-colored, sequent-studded Av Noay, a tradition Cambodian dress. They’re here for classical Cambodian dance and music lessons and to understand their roots.

Jonathan Dos, a fifth-grader at Carlin Springs Elementary, patiently holds two mallets above the dark hardwood bars of a curved wooden instrument known as a roneat ek. It’s like a xylophone but has a rich eastern tone that fills the room as Jonathan plays. It’s a simple tune, like a Cambodian version of “Chopsticks.”

The instructor, Ngek Chum, watches his pupils while bowing a violin-like instrument called a Tro. There’s not a musical sheet in the room. “I use my ear,” Chum says.

Most adults here were born in Cambodia and have seen hardship. The majority arrived in the United States between the late 1970s and early 1980s—during or after the dark, genocidal era of Pol Pot’s regime. In an effort to create a classless society, the Khmer Rouge directly or indirectly killed nearly 1.7 million Cambodians—one-fifth of Cambodia’s population—between 1975 and 1979. Particularly targeted were intellectuals: professors, engineers, doctors, and artists.

Above: the violin-like Tro

Upon arriving in the United States, the Cambodian refugees established “Khmer” communities throughout the country. Some 4,000 live in the Washington area.

In a larger room across the hall from Chum’s music lesson is Devi Yim, the Dance Master. Yim stands on tip-toes at the head of the class, her outstretched arms moving gracefully in large circles to music played from a stereo. Facing Yim for this, the Coconut Dance, are 30 girls, some no more than five years old. The children, clad in yellow, green, and blue outfits, sway to Yim’s lead. All eyes are upon the teacher.

Like the others, Yim has seen hardship. “They gave us three days to leave,” she says, referring to the Khmer Rouge order to evacuate Phnom Penh in 1975. Yim and thousands fled to the countryside on foot and at gunpoint.

Yim, five at the time, was separated from her family and forced to tend rice fields in the countryside. Her brother was killed.

In the early 1980s, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Yim graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts. She first performed dance in the United States in 1990 on the invitation of the U.S government. “My country was still at war,” says Yim, “I decided to stay here.”

Now she teaches the children what she learned in her homeland. “I want to keep my culture alive,” Yim says. “That’s why I do it every weekend.”

Sara Say agrees. A former 2nd Lieutenant in the Cambodian Special Forces, Say has been performing in America since arriving in the early 1980s. Afraid their heritage would be lost in the relocation, Say and 30 other refugees brought dance with them.

Say, now a writer, drummer, and singer, lives and performs at local venues. In March he’ll be at Washington College. “We must show them that we are from somewhere else in the world,” says Say about the children. “They have to learn what is their background.”

It’s a refrain heard again and again among the parents: it’s important that the children know their heritage.

Kathy Rafferty sits in a plastic chair in the community center while her adopted daughter, Grace, practices dance moves. Grace was born in Cambodia and brought to the United States by Rafferty at six months old. Rafferty’s not Cambodian, but she understands the importance of culture and identity.

The dance lessons teach culture and help with identity, Rafferty explains. “She wailed at first, but when the kids get older they really start to appreciate the lessons.”

Another mother, Nalen Smith, watches proudly as her 5 year old daughter Meghan performs. “My kids don’t know the culture yet,” says Smith, who spent 5 years at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp (pictured at right) on the Thai border and lost her sister to a boarder-guard’s bullet. “I bring Meghan to dance because I want to keep the culture alive,” she says. “It’s not easy.”

The littlest ones, like Meghan, are too young to understand. But they eventually learn. “After a while they realize that they have their own origins,” says Say, the former 2nd Lieutenant.

Today, and for the next few months, the children are practicing for a recital in April for the Cambodian New Year. It’s one of the community’s biggest events, and the children will perform at Gunston Middle School in Arlington.

Victoria Yap, a Chinese-Cambodian American, passes-out four-foot Peacock feathers to twenty children in the break room. They’re about to practice the “Peacock Dance” for the New Year festival, and the excitement is palpable. “They become the Peacock,” says Yap, explaining the narrative of the ancient dance.

Dance and music lessons, however, require lots of free time. And in American, free time comes at a premium.

