It’s been a while since I last wrote. While most of it had to do with being caught up with the busyness of life, work, family and friends, there was more to my stagnant state of writing than that. That was half of the truth. The other truth was that I was hesitant to put my ideas, feelings and insecurities out there again for others to judge. I understand this comes with the territory in publishing my ideas publically.
In May 2014, I published a post about ‘Re-learning Khmer’ in which I wrote that as part of my time living in Cambodia, I was attempting to learn to read and write the language, something I never learned in a formal setting growing up in the U.S. I also admitted in the post that my spoken Khmer wasn’t where I’d like it to be, and that growing up in the U.S.—particularly in an area where there was a small Cambodian community—made it difficult to speak it often or learn it formally. My parents taught me as much as they could, but with wanting to assimilate in American culture, I had little desire to learn at the time.
After my post, most people who commented on my blog could relate, that they went through the same situation and saw themselves in my experience. Some however, criticized my lack of effort for not knowing my own language better, and even blamed my parents for not pushing harder. For the most part, it was a civil discourse, and I came away with the feeling that I wasn’t alone in my struggle. I didn’t feel judged. Then that changed...
A few months ago, someone sent me a private message and expressed deep contempt and disgust about not knowing how to speak my “own” language well. There was more to their message than this, but I won’t mention it because there is no point to publish hateful words. When I first saw this, I was angry and wanted to write back to this person just as vitriolic. But I realized that no matter what I wrote to him/her, whatever reasons I would try to justify my shortcomings as a “Khmer” person, and ask for understanding instead of judgment, would fail to change this person’s mind. They had already made up their mind that I was “less” of a Khmer person than they were because of this. I was a “white-wanna-be” in their words.
It is this sense of superiority that divides us within our own culture, and pushes each other down, instead of helping each other up. While this is not unique within our own culture, it is something I’ve only been exposed to recently. I never grew up in this kind of environment. These type of messages reveals the belief that some may have that if you are born to Khmer parents (raised in a different country of your origin), then you should be expected to speak, read and write Khmer fluently, no matter your situation. It exposes the mentality some have of exalting “Khmer pride” without really understanding what that means. I never thought that Khmer pride was something you had to constantly reaffirm to others. I always thought it was something you innately felt without having to say it.
So what does Khmer pride actually mean? What does it mean to the ones who claim it for themselves, yet demean others who feel just as proud to be Cambodian, but still recognizes their shortcomings, and are working on it? How many of those who claim Khmer pride have actually visited Cambodia, lived here, and given back to the country, or helped their local Khmer community? Khmer pride should mean unity, helping our Khmer brothers and sisters out regardless of whether they living in Cambodia or outside of it. Regardless if they speak it fluently or don’t speak it at all. Aren’t we all still Khmer, just in different ways? Don't we share the same history, tragedies, and overcome major obstacles? Our story is one of the same told by a different author, written in a different voice. But that voice is still told by someone who is Khmer.
The foundation of Khmer culture, language and our relationship with others is seeing each other as one community, as an extended family. In our culture, we are raised to respectfully call each other as if they are part of our family; auntie, uncle, grandfather, grandmother, sisters, brothers, even if they have no relation us. By virtue, they become our surrogate families when we are out in the community. Families help each other out. They support each other. A loving family does not judge, demean and demoralize.
We’ve had enough years of judgment, violence, hatred, and division among our people from the previous generation. Can we as a people, as a society, overcome the survival and egocentric mentality that creates barriers instead of bridges, the legacy that divides us still? You don't have to knock me down to raise yourself up. Let's rise up together. Only then can we be strong as a people, as a nation. My hope is that this generation, whether in Cambodia or in the diaspora, can help each other up, support each other through our journey, to build bridges, rather than to break them as we try to cross the next path in our collective history. What will the latter achieve but more hatred and division? There’s enough of that go around.
Let’s rebuild our family, our society. Let’s judge less, hate less, and rebuild trust in each other. Our country can only prosper when we mend and rebuild the roots for the next generation. Division only creates disaster. In the words Sok Visal, a Khmer-French film director, “Peace, Love and Unity.” That is what Khmer pride means to me. Let's spread more of that around.