Cambodia’s history is rich and full of ancient wisdom. One of the most well-known eras is the Angkor Empire between about 800 and 1400 CE, which gave rise to in the magnificent Angkor Wat temples that still stand today.  This complex of temples is the largest religious structure in the world and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Cambodian kings of this time were seen as religious leaders, and were expected to ensure the fertility of the soil and the kingdom’s well-being by performing rituals.Clashes with Vietnamese and Siamese societies in the early 18th century resulted in the desire for a French protectorate which was established in 1863. The French protectorate was meant to provide support for Cambodia against the Siamese and Vietnamese who threatened to take reign.Tension continued to rise with the Japanese invasion of Cambodia in WWII, and later in America’s Vietnam War. The Khmer Rouge took reign in 1975 with the intention of reverting the country’s state back to its previous untouched culture and society. Over the next four years, the Khmer Rouge carried out a mass genocide of anyone who spoke a foreign language, wore glasses, and was a professional of almost any sort. This genocide was one of the darkest times in Cambodian history, and since its stop in 1979, the country has been led by coalition governments and supported with humanitarian aid. Here stems the motivation for immigration to the United States.After the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam in 1975 and the collapse of the Cambodian and Laotian governments, over two million refugees left Indochina for fear of Communist punishment. Refugees, as defined by the Refugee Act of 1980, are any people who are outside their country of nationality and are unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or fear of persecution that could be based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. An overwhelming number of refugees entered the United States during this time. Of all the Southeast Asian refugees immigrating between 1975-1994, sixty-six percent came from Vietnam, and thirteen percent came from Cambodia (Chhim, 1987).

Reasons and Conditions for Immigration to the US
The vast majority of American Cambodians immigrated to the United States as refugees fleeing the mass genocide that happened in the 1970s in Cambodia. Over 150,000 are expected to have fled to the US during that time, many from Vietnamese and Thai refugee camps (Everyculture). Most of this migration of was between 1975 and 1994, and people came mainly as refugees but also as immigrants and “humanitarian parolees” (Oxford). Over half settled in California with the largest concentration of Cambodians being in Long Beach. Many of these Cambodians had remained “newcomers” and had not gained citizenship by the early 1990s (Everyculture). Many of the refugees suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and had a very difficult time acculturating and fitting into American society.

Since many of the white and blue collar workers were killed off by the Khmer Rouge, women became the bread-winner of the household in the United States, a change of gender roles that is challenging for the home dynamic (Oxford). During the migration of refugees between 1975 and 1994, the American government wanted the incoming refugees to be spread out over the US, as opposed to causing a large burden on one community. This resulted in the Cambodian community spread thin across the US from Massachusetts to Long Beach, CA (Oxford).

According to Nang (interview), the hardest part of assimilations was, and still is, the language. Navigating complicated systems such as healthcare has proven to still be a challenge for her, despite the fact that she has been here for 8 years.

Teachers are regarded very highly and are treated with the utmost respect in Cambodia. Students are taught to stand up when a teacher enters and leaves a classroom, and children bow their heads to adults (Nary interview). Students are expected to keep as quiet as possible in order to promote a productive learning environment (Nguyen). When a student from a background such as this is put in an American school setting, one can imagine the implications of this. The student (adult or child) might come off as shy, ashamed, or too quiet. However, Cambodians are generally pleasant and eager students who are taught to have a great respect for their teachers.

Teachers of adults must be aware of the fact that many Cambodian adults who came as refugees from rural areas and perhaps didn’t finish elementary or high school. Additionally, Cambodian women tended to primarily be in domestic roles (Nguyen). These groups of adults may have little to no exposure to formal educational practices. This is relevant in a classroom setting where they may be alongside other students who have extensive training in formal education methods, albeit in a different language.

It is also important to consider the implications of a generation of refugees with relatively little education and a trauma-ridden past raising children in the US. The second generation has a much larger achievement gap to bridge than many other immigrants and US minorities. Some report not really talking to their parents, or feeling an absence, or being raised by friends or the ‘system’ (SCPR). This has resulted in high dropout rates, but also strong support groups for this generation.

Students who come from Cambodian schools are used to having lessons written for them on the board so that they can go home and study later.  Many expect to have summaries and lesson hand-outs (Nguyen).