Poly Sam, a US-educated Cambodian immigrant, found refuge in the United States in 1983 after spending five years in a refugee camp. Before that the Khmer Rouge forced him to tend water buffalo in the countryside. Though he escaped Cambodia, 5 five members of his family did not.
Sam, a broadcaster for Radio Free Asia in Washington, juggles the demands of a modern lifestyle. Though he’d like his children to learn more, there are limits. “We try to maintain our identity,” says Sam. “But, we’re busy.” Circumstances don’t always allow, he says.

Sam is pragmatic, and although he embraces his past, he is also grateful for the present. “Being American is a good thing,” he says. “My kids will be successful.”

Others agree, but some more reluctantly. “I don’t want them to be too Americanized,” says Seng Chao, a Cambodian immigrant whose two children perform at the center.

It’s hard for the children not to be Americanized. Unlike the first generation, these kids speak perfect English. They also eat pizza between lessons and remove new Michael Jordon Nike’s upon entering the center.

It’s a tough balance to strike: new versus old, near versus far, American culture versus ancient traditions from a land 9,000 miles away. And there’s also the unchallengeable fact that these children, as much as any, are American.

But they’re also Cambodian, something that the parents at Arlington Mills Community Center don’t want forgotten. That’s why they wear the Av Noay. That’s why they come every week.

The children seem to understand: when the music starts, the playful bantering stops. The girls grow quiet, deep in concentration, anticipating their next dance move. For a few minutes, time stands still and Khmer culture comes to Arlington.

But when the music stops, the laughter and whispering in perfect English begin. It’s an American classroom again, and Cambodia seems as far away as it is.

A Piece of Southeast Asia Thrives Amidst Washington’s Suburbs

Jiahn-Yih Wuu was an early arrival to America.

The 2nd Minister of Religious Ceremonies at the Cambodian Buddhist Society fled his home in Cambodia just three days after the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. From Thailand, he applied for refugee status anywhere he could find it.

"France, Australian, Canada, the U.S.,” he says, ticking-off the countries to which he sought entry.

His story is not unique for Cambodian immigrants in the Washington area. Escape is a common theme.

Wuu ended-up in the US, and is now at the ornate Buddhist temple and monastery in Silver Spring.

Step inside and you'd think you landed in Southeast Asia: Massive painted murals. Brass Buddha’s. Ancient texts. A pictorial lineage of Cambodia's Supreme Patriarchs. And Buddhist monks.

The monastery and temple are a sanctuary, and it's kept authentic. "Our society is more conservative," says Sovan Tun, the President of the facility. "America has a lot of temptations, distractions."

Metropolitan Washington has a small but distinct Cambodian-American Community. Based upon the 2006 American Community Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that some 5,000 Cambodian Americans live here, mostly in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Fairfax County, Virginia. Nationwide are some 200,000 Cambodian-Americans. The largest populations in California, Massachusetts, and Washington State.

Like other "Khmer Communities," as they call themselves, this one is tightly-bound by tradition and the legacy of Cambodia’s troubled past.

From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and the Communist Khmer Rouge (French for "Red Khmer") wrecked Cambodia and directly or indirectly killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. After 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was toppled, Cambodians fled their shattered nation in droves.

The Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) estimates that nearly 139,000 Cambodian refugees came to the United States in the 1980s, based upon data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. In 1981 alone 38,000 Cambodian refugees resettled in America.

Though the immigration slowed after the 1980s, it never stopped. According to the Office of Immigration Statistics, about 5,000 Cambodian immigrants came to America in 2006.

Today's immigrants, unlike the earlier generation, come to the United States for work, education, and to reunited with family. The temple and monastery in Silver Spring is a gathering site.

Bhante Sopheak Ngove stands barefoot in the temple wrapped in a flowing red robe, his hands folded at his waist. Though he is silent, his eyes are wise. "Bhante" means "Venerable," and is Ngove's title.

Like the other four monks at the Cambodian Buddhist Society, Ngove has only been in this country a few months. With Tun's sponsorship, he and the others were granted legal, permanent residency in the United States as Religious Workers' under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Within five years they'll have the opportunity to apply for American citizenship.

The rules are strict in the Silver Spring monastery: No alcohol. No entertainment. No movies. No woman. "I force my mind stay in neutral," Ngove says through broken English.

Ngove is from Kampot, Cambodia, a province south of Phnom Penh along the Gulf of Thailand. Though his parents are farmers, Ngove studied philosophy and became a monk. He arrived in the United States in Feb. 2007. And though he avoids American temptations, he's eager to assimilate: "I want to learn English," he says.

