By Barbara Delbrouck
For nearly thirty years, Cambodians have fled their country. But a reverse trend seems to have started in the last few years. The children of those exiled have grown. Now adults, some have decided to return to Cambodia to work here, launch a project or create their company. Who are these Khmer from elsewhere and what are they looking for in the land of their ancestors? Ka-set met with them. First article in a two-part investigation.
“Caught” by Cambodia
The stories of “repat Khmer,” a nickname given to “repatriated Khmer” by some French people with Cambodian origins, often start with a trip. They discovered or rediscovered the country of their parents and decided to stay here. Temporarily or not. Such was the case of Auray Aun, deputy regional director of “Aid and Action,” a French NGO working in education. Eight years ago, he left a well-paid job in a PR firm in Paris to start an adventure with a friend: going round Asia and Latin America and meeting with NGOs working in education. The country of smiles was one of the places visited during their trip. “It was a very powerful time,” Auray recalled. “I was welcomed by my family and I really liked what I saw. The people, the country… It was magical. So much so that my travel companion was afraid I would stay. Of course, we finished the trip together, but by the end of my stay in Cambodia, it was clear to me I would come back to work here.”
It was also the case of Rapytha, a French-Khmer woman in her forties, who decided, after a trip in the region, including barely two days in Cambodia, to “come and give it a shot” here with her French husband and their two children. She has worked at the Phnom Penh airport for four years. “Now, we are here to settle for good. We stopped wondering every year whether we were going to go back.”
As for him, Franck Touch, whose mother is French and father Cambodian, came back to the land of his ancestors seven years ago and started the IT company Khmer Dev in Phnom Penh. During a tourist trip with his mother in 2001, she began searching for information on the family of her late husband, whom they had never heard from since they fled Cambodia in 1971. Carrying photographs, they travelled to his native province, Kampong Thom. There, Franck was reunited with his grandfather and discovered the existence of this large family, half of whose members died under the Khmer Rouge. “I will always remember it,” he recounted with emotion. “It triggered something, something in relation to Cambodia.” In the flight back to France, he decided he had to “do something in this country.” Director of an IT firm in France at the time, he resigned barely two months after his return. “The job didn’t matter. What mattered was the country. I wanted to come back to Cambodia at any cost.” In the end, Franck was sent by his bosses to start a subcontracting company.
Then, there are those who simply stayed longer than planned, like Putsata, a Khmer-American journalist: “I always told myself that for my 30th birthday, I would go back to the country where I was born. I didn’t know how, but I knew I had to find a way.” Indeed, as she blew her thirty candles, she received a one-year scholarship to do research abroad. During that year, she renewed with her family who had stayed in Cambodia and investigated land evictions in Ratanakiri province. “I simply fell in love with the country,” the journalist said enthusiastically. “There is something here that hooks you. Maybe it is the fact it is a beautiful country with a dark history. Maybe it is the landscape… Maybe it is a bit of everything, but in any case, I was caught and four and a half years later, I am still here.”
A role for the Khmer from the diaspora?
“There are different types of diaspora Khmer,” Auray Aun believed. “Some are searching for their identity. I think that is something all or most share. Others come to work and they already have something in mind, a life project or something. Then, there are those who feel rejected in France and come and look for something here.”
“I wanted to face my Khmer culture and discover this culture,” Putsata confirmed. “For the first time, I faced identity questions I did not in the States. I mean, you always have a few, but here, you are faced with them every single day. You have to deal with them and ask yourself: this morning, am I Khmer or American?”
It was also in search of his identity and the country he left ten years later that Rattana came back. After arriving in the States at 13, he had to struggle hard to catch up after seriously falling behind due to six years without school. “Everything I did, I did it to prove I wasn’t stupid,” the self-made-man confided with some pride in his voice. In 1990, after graduating from a mechanical engineer school, he returned for the first time to Cambodia, where he eventually decided to settle down. “There was so much to do here. I felt that, whatever I would do, it would always be to the benefit of society. […] The idea was to share what I knew so that, hopefully, some people would suffer less.”
