Khmer American: Identity and Moral Education in a Diasporic Community – SMITH-HEFNER (CSS)

SMITH-HEFNER, Nancy J. Khmer American: Identity and Moral Education in a Diasporic Community. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1999. 237p. Resenha de: HOFFMAN, George. Canadian Social Studies, v.35, n.1, 2000.

In Khmer American Nancy Smith-Hefner examines the movement of Cambodians, most of whom were refugees, into the United States. She provides a moving portrait of their trials and tribulations as they attempted to adjust and make their way in a new society. She shows that they faced many of the same challenges that earlier immigrant groups, such as the Irish, Germans, Poles, Italians and others, had faced. At the same time, however, because of their cultural background and the circumstances of their arrival, there are also important differences.

Smith-Hefner’s account is not a history of Cambodian Americans. Rather it is an anthropological study of the Khmer (because the overwhelming majority of Cambodians are ethnic Khmer, the terms Khmer and Cambodian are both used in the book in reference to the language and the people of Cambodia) refugees and their families who live in metropolitan Boston and some neighbouring cities of eastern Massachusetts. The story is told largely from the perspective of the parental generation of Khmer refugees.

Since 1979 approximately 152,000 Cambodians have settled in the United States. Today the Khmer population of Boston and surrounding area is about 25,000. The city of Lowell, north of Boston, is said to have the second largest Khmer population in the United States after Long Beach, California. Most of the refugees, upon whom Smith-Hefner’s study is based, fled the horror of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The experiences under Pol Pot’s murderous regime exacted a high toll on the Khmer. Many of Cambodian refugees in the Boston area spoke openly when interviewed of having personally witnessed torture, rape and killings.

Khmer American includes a discussion of the basic beliefs and practices of Buddhism which, the author states, is essential for understanding Khmer culture. Khmer child rearing practices are described with particular emphasis on the moral education of children. Smith-Hefner shows that these beliefs relate directly to the cultural discontinuities that Khmer children face in American schools. Cultural practices in regard to sexuality and marriage are also explained, including a fascinating account of a Khmer wedding. Through examining these various social processes, it is shown how acculturation occurred and how a reconstructed Khmer identity emerged in the United States during the 1990s.

Khmer American is a well-documented study. It is based on an impressive amount of published and unpublished material which is referred to in the notes and references at the end of the book. As well, Smith-Hefner spoke with members of the Khmer community in the Boston region. She allows people to speak for themselves by quoting at some length from these interviews. Many of the excerpts are moving and filled with human interest. The author’s knowledge of the Khmer language adds greatly to her work. There are frequent references to the Khmer language and how certain key words can best be translated into English. The book shows an understanding of both traditional Khmer culture and contemporary American society. As a result the study contributes substantially to an overall interpretation of the immigrant experience in twentieth century America.

Both because of the subject and the academic level, it is unlikely that Khmer American will be widely read by Canadian high school students. However, they would find parts of it interesting and understandable. The book refers to inter-generation conflict between parents and their children over such matters as respect for elders, religion, dating and arranged marriages — subjects on which Canadian teenagers no doubt would express strong opinions.

Certainly history and social studies teachers could usefully apply the book to their classes. It provides an excellent description of Buddhism and Khmer culture. It contains a case study of a relatively unassimilated ethnic group within a multicultural society. This could be compared with earlier immigrant groups or with those of different cultural backgrounds. Another approach would be to compare the American experience with the Canadian. How many Cambodians came to Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, and how has Khmer culture fared in Canada? Do the two experiences prove or disprove the theory of an American ‘melting pot’ and a Canadian ‘mosaic’? In conclusion, I strongly recommend Khmer American. It is a serious academic study of an important and interesting subject.

George Hoffman – Weyburn, Saskatchewan.

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