In a room next-door, two other recent immigrants, Waddanak and Sowattey Sem, pose for a photograph. They're here with their parents, who are visiting from Phnom Penh. Both siblings came to the United States for an education.

Waddanak came first, arriving in 1997 to study at Fullerton College in Orange County, Ca. Like for other immigrants, the transition was difficult for Waddanak, made worse by poor English.

"I couldn't find my class," said Waddanak of his first day at Fullerton. "I couldn't even make a phone call to get a ride because I had no change."

There were also financial troubles. Fullerton was more expensive than the family expected and Waddanak was forced to work nights. "It's lucky they have bumps in the road," he jokes, referring to the highway lane dividers that kept him awake while driving to class.

The burden eventually proved too much. Waddanak moved to Northern Virginia and transferred to Northern Virginia Community College. He then dropped-out in favor of lucrative work as an automobile mechanic.

In 2006, Waddanak was joined by his sister, Sowattey, who came to the United States to study for her MBA at Southeastern University.

The distance from home challenges Sowattey and she worries about her parents in Cambodia. "The war is over, but the country still has lots of rivalry," said Sowattey. "Cambodia society is not that safe."

She also struggles with the cultural challenges. "Life here is not that easy and sometimes so painful," she said. "It's such a fast growing and challenging society."

Despite the challenges, the two are forming roots in America. Waddanak is married to another Cambodian immigrant and has two boys. He takes the U.S. citizen test next month. As for Sowattey, she's getting good marks at Southeastern and has made American friends.

Still, there's homesickness and a desire to keep Cambodian culture alive in American. That's why they come to the temple and monastery in Silver Spring.

On Sunday, the basement of the temple hums with activity. Children wearing Av Noay. a traditional Cambodian dress, dance to classical Cambodian music. Families and neighbors gather to laugh and chat. Some snap pictures. It's a happy scene—a mixture of Cambodian and American cultures and identities; a blend of American-born youngsters and adults still assimilating.

But there's also pain here—shared pain from a difficult past that permeates the place. It's a pain that the children don't yet understand; a pain that the adults can't forget.

It's quite next door in the monastery. Wuu, the 2nd Minister, recalls his past and his homeland, which he hasn’t seen in 35 years. "Very sad," he mutters, deep in thought.