For Putsata, it was simply a matter of assuming her share of “responsibility.” “We were lucky enough to be able to escape. So, we should return something back to the community. It is our country after all,” she said enthusiastically. Kosal, a Khmer from Belgium, shared her vision. “All the young people of the 1979-1980 generation have a very important role to play for Cambodia,” the young idealistic man considered. “We were born after the war. We had the opportunity to go to school. So, it’s people like us who should come back and give a hand.” With his cousins, Kosal created an organisation to help Cambodian orphans and was planning to come back to settle here as soon as he gathered the required funds.
Such exalted discourses made Hisham Mousar’s hair stand on end. “They [the young Khmer from the diaspora] ‘do not have’ a role to play, but they ‘can have’ a role to play,” protested the legal expert, in charge of a project at the Royal University of Law and Economics. “It is really hard to find yourself in an identity crisis. You must not create the feeling that young French-Cambodians must absolutely return to Cambodia, because it risks uprooting them as Cambodia is a foreign country to them. Their country is France,” Hisham hammered. In his view, if French-Cambodians “have a role to play” in Cambodia, it was essentially as French people, whilst having the advantage of being in a privileged situation to understand Cambodian society, if they wished to do so.
Watch out for neo-colonialism...
Davy Chou also considered this idea of “role” had to be taken “with a pinch of salt” to avoid falling into “some kind of colonialism.” “I feel like people arrive with some high ideas,” the French-Khmer movie director lamented. “There is a saviour stance I don’t like much.” That was why Davy insisted on keeping in mind he was here to learn as much as to give. “It helps me morally to know there is an exchange,” he confided. This view was shared by Rapytha, who sought to instil initiative within her colleagues at the airport, by stressing that foreigners also had things to learn.
For his part, Yoti Mousar found in Cambodia a place in society he had never managed to find in his host country. He arrived in France in 1981 at three and grew up in the suburbs, surrounded with foreigners like him. “I was completely deprived of any points of reference. I didn’t feel really French. We only saw foreigners. Not much to form an identity,” he recounted. After years of identity questions in France, he decided to settle in Cambodia. Now in charge of the IT service at the French Cultural Centre in Phnom Penh, Joty was elected delegate for the executives. But he relayed the requests of all employees to the management, in particular the Cambodians who sometimes struggled more to make themselves understood. “Here, I have the opportunity to mix a little with all kinds of social backgrounds. That’s more difficult in France. So, I found a way back to my roots as well as emancipation at the same time. That’s the paradox of my return.”
From the lack of interest to passion for a country: a post-traumatic symptom?
If a few days in this country were sometimes enough for them to decide to settle here, the very idea of a return could sometimes take years to mature in the minds of diaspora Khmer. “I never had any interest in Cambodia,” said Davy, who came back for a one-year project. “Until I turned 22, I barely ever asked any questions to my parents about the past, which sounds crazy to me now. There must have been a block unconsciously.” Interviewed four months after his arrival, Davy already knew his story with Cambodia was not over: “I know that my life will be changed by it. That is something I hadn’t planned. Yet, it was obvious. One year in your parents’ country while you’d never left France…”
As for him, Hisham Mousar had a love-hate relationship with his native country before managing to reach a balance. Until he turned 19, he hated anything Asian. “Like it was second quality,” he confessed. But when he returned to Cambodia for the first time in 1994, he completely fell in love with the country… and one of its inhabitants, whom he married. From detestation, he then moved to a period of idealisation of his native country. “I was going through a kind of cultural terrorism, when I thought only with extremes,” the thirty-something analysed, both alarmed and amused. Back in France with his wife, in addition to his law studies, he joined the Institut national de langues et de civilisations orientales (INALCO), where he learned the Khmer language and civilisation. He got wholeheartedly involved in associations, considering that the Cambodian youth lacked representation in France. With other French-Cambodians (though he had a personal preference for the term “French with Cambodian origins”), he participated, among others, to the creation of the Union of the Cambodian Section Students at the INALCO, the organisation Asia-Youth Aid, the magazine “L'Ecrit d'Angkor” and the social website “The Young Khmer.” After three years of identity crisis, Hisham found his balance by putting his musings in writing. “What healed me was telling myself I had only one receiver, one brain. It had been made in France, so I was French,” he concluded. “From then on, I stopped asking myself questions about my identity.”