The national language of Cambodia is Khmer. Cambodian is similar to English in that it is a non-tonal language. This means that even if pitch levels change, the meanings of the words do not change. Khmer is a monosyllabic language in which there are many polysyllabic words borrowed from Sanskrit, an old language of India. For over a century, the second language of choice among educated Cambodians was French, which is still spoken by many people who grew up before the 1970’s.

Khmer comes from the Mon-Khmer language family and has an alphabet that is derived from the Brahmi script of ancient India. Thai and Lao’s alphabets are derived from Khmer and are hence similar (Omniglot).

Khmer is an ‘isolating’ language, and hence has no verb tenses or agreement, making it very difficult for Khmer speakers to conjugate verbs in English. They might not add the –s as a third person present marker, or –ed for the past marker (Nguyen).

Even though the basic word order of English and Khmer is the same (Subject-Verb-Object), in Khmer the subject and object of a sentence can be omitted in obvious context. This is sometimes translated by Cambodians into English where a subject or object is dropped from a required place (Nguyen).

Due to differences in the phonemes of English and Khmer, a few common errors for Cambodian students learning English might be saying:

  • /s/ instead of ʃ
  • /z/ instead of ʈʃ
  • /s/ instead of Θ
  • /d/ instead of ð

Khmer also does not voice final consonants in words, so many students may drop these final consonants in English to produce /an/ instead of /and/, for example (Bounchan and Moore).

Cambodian names usually consist of two parts. There are no middle names in Cambodia. In a person’s name, the first part, their given family name is followed by the second part, their given name. Typically Cambodian’s first names have a meaning, i.e. a girl’s name may mean flowers. Cambodians are called by their given name, with or without a formal title, but not by their family name. The appearance of their family name is only used with their full name.

Values and Beliefs
Marriage is traditionally arranged by the parents, and emphasis is put on the benefit that each family will receive from the joining of the couple rather than romantic love (Everyculture). The domestic unit is usually nuclear, however, many couples live with their parents and/or grandparents. Traditionally, as the family grows, the house simply grows with it (Nary interview).

The most common religion in Cambodia is by far Buddhism. Cambodians hold Buddhism very closely to their identity. The implications of this on Cambodian society are very interesting. There is a common belief that one must make merit. Monks are given food and goods as an offering, and this creates a system of reciprocity with the “householders.” Consequently, this gives monks the time and ability to study and be free, and householders make merit by giving these offerings to the monks. This is thought to improve their chances of a better rebirth (Ledgerwood). These ceremonies can be seen on a day-to-day basis on street corners or near food markets. Buddhist monks are very prominent in society, and the Buddhist temple (wat) is the center of village life.

There is a lack of Khmer texts in Cambodia. Most were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years (Ledgerwood). One can only imagine the implications of this on Cambodian identity. This would significantly affect a Cambodian student’s ability to connect to their history and culture, and probably also have implications on their academic advancement. As a teacher of a Cambodian refugee in the US, or of a Cambodian refugee’s child, this may be good to keep in mind.

A Cambodian home also has various customs of interest. Feet are considered the lowest part of the body, and should never be shown to another person. When sitting on the floor, feet must be tucked away (Ethnomed). Shoes must be removed when entering someone’s home. Many families have a family business which is run from the home. Money, family, and business are usually mixed together and not separated.

Treatment of elders and authority figures in Cambodian society is interesting and has many implications for being around Cambodian children in the US. Elders are strictly respected. A child should not make eye contact with an elder on the street—they divert their gaze while passing by out of respect. Also, it is expected that a child bow his/her head when passing by an elder. The deeper the bow, the more respect is shown. Children are not allowed to test the authority of a teacher, parent, or boss. Obedience is valued (Ethnomed). When a child comes home from school, they are expected to verbally greet their parent and report about their day. This contrasts with American children who can come into the home and go about their business without necessarily acknowledging their parent (Nary interview).

Cambodians tend to smile and laugh in both positive and negative situations, which can be very confusing for someone from another culture. One must be careful to interpret their behavior one way or another, as this is very different from usual American expressions. Cambodians are also careful not to show or share inner feelings on their own well-being or mental health. There is a strong stigma against being deemed “crazy” (Ethnomed). If this carries through to Cambodian students in American classrooms, this would also have implications on the way a child acts in the classroom environment. If asked about a problem or difficulty they are having emotionally, they might not be as willing to share as their American counterparts. Nary and Nang both separately emphasized that many Cambodian students tend to be very quiet when learning to function in the American classroom.

