The Surprising Difficulty of Being a Cambodian American Geek

Author holds a Cambodian flag.

Being a Cambodian-American geek is harder than it looks.

I am a Cambodian American. Okay, technically, I’m an Asian mix of Cambodian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai, but I identify with being Cambodian because both my parents are originally from Cambodia. I’m also a nerd, having gone full bore into otaku geekdom and mostly inhabiting the immense rabbit hole that is video-gaming subculture. Sadly for my wallet, it’s barely surviving my being both a nerd and professional musical artist, but I digress.

I love almost all things Japanese, from anime and music to the language and culture. And the cosplay. Oh the cosplay. I’ve also observed the many cultural similarities among the many countries located in that part of Asia. While I could go on and on for hours about the similarities and differences between Japanese and Cambodian culture, I’m not here to talk about that. Actually, I wanted to provide some interesting insight that I’ve gained having observed Cambodian American attitudes and interactions towards geek culture in my years. Unfortunately, due to the well-known stereotypes of Asian Americans—and, ultimately, there’s some truth behind those stereotypes—the average or “typical” Cambodian American often doesn’t view the geek and nerd subcultures very favorably.

I’d like to preface this by saying that a lot of my observations are from a subjective viewpoint given my personal interactions in the ethnic Cambodian community within Minnesota and within my family, as well as what I’ve seen happen to others. Despite that, I’ve observed enough patterns to notice some interesting recurrences. While I can definitely say without a shadow of a doubt that the first generation of American-born Cambodian-Americans are generally more open to and accepting of most things, including geek culture—and, as they reach adulthood and have children of their own, the members of the following generation have developed a similar mindset—the same simply cannot be said for the generation before mine, who escaped near-certain death in their home country. (More on that in a moment.) There are a lot of reasons the previous generation has problems and prejudices against geek and nerd culture, but it generally boils down to criticism in four specific categories: money, time, higher education, and cultural conflict (mainly cultural appropriation in that last category, but it can manifest itself in different ways).

I’ll go ahead and say this now: it’s pretty tough to be a Cambodian American nerd.

The Value of Money

In 1975, a communist guerrilla force stormed the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and overthrew the capital and government. This force was known as the Khmer Rouge, and between 1975 and 1979, they would orchestrate the third-worst genocide recorded in human history, killing an estimated and staggering 1.7 million to 3 million out of an overall population of 8 million people. Cambodia wasn’t a wealthy country in the last century to begin with, but the Khmer Rouge obviously didn’t help matters. Many who came from Cambodia were from small villages prior to the Khmer Rouge, and what little they had was stripped of them before they escaped the country and fled to Thailand, subsequently finding their way to the USA and France to start anew from essentially nothing. This means that for better or worse, a lot of Cambodians prioritize making money and are often critical of people who have a lot of it and spend it frivolously.

Of course, being a nerd is hardly an inexpensive endeavor, and especially given my love of anime merchandise, I’ve found myself at cons spending much more money than I should on things like plushies, blind boxes, trading cards, and, likely in the future, figures. (Curse those adorable little Nendoroids.) While it’s not as much of an issue anymore nowadays, when I was young and had money from working what was a well-paying job for a teenager at the time, I bought many video games and anime DVDs with my money, which didn’t sit well with my parents. I would often get heavily scolded and lectured—sometimes outright grounded, and for months on end—for buying one of these items. They would constantly drill it into my head that I had too much useless stuff and threatened to take it and give it to the less fortunate “back home” or trash it. Because of that, I ended up missing some of the greatest PlayStation 2 games of all time, which even now I kick myself for not playing. But, given that my parents came from a country that was mostly open jungle, rice paddies, and small villages with “meager” houses by Western standards, I could see why they valued money. Seeing me spending it on “temporary” things (which is what my dad called my purchasing the first two DVDs for the anime Gunslinger Girl) just irked them greatly. They said I was wasting or throwing away my money when I should have been saving it, which I had already been doing as well, putting money aside into a savings account with interest with their full knowledge.

A small part of the author's anime merch collection and custom PC in the background.

It doesn’t look like much, but barring my custom-built PC in the background, I’ve spent more on anime and video game merchandise than just about anything else. Of course, the custom PC wasn’t cheap either. (Not pictured: my shame.)

While this could be dismissed as a single case, I can say confidently that it’s not just my parents. I’ve been to many Cambodian gatherings and have seen a lot of the same from other families: parents, in front of guests, questioning and ridiculing the purchases that their children have made and saying that they’re pointless or useless. I’ve even seen a Cambodian mom grab her son’s CDs from his room and throw them into the trash while guests watched—and, more disturbing, a lot of the other adults cheered and commended such behavior. I would then be warned by my own parents that I shouldn’t spend money so freely lest I end up like that unfortunate soul. I lived in constant fear that the next video game or movie I bought would be brought out and trashed in front of me, so I ended up buying things in secret. It’s a fear that even stays with me me today, despite being 27 years old as of this writing.

