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Coming to America Has Always Been a Dream of Some Cambodian Kids

By: Norbert Klein Posted: December-14-2010 in
Norbert Klein

The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 695

Coming to the United States of America has always been a dream of some Cambodian kids back home. Every year, many Cambodians sort out various ways to come and reside legally in the USA. And that makes me wonder why more and more people, except for Cambodian students who come here for studies, are willing to leave their home country and comfort zone for a completely new place, environment, and life. What does the USA have to offer? Countless things, many can argue for.

Having come to Washington D.C., the capital of the United States of America, to participate in a seminar for journalists at the Population Reference Bureau on reproductive health for a week, I gladly learnt so many important things about challenges facing women living in developing countries, such as maternal mortality, lack of information on effective contraception and whether the necessary means are available and under which conditions, and gender issues. Besides the seminar I took, everything else in Washington D.C., from traffic to services in restaurants, is systematically run with respect and a lot of discipline.

You wouldn’t expect a car to run over a passenger at all in the USA. Mostly cars will stop for you to walk on a pedestrian crossing to the other side of the road, sometimes even when the light is green for them, they’ll stop for you if you insist on going. When I saw this, I felt for my country where traffic fatality rates run high, even up to four or five people being killed every day in a traffic accidents. As a result, millions of dollars are wasted every year in accidents where a countless number of lives are lost for unnecessary causes. The thing to notice in Washington D.C. was that from place to place, there are very specific and easy-to-understand signs for drivers and passengers, so that the people would not get mixed-up. Apart from road signs, I observed that houses were organized with correct numbers in which 26 is close to 27. In Cambodia, especially in the capital Phnom Penh, don’t expect to find house number 26 close to 27.

As a journalist for several years, I have learnt one important skill: to always leave 30 minutes before the actual time of an appointment to find a certain place in Phnom Penh, because what you see isn’t what you’ll get. After the civil war that consumed nearly four years, things were messed up, and people started to settle down in places they could readily find. I was told that early on people just picked any house number they liked. This later on causes a lot of confusion and economic loss such as time and money, when one tries to go to a certain place, particularly when given a house number or an address that does not work out the way one anticipates.

As for the services in restaurants, I as a foreigner have to remind myself to leave a tip from 15% to 20% of the actual cost of my food. I sometimes joke with my friends here that the USA is run by the tip system. But I think it’s very good to have a system of giving tips to waiters or waitresses, considering the not high monthly salary people receive who serve at the tables. I can understand that it is a system that helps each other live decently.

What upset me while I was in Washington was the fact that there was not one Cambodian restaurant nearby – or maybe I did not make enough efforts to find one there? In the meantime, Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants are assumed to be everywhere in Washington, and their recipes are pretty popular with the locals. One day, I happened to meet a Cambodian girl who came and settled in Washington already for nearly six years. I first mistook her for a Nepali, because she was waiting tables in the Nepali restaurant I visited. She told me that there was no single Khmer restaurant in Washington, but only in California, or if there were any, they probably would not be named “Khmer Restaurant.” The reason was that people could not expect much from a Khmer restaurant. Until now I have been told many unkind or heart-breaking stories about Cambodian-Americans’ life and attitude. Many Cambodians left for the USA right after the Khmer Rouge regime had collapsed. Some others followed a few years after that. There were more than several incidences that I was told a lot about Cambodian-Americans who moved here to the USA long ago that they are unkind and easily look down on newcomers, especially the ones from Cambodia.

“They enjoy the benefits or exploit the welfare system,” a friend, whom I met in Washington, said. Some have gone so far as to make welfare officers believe that they are disabled, to avoid hard work in the land full of opportunities to dream. Despite all these, I do not want to make a generalization about every Cambodian-American citizen I have met here. A few days after I arrived in Washington, I was contacted by a woman who introduced herself as DL. DL has lived in Virginia for nearly six years, and she has prospered in the land of her dreams, as far as I have observed. She has brought her parents to live with her in the USA, and in addition, all her sisters, but not her youngest brother, are now residing in the USA. DL contacted me through Facebook, and asked me to come over to her mother’s birthday party. I felt concerned with all the stories I had been told in relation to the attitudes of “Khmer-Americans.”

The lesson that I learnt from school “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” really worked. The different Khmer families I met during the birthday party were really friendly and down-to-earth, but they, in fact, were also complaining about Khmer families who settled in the USA before them, that they were arrogant, and ready to ignore their fellow nationals. One would expect that after the war, the whole nation would be united as one, but sometimes things turn out differently as this case reveals. The main function of a war is to destroy, and to put together the broken pieces of glass of a vase, once it is broken, takes a lot of time, efforts, and actions to build a strong country like the United States of America.

This article was first published by The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 695 – Tuesday, 14.12.2010
Have a look at the last editorial - you can access it directly from the main page of The Mirror.

Norbert Klein is the Editor of The Mirror – The Mirror is a daily comprehensive summary and translation of the major Khmer language press - More about The Mirror

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