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A Cambodian Monk on Identity in New York City

29 March 2016

Julia Feigen, a former intern at MRG, looks at culture and assimilation in her hometown.

The concept of emigrating to the United States is as romantic as it is difficult. American media and politicians flood the discourse on American identity with mantras of liberty, freedom, equality and success, drawing people to American shores. The United States is fondly referred to as a nation of immigrants and even the thornier ‘melting pot of the world.’ But what does it mean to successfully ‘melt’? Is this melting, or assimilation, beneficial, or does it denigrate individual cultures into a diluted mixture of them all? While the problematic nature of cultural assimilation affects all immigrant groups, the unique history and culture of Cambodia render its immigrants to the United States exceptional in many ways.

Filled with complexity and beauty, Cambodian history has been profoundly tainted by tragedy. The 1970s genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge left roughly 2 million Cambodians dead in an attempt to destroy the preceding Cambodian government, society, culture and way of life. Cambodia’s issues with its government originated long before the emergence of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s leader.  Throughout the Khmer Empire, originating in the ninth century CE, royal court positions were bought and sold regardless of merit, no schools were built, citizens were subject to military conscription at any time, and the government collected over 10 per cent of each farmer’s harvest. Government officials accumulated personal wealth rather than served the people. The very etymology of the Khmer verb to govern, suggests the former, for it immediately translates as, ‘to eat the kingdom.’

So how much of this painful history does one bring over to the self-proclaimed ‘Land of the Free and Home of the Brave’? I spoke with local Cambodian monk and leader, Kandaal Pheach, to see how he handled his country’s troubled past while living within the diverse microcosm of New York City.

Pheach, who came to New York City in 2001, is the head monk at the temple Wat Jotanaram, centrally located near New York City’s Fordham University in the Bronx. Amidst the collegiate buildings of the campus, this house of worship stands out with its high white gates and Cambodian flags. The inside of the temple is vibrantly decorated with golden statues of Buddha and other brightly-colored devotional objects in a small shrine. Photographs of different monks, many of whom, Pheach says, died in the Genocide, plaster the walls.

Pheach believes that the preservation of Cambodian heritage through knowledge of its history is vital both to him and to the Bronx-based community he serves.  He explains that he felt Cambodian immigrants increasingly struggle with how and whether to tell their American-born children about Cambodia’s history. Pheach adds that he knew this omission of the past comes out of a sense of parental protection, and he says that parents ‘want to forget, so they can give freedom to their kids.’ However, Pheach says that no one can forget that the consequences of Cambodia’s past are unavoidable, for ‘the parent’s problems from the war drive their life. And the problems pass from parents to children. In what they live [through] every day, their kids are affected. They may try to hide those problems, but the problems are their life. And they can’t keep their life from their children.’ These ‘problems’ Pheach refers to range anywhere from poverty to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of PTSD plague roughly 40 per cent of Cambodians, according to Chhim Sotheara, the Cambodian psychiatrist consulted during several of the recent Khmer Rouge trials (and as cited in a 2007 study by Pheach encourages parents to explain the past to their children to strengthen their Cambodian identity, either through visits to Buddhist temples such as Wat Jotanaram or through other means.

Pheach explains that Cambodia’s current events still provide pain and anxiety for Cambodian immigrants. He voiced his qualms with the current government: the controversial leadership of Hun Sen and the continuing dominance of the Cambodian People’s Party. As the families of many immigrants are still living in Cambodia, political decisions made back home have a direct impact and can add stress to their lives in the United States. Some of Sen’s decisions made over his 30 years in power include his blatant disregard for fair and free elections, and his violations of international human rights conventions, despite ratification by his government. Pheach thinks these events create so much pain for him and his community, because ‘most of the time we live as Cambodians, we speak Khmer, eat Cambodian food, and wear Cambodian clothes, so what happens there always hurts here. It makes many feel sad, and sometimes hopeless.’ Pheach says that feeling so far away from but so involved in the pain of their family members and neighbors helps cement the barrier between their ‘two lives: one Cambodian and one American.’

When I directly asked Pheach how he felt about becoming an American, he curtly responded, ‘I live here, but my life is not American.’ He explained to me that many Cambodians buy into the aforementioned American exceptionalism broadcast in the mainstream media. He says, ‘Americans like talking about all the blessings in their culture, never the suffering. Everything seems positive: the freedom, the independence.’ While this encouraging language appeals to many Cambodians, it lies in stark contrast to their own culture. Pheach adds, ‘We as Cambodians rely on stories of the past, but so many of these stories are about sadness. We want to understand what our grandparents went through.’ Throughout the course of the interview Pheach indicated that the equilibrium between American ideals and Cambodian history is extremely difficult to maintain. While prejudice against ethnic communities has long threatened the success of the American melting pot ideal, Pheach notably refrained from mentioning any such discrimination he felt while living in the United States. He ended this part of our conversation by saying, ‘I don’t feel American at all.’

However Pheach, like many Cambodian immigrants, remains hopeful. He believes that the key to a happy, integrated Cambodian community is through communication with other Americans. His dream is to launch meaningful discourse between different communities within the Bronx, stating that, ‘If we have some kind of policy to make people understand each other more and more, especially our neighbors, everything would be better.’ So what does Kandaal Pheach’s perfect melting pot look like? In fact, it seems melting plays no role at all. What Pheach’s hope is that the Cambodian community will retain a deep connection to their heritage, unthreatened by assimilation, but also obtain a meaningful sense of interconnectedness with the community at large.

Photo: Wat Jotanaram