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by Nadine Fujimoto

Context for Cambodian Immigration

History and Government

Cambodia has been a monarchy for most of its history. Various ancient kingdoms ruled from about 100 A.D. to the 700s. From the 6th to the 15th centuries, the Khmer controlled a great empire with Angkor as its capital. The region was subject to attacks by neighboring Vietnam and Siam (Thailand), and in 1863, Cambodia became a French protectorate.

Japanese forces occupied Cambodia during World War II. During the 1940s, an anti-French independence movement grew, and France recognized Cambodia’s independence in 1953. In 1955, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his parents. He took the title of prince, becoming head of state in 1960.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Cambodia declared itself neutral as the U.S-Vietnam conflict became regionalized. The U.S. and South Vietnam charged that North Vietnamese troops were stationed in Cambodia for use in the Vietnam War. In 1969, the U.S. began carpet-bombing the Cambodian countryside, dropping over 100,000 tons of bombs. In 1970, General Lon Nol staged a coup against Prince Sihanouk, with U.S. support. U.S. and South Vietnamese troops invaded eastern Cambodia. Sihanouk allied with the Communist Khmer Rouge, whom he formerly persecuted, to oppose the new government. Civil war broke out, and despite substantial aid from the U.S., the Lon Nol government fell in 1975. Prince Sihanouk was installed as head of state, but was removed in 1976.

From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, controlled the country. Populations in towns and cities were removed to forced labor camps in the countryside, where many perished from starvation, disease, and maltreatment. Large numbers were executed; educational, religious, medical, and cultural institutions destroyed; and severe food shortages led to famine. An estimated 1 to 2 million people perished, and many others fled to Thailand or other countries.

In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and created the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. An anti-Vietnamese resistance movement developed, headed by Prince Sihanouk. Vietnam withdrew its troops in 1989, but civil war continued as coalition forces opposed the government installed by Vietnam, led by Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). In 1991, a cease-fire was implemented and a peace treaty signed, ending 13 years of civil war.

A U.N. Transitional Authority administered the country in conjunction with a national council comprised of representatives from the warring factions. The U.N. administered general elections in 1993. The Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections and opposed the new government, but was eventually defeated. The United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) won the elections, led by Prince Ranariddh, Sihanouk’s son. The monarchy was re-established, with Sihanouk as king, and Ranariddh and Hun Sen as prime ministers. In 1997, Hun Sen forced Ranariddh from office, as tension between FUNCINPEC and Hun Sen’s CPP heightened to include military clashes.

Hun Sen and the CPP led the 1998 elections. FUNCINPEC and the CPP reached an accord, whereby Hun Sen became sole prime minister with Ranariddh as president of the National Assembly. The CPP retained control over key finance and foreign affairs ministry, while FUNCINPEC agreed to reintegrate its troops into the government army.

The current government is a constitutional monarchy. The executive branch consists of King Norodom Sihanouk as king, chosen by the Royal Throne Council, and a Council of Ministers appointed by the monarch. Prime Minister Hun Sen is head of government. A bicameral legislature with Senate and National Assembly constitutes the elected legislative branch. There are 20 provinces and three municipalities.


Approximately 80% of the labor force is employed in agriculture. Most Cambodians live in villages of 100 to 400 people, and work in nearby rice fields. In 1997, 36% of the population was below the poverty line, with a per capita income of $700 annually. Cambodia has an estimated $829 million external debt, with an additional $470 million pledged in grants and concessional loans for the year 2000. Exports exceed imports, with Southeast Asian and East Asian countries and the U.S. as major trading partners.

Cambodian Immigration

Prior to 1970, only a few hundred Cambodians lived in the U.S. In 1975, well-educated professionals affiliated with the U.S. government evacuated prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover. Additional professionals escaped on their own, but total numbers were not large. From 1980 to 1985, significant numbers arrived when the U.S. refugee program began accepting immigrants from camps in Thailand. The majority of refugees were subsistence farmers from small, poor

villages – pre-literate – who lacked skills necessary for U.S. life. Many were widows and orphans. Most arrivals since 1985 have been sponsored by Cambodians who are now citizens.

