- Khmer American: Identity and Moral Education in a Diasporic Community
Like other recent Asian American immigrant groups, Khmer Americans face intense challenges in their efforts to adapt to life in the United States. Based on several years of ethnographic research, Nancy Smith-Hefner’s book, Khmer American: Identity and Moral Education in a Diasporic Community, examines Cambodian immigrants’ efforts to re-create Khmer culture and identity in their new country. The book explores the processes of child socialization, specifically the moral education of children, from the perspective of the parental generation. Smith-Hefner conducted her research in the greater Boston area, including the city of Lowell, which has the second largest Khmer population in the U.S. Although the author interviewed Khmer adults and youth, community leaders, teachers and religious leaders, her primary informants are the parents. In explaining her focus on the parental generation, Smith-Hefner writes: “The experience of Khmer adults, their upbringing in Cambodia, their lives before the war, their flight, and the inevitable comparisons between the past and their present situation in the United States have all shaped the community I describe.” (p. xv) It is significant to note that many members of this generation have idealized memories of life in Cambodia and of Khmer culture and hold their children to these idealized standards.
Compared to other Southeast Asian groups, few Khmer Americans have [End Page 332] converted to Christianity. Smith-Hefner found that nearly ninety percent of Boston’s Khmer adults identify as Buddhist, and most believe that being Buddhist is essential to being Khmer. While the connection between Buddhist identity and ethnic identity remains strong among the adults, this connection is more tenuous among Khmer youth. An interesting finding is that many of the youth learn about the story of Buddha from popular movies such as Bertolucci’s Little Buddha.
The author found that beliefs surrounding child socialization are deeply connected to Buddhist ideas regarding reincarnation and karmic destiny. Because children are thought to be born with their own personalities and characters which their parents are obliged to discover, infants and young children are given significant latitude to explore their worlds. In her discussion of early childhood socialization, Smith-Hefner compares Khmer childrearing practices to “American” childrearing practices, noting that “in contrast to American parent-infant interactions, Khmer babies are not typically engaged in prolonged playful, climatic interactions.” (p. 75) Unfortunately, in making this and other comparisons the author fails to recognize the class and racial diversity of American parenting styles and she thereby essentializes American families. Smith-Hefner informs us that as Khmer children mature they are expected to take their role within the social hierarchy by learning to demonstrate respect for elders. While respect for elders is a sign of good rearing and reflects positively on the entire family, disrespectful behavior leads to community gossip and brings shame on the entire family.
Another important aspect of Khmer child socialization revolves around ideas about gender and sexuality. While girls are viewed as being weak, emotional, and passionate, boys are seen as being rational and strong. While daughters are taught to control their sexual desire in order to preserve the reputation of their families, concerns regarding male sexuality are less significant for the family. In cases of sexual misconduct, girls are always blamed, and girls with sexual histories are seen as poor marriage prospects. Since marriage is the most significant life event within Khmer culture, affecting the status of the entire family, daughters are guarded carefully. Traditionally, girls and women are encouraged to stay close to home in order to protect their reputations. The economic realities in the U.S., however, have meant that most women and men in Cambodian families must work outside the home thereby challenging Khmer ideals regarding gender.
Educational researchers will be particularly interested in the author’s discussion of the impact of Khmer cultural ideas regarding destiny, gender, and [End Page 333] sexuality on parents’ attitudes toward education. While Khmer parents value education and appreciate the connection between education and social mobility in the...