Cambodian-Americans Working to Connect Despite Generational Trauma (Part 1)

Americans haven’t heard much about the Khmer Rouge since 1984’s Academy Award-winning The Killing Fields. But although the majority of the horror was over by 1979, an unfortunate legacy from those terrible years lives on in generations of Cambodian parents, whose trauma has impeded them from expressing the affection their children need.

Because adolescents in just about every culture sometimes turn to substances such as alcohol in an attempt to deal with pain, it is little surprise that underage drinking is a common problem among today’s Cambodian-American youth, who often do not receive the parental affection they crave. Add in a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism that occurs more frequently in many Asian subpopulations than in the American populace at large, and it’s clear why underage drinking is such a concern among Cambodian-Americans.

That’s why the Cambodian Association of America (CAA)—which is located here in Long Beach, home to more Cambodian-Americans than any other U.S. city—is holding a “Rally Against Underage Drinking” this Friday.

“The younger generation of Cambodians are suffering because many parents are still dealing with the trauma of the Khmer Rouge decades ago,” says Monique San, a CAA program specialist for substance-abuse prevention. “They crave love and attention from parents who don’t know how to give it to them because they witnessed their families murdered in front of their eyes. What the generation growing up doesn’t realize is that they will repeat history if they don’t do something about it right now. Many youth are turning to drugs and alcohol at a young age to gain acceptance and love.”

One youth who started down that path was Sovankesa Som, whose parents emigrated to the United States in the early 1980s. Although Som was not born until 20 years after the Khmer Rouge’s stranglehold on Cambodia was broken, by the age of 7 Som was already realizing that his parents were not expressing the kind of love for him that he saw the kids around him receiving.

“I always wondered why they never told me they loved me or hugged me or took me out to do really fun things,” he says, “until I learned about it.”

It was the Khmer Rouge, which his parents never said a word about until at around 10 he approached them after seeing YouTube videos about the atrocities, such as Khmer Rouge solider using babies for target practice.

“When I asked them about it, they didn’t want to talk about it,” Som recalls. “They started crying. […] They looked at me like, ‘Why are you asking these questions?’ […] I think they were kind of upset because they don’t want me to know what they went through.”

Still, there was little conversation, and Som had yet to make the connection between his parents’ trauma and their lack of affection toward him, and Som says he acted out in various ways, including fights, bad grades, dishonesty, and using alcohol and marijuana.

“I was basically living the life of a lie because […] that’s what I was kind of taught in a way, because my mom and dad [were] so used to [living that way,]” Som says. “[…] I didn’t really understand until I got deeper into it and read about it. Then I said, ‘Dang, this is what they really went through.'”

IMG 3990One day after a particularly upsetting argument with his sister, 16-year-old Som went for a walk and happened by a kickboxing gym. His choice to go in and check it out has made a huge difference in his life, as the discipline he has learned—as a fighter and now as an instructor—has helped him walk down a healthier life path. And while he still struggles to connect with his parents—and how that lack of connection still affects him—he is making progress and coming to a better understanding of how he and his parents were shaped by the tragedy in Cambodia.

“It was hard for [my parents] to express [themselves], so for me it was kind of hard to express [myself],” Som says. “I don’t like to express to people; I like to keep my emotions inside. When people ask me how I’m doing, how I’m feeling, I don’t like to talk about it. It kind of angers me when [someone] asks me how I’m doing and how I’m feeling. When I’m in a bad mood I don’t like people communicating with me or anything. But I’ve learned how to break out of that shell. I’m trying to learn how to be a better person. […] I know that doing things that my mom and my dad were doing is not going to help me later on.”

And Som continues to try to get his parents to open up about their experience.

“I try to bring it up in different ways, but they always find a way to avoid it,” he says “[…] My mom and dad, they’re still affected. I think every Cambodian parent is going to be affected by the Khmer Rouge, to this day.”


In Part 2 of this story (which runs tomorrow), we’ll meet two mothers who experienced the Khmer Rouge first-hand, and who are brave enough to speak not only of their experience then, but also of their struggles now to provide their own children with the affection they deserve.

The Cambodian Association of America’s “Rally Against Underage Drinking” takes place 6PM Friday, April 26, at CAA HQ: 2930 Pacific Ave., LB 90806. Info, music, free food, and more. For additional information (as if free food isn’t enough), call 562.988.1863 or visit

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