Is Khmer Culture Dying?
Cambodia’s 23rd National Culture Day was supposed to take place on March 3rd, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all events were cancelled. National Culture Day started in 1999 to “promote the country’s arts and culture. The yearly event is composed of displays, exhibits, live theatrical performances, and conferences held throughout the country. The festival honors the living elder masters in different artistic and cultural fields.” (x). This cancellation comes at a time when Khmer arts are in dire need of funding and support. For some like Sovanna Phum Theatre, an independent and self-financed puppet theatre, had to close its doors last year. With the lack of tourism too, artists are having a difficult time not being able to perform at or take part in events and ceremonies like they usually would.
Turning back the dial a bit, during the Khmer Rouge regime, Khmer arts and culture was on the brink of disappearing. While many masters perished during the regime, a number of them also survived with some going on to teach and pass down their skills to the younger generation — in Cambodia and in the diaspora. Now, we are seeing Khmer arts and culture facing yet another setback after making much progress post-regime.
Many years before Covid-19, I witnessed fear and anxiety among Khmer online circles with folks often stating “Khmer culture is dying,” noting that the younger generation do not know how to speak, understand, or write Khmer, how they don’t know anything about Khmer history, or are simply just disinterested in anything Khmer and so forth. It caused anxiety in me too, knowing that our elders wouldn’t be here for long and that all their knowledge could be lost forever. At the time, I don’t remember anyone offering any solutions or steps to prevent Khmer culture from this ever looming doom. I usually saw more “you should” statements in response — “You should learn. You should ask. You should research. You should know.”
Perhaps I was at fault of that as well, when anxiety turned into frustration. There was a lot of shame and guilt thrown around that didn’t help this collective anxiety my generation was feeling about the state of our culture. We couldn’t risk nearly losing it all again, but saying “Khmer culture is dying” doesn’t help either. It’s counterproductive and ignores the work that has been and is currently going on in both Cambodia and the diaspora.
Our community has come a long way, thanks much in part to those who have passed and continue to pass down their skills and knowledge. Most recently, I’ve seen organizations and individuals offer Khmer language classes and host Zoom events on Khmer dance and culture. Knowledge exchange continues — this is how culture survives and flourish, even during a pandemic!
It hurts to see both Cambodia and the diaspora facing setbacks during this time, but if it’s one thing I know about my community, it’s that we will recover — someway, somehow! A few ways to help out with the recovery process is by:
- sharing and promoting Khmer arts and culture
- donating to organizations and dance troupes (there’s bound to be at least one wherever there’s a sizeable Khmer community!)
- participating in events/ceremonies/lectures/discussions
- enrolling in language/music/art/dance programs
- sitting down with your children (or with other family members and non-Khmer friends!) to teach or talk about anything Khmer related, be it family stories or folktales and so on
Khmer culture can’t “die” if we all take action. No matter how big or small, it all goes a long way.
I also understand that culture is not static and unchanging, but instead is fluid, complex, and adapts with the times. Khmer culture changing over generations is inevitable (it has already happened and is still happening) and along the way, it’s also inevitable that parts of it will disappear as our elder generation leaves us. One course of action to prevent this is through documentation, an imperative process that Khmers have always done and continue to do so today, such as with The Mekhala Project and Bophana Center. However, it isn’t always possible to document everything and that is a reality we’ll have to accept.
I hope that next year fares better than this year. Cambodia would be able to celebrate National Culture Day in all its splendor and the diaspora could return to in-person cultural events and programs. A testament, if you will, of Khmer culture’s perseverance through dark, difficult times, showing that it has always been flourishing, not dying, all along.
In developing my post response to “Khmer culture is dying,” I was interested in what other Khmers thought about and how they would respond to that statement. Here is what they had to say:
From Ryan S.: It’s not any one person’s fault, but Khmer culture slowly dying off over time is because, for one example, we [Khmers] centralize celebrating our culture exclusively in April rather than all year around.
We treat Chaul Chnam like Christmas! We prepare for the holiday a few weeks (or days in some cases) in advance. The holiday comes & the whole family goes to the temple all dressed up, we eat, see friends & other relatives, watch performances & partake in rituals with the monks. At night, people celebrate by drinking & dancing… then what about after the week is over?
We stuff our culture in a box mentally & go about our business…This is why for my family, I stress the importance in visiting the temple often so we can partake in culturally led ceremonies like Bon Kathin, Bon Pchum Ben, etc. I envy the Khmer American families who live in places like Lowell, Long Beach & even Stockton — these cities have bigger concentrated Khmer populations, therefore having an easier time to organize extra activities or gatherings beside just Khmer New Year.
For the rest of us spread around the country & in California, we do our best, but so many of us are thrown into the larger Asian communities & are seen as the token Khmer friend or colleague in their circles outside the home. The only way we can reverse the slow death of our culture — especially if we live far from large Khmer populations — is to teach our kids and/or the younger generations: “we must live WITH our culture, not from it” — this is my motto that I stress to my wife & children.
From Chrisi P.: Here in the US, it’s pretty clear that we are doing our best to keep [Khmer culture] alive. In Cambodia, I wouldn’t quite say that the culture is dying, but maybe to say that it’s changing might be a better fit. For example, I’ve heard from my family that the way Khmer is currently spoken among native Cambodians today isn’t the same as how they were taught to speak it [then]. However, aside from that, I do think that people of the younger generations are doing their best to keep the culture alive.
From Paulina Seng: Khmer culture has been heavily influenced by Eurocentric colonialism, and western culture. So many of us Khmer people are out of touch with our roots because we are obsessed with the west. Others have abandoned culture creation/art creation because we are stuck in survival mode and don’t care about art and culture. Plus, there is the stigma that being an artist is not a living, so the older generations don’t encourage the youth to go into art/culture creation. It is up to those of us who are still in touch with our creativity, who are aware of this direction, and conscious of our own purpose to continue the legacy of our people in our own way.
How would YOU respond to that statement? Feel free to leave your response in the comment section or email me! If you’d like to have your response included in my post, let me know!