Khmer American: Identity and Moral Education in a Diasporic Community. (Book Reviews: Social Anthropology)

By Rosenthal, Mila | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Khmer American: Identity and Moral Education in a Diasporic Community. (Book Reviews: Social Anthropology)


Rosenthal, Mila, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


SMITH-HEFNER, NANCY J. Khmer American: identity and moral education in a diasporic community. xx, 237 pp., illus., table, bibliogr. London, Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1999. [pounds sterling]42.00 (cloth), [pounds sterling]14.95 (paper)

How does a minority ethnic group maintain its cultural distinctiveness in a dominant society? This is the question that Smith-Hefner asks about Cambodians who have settled in the United States since the demise of the Khmer Rouge regime. Among the Southeast Asian refugee communities in the United States, Cambodians are among the least successful at adapting and assimilating, according to measures of educational and economic achievement. Smith-Hefner looks closer at the Khmer American experience of adaptation and resistance to adaptation. She focuses on the experiences and expectations of an older generation of Cambodian Americans in their struggle to raise their children according to Cambodian belief and practice; she calls it 'adaptation viewed through the optic of childhood socialization'.

Smith-Hefner uses both structural and ideological developments to trace the experience of the Khmer Americans she studied in Boston and nearby towns. ('Khmer' is usually used interchangeably with 'Cambodian', although technically it represents only the ethnic majority in Cambodia.) For example, she describes the practical problems involved in building Buddhist temples and temple communities in an urban American setting, where adherents must commute by car to the temple and providing temple land and space is expensive. Since temples are not large enough to house young novices and families do not live near them, the Cambodian practice of sending young men to the temple to study as monks for extended periods of time has almost disappeared. …

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