Social Characteristics of the Cambodian People

Ethnic & Religious Diversity

About 90% of Cambodians are Khmer. Vietnamese comprise 5% of the population, Chinese 1%, and 4% are other ethnicities, including Cham Muslims. Ninety-five percent of Cambodians follow Theravada Buddhism. The Khmer practice a blend of Buddhism and animism.

Family Life

Family is extremely important. Many have lost family members in Cambodia, and a significant number of households are headed by females due to the civil war. Extended family structures are the norm, with large numbers of children. Grandparents head the family, followed by parents, aunts and uncles. Families are patriarchal, with men as providers and women in traditional roles, their position reinforced by culture, religion, and gender. Children are taught respect and deference to adults and authority figures.

Health Care Practices

Life expectancy at birth is 56 years. It is 54 for males and 59 for females. There are no health clinics in Cambodia. The majority do not have access to potable water, and have no access to hospitals, which are located only in cities.

Good health is seen as being in equilibrium: being individually maintained, but influenced by family and community members. Many Cambodians believe that inappropriate deeds by others or misdeeds in a past life can result in illness. Traditional healers, or koh, use massage, herbal medicines and “coining” (rubbing chest vigorously with a coin to diagnose and treat, or heated and applied to acupuncture pressure points). Grandmothers and midwives provide prenatal care and delivery, with an oral tradition of training.

There are no mental health institutions or services in Cambodia. Individuals with problems are isolated from others, and many believe that events in prior lives (reincarnation) may be the cause. There is a great stigma attached to emotional and mental problems, which are often characterized as physical complaints. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders and “Pol Pot Syndrome,” which includes insomnia, difficulty in breathing, loss of appetite, and pains in various parts of the body. When help is sought, families will first approach a local monk, extended family members, or close friends.

Educational System in Cambodia

The majority is not literate, with a national literacy rate of 35%. Prior to 1975, monks provided education in the countryside at pagodas, which housed libraries and other written documentation. Public schools in the cities were modeled on the French educational system. Proverbs were an important means to educate the young, and used in all public school teaching materials and curriculum. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the educational system and pagodas. Today, a French modeled system with Khmer as the language of instruction is in place in both the countryside and cities. Except for the wealthy, few attend college.

Cambodians in Santa Clara County


Most Cambodians live in San Jose. On average they have resided in the U.S. for 12 to 13 years. Most families are low-income and large, with many children being the norm. A significant number of families are female-headed due to civil war in Cambodia. Khmer (Cambodian) is the language most often used; few speak English.

Social Customs

Interpersonal Communication

Silence is welcomed and viewed as more appropriate than meaningless chatter. A high value is placed on courtesy. Cambodians will avoid direct confrontation; it is considered impolite to disagree. Women are taught to be shy. Service providers should include family members as interpreters when discussing medical conditions, and use a translator of the same gender for sensitive issues. Cambodians simultaneously use western and traditional healing practices, but feel uncomfortable discussing the latter.

Handshakes are not commonly used, except for those who are acculturated. Cambodians use sompeah, a gesture of both palms together with fingers pointed upward. Eye contact is acceptable, but “polite” women lower eyes somewhat. Cambodians have small personal space. It is inappropriate to touch heads without permission, since some believe the soul is in the head. Written consents create discomfort for middle aged and older Khmer since signed life histories were required by Khmer Rouge prior to execution.

Emotional Support

Cambodians maintain strong extended family relations, and an individual’s behavior reflects on the family. Child care is provided by the mother in most families, and to a much lesser extent the father or other relatives. It is common for couples to be married by a Buddhist priest but not to have a U.S. marriage license. Children from the same family often have different last names. Problems are considered personal or family matters and are rarely discussed with outsiders. When surveyed, the majority preferred to have home-bound seniors or the disabled cared for in the home by family members. They turn to a spouse, relatives, friends, or a priest for emotional problems, often characterized as physical ailments (see “Health Practices”).


