Publication Date

April 2018


Jonathan Cutler




English (United States)


While I was growing up, I had a lot of difficulty conceptualizing my cultural identity. I knew that I was ethnically Chinese, but that my family came to the United States as refugees from Cambodia. Aside from the common struggle of a first-generation Asian-American trying to navigate their Asian heritage in an American environment, I struggled to understand, locate, and make sense of my cultural identity as a Chinese-Cambodian. Whenever people inquired about my ethnicity, I had a tendency to answer that I was Chinese, following with a contrasting interjection declaring my Cambodian affiliation. After my parents divorced and remarried, I learned of some major cultural and experiential differences between Chinese-Cambodians (Sino-Khmers) and Cambodians (Khmers) by living with my Khmer step-father, Sina. With Sina?s entirely Khmer background juxtaposed by my family?s Sino-Khmer background, I realized that we were barely Khmer at all. I noticed that in the blend of languages that my parents spoke, the words I did not fully understand were, in fact, Khmer; as children, we were never taught Khmer, only Teochew and English. My parents did not feel the need to pass down the Khmer language as my generation of Chinese-Americans had no need for it in America. The fact that my parents did not pass down chunks of Khmer culture, I think, is informative of which parts of themselves they deem most important to carry on into the next generation. When I asked my parents about their hard stance on passing their Chinese identity onto their children, they said, ?We are Chinese, so we come from China. Even in America and Cambodia we are Chinese? meaning that wherever we may be, our heritage is Chinese. We may assimilate to our new surroundings as migrants, but our roots will always be Chinese. Since the Chinese diaspora dispersed into Cambodia, the Sino-Khmer have clung to their Chinese roots while simultaneously integrating with their Khmer surroundings. Their ability to employ both identities have allowed Cambodia?s Chinese minority to excel in their dialectic areas of trade and professions; many of which were business and governmental. As a result, Sino-Khmer were able to rise as a minority elite that accumulated much opposition in Lon Nol?s Khmer Republic, Pol Pot?s Year Zero, the Vietnamese occupation, and so on. Still, the Sino-Khmer managed to endure in Cambodia and quickly recovered as refugees in the United States and elsewhere. The Sino-Khmer have struggled in claiming a full identity, however I believe that this grey state is both the access point that fuels their ability to propel forward along as their Achilles heel as they will always be marked as ?outsiders.? With the personal mission to understand my cultural position and ethnic history in Cambodia, my objective for this research project is to unravel the contested forms of identity and experience for Sino-Khmers throughout Cambodian history, up until their general recovery in the United States. This includes insight into: 1) Chinese migration and diasporic ties in order to comprehend the complexity of the networks that extend across nations and dialects. 2) The effects of French colonization as it pertains to the structure of education development and economic manipulation by Sino-Khmers. 3) An analysis of China?s circumstances in the Cold War and its influential role in Pol Pot?s Year Zero. 4) Vietnamese occupation which further spurred Sino-Khmer emigration. 5) The cultural differences among the Sino-Khmer and Khmer in order to understand its possible effects on the recovery process. 6) The role of Chinese networks in the refugee and recovery process. While this project will cover the history of Cambodia in depth, its main focus and use of my family?s personal stories is to highlight the political use of anti-Chinese sentiment and the resilience of one of Cambodia?s most important minority groups, the Chinese/Sino-Khmer.



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