Southern California has one of the largest populations of Khmer people in the United States. The most well-known enclave is in Long Beach, on Anaheim Street, where Khmer script can be found on signs for business ranging from restaurants to jewelry stores to video rental shops. In 2007, after years of advocacy and activism, the area was officially designated as Cambodia Town. A lesser-known enclave is in Santa Ana, where Khmer New Year celebrations are held, a Khmer Buddhist temple may be found, and Khmer may be heard spoken in restaurants and markets.
I associate Long Beach with my mother’s side of the family, Santa Ana with my father’s side. These are associations I can only make loosely because I spent much of my childhood in Bellflower, my adolescence in Garden Grove, both of which are removed from the heart of the Khmer communities to which they are nearest. I grew up without Khmer friends and knew only one or two Khmers who were not family members. Our extended family is so large and closely-knit that it was not difficult to have family gatherings of a few dozen people who were all cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a family with such strong bonds.
I didn’t realize how insular my childhood was; I became so accustomed to being “the only one” whenever I wasn’t with family that I was more comfortable in a room with no Khmers than a room full of us. As I got older, it was revealed to me that the disconnection from our community was intentional: our parents wanted to make sure that we were close to each other rather than associate with other young Khmer people who might lead us into gang activity. In the context of the 1990s, I cannot fault my family for acting on their fears and for wanting to protect us, but I can identify their internalization of prejudice. And I can work to undo it.