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  Volume I Issue II    Perspective    November,1998

 A Lost Identity among Cambodian-Americans
By Lina Saem

    The challenge most Cambodian-Americans face today is one of establishing an identity for themselves which is reflective of the two prevailing cultural values and norms that are key to the molding of who they are. Cambodian-Americans are beneficiaries of two cultures that often have diametrically opposing viewpoints in that Cambodian culture subscribes to the notion that a child's life is never really their own, whereas the American culture stresses the fostering of independence in a child and recognizes an adult child's capability to make a decision. Thus, Cambodian-Americans are forever questioning their own adulthood or more appropriately, the lack thereof.

    Unlike the mainstream American's emphasis on the esteemed commodity of individualism, parent-child relationships among Cambodian-Americans are complex; it is a web of interdependency that binds a child to his or her parents because of age-old customs and ideas of filial piety. The problem here rises when Cambodian-Americans live in an American culture, but are not part of it. They are, then, plagued by a "dual identity". This concept of filial piety may be foreign one to America, but its roots in Cambodian history run deep so deep that tracing its origins may be an impossible task as one cannot define being Cambodian without giving reference to the aforementioned theoretical construct. Many have conceptualized it as encompassing obedience, veneration and/or support. Some even acknowledge the existence of key components in defining what the term actually means. These components include providing the daily needs to parents, showing respect and glorification for parents and ancestors by one's achievements, obeying parents' wishes, and performing ancestral sacrifices. Unsurprisingly, the conduct of Cambodian children raised in America is constantly being questioned, and at times mocked, by their parents whose own ideas conform more to the "homeland" than with that of their "new world". The children are expected to display complete respect and obedience--a collective dynamic which is the key to maintaining harmony in the relationship among Cambodian-Americans family. This, however, is the problem: any act of "disobedience," such as opposing the acts of one's parents or making decisions without one's parents' insights, would be seen as an act of rebellion. A perfect example would be a young Cambodian-American daughter refusing to accept a marriage arranged by her parents. Consequently, she is never granted the opportunity of, and is in fact discouraged from, setting her own prerogatives.



    A second aspect of the differing customs involves the treatment of the elderly. For Cambodians, the adult children and other family members cared for elderly parents traditionally; public assistance was usually not called upon. For Cambodian parents, a child becomes a means of security in the sense that they will act as caretakers when the parents are ill and reach old age. In addition, they function as the "protector" in all aspects of life, ensuring that the health, happiness, and economic well being of the parents are safeguarded. It is at this juncture where we see an apparent role reversal in the Cambodian culture: the parent becomes dependent on the child.

    Another area of dissonance lies in the marked different definitions of success and achievement for the two cultures. The typical American outlook is one which embraces the idea that achievement is for personal gain. This meaning differs quite substantially from the Cambodian viewpoint that accomplishment is more of a public display for their parents. Whether a child attain success or failure, it is seen as proof of the parent's ability or inability to steer the child in the "right direction".

    In essence, although piety has long been a norm for the Cambodians living in Cambodia, its implications are misconstrued by their Cambodian-Americans counterparts. Caught in a middle of a relationship, this new generation of Cambodians struggle to maintain some sort of balance between independence and interdependency. Each decision heavily weighs the question, in one form or another, whether or not the establishment of one's owns identity will not somehow violate the identities of one's parents. The intertwining of a Cambodian child's sense of self to his or her parent's results in an identity crisis which perplexes the mind. Questions such as "what would my parents think if I date this person?" and "what would they say if I move out?" illustrate the power to which filial piety still holds on new generation of Cambodians. Thus, it can safely be said that the filial piety of Cambodian has managed to cross the oceans and to manifest itself into the culture of a Cambodian-American.

by Lian Saem, Student at USC

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