Ethnic and racial diversity is the epitome, if not one of the many of the United States’ cultural backdrops. The dominant ethnic groups that constitute this diversity are White/ European Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (inclusive of other Pacific Islanders). In line with most historical immigrations of people from around the world to the United States, but for the African Americans, economic, social, and political factors were the impetus.
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People from any of the cultures of Southeast Asia, the Far East and Indian Subcontinent constitute Asian ancestry/descent. China, Japan, Korea, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc. are Asiatic countries. With an estimated population of 18.2 million plus as of a 2011 census, Asian Americans have become the fasted growing ethnic group (Asian American Population: 2010 Census Briefs).
Among the U.S. Asian population, there are persons of Cambodian descent accounting to 276,667, 231.616 pure Cambodian and 45,051 are part Cambodian according to a 2010 Census (The Asian Population: 2010 Census Briefs). Their homeland, Cambodia or the Kingdom of Cambodia, is located in the southern portion of the Indochina Peninsula of Southeast Asia.
Thailand (northwest), Laos (north-east, Vietnam (east) and the Gulf of Thailand (southeast) are the bordering countries. Cambodia’s political, economic, and cultural nucleus is Phnom Penh, the largest city. Dating back to 802 A.D., Cambodia was originally the land of the Khmer people or the Khmer Empire, Khmer an Austroasiatic language greatly influenced by the Indo Aryan languages – Sanskrit and Pali. Khmer is the official language with Vietnamese as the second most commonly spoken.
Cambodian immigration to the U.S. prior to the 1970’s, was in large part due to wealthy Cambodian families sending their children abroad to matriculate in the educational system and/or government funded scholarship programs. The 19th and 20th century experienced an avalanche of war and genocide worldwide, a tragic testament to former President John F. Kennedy’s view that tyranny, poverty, disease, and were indeed the four major ills that plagued mankind and the universe itself.
It was during his brief and influential, yet tragic presidency that the early phases saw the Vietnam War commenced, which was one amongst the cadre of mass wars and destruction. A post Cold War era military conflict initiated by the French and concluding involvement by the U.S., the Vietnam War spanned twenty years (1955 -1975) with the fall and capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese.
The war’s far reaching ramifications affected Vietnam’s bordering countries of which Cambodia did not escape. It sparked major internal strife via three major events: the rise and fall of the ruling Khmer Rouge/the Communist Party of Cambodia led by Pol Pot (1967-1979), the Cambodian Civil War – Vietnam/Viet Cong against the Khmer
Rouge (1967 – 1975), and the Cambodian -Vietnamese War (1977 – 1991). Coinciding with the Khmer Rouge is the Cambodian Genocide. 2 million Cambodian lives were lost due to political executions, disease, forced labor, and a host of other ills.
These monumental events set in motion the massive exodus of Cambodians, starting in 1975, to the U.S. Large waves of Cambodians populated California (Long Beach, Fresno, Stocktonin, etc.), Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon. On the east coast, many Cambodians were resettled in Providence, Rhode Island and cities of Massachusetts (Lynn and Lowell) and in the Midwest (Cleveland, Ohio).
Leaving ones’ place of birth, primarily by choice, to live in a foreign country defines an immigrant. Escaping war, persecution, natural disaster, etc. as the momentum delineates a person as a refugee (Asian American Populations). Cambodian Americans hastily relegated to refugee status after 1975. The term refugee ensues connotations and perceptions that are mostly negative and with adverse effects:
Refugee identities are complex and formed not only by internal feelings, beliefs, ethnic and cultural traditions, but also by external factors, such as resettlement practices, forced migrant policies, cultural traditions and the economic, political and social conditions of his/her new host country. Over time, refugees undergo a complicated process of identity reformulation as a result of displacement (Barnett 1)
To be victimized by any circumstance is dehumanizing and even more detrimental is when the circumstances generate negative perceptions. The abovementioned upheavals in Cambodia surely impacted its people and would certainly pose the question – how can one truly believe in life and the quality thereof after witnessing such atrocities? (Asian American Populations).
The Khmer Rouge, etc. catapulted Cambodian Americans, however, into a stigma/negative and erroneous perception – a people that are poor, dark, dirty, pitiful, helpless, and hopeless.
Their rich history, culture, etc. negated and most importantly the fundamental respect that all human beings are afforded – to have a purposeful life, be treated with respect, and to contribute/be impactful. The Cambodian American plight is expounded upon in the 2007 PBS documentary Sentenced Home. Directed and written by independent filmmakers, Nicole Newnham and David Grabias, Sentenced Home was apart of documentary film series entitled “Independent Lens.”
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The documentary, following the lives of three young men, depicts the difficulties of assimilation for many Cambodians, past and present, but most importantly empha-sizes the detriments of the “external factors” as affirmed by Barnett above. A particular external factor is U.S. immigration/migration policies that have become a piranha and nemesis for many Cambodian Americans leading to deportation injustices.
The most effected is the second generation – those who came as infants, youngsters, or where born in the U.S. Difficulties assimilating compounded by no innate connection to and knowledge of their homeland caused hardships which in many instances led to criminal acts with the end result being deportation – a never ending spiral of displacement, degradation, and dehumanization.
Cambodians and Southeast Asians have historically suffered more oppression than other Asian groups in comparison to Asian groups. The refugees were never educated about the benefits of citizenship. Therefore, Cambodians and Southeast Asians have been deported fairly easily without due process of the law. Families have been split as a direct result of deportations (Graham, Li, Tronco, Truong, and Xi Jun 1)
The Cambodian American plight, along with other ethnic group adversities, puts a true human face on U.S. history (Asian American Populations). History is the mechanism through which the human experience is put into perspective and is a tool to measure success and failure.
The human face seen via the U.S.’s immigration policy is a face of good and evil. Bolstered by historical pride yet undermined by fear, diversity has not always been welcomed and valued promulgating one man’s heaven becomes another man’s hell. We can only surmise the end result if things do not change.
“Asian American Populations.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – United States Department of Health & Human Services. Web.
Barnett, Karl. 2013, “Feeling like an outsider: A Case Study of Refugee Identity in the Czech Republic,” New Issues in Refugee Research Paper No. 251, Web.
Graham, Ashley, Runxian Li, Deodor Tronco, Linda Truong and Xi Jun (John) Wu. “Southeast Asian (Cambodian American) Poverty Policy Memo.” Poverty and Asian Americans. Web.
“The Asian Population: 2010 Census Briefs.” The United States Census. Web.