Monday, March 24, 2008

For Cambodian Americans, Returning Home is Unlikely

Though Cambodia's worst years are past, many Cambodian Americans who fled the tattered nation still aren’t ready to return. They may never be.
The reason is that Cambodia has still not healed from the wounds of the past. The mass-murder has ended, but poverty, corruption, crime, and memories continued to haunt the small Southeast Asia nation.
"When you live here you get a value," explained Poly Sam, 42, a Cambodian immigrant in Washington and survivor of the Khmer Rouge. "It's not a good time to take that value to Cambodia."
Others agree.
“It’s not that I don’t like my country,” explained Waddanak Sem, 32, a Cambodian-American living in Sterling. "If I go back I have no opportunity. There’s none for my kids, either. It’s just not a country for opportunity.”
Based upon the 2006 American Community Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that some 5,000 Cambodian Americans live in the Washington area. There's some 200,000 nationwide. Most arrived in the United States between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, fleeing a country wracked by five years of Khmer Rouge rule.
Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered, starved to death, or worked to death in the Communists’ efforts to create an agriculturally-based society. Particularly targeted were doctors, artists, intellectuals, teachers, and those with affiliations to the previous government. One-fifth of the country’s population perished.
"No Cambodian alive was not affected by the war," said Sovan Tun, the President of the Cambodian Buddhist Society in Silver Spring.
According to a 2005 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 90% of Cambodian Americans report having lost a family member or friend during the Khmer Rouge years.
As a result, many Cambodian immigrants in the United States don't have living relatives in Cambodia.
“Many have lost their family members and relatives,” said Hassan Kasem, 55, a Cambodian immigrant and broadcaster at Radio Free Asia in Washington. “There’s no reason to go back.”
Kasem is a former Huey pilot with the Khmer Republic, the U.S. backed government that preceded the Khmer Rouge. He’s also a Muslim Cham, a Cambodian ethnic minority that was particularly targeted by the Khmer Rouge.
Kasem lost his father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters to the Khmer Rouge. Ninety-thousand other Cham Muslims died during the period—over one-third of the Cambodian Cham population. The rest were dispersed.
Even those with family in Cambodia have a tough time returning.
“It’s a sad place to be because you were there,” said Poly Sam, also a broadcaster at Radio Free Asia.
Sam lost his brother, two brothers-in-law, and two nephews during Pol Pot’s rule. He arrived in the United States in 1983 after spending 3 years in a Thai refugee camp.
“Cambodians here get over the hump,” he explained. “Others in Cambodia have a survivor mentality. People are just trying to survive”
Victoria Yap, a Chinese Cambodian and U.S. citizen, said that there’s anger, too. “Some parents are fed-up,” she said. “They say, ‘I don’t want my kids to know about the past or speak the language.’”
Yap is one of the “boat people.” She and her family escaped Cambodia in 1975 to Vietnam, where five years later they sailed to Indonesia. Yap wants her kids to learn about the past.
“We want them to know,” she said of the children. “Unless they see it they won’t understand.”
The continued social problems in Cambodia also keep some refugees from returning.
“It’s very chaotic because of lack of enforcement of laws,” said Sam of current-day Phnom Penh. "There's lots of bribery, corruption. You get crooks, child molesters, murderers. Children are imported from Vietnam,” he said. “It's unsafe. You can't go out after eight pm.”
Sowattey Sem, 26, is studying for her MBA at Southeastern University on student visa. She fears for her parents back home in Phnom Penh.
"I miss them and worry about them," Sem said. "The big war is over, but the country has lots of rivalry; shootings. Cambodian society is not that safe."
According to the United Nations website, Cambodia is among the poorest nations in the world, with an estimated 36% of the population living in poverty. In rural areas of the country, the U.N. estimates the number is 40%. The country’s per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is just $438, also one of the world’s lowest.
"You'll see a $60,000 Lexus next to someone walking barefoot," said Sam of the income inequalities in Phnom Penh. "A five-star hotel next to shack. Factory workers get $50 per month and they send $10 to $15 to their parents in the countryside.”
Cambodia is also a difficult place for outsiders to do business.
Kasem, the former Huey pilot, returned to Cambodia in 1995 looking for business opportunities. He didn’t stay long. “I was not a successful businessman because I just can’t bribe everyone when I want to deal with them on business issues,” he explained.
Many Cambodian Americans also mistrust the Cambodian government, which is a Constitutional Monarchy with a King and Prime Minister.
“The King has the title of Head of the Country, but he does not have any real power,” said Jiahn-Yih Wuu, the 2nd Minister of Religious Ceremony at the Cambodian Buddhist Society in Silver Spring. Wuu arrived in the United States six months after the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. He hasn’t returned.
“The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, sold the wood from the country," he said, referring to the government’s plunder of Cambodia’s natural resources. “I'm very sad about that.”
There's also disgust among survivors over current government officials.
"The current government is run by a mixture of Hanoi-leaning former Communist officials, former Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadres and former royalist fighters," Kasem explained. "All of them were at one point of another in the same Communist school of thought.”
In recent years, with United Nations assistance, Cambodia has established courts to prosecute former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity.
But the process has been slow and frustrating. The trials have been over-budget, delayed, and hampered by procedural slowdowns. And there’s a heavy dose of hypocrisy: the current Cambodian government includes former Khmer Rouge leaders.
"The Khmer Rouge trial is a joke endorsed by culprits," Kasem said. "There are many more who are as guilty as the current leaders and who will never have to face their victims. This is a trial of selective prosecution."
Despite the reasons not to return, the draw of home is strong. Some hope to go back.
“I may go back when I retire,” said Sam, the radio broadcaster. Sam wants to give something back to the country that took so much. “Open a school. Teach English,” he said.
But many of the immigrants will likely not return. They’ve built lives and communities in the United States.
“Many have called the U.S. home—the place of rebirth—and to some degree are successful in life,” Kasem said.
And, many are American Citizens.
"Being American is a good thing," said Sam.
The children make it hard to leave too.
Kasem has two daughters, 22 and 27.
“My older daughter, a GMU grad, is working in D.C. with a lawyer placement firm,” Kasem said. “My younger daughter is on a short deployment—before a longer one—on USS Ronald Reagan.”