Religion deeply influences Cambodians. For Cambodians the predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism. Buddhism, originating from Gautama Buddha in India in 563-483 BC, believes that man was born into the world to suffer caused by craving fame, power, wealth, leading to frustration and disappointment. In order to prevent oneself from suffering man must deny all cravings and live an honorable life. This idealized lifestyle is called the Eightfold Path and consists of having: right view, right thought, right conduct, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. Buddhists believe an individual’s fate is determined by their previous existence or present life path and that their soul will be reincarnated until they reach a level of enlightenment called Nirvana. Animism is also a very important part of their religious beliefs. Animism suggests that spirits inhabit every corner of the universe, even human beings. Overall, Cambodians beliefs are very similar to the Laotians in terms of close kinship systems of extended family, animist beliefs, Buddhism, and world views.

Cambodian food is closely related to the neighboring Thailand and Laos cuisine. Overall, Khmer cooking is similar to Thai food without spices. Rice is the principal staple and the Battambang region in Cambodia is the country’s rice bowl. Most Cambodian dishes are cooked in a wok.

Common Cambodian foods include stir fry noodles, curries, pork and rice, stir-fried beef, soups, and fish amok. Meals are heartier than other countries in the region, but tamer on spices.

Major Holidays
Khmer New Year: Celebrated on April 13 or 14, this holiday marks the end of the harvest season, and is considered to be the beginning of another year. City inhabitants return to their rural home towns for an entire week during this time to celebrate with family.

Water Festival: When the Tonle Sap river changes directions every year in November, there is a grand festival to mark this time. Phnom Penh is home to the celebrations where colorful boat races occur.

Pchum Ben: A holiday during the 15 day period in September and October when ancestors are thought to be active and near Earth. Cambodians bring offerings to pagodas, dress in white, and pray (Tourism Cambodia).

Other Traditions


Apsara dancing originated as a dance form for use within the courts of the royal palace (Tourism Cambodia). It is characterized by the dancers’ hands and feet bending back into surprising positions. It is still practiced today.

Cambodia Martial Arts are sophisticated and numerous. Styles include variants similar to kick boxing, using a staff, wrestling, and hand-to-hand combat (Tourism Cambodia).

Cultural Challenges
In Cambodia, parents consider it an important responsibility to help teach their children to honor, respect, and obey their elders. Children are not allowed to talk back to their parents or authority figures. This respect for authority is also extended to following the rules of society, laws, and appropriate behaviors. If these rules are broken a suitable punishment is given and the act is not to be repeated. This idea of learning from consequences has governed how Cambodians have raised their children. In America, however, children are not given strict consequences for their delinquent behaviors. They are encouraged to be outspoken, independent, and have more opportunities to disregard authority figures. A big concern of Cambodian parents is worrying about their child joining these groups or gangs. Since the immigrant parents have firmly established moral and religious beliefs and their children are learning conflicting messages between American and Cambodian cultures this can cause a lot of conflict within the household.

Chhim, S.H., Khamchong, L., & Huynh, D. T. (1987). Intro to Cambodian culture, Laos culturally speaking, and intro to Vietnamese culture. San Diego: Multifunctional Resource Center.

Ima, K. (1988). A handbook for professionals working with Southeast Asian delinquent and at risk youth. San Diego: Social Advocates for Youth.

Websites Worth Surfing
Southeast Asian Information:
This site offers facts, geography, and links to Cambodian websites.

Cambodian Classical Dance:
This site provides information and pictures about dances, costumes, and traditions.

Cambodian Cultural Profile:
This site offers more cultural information regarding Cambodian: language, nutrition, food, child rearing practices, and religious life.

Asian Educational Media Service:
This site offers a database with audio/visual resources on China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia.

Websites for Teachers
Khmer Language and Literacy Development:
This site provides program descriptions to be implemented in the classroom, language materials, and materials (in English) with information about Cambodia.

Ask Asia:
This site offers on-line sources for grades K-12 of Asian an Asian American studies.

Additional Reading
Coverdale, Linda. (Translator), Hamilton-Merritt and Szymusiak, Molyda. The Stones Cry Out: A Cambodian Childhood: 1975-1980 (Vietnam War Era Classics Series)

Him, Chanrithy. When Broken Glass Floats: Growing up under the Khmer Rouge.

St. Pierre, Stephanie. Teenage Refugees from Cambodia Speak Out (In their own voices).

Smith-Heffner, Nancy Joan. Khmer American: Identity and Moral Education in a Diasporic Community.