For the past six months, the 2017-2018 IE fellows have engaged with and immersed themselves in four different immigrant/refugee communities within the Puget Sound area. In this issue, they write from the perspective of their communities on the concept and practice of how their community communicates and what value systems influence how they communicate. Bunthay Cheam is covering the Cambodian American community. The IE’s Advocacy Journalism Fellowship Program has been made possible by a partnership with Asian Pacific Islander Community Leadership Foundation (ACLF) and funding from the Seattle Foundation.
How does the Seattle area’s Cambodian American community communicate? How does word get around? If you wanted to know current events in the local community or make contact with a particular person within the community, where do you start?
When thinking of how news travels in the Cambodian American community, some additional variables need to be considered.
While Cambodian Americans are a people of many different faiths, Theravada Buddhism and Khmer culture are closely intertwined, with Buddhism dating back to at least the times of the Angkor Empire which existed between the 9th and 15th century. A 2007 International Freedom of Religion report conducted by the U.S. State Department report notes that over 93 percent of the population of Cambodia identifies as Buddhist.
In many communities in Cambodia, the temple plays an integral role in daily life. Many social functions and transactions are facilitated by the temple through ceremony. For example, weddings are usually presided over by monks. Likewise, funerals are overseen by monks as well who help facilitate a transfer of one’s spirit from this life to the next. (Many Cambodians of the Buddhist faith believe in reincarnation.)
When Cambodian communities began springing up in U.S. cities following their arrival in the 1980s, one of the first orders of many of these communities was to begin establishing places of worship to help provide some semblance of life back in Cambodia. And just like back in Cambodia, daily life today is intricately linked to the temple, becoming a de-facto community center.
“Traditionally…communication is through word of mouth, through the temple,” says Pakun Sin, Chair of the Cambodian American Community Council of Washington.
When looking at communication styles within the Cambodian American community, it’s important to recognize a communications divide.
Although many Cambodian Americans commonly communicate through text and email and and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, there is a segment of the population that is not literate in digital media or don’t have access to devices like phones or computers. Nor are they able to understand English well.
A recent Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC) report found that 12.6 percent of Cambodian American families in Washington state live below the poverty line compared to the state average of 8.2 percent. And 40.5 percent of Cambodian American families speak English less than very well compared with the overall state average of 8 percent.
This income inequality and the language barrier some in the community face lead to severe digital access issues, leading some to rely on the more traditional modes communication.
Take weddings, for instance. In the American tradition, wedding invitations are sometimes sent via email or regular mail. An expectation is that you send the wedding invitations out and some time later you get a reply stating if the invited guest will attend and if they’re bringing a plus-one. You take this information and log it into your planning so you can accurately account for how many guests will attend so you can budget accordingly.
Within the elder generation of Cambodian Americans, however, the expectation of guests replying with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is sometimes not even an expectation. These days, many younger Cambodian Americans plan for and track two separate guest lists; one for their guests and one for their parents’ guests.
When I got married some years ago, I did just this. I created two guest lists; one for those I wanted to invite and one for my parents guests.
I remember asking my mother who she would like to invite. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” she replied. She then reached for her rolodex and picked up the phone to began dialing. On the day of the wedding, we had 30 extra guests that I didn’t know were coming.
“In the old country… the mailing system didn’t exist in Cambodia, said Pakun Sin. So people would literally walk or drive to people’s houses… and hand out invitations. That’s it. Most of the time, you get a verbal response but you just never know.”
Both the issues of wanting to hold on to tradition coupled with language barriers and lack of access to digital modes of communication helps explain why some in the community, especially older Cambodian, continue to rely on the old fashioned way of communicating.
The traditional setting for a wedding in America versus Cambodia also factors in to the formality of communicating whether or not one will attend a wedding. “Unlike here in America, where you have receptions at restaurants, back in Cambodia, you either had it at a home or at the temple. So we didn’t have to have a specific number of guests to communicate to the restaurant. Whoever heard of the wedding could come, and we would always have enough to eat and drink,” my mother added.