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CAMD Scholar Kuoch Urges Education about Khmer Rouge and 1970s Cambodian Genocide

CAMD Scholar Kim Kuoch ’09, in her presentation “Cambodian Immigrants in America” Wednesday night in Kemper Auditorium, set out to find exactly why Cambodian immigrants encounter so many challenges, particularly in education. Kuoch’s parents immigrated to the US from Cambodia in the 1980s and had educational experiences different from her own, she said. They were eventually able to attend high school and college in the US, but the process was very difficult. Resettlement programs placed them at their high schools, but one social worker helped Kuoch’s mother attend a public school in the suburbs of a much higher caliber than those in the cities. Kuoch said that her parents have always had high expectations for her, which differs from the traditional attitude of Cambodian parents that children should make their own life decisions, including in education. This philosophy stems from the influence of Theravada Buddhism, which believes that individuals should find their way to nirvana without any outside influences. Kuoch’s mother grew up in the Cambodian city Phnom Penh and received no education before coming to the US, while her father grew up in rural Cambodia and received some basic schooling. They both lived through the genocide that occurred under the Khmer Rouge, a Communist regime that killed about two million people between 1975 and 1979. Kuoch said that, at the time, few in the Western world were aware of the genocide because no one was allowed to enter or leave Cambodia. Both of Kuoch’s parents worked in Khmer Rouge labor camps, but do not like to discuss it. In concluding her presentation, Kuoch outlined a few solutions to the problems plaguing Cambodian immigrants in America. Kuoch said it is necessary to generate social awareness, among not just Cambodian Americans, but all Americans, about Cambodia. She also suggested that if Cambodian Americans begin to understand the US government better and vote, they can make their attitudes known to policy-makers no matter how small their numbers, she said. Finally, Kuoch said increasing American education about the Khmer Rouge genocide will prevent Cambodians from being an overlooked and ignored group. Another point that Kuoch stressed in her presentation was a divergence from viewing all Asian Americans as “The Model Minority,” a term first used in a 1966 New York Times article that continues to have far-reaching implications. While this may seem like a complimentary expression at first glance, it actually has many negative implications and consequences, Kuoch said. Kuoch said the use of the term causes tension between Asian Americans and other minority groups. It also results in Asian Americans being generalized, including the fostering of stereotypes that can lead to bullying in school or hinder promotion in the workplace. Kuoch’s faculty advisor, Aya Murata, Advisor to Asian and Asian American Students, said that Asians in the United States are often unfairly lumped together in a broad group despite their diversity and different ethnicities. Murata added that she is sometimes asked to assess the collective opinion of all Asian and Asian American students, but she can’t, because this would require her to understand the wide range of views that this segment of the school population, approximately 20 percent, holds. However, she said, at Phillips Academy there is a lot of pride for specific nationalities, which has the effect of creating awareness about diversity within a given ethnicity. Socheata Poeuv’s screening of her documentary, “New Year Baby,” last Friday served as a good introduction to her presentation, Kuoch said. Kuoch’s presentation was followed by conversations about culture and immigration led by Community Awareness For Everyone (CAFÉ) student leaders.