The culture of Cambodia is an exotic and fascinating one, combining a great number of spiritual and religious beliefs to form a central and cohesive part of its culture. The people of Cambodia enjoy a rich and vibrant society, filled with music, architecture, and spirituality that has lasted for millennia. Despite having been ousted from their country due to a horrifying genocide in the 1970s, Cambodian-Americans manage to find ways to express their culture in myriad ways in America. By exploring the long and storied history and culture of Cambodia, it is possible to understand just how to relate to Cambodians both in their native land and in the United States.
Cambodian-American culture carries with it many elements and facets from native Cambodian culture, making them still deeply connected to their roots. One place in which they set themselves apart is their religion – the Khmer system of belief is an amalgam of many different religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, and has many roots in indigenous animism – while most Cambodians are native Buddhist, others carry elements of these other faiths within their own culture. These religions are alive and well in the Cambodian diaspora – many are still Khmer Theravada Buddhism, known as “The Way of the Elders.” Cambodians in particular focus heavily on the concept of karma, in which events in one life will affect their life situation in the next. Because everything is impermanent, Cambodians characterize their lives by their unease, or anicca, and denotes life as suffering. One particular tradition that is maintained is the merit transfer ceremonies that many Khmer families will perform to save the family members they know who were killed under Pol Pot’s regime – this is done to increase their merit and provide a better chance for them to be reborn as something greater. Despite this, there are few Khmer Buddhist temples in the United States, so it is difficult for traditions to be continued in any meaningful way. Instead, normal Buddhism is used as a substitute the majority of the time, temples acting as community centers and cultural adaptation hubs.
In terms of their art, Cambodians have a centuries-long affinity for crafts and sculpture. Textile-based art is substantially popular in Cambodian art, as silk weaving is a particularly beautiful and ornate way of expressing light and color for the Cambodians. Silk weaving has been around since the 1st century, and is used one of two ways – the ikat technique is a complicated way to create patterns in fabric, and the ‘uneven twill’ technique incorporates one or two color fabrics to create silks. Cambodian dyes are typically naturally extracted from flowers and plants.
Cambodian Americans exert a lot of effort to maintaining a link to their culture, and music is no exception. Cambodian music is a multifaceted and unique genre of music which is closely tied to their native culture. The most traditional kind of music ensemble in Cambodian music is the areak ka, which typically performs the vast majority of wedding and religious events. These ensembles use unique instruments, including gongs, barrel drums, zithers, dulcimers, three-stringed fiddles, and more, and produces a very specific sound that is not replicated anywhere else in world music. Music is often used to express cultural and religious history – one popular dance is the “masked dance,” telling a story from the Ramayana in which a group of dancers wear masks and play characters from this historical Indian tale. Another type of dance is the “court dance,” which is a form of classical ballet employed by Cambodians – something which is finding a cultural foothold in the United States.
In conclusion, the culture of Cambodian is a rich and storied one, and it remains largely intact in the diaspora of the United States. Having faced a rough history of persecution and genocide in the 1970s, their emigration to America has yielded a fascinating presence of Cambodian culture on this side of the world. While resources are scarce for practicing their religion, Cambodians still practice Khmer Buddhism as much as they can. Their art (especially their silk weaving) remains an important expression of Cambodian culture, even in America. Meanwhile, their musical traditions are also alive and well, using areak ka ensembles and traditional instruments often. These elements combine to create a subculture within America that manages to hold on to a great deal of its native traditions.
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