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The Cambodian Diaspora

Community Building in America

Phnom Penh Supermarket (angkorianboy/Flickr)

Phnom Penh Supermarket (angkorianboy/Flickr)

Community Building in America
With increased visibility, hence interest, community initiatives for the preservation of the arts have also received greater support from funding institutions. While attention continues largely to be directed towards development in Cambodia, this momentum has also cast a new focus on Cambodian-American initiatives to preserve the arts in diaspora. With enhanced possibilities, various community programs have now acquired a transnational dimension. Where previously confined to resources available to the Cambodian American community, many now include some form of exchange with Cambodia. Various communities have been successful in recruiting dance and music teachers from Cambodia,and have, in turn, organized return visits for newly trained Cambodian American artists for short-term training in Phnom-Penh. Well-publicized programs such as the Khmer Arts Festival in Chicago and Washington well as the annual Water Festival in Lowell, which invariably draws thousands of attendees, at test to the significance of these critical transnational links that have been forged and sustained.

On any given weekend, in places such as Long Beach and Lowell, it is not uncommon to see students seated in make-shift classrooms in the local temples or community centers, assiduously taking Khmer language lessons or practicing traditional dance and music. Elsewhere, in neighborhood markets, young Cambodian-Americans, peruse the stock of cross-border productions of videos and CDs, drawn to them by a certainin tangible but undeniable force. When asked to describe the appeal, a young Cambodian American reflected: “ I am not sure what it is. I don’t really understand the words. But there is something about the music, the sound. Outside I am American, but the music, it speaks to my Khmersoul.” At a nearby Buddhist wat, the sound of religious chantsco-mingles with the chaos and confusion of the inner city neighborhood.Here and elsewhere, a community struggles to reconstitute and claim its place in America’s pluralistic society, anchoring itself to that insistent call of tradition, seeking to drown out the cacophony of displacement and rupture.

No one understands in America
The stories my grandmother told me
when I was very, very young.
Nobody cares about the spirits of soil and water
Or even the Khmer, Laos, sacred dances.

The king of Angkor, Preah Kit Mealea, sees me dance
Between the pain of my world and the pleasure
of the spiritual world.
I am white, very white. I am invisible. Now I am serene.
See me dance and hear the spirits as they call.
Feel the tranquility inside the community life we called
neighborhood, they call ghetto.

Now the feast of salutation to the moon.
The music and songs continue. Can you hear them?
I dance all night. I dance all night for you.
We play Chhoung and I dance and dance.

No one understands these things in my new land.
No one cares about the light.
Only the darkness.

-Cambodian-American girl (written at 17 years of age)