In Cambodia, men wear traditional silk sarongs or short pants, and women wear cotton sarongs. In the U.S., older adults wear traditional clothing at home, but western clothing in public. For special occasions such as weddings, holidays, etc. older women dress traditionally but older men wear western clothing. Middle-aged adults wear both. Children wear western clothing for all occasions and at home.


Cambodians eat rice with every meal and use sauce, fish paste, and noodles. Little seafood is eaten; fresh water fish is preferred. Many Cambodians are lactose intolerant, and prefer tea or water. Older adults and recent immigrants drink coffee only with breakfast, and not after meals. Individuals use their own bowls or plates with rice, and take from communal bowls placed in the center of a group.

Religious Traditions & Holidays

Numerous Buddhist holidays and traditions are recognized throughout the year. Key traditions include the Buddhist April 13th New Year celebration and the September 17th memorial commemoration for ancestors and loved ones.

Challenges in Santa Clara County

Most of the educated population was killed in Cambodia. The majority of Cambodians were subsistence farmers from very poor, small, rural villages. They face great survival and adjustment challenges to an industrial society, such as being in a car for the first time. The community infrastructure is not well developed due to the recent nature of its immigration. Many support the idea of a community center to address the challenges facing Cambodians.

Through surveys and interviews, lack of affordable housing was identified as the top need. Focus group participants felt the government should offer housing assistance such as Section 8 housing as a solution.

Communication barriers are the second most cited challenge. Most Cambodians are not literate in their native language, and speak little to no English. No translation services are available. The community proposes funding for culturally appropriate ESL classes as a solution.

Generational conflicts with youth have developed as they learn English and acculturate to U.S. society, while their parents do not. Some youth have adjusted well and are top scholars; others have not been able to adjust and have fallen prey to drugs, gangs, and truancy problems. After-school tutoring and other services are inadequate, and families cannot afford the cost of school uniforms. Solutions include improvement of school services, financial assistance for uniforms, and linguistically and culturally appropriate outreach and education for parents.

For women, minimum wage jobs do not cover the cost of child care. CalWORKs benefit levels are also inadequate. Focus group participants proposed government assistance with child care and increased levels of CalWORKs assistance.

Cambodians need education about American customs and law. Physical discipline of children is acceptable in Cambodia. Child abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and other issues are seen as personal, family matters, not for government purview. Many do not understand U.S. laws on these issues. Linguistically and culturally appropriate community education can address these issues. Educating schools and government service providers can also help. For example, “coining” leaves bruise marks, which can be misunderstood by medical or school personnel (see “Health Practices”).


Cambodians have limited contact with those outside their own community due to language barriers, so they tend not to recognize discriminatory treatment. They may attribute the behavior to other causes due to their lack of experience. Many greatly fear and mistrust police, since their experience is limited to their home country where police were corrupt and not looked upon in a favorable way. When stopped, many have communication problems and don’t know the law or their legal rights. Education is needed regarding legal rights and U.S. police and legal systems.

Barriers to Education, Services & Benefits

Lack of information and English skills are major barriers to accessing education, services and benefits for Cambodians. Great stigma is associated with domestic violence and mental health, and these issues are considered personal, family matters. Service providers and agency personnel should not use the words “domestic violence” or “mental health” in individual services or community outreach.

Employment & Working Conditions

Occupational Data & Barriers

Most Cambodians receive CalWORKs benefits or are employed in low-skilled jobs. Women are often primary care providers for children, making employment outside the home difficult and limited to the informal economy, such as baby-sitting. The majority need education and skills training to transition from subsistence agriculture to wage labor work. Lack of English, literacy, job skills, and employment training create significant barriers to employment. For those employed, only low skilled positions are available, such as baby-sitting and electronics assembly.

