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Why I won’t celebrate the Cambodian New Year the way I used to

Jessica Li / The SPOKE

By Jeffrey Heng, Staff Reporter

In a couple of days, the tradition will continue: cleansing my face with scented water, devouring Cambodian beef skewers and probably coming face-to-face with an unknown, distant cousin. All these practices I know all too well, yet these aspects of my Khmer culture are still so unfamiliar.

This tradition is that of the Cambodian New Year, a three-day holiday in mid-April that celebrates the transition to new beginnings. From family reunions to showering Buddha statues in flower-scented water, the festivities drawing near are a collection of spiritual values within the Cambodian community. Piecing together the roots of my Khmer identity grants me a greater comprehension of the holiday — albeit an inexplicable story of my family’s history as well.

Both of my parents lived through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, a four-year genocide starting in 1975 that stole the lives of nearly two million Cambodians — one-fourth of the Cambodian population. Forced to take action, many refugees and victims of the regime immigrated to America with the slim chance of making a living for themselves, including my parents.

To me, the Cambodian New Year is now more than just a reunion — it is a culmination of trauma-stricken lives and a commemoration of determined Cambodian survivors and immigrants’ commitment to upholding their families’ legacies despite underlying challenges on the journey toward healing and prosperity.

To shed light on existing problems, a 2021 data brief by Stanford Medicine’s Center for Asian Health Research and Education revealed that 42% of Cambodian Americans suffer from PTSD and major depression, illustrating the persistent barriers these communities face in attaining mental stability.

Cambodians have a history of disparities, represented by underfunded communities and never-ending censorship that continues to stifle Khmer voices not only in the U.S. but also in Cambodia. Last month, The Phnom Penh Post, a Cambodian newsletter, ran into financial issues, prompting it to discontinue its print publications. Not only is this a reflection of the lack of resources that Cambodians receive but of the social divide between Cambodia and other nations.

According to a 2011 Asian American and Pacific Islander study in California, Cambodians are ranked among the lowest test performers and household incomes compared to other ethnicities. These statistics are evidence that Khmer communities are living amidst insufficient support. The Khmer Rouge forced refugees into America with barely anything to their name, yet they and their descendants are overshadowed and deemed as underachieving — in a sense, we are a minority within a minority.

Whether or not you celebrate Cambodian culture, the resilience of Cambodians to rebuild a community and foster a safe place for posterity is undeniable. From here on out, the Cambodian New Year is something I will never take for granted — I will always be thanking my parents.

Jeffrey Heng can be reached at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Jeffrey Heng
Jeffrey Heng, Co-Opinion Editor
Jeffrey Heng is a sophomore and Staff Reporter for The Spoke. He has written news, opinion and sports articles, as well as web and sports briefs. Beyond the newsroom, he volunteers for Make Us Visible PA, which aims to integrate AAPI studies in K-12 schools, is a board member of the Asian American Culture Club, and is a profound lover of frogs, puns and salt.