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Coming to America for the first time

Coming to America has always been a dream of some Cambodian kids back home. Every year, many Cambodians sort out various ways to come and reside legally in the United States of America. And, that makes me wonder why more and more except Cambodian students who come here for studies are willing to leave their home country and comfort zone for a completely new place, environment and life. What does the US have to offer? Countless, many can argue for.

Having coming to Washington DC for a seminar on reproductive health for nearly a week, I gladly learnt so many important things about challenges facing women living in developing countries such as maternal mortality, lack of effective contraception and gender issues. Besides the seminar I took, everything else in Washington DC from traffic to services in restaurants is systematically run with respect and a lot of discipline.

I come back with friendship and knowledge. What else could be better than this?

You wouldn’t expect a car to run over a passenger at all in America. Mostly cars will stop for you as a passenger to walk on a pedestrian crossing to the other side of the road, sometimes even when the light is green, they’ll stop for you if you insist on going. When I saw this, I felt for my country of which traffic fatality rate runs high even up to four or five killed every day in a traffic accident. As a result, millions of dollars are wasted every year in the accidents where a countless number of lives are lost for an unnecessary cause. The thing to notice in Washington DC was that from place to place, there are very specific and easy-to-understand signs for drivers and passengers, so that these people would not get mixed-up. Apart from road signs, I observe that houses were organized with correct numbers in which 26 is close to 27. In Cambodia, especially the Capital Phnom Penh, don’t expect to find house number 26 close to 27.

As a journalist for several years, I have learnt the important skill: to always leave 30 minutes before the actual appointment time to find a certain place in Phnom Penh, because what you see isn’t what you’ll get. After the civil war that consumed nearly four years, things were messed up, and people started to settle down in places they could readily find. I was told that early on people just picked any house number they liked. This later on causes a lot of confusion and economic loss such as time and money when one tries to go to a certain place particularly when given a house number or an address that does not work out the way they anticipate.

As for the services in restaurants, I as a foreigner have to remind myself to leave a tip ranged from 15% to 20% out of the actual cost of my food. I sometimes joke with my friends here that America is run by the tip system. But I think it’s very good of someone to give tips to waiters or waitresses considering not a high monthly salary people who wait tables receive. I can understand that it is a system that helps each other live decently.

What upset me while I was in Washington was the fact that there was not one Cambodian restaurant nearby or maybe I did not make enough efforts to find one there? In the meantime, Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants are assumably everywhere in Washington DC, and their recipes are pretty popular with the locals.

One day, I happened to meet a Cambodian girl who came and settled in DC for nearly six years. I first mistook her for a Nepali girl because she was waiting tables in the Nepali restaurant I visited. She told me that there was no single Khmer restaurant in DC but only in California or if there were one, it would not be named “Khmer restaurant”. The reason was that people could not expect much from a Khmer restaurant, so owners were afraid of becoming unpopular. Until now I have been told many unkind or heart-breaking stories about Cambodian Americans’ life and attitude. Many Cambodians left for America right after the Khmer Rouge regime had collapsed. Some others followed a few years after that. There were more than several incidences that I was told a lot of Cambodian Americans who moved here to the US long ago are unkind and easily look down on new comers especially the ones from Cambodia.

“They enjoy benefiting or exploiting from welfares,” a friend whom I met in Washington DC said. Some have gone too far into making the welfare officers believe that they are disabled to avoid hard work in the land full of opportunities to dream. Despite all these, I do not want to make a generalization about every Cambodian American citizen I have met here.

A few days after I arrived in DC, I was contacted by a woman who addressed herself as DL. DL has lived in Virginia for nearly six years, and has prospered in the land of dreams, as far as I have observed. She has brought her parents to live in the US with her, and in addition, all her sisters except her youngest brother are now residing in the states. DL contacted me through Facebook, and asked me to come over to her mother’s birthday party. I felt concerned with all the stories told in relation to attitudes of “Khmer Americans.”

The lesson that I learnt from school “Don’t judge the book by its cover,” really worked. The several Khmer families I met during the birthday party were really friendly and down-to-earth, but they in fact were also complaining about Khmer families who settled in the US before them that they were arrogant, and ready to ignore their nationals. One would expect that after the war, the whole nation should be as one, but sometimes things turn out differently as this case reveals. War’s main function is to destroy, and to put together broken glasses of a vase that once broke takes a lot of time, efforts and actions to build a strong country that resembles America.

5 thoughts on “Coming to America for the first time

  1. I used to go there for a short period and once I came back, I’m totally a new person. I always leave a reasonable amount of tips to waiters, waitresses, security guards, hairs dressers…. etc. I changed my way of driving also and all.

    During my visit, mostly I stayed at library and read about life and behavior of Khmer American there. Only one book about Cambodia in a whole library and it hurts when seeing a lot of Asia books are in there, even TH and VN.
    People who resided in US since Khmer Rouge, no offense, but they’re really hard to get. Yeah, they’re arrogant. Most of them are like some of neighbors living next to our house we don’t like. They gossip. They brag. If you know what I mean.

    You know what? Some of them might don’t know what VISA is. They wonder how new comers get there with VISA. It’s funny they said they go to USA by helicopter and they don’t need VISA.

    I was told that in U.S, they eat frozen chicken unlike Cambodia. And they’re proud of it. My aunt was red with anger, saying that “In Cambodia, we don’t eat frozen chicken! It’s not fresh and it’s not yummy!!! Those frozen chicken we called it Moam Trov Min!”

    One lady I met asked me, “I know in Cambodia doesn’t have Hamburger. When you’re here, you should eat a lot of it.” I laughed.
    I feel sorry for most old folk in U.S. They live there, but they live in little wee corner of U.S. except new generations.

  2. How great is that! You even have opportunity to visit US. Jealous jealous… just kidding!

    Anyway, I don’t want to comment so much in this post. Even though I have never been there, I still can feel what you said. Good article 😉

  3. it’s great that you had the opportunity to come to america! i want to hear more about it!!

    i am very proud to say that i am a cambodian-american and i do NOT live off the welfare system. my family has worked very hard over the past 30 years and we are all successful. i am very proud of my family! 🙂

    i visited cambodia for the first time in december and the lifestyle there was very interesting! it’s cool that you came to america in december and learned about america and i went to cambodia in december and learned about cambodia! i saw the difference with the restaurants and the stores and the traffic. i learned about how khmers live in cambodia and how they think. it’s a very interesting dichotomy – the difference between khmer-americans and khmers in cambodia. i would really like to chat more with you and learn about all our similarities and also our differences!!

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