How Generations of Cambodian Americans in Long Beach are Embracing Two Cultures

SPECIAL ISSUE

UPDATED: APR 29, 2019, 10:15 PM

JAMES CHOW | Daily 49er

The 1.5 and second generation of Cambodian Americans are finding new ways to retain their roots, while acclimating to the diverse Long Beach population.

Laura Som was just six years old when she was kidnapped and abandoned during one of the bloodiest atrocities in history: The Khmer Rouge. She saw her mother surrounded in a pool of her own blood, beaten to near death. Som was kidnapped and never saw her father again. She fainted, lost her memories and repressed her experiences of the Cambodian genocide until they recurred in her nightmares.

[From middle to right] Sreynedt Puth, Sreyneath Puth and Daren Chet pray during a Buddhist blessing. The three are volunteers who participated in the Lakhon Khol, a traditional masked theater genre.

[From middle to right] Sreynedt Puth, Sreyneath Puth and Daren Chet pray during a Buddhist blessing. The three are volunteers who participated in the Lakhon Khol, a traditional masked theater genre.

These experiences are not uncommon for the many Cambodians who lived through the genocide. In just four years of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of power, nearly two million people died as a result of mass executions, abuse, malnutrition and disease. The Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot’s regime lasted from 1975 to 1979 and obliterated approximately 25% of the country’s 1975 population.

Paul San, a Los Angeles resident, lived through the killing fields from ages 9 to 13. He still has dreams about it and likens his experience to Loung Ung, author of “First They Killed My Father.” To cope, San refocused his energy into education. He’s an engineer today. “Oh my God, it’s a nightmare,” San said. “When I was still young, I used to have nightmares, and as I get older, it became less.”

While each person has a different way of coping with the aftermath of the genocide, Long Beach’s MAYE Center looks to heal the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that permeates within the first generation Cambodian populace, while bringing them back to their roots. Som, who founded the center in 2014, said it works in a cyclical way. Its purpose is to integrate elder Cambodians to modern American life and to introduce the second generation to traditional Khmer lifestyles.

Laura Som – founder of The MAYE Center

Laura Som – founder of The MAYE Center

PAULA KILEY | Daily 49er

Laura Som, survivor of the Cambodian genocide and Founder of the MAYE Center, sits in the community garden surrounding the Center on East Anaheim Street.

The MAYE Center wishes to mirror households in Cambodia, according to Som. its garden boasts a sea of green Khmer and American vegetables and fruits, including a Java Plum Tree and four miracle trees over 20 years old. Som recalled seeing Cambodian gardens everywhere in the motherland and in Long Beach.

“When I was kidnapped and abandoned in the jungles, I realized there were people who have never been exposed to civilization … their entire life is based on gardening and farming and their education is actually from nature,” she said…


 
The MAYE Center