The Healing Fields of Long Beach's Cambodia Town

The next generation of the city's Cambodian-American community steps up to help its elders—and itself

"One time, on a car ride with my mom, I was talking about how all my friends were going camping with their families in the summer," the petite 16-year-old recalls. "My mom didn't want to go. I was like, 'Why don't you like to go camping? Everyone else likes to go camping.' She just said, 'It reminds me of the past, and I don't want to remember the past.'"

A student at Wilson High School, Sam carries the weight of her mother's PTSD, which affects about 14 percent of Cambodian adults, according to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sometimes, her mom will wake up crying after having nightmares about being in the Killing Fields. "She'll say, 'You were there, and they took you away from me,'" Sam describes. "I don't know what to say to that. I don't know how to help her. She doesn't want to talk, doesn't want to eat. I try to hug her, but she just pushes me away."

Clinical psychologist Sam Keo says that those who grow up around PTSD are likely to be affected as well. It's called "intergenerational transmission of trauma" and can extend for years down the ancestral line.

Anthropologists Susan Needham (left) and Karen Quintiliani founded the Cambodian Community History & Archive Project
John Gilhooley
Anthropologists Susan Needham (left) and Karen Quintiliani founded the Cambodian Community History & Archive Project
Now entering Cambodia Town
John Gilhooley
Now entering Cambodia Town

"There are different ways that kids respond," Keo says. "Some take on the role of a rescuer. They're still children but grow up as the adults—cooking, cleaning the house, taking their parents to the doctor. They become depressed because they've lost their childhood. Others become emotionally uninvolved and might turn to gangs and drugs. In both cases, they don't know why they act the way they act or feel the way they feel."

Keo, a Cambodian refugee himself, opened a practice in Long Beach geared toward the Khmer community. He understands PTSD because he has experienced it himself. One day, when he was a young boy in the concentration camps, his mother begged him to give some rice to his sick baby brother. But Keo was weak and needed that bit of food to get him through another day of work in the fields. So he refused. When he got back to the commune that night, his brother was dead, and his mother blamed him. 

It haunted him for decades. "Everywhere I'd turn, I'd see my mother and dead baby brother," says Keo, now 56. "In my flashbacks, my mother would say, 'If it weren't for you, your brother would still be alive.'" Once, the guilt was so intense that he started to drive off a cliff. He hit the brakes just before it was too late. 

He worked through the trauma through therapy and by writing a memoir, Out of the Dark, Into the Garden of Hope, which Keo released last year. He encourages his older patients to talk to their children about the Killing Fields. "If they ask, tell them," he says. "If you don't tell them, they'll create their own image, which can be worse."

These types of services—those by the community, for the community—help empower a generation straddling two cultures. "Nobody understands Cambodians except Cambodians," 16-year-old Sam says. "We're the ones who've had to suffer."

She's part of a Long Beach-based nonprofit called Khmer Girls In Action, a support system and leadership program for Southeast Asian young women. Inside a pink-walled room decorated with quilts and a flag that reads, "Powerful Sisterhood," girls bond over their personal struggles.

Patricia Tin, a 19-year-old student at Polytechnic High School, says she only recently found out she had an uncle. "When she was escaping, my grandma had to leave my dad's youngest brother behind because he was sick and she couldn't take care of him," she says. "He was just a baby. They never talk about it."

Kunthea "Mimi" Sin, an 18-year-old at Wilson High, says she has too much stress at home—her uncle was deported, and her brother struggles with alcohol issues. "I get truancy letters sent to my house," she says. "I can't make my grandma proud. Not only did I fail her, but I failed myself, too."

Last year, Khmer Girls In Action surveyed 500 second-generation Cambodian American youth in Long Beach and found that nearly half displayed symptoms of depression and 54 percent felt discrimination in areas such as language, racial profiling and educational attainment. A third of the respondents knew someone in their family or community who had been deported or is facing deportation.

"There's a misperception that we're part of the model minority," says Sara Pol-Lim, executive director of United Cambodian Community (UCC), a social-services agency in Long Beach. "People assume that because we are Asian, there should be no problem, that we have a mentality centered on economic advancement and higher education."

According to U.S. Census Bureau indicators, 54 percent of local Cambodian Americans live below the poverty line compared to 17 percent of the general Los Angeles/Long Beach/Santa Ana population. Still, the numbers may not even reveal the whole picture. The most recent census data show that 19,000 Cambodians live in Long Beach, but Pol-Lim says other estimates put that figure closer to 100,000.

Chad Sammeth, former project coordinator and community organizer at UCC, says he believes things are changing. While the older generation once dwelled on the problems, the new generation is tackling them head-on.

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