- From Cambodia to Greensboro: Tracing the Journeys of New North Carolinians
Few would necessarily associate Greensboro, North Carolina, with striking ethnic diversity or see it as a site of dramatic cultural transformation. Until recently, visitors to the Greensboro Historical Museum—which sits in the downtown district of this regionally significant urban center—would encounter nothing to provoke this impression. Instead, they could wander past staid glass cases with rows of Civil War rifles and rooms of family keepsakes offered by the Scots-Irish, Anglo, and German settlers who came to the region during the past two hundred years. The museum offered no clues to the fact that recent demographic data cites Guilford County, North Carolina, as the most diverse county in the state. Into this static historical space, curator Barbara Lau opens the doors to a dynamic and inclusive vision of community and reveals the personal and communal journey of approximately five hundred Cambodians who make Greensboro their home.
From Cambodia to Greensboro: Tracing the Journeys of New North Carolinians invites visitors into the exhibit with an intimate touch—a mat that welcomes the removal of shoes, just as if one is entering a Cambodian home or Buddhist shrine. With a bold dash of color, the opening artifacts are a display of two elaborate costumes used in Cambodian Khmer classical dance. This choice of introduction mirrors the role that this form of cultural expression takes in the wider community. During the past few years, the public presence of the local Cambodian dance troupe at festivals and in other outside arenas has been one of the few ways to introduce their presence to the wider culture.
The exhibit reflects the decade of ethnographic research that underlies its conceptual design. Following a loosely chronological flow, the exhibit relies on a series of large thematic panels labeled "Ancient Khmer History Lives Today," "War and Transition," "Culture, Tradition, and Change," "An Enduring Belief in Buddhism," and "Creating Community through Local and Global Connections." Working with two Cambodian community scholars and in close collaboration with head monk Phramaha Somsak Sambimb of the Greensboro Buddhist Center, as well as with other community leaders, Lau followed counsel to begin the exhibit narrative within the context of ancient Cambodian Khmer history. After this introduction to a fairly straightforward historical narrative, the twenty smaller text panels move quickly to a more complex and interpretive level as they enter the personal spaces of the real lives of individuals who fled civil war and terrible violence to start again in a land in which they had no connections. Black-and-white photographs of families grouped with numbers on their chests, taken in Thai refugee camps, hang alongside current family portraits that include the next generation. Interview excerpts narrate the traumas and losses of the difficult passage. [End Page 374] In rather dramatic fashion, the seventy-five color photographs by Cedric N. Chatterley juxtapose these photo album snapshots with compelling images of community members in the act of renewing institutions, homes and meaning for themselves and their children. Interspersed, the voices (as written quotes) of the younger Khmer describe how it feels to be one of these children: "It's like you are riding on a boat, two different boats. One leg is on the Cambodian one, one leg is on the American Boat. One is going east, one's going west, you going to fall in the middle. That's when you're trapped, because you don't know what to decide. Why don't you buy a third boat, which you could blend it all in together, and you'll be safe?" (11).
In this struggle to stay afloat, the leadership and resources of the local Buddhist temple cannot be overstated. Community voices credit belief as a key to surviving the trauma of war and resettlement. Chatterley's photographs of holiday gatherings and feasts, religious observances and rituals, active teaching and performance of traditional aesthetic...