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.
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.