Inching toward acceptance

Le Petite Café, where I get my favorite French baguette sandwich, is a small, family-owned restaurant in an enclave of real estate agencies, cell phone providers, and medical offices at Pailin Plaza, the Cambodian business district on Middlesex Street. At lunchtime, I often gather among my fellow Cambodians, men and women of various ages. I stick my head into the kitchen to order from the cook, whom I call Auntie. I have become her favorite customer, as if I were her real nephew. Her husband, who waits tables, entertains his guests by playing karaoke music and videotapes of trips he’s taken to the old country. He likes to rant about how corrupt the current government is over there and how Cambodian youth here have strayed from their culture.

I nod and
pretend to listen.

This is as close to Cambodia as it gets.

Lowell is now
my home.

I nod my head and pretend to listen. For me, this is as close to Cambodia as it gets. Lowell is now my home. Its mills and cobblestones have covered my cerebral images of rice paddies and flooded plains in my village.

Lowell is home to the largest population of Cambodian immigrants in Massachusetts and the second largest in the United States after Long Beach, Calif. According to the 2000 census, Asians and Pacific Islanders make up 16.5 percent of the city’s population of 105,167 people, and the largest group of Asians is Cambodian. Like other immigrants who arrived here before us, we fled to Lowell to escape poverty and famine. But we also suffered physical and psychological torture, even genocide.

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed close to two million of its own people. The Maoist regime stripped us of our property, culture, religion, and trust for each other. Like most families, mine was broken apart. I was sent to a child labor camp, where I was told it was a crime to miss my own mother. Angka, which means the state, was now my parent. My eldest brother and his whole family were executed. At the age of seven, I nearly died of starvation. The Khmer Rouge put me and the other children to work digging irrigation canals from five in the morning to seven at night. In the evening, after giving us a ladle of rice porridge, they made us sit through propaganda meetings, cheering to the glory of angka. By the time we were freed from the iron grip of the Khmer Rouge–by Vietnamese invasion, of all things–in 1979, my stomach was larger than my head, my arms and legs were all bone, and I could hardly walk. It was a miracle that I survived at all. Living now in America, a country with great abundance, I still remember hunger as if it was yesterday, and I think of my relatives in Cambodia, who remain in dire poverty.

Some Cambodians in Lowell live in poverty as well. Some work two or three jobs to make ends meet. They live on the margin as the poorest of the poor. We may be safe from the violence of the Khmer Rouge, but we are not immune to the social and economic violence of America. Prejudice, language barriers, lack of education, social isolation, depression, and intergenerational conflicts have shattered the paradise we envisioned in the United States. For a while, Lowell became known for fearsome Asian gangs formed by youths unable to cope with cultural identity issues and the sheer struggle for survival. Households headed by single females were and still are the norm. Addiction to gambling, smoking, and alcohol breaks families apart and sends children running toward the love that gangs and peer groups provide.

Our struggles are sometimes difficult for Lowell’s white community to understand. Some descendants of Greek, Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants have been kind and accepting. But others are resentful that we are here, living among them, even though their own grandparents must have been scorned in an earlier day.

My professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, who came here as a Greek immigrant at a young age, told me about a Greek-American man who criticized the crowded nature of Cambodian homes, saying that we sleep in packs, like sheep. My professor reminded him that when Greeks first arrived in Lowell, they did the same thing, living in crowded apartments with extended family members.

For those of us who came from the countryside of Cambodia, this was no hardship. We were used to sleeping on mats in small, thatched houses. Here, we did the same, with 10 children or more sleeping on the floor in the same room. Eventually, some people managed to save enough money to buy homes of their own, even when it meant enduring a winter without heat. But that was 20 years ago, when housing was cheap and jobs were more readily available than today. There was assembly work, sewing, even picking fruit and vegetables. Some Cambodians saw opportunities to start their own businesses. Soon, Cambodians from other American cities came to Lowell in search of jobs, friends, educational opportunity, and a sense of community.

This sense of community was often our only defense against the indifference, if not the hostility, of others. Because of our physical differences, we live with the feeling that we are outsiders. We have almond-shaped eyes, straight black hair, and dark complexions. We speak a non-European language and share a culture that seems strange to our new neighbors. Even children who are born here speaking English without an accent will have to face the scrutiny that comes with being an outsider.

City officials have recently begun to praise Southeast Asians for contributing to the city’s economic development, but that contribution actually stretches back 20 years. When we moved into the city and began to buy houses, we helped to revitalize many neighborhoods that were depressed in the 1970s, and formed a business district of our own. Merchants put up Cambodian-language signs and sold the jewelry, vegetables, and fruit of Southeast Asia. Some people opened legal offices, as well as travel and insurance agencies. Others opened restaurants that served rice soup and noodles, as well as grilled tilapia and other dishes that are now becoming familiar to non-Cambodians. The Angkor Dance Troupe has won national recognition, and the annual Southeast Asian Water Festival and New Year celebrations bring thousands of people to Lowell each year. Our culture contributed to Lowell’s designation, in 1999, as an All-America City.

Our community is also making an institutional mark on the city. The Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association has made the 80,000-square-foot Hamilton Mill on Jackson Street, donated by the Courier Corp., a social service center for Cambodians and other needy populations. There are plans to turn the former mill into a multipurpose resource, with a function hall, a museum, a library, classrooms, a technology center, and even a sports arena.

The larger community is more accepting of us today than in the early 1980s. Schools and social agencies are no longer overwhelmed by a sudden influx of Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese. Public schools have bilingual teachers, translators, and social workers to meet the needs of parents and children. However, there are still language and cultural barriers that keep East from communicating with West. Hate crimes are few, but there are subtle and persistent reminders of our place in the social hierarchy.

We are inching our way toward acceptance, striving to become like other Americans, but also trying to keep our culture and dignity intact. In 1999, Chanrithy Uong was elected city councilor–the first Cambodian-American to win elected office in Massachusetts. Thanks in part to Rithy Uong’s efforts, more Cambodians than ever became American citizens and registered to vote. After living under one of the most repressive regimes in human history, where any attempt to question our rulers meant

Our memories strengthen our will to survive.

instant execution, electing one of our own to public office in America was a major accomplishment. On the other hand, Rithy’s success in reaching voters across the lines of ethnicity and social class–he was elected to a second term in 2001–is also a sign of the increasing acceptance of Cambodians as contributors to Lowell’s economic and social development.

Meet the Author
Like other immigrants and refugees before us, we came to the United States with the notion that we could forget about the past and leave our suffering behind. We came as survivors, with nothing but the clothes on our backs, and we are determined to make something of our lives in our new home. Although we struggle against rejection and cultural isolation, we also make friends. The challenges we face in America are nothing compared with what we have seen–the killings and massacres that others can’t even imagine. Our memories strengthen our will to survive, and ultimately become fully accepted in the heart of American life.

We, too, are now Americans. Who could cherish this land of democracy and freedom more than we do? Who would love this city of Lowell–so far from the rice paddies of our motherland–more than we do?

Chath pierSath has written a volume of poems titled May a Mountain Grow in My Place. His poetry can also be found in Children of the Killing Fields, compiled by Dith Pran and edited by Kim DePaul, and Prayer for a Thousand Years, edited by Elias Amidon and Elizabeth Roberts. He can be reached at