Cambodian community looks to keep Khmer traditions alive for youth

05/07/2014 12:00 AM

05/06/2014 12:33 PM

“This is actually the event that I look forward to the most all year. … It just brings people happiness.” Emmy Power, an eighth-grade student at Hart Ransom, explains her family’s celebration of Khmer New Year, which took place at the grounds of Modesto’s Wat Khmer last month.

The festivities included booths selling traditional Khmer food and arts, religious and cultural ceremonies welcoming the new year, and live performances from the Khmer Youth of Modesto Dance Troupe, as well as Duntrey Sroksreh, a musical group that plays a Khmer variant of ’50s rock ’n’ roll, a genre popular in Cambodia.

For Modesto’s Cambodian community, the April 11-13 New Year celebration brought an extra source of joy, as it heralded the groundbreaking ceremony of a new Sala Chan, or worship hall, which occurred two weeks later. The Sala Chan will serve both as a temple and cultural center.

The local Khmer community hopes to use the Sala Chan as a place for its young people to learn about and be able to carry on Cambodia’s rich cultural tradition. Leng Power, Emmy’s mother, says, “Part of the efforts of expanding is to be able to conduct a cultural center, so people can come for spiritual nourishment, and also for literacy. … For our community, it means being able to preserve our culture through language schools, dance instruction, and just through learning the history of what it means to be Cambodian, not only here, but learning what it means to be Cambodian anywhere.”

As the older generation of Cambodian immigrants, many of whom came to the Unite States as refugees following the horrific years of the Khmer Rouge, begins to age, the local community seeks to put an emphasis on instilling its culture and values into its younger generation. K.C. Chan, one of the community leaders and a teacher with Modesto City Schools, explains the sense of urgency felt about the temple’s construction.

“Our elders are dying on us. If we don’t do anything right now, the arts and our culture will disappear one day, and that is a scary thought for many of us. … This Sala Chan will allow us to hold conversational Khmer classes for our youth, since many of them can’t even communicate with their elders. It will allow us to hold performing arts classes so our young people can carry on our culture.”

Plight in Cambodia

Ry Kea, who serves as president of the Northern California chapter of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, stood inside the small portable building that has served as the community’s meeting place since 2008. As ceremonial drums beat in the new year’s procession outside, Kea spoke of the political importance of having a center for education in encouraging the community’s youth to maintain their culture.

“We are trying to get the youth involved, but the youth need to understand first, before they can help. To educate them is tough. They can search through social media, such as Facebook and the Internet, but they want to hear, and listen, and ask questions to the real leaders. … I’m trying to get some youth organizations going … and now, as people start to know more and more, they’re coming forward to help. The youth need to understand in order to appreciate what we’re doing.

“Our long-term goal is to expand and strengthen,” Kea continued. “We want to expand from the older generation to the youth. And to strengthen, we need to keep them informed, provide them with lots of information so they can make good decisions. So after they understand what we’re trying to do, then they’re going to call other youth or communicate through Facebook and social media, and spread our message.”

The Cambodia National Rescue Party is the main force of opposition against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in Cambodia. The Cambodian People’s Party, a remnant of the aggressive Soviet and Vietnamese expansionism in Southeast Asia, has remained the dominant political force in Cambodia since 1979. Its primary public figure, Hun Sen, has remained in the office of prime minister since 1985.

“It is so devastating to see the poor cry because of the land grabbing and the abuse of power by Hun Sen’s government … ,” Kea said. “All the forced evictions, the corruption, the injustice.”

The American chapters of the CNRP focus on raising funds and awareness for the plight of its Cambodian parent organization. They have held demonstrations in Sacramento and San Francisco in an attempt to bring attention to the perceived injustices and corruption surrounding the Cambodian People’s Party’s reign.

The party’s reign, according to Kea, threatens the very center of Khmer culture itself. “Our culture’s like a tree. And the main root that goes down is in Cambodia. The outside roots, those aren’t the strongest ones. And the youth here are like the outside roots. … If the core, the main root, is destroyed, the tree won’t survive. There won’t be enough to keep that tree going.”

‘Khmer for real’

For many Cambodian youths, however, keeping their culture alive here in the United States is challenging enough. Khmer Maintain is a new clothing brand that seeks to bring a source of identity to Khmer young people living here. For speakers of the Khmer language, “maintain” has a dual meaning. When spoken, it sounds similar to the Khmer term meaning “for real.”

Jeep Touch, who was running the clothing line’s booth at the Modesto new year festival, explains the brand’s mission. “The brand is called Khmer Maintain. … Khmer Maintain, for Cambodians, means ‘Khmer for real.’ and in English, ‘maintain’ means keeping our Khmer culture. … It’s a way of life. We’re trying to do this so that more young people are into the culture. And at the same time, it’s fashionable.”

Leng Power expounds on the importance of finding one’s cultural identity.

“Someone’s journey to a cultural identity is always a process. It was a process for me.”

Leng tells how she and her daughters sought to maintain their own Khmer cultural identity.

“It was at their own showing of interest, and me wanting to instill who I am, and who they are a part of. I also feel like with each generation, we run the risk of losing that very important piece. Especially since the community here is small … there are not a lot of pockets of Cambodian communities in the United States, so being able to congregate together to have a shared identity is something we definitely want to perpetuate and preserve.”

Both K.C. Chan’s and Leng Power’s children performed with the Khmer Youth of Modesto Dance Troupe. “I think it makes me really unique,” Emmy Power said. “It’s important because the traditions are not well practiced, so to keep the culture living, we need to practice it. … The more we practice it, the more of it will survive for future generations. We wouldn’t be able to have events like this if the culture had died out. It brings a sense of unity to ourselves.”

Building a challenge

The process of building the Sala Chan has been a journey, as well. Since the purchase of the land in 2008, the community has met with bureaucratic sluggishness and cultural ignorance from neighbors of the project. . “Fast-forward from 2008 to 2014, and we are just breaking ground,” said Leng Power. “The challenges included opposition from the neighbors, due to not really being educated on what the temple would mean. They thought that our new years would include fireworks, they thought that the temple would be huge and not aesthetically match the landscape.”

Fireworks in new year’s celebrations are a Chinese tradition, and not present in Khmer culture. “I was pretty disappointed about that” reaction from neighbors, added Power. “There were some compromises made, because we want to be seen as harmonious, and we want to be welcomed. But above all, we just want a place for our community.”

The community, says KC Chan, is excited to finally have the space necessary to hold its events, religious ceremonies and cultural studies. “We all feel so blessed to have amazing volunteers who work so hard to make events happen for the community. … We all do it for the community to keep everyone connected and involved in positive activities.”

Said Ry Kea, “My message to the youth is this: You need to preserve our culture, and carry it on, because our generation is dying out. So now it is time for them to take their turn.”

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