In a nine-page text, the legal expert sought to demonstrate that the young French with Cambodian origins were essentially French. In his view, if they did not really become aware of their Cambodian identity, that was because they had “no incentive” to do so. First, because of the country’s tragic past, which broke the passing of memory. “You cannot be drawn to something you don’t know or understand,” he argued. In addition, the country’s development state would stir a feeling of inferiority among young Khmer in France. Yet, highlighting their French identity, their “French national intelligence,” could instead enable them, in his view, to turn the tables on that inferiority which was an unfair burden on them.
A difficult return for the family
For the parents, it was not easy to understand why their children wanted to return to the country they struggled so much to leave. Many never came back and retained an idea of the country that was sometimes at complete odds with reality. That was Putsata’s experience when she returned to Cambodia the first time. “It was not at all that dangerous place they [my parents] had described me! War is long over now, but that was the last image they kept from Cambodia. So they will always associate the country with war and suffering.”
Others, like Davy’s parents, thought it was a waste of time their child did not have to “inflict” upon him or herself. “She [my mother] felt like it was a debt I was paying them, some kind of returning the favour because they provided me with education,” he still remembered with astonishment.
That their child settle in Cambodia was paradoxically often the opportunity for the parents to overcome their trauma and dare to set foot for the first time again in their home country, like for Putsata’s parents. “They are starting to understand and renew with the country in a way they may never have, if I hadn’t come here. I think they needed a reason to come.”
The return was never easy for the exiled, who discovered a country totally different from the one they left. A country safer than they had imagined, but that no longer had anything to do with the place of their childhood. Some also left disillusioned by the state of the country and tended to “paint a black picture.” Davy was able to observe these reactions in his parents during their first return. Of his three months in the country, his father only retained the extreme poverty, but he later suggested going back with their family. On the opposite, his mother reacted almost too well. “She would tell me lots of things. She was amazed by everything. She would speak to everyone in the street…”, Davy remembered. But on the third day, she suffered the after-effects and confided to her son she felt like she had “overplayed her euphoria” and she “no longer found her place.” It took her three weeks to regain some optimism.
Different areas of work, but the same vision
Auray Aun was one of those many Khmer from the diaspora who decided to get involved in the NGO sector. “I wanted to participate to the development trend, but that can happen in more than one way,” he hurriedly specified. “My brother would like to come back to start a business and also contribute to the economic development.”
Entrepreneur Franck Touch would not disagree with that point of view. He precisely lamented the heavy tendency of Khmer from the diaspora to go and work in NGOs. In his view, the high number of NGOs in Cambodia created a double-edged situation in which Cambodians would prefer to get a job in an organisation because it was perceived to be better paid and less intensive, rather than in the private sector. The businessman deemed the trend sterile on the long run: “That is not good at all for Cambodia. The best thing to do is to boost the country: create assets in the economy, give work to young executives, accompany them, train them, create an elite.” Kosal followed this advice, as he wishes to train high-skilled welders when he starts his own metal construction company.
In addition to their work, some were involved in activities allowing them to share their skills. For instance, Rattana started a family farming business with the aim to “show the example” and prove that Cambodians have the capacity to “make money with agriculture,” like other countries in the region.
The right time to come back?
Franck did not hesitate to advise Khmer from the diaspora to come back. He believed it was the right time because the country was safe for over ten years and the needs in human resources, driven by economic growth, were huge. “It is easier to get out of the crisis here,” the businessman asserted positively.
In any case, Khmer from the diaspora would not return to their roots without an economic advantage to do so, according to Chhaya, director of the NGO Khmer Institute of Democracy (KID). “There are only a handful of people who come and say they will be happy to earn just enough to go by,” the Khmer from Australia claimed. Joty, whose salary is higher than a local staff but much lower than expats’, acknowledged that material perks were not insignificant: “Here, in Cambodia, I rent a 100m2 flat. I could never have dreamed about it in France.”
An easy life? Rapytha insisted on warning diaspora Khmer against any illusion of an easy life in Cambodia. By focusing too much on this material comfort, some risked ending up “trapped,” abandoning a return to France, not out of attachment to Cambodia but fear of not enjoying a similar lifestyle. Frank Touch was also keen to issue such a warning and he encouraged diaspora Khmer to return to Cambodia, but “only if they really love the country. Not just because they are fed up with France or the States…”
(translated from French by Ji-Sook Lee)
The second part of this investigation “To be or not to be Khmer: the diaspora’s difficult return to Cambodia” (2/2) will be published tomorrow, Friday September 11th 2009