Working Conditions

The majority of families have a single wage earner. Most Cambodians are employed in low paying jobs, with income often insufficient to support large families. Those who work in donut shops receive low pay and no benefits. Those employed in electronics assembly jobs fare somewhat better, since benefits are provided.

Small Businesses

Few own small businesses, with the exception of some donut shops. First wave, more educated immigrants purchased the shops, and have hired other Cambodians or family members as employees. Knowledge of the donut business has been passed on to others through employment. Other Cambodian businesses are part of the informal economy and cash based, such as cooking for community events and selling clothing or handicrafts. Lack of information about how to receive help, English skills and literacy are major barriers to establishing businesses. The majority is unfamiliar with U.S. legal practices such as licenses, permits, etc. since businesses are not highly regulated in Cambodia. Those with many years of experience are unable to access loans because the cash-based nature of their businesses create documentation problems for income and other requirements.

Public Benefits in the Cambodian Community

Knowledge & Adequacy of Benefits

Most public assistance recipients are familiar with the requirements for food stamps and CalWORKs, but find the benefit amounts inadequate. These Cambodians are less familiar with SSI and MediCal, and tend not to be familiar with requirements for General Assistance or CAPI. They feel that the length of time for CalWORKs job training is inadequate due to their need to learn English and the lack of culturally appropriate instruction (see “ESL”).

Culturally Competent Services

Cambodians tend to access services through community based organizations that have bilingual staff. For those who receive benefits, most feel treated with respect, have good communication with providers, and feel their cultural backgrounds are understood.

Educational Access in Santa Clara County

K – 12 Education

Most families have children under 18 years old in school. When surveyed, most preferred that their children be taught in both English and their native language. The majority of parents are not educated, so they have no experience dealing with educational institutions. They have difficulty obtaining information in a language they understand. Except for school breakfast and lunch programs, most do not access school services. School uniforms are difficult to afford for many families. Parents need education on how U.S. school systems work, the services and programs available, and mainstream child rearing practices. For example, physical discipline is acceptable in Cambodia, which often conflicts with U.S. school authorities.

Employment Training

Few Cambodians are able to access employment training programs due to their lack of English language skills. Education is needed on wage labor in an industrial society, since most Cambodians were formerly engaged in subsistence agriculture. Paychecks, timesheets, benefits, sick leave, unemployment compensation, etc. were nonexistent for the majority in Cambodia.


Most Cambodians have very poor or no English skills. Cambodians need these skills most for daily living situations, employment, completing paperwork, and participating in their children’s school. Children need tutoring, and adults need survival English. Small classes with significant one-on-one time with the instructor are preferred. The favored curriculum is culturally sensitive and involves interaction, not merely lecture. The time necessary to learn is significant, since the learning process can be slowed by post traumatic stress syndrome, age, and literacy issues. Conducting children’s tutoring and adult classes simultaneously can motivate adult attendance. Providing financial incentives such as school supplies for children and creating rituals can make the experience meaningful.

Citizenship & Voter Participation

Most Cambodians receiving public assistance are not yet naturalized citizens. They need help with filling out applications, interviews, legal assistance, assistance with INS inquiries, and citizenship classes. Few vote or participate in the electoral process. Most have language and literacy difficulties with the ballots, do not understanding the voting process, and have had negative experiences with the government in their homeland.

For all Cambodians, voter turnout has tripled in Santa Clara County, from 68 in the November 1990 election to 273 in the March 2000 election. As of December 2000, there were 1,199 registered Cambodian voters in the county.

Communication & Outreach in the Cambodian Community

Many families own radios, TVs and telephones. Older adults limit TV use to videotapes dubbed in Cambodian, and listen to Cambodian language radio. Middle-aged adults have mixed use of TV and radio, depending on English ability. Children watch TV. Very few families own computers, fax machines, or subscribe to newspapers. Families get important information most often from friends and family members. There is no custom of authenticating information due to low rates of literacy and a strong oral tradition among Cambodians.