Nowadays, I generally avoid Cambodian parties, even going so far as avoiding Cambodian cultural events. I became disillusioned at the Cambodian New Year celebration, as almost all of the events were shameless and blatant cash grabs. Even the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota, which is supposed to be a nonprofit, prioritizes making money for Cambodian cultural events over highlighting Cambodian culture in the Western world. Not everyone is like this, obviously, but it feels as though whenever there’s a large Cambodian cultural event, the ones in charge only care about money. As a matter of fact, both my parents, who are performers and well versed in Cambodian cultural music and dance, will no longer work with many Cambodian organizations because they have been taken advantage of in the past, all in the name of money. It’s part of the reason my parents and I no longer participate in the Festival of Nations, despite having performed there in the past.

If someone is going to criticize me using my extra spending money on things that I love and love to do, especially if they themselves are taking advantage of people for money, then frankly I’m just not going to interact with them. They’re not worth my time. And unfortunately, money isn’t the only thing older generation finds fault in.

The Value of Time

Growing up, my parents didn’t really allow me to have a social life until my senior year in high school. Of course, that’s what likely led to my secretly destructive behavior in high school and my severe insecurities and “loner” tendencies as an adult. Their reasoning was that I shouldn’t be wasting time socializing and should focus on school. Granted, I understand that education is important, and I’m thankful for what I did learn and retain, but it was at a ridiculous level at home. I was expected to read a minimum of two hours each night (I wasn’t allowed to read comics, manga, or graphic novels either unless it was required at school), and triple-check 100 percent of my homework after I completed it every night. At the same time, I had a mandatory bedtime of 8:00 p.m. despite being a teenager. Given that I was taking high-level classes at the time, I would have a minimum of four hours of homework daily, not including the time it took to go back and check it, plus the reading time.

The only things I was allowed to focus on outside of school work were music and church. I was allowed to listen to music while I toiled away and was allowed to learn musical instruments, but only if it didn’t interfere with study time. If it did, I had to put down whatever instrument I was learning and do my mandatory reading. The same could be said about church youth group. I always looked forward to Wednesday nights because I could cut loose and rock it on the bass guitar (the main instrument I played at the time) and didn’t have to worry about homework or being in bed by 8:00. Sadly, despite being well respected in my youth group as the best bass player, I distanced myself from everyone in it because I felt as though I just couldn’t spend time with them; I was too busy stuck in that ridiculous schedule and still seen as an outcast. And my parents would wonder why I became so attached to video games and anime. Not being allowed to go out left me with little else to do in what little free time I had. I should also point out I graduated in the top 25 percent of my class, despite failing six classes overall in high school.

Having said all that, I probably had it easy. My cousin’s family on my dad’s side not only had mandatory three-hour reading times as well as times set aside for doing and checking homework, but they were also required to dedicate themselves to an extracurricular activity. Granted, unlike my parents, they let their kids go out and socialize with others and had flexible bed times, so maybe I didn’t have it easy at all.

Tying in with the mentality of not wasting time, a lot of Cambodians also view complaining, no matter how legitimate or merited, as a colossal waste of time and an unnecessary burden to others. The only time you should speak up is if there’s a major problem, and even then, don’t bring it up unless it’s life threatening. This has caused a major rift between me and my parents, because as a musical lyricist, I want to bring to light issues that I feel strongly about, especially my insecurities and asocial tendencies, and social issues that plague the Cambodian community, such as the high rates of crime and suicide. My parents view that as a form of complaining and believe that I should just bite my tongue and be a hard worker in a “real” job. I think at his point they’ve given up trying to convince me and just accept that I don’t just want to rock the boat, I want to sink it, but again I digress.

Looking back, it’s understandable that my parents and a lot of other Cambodian parents wanted to instill in their kids the value of constantly improving themselves and continuing to learn. At the same time, though, I don’t think stifling a child socially in the name of education or knowledge is the right way to go about it. This brings me to my next point.

College Bound

Cambodians very highly value higher education. Again, Cambodia isn’t known for its wealth, and thus the country’s public education is severely lacking except for those in the upper class. Given the widespread opportunities to acquire a higher education in the US, Cambodians emphasize higher education almost to an extreme fanaticism. However, this quickly becomes a problem for Cambodian American children who manage to make it through high school, as a lot of parents unfortunately fall into the stereotype of being overbearing Asian parents. The image portrayed in Western media that Asian parents want their kids to be doctors, engineers, architects, or other technical high-paying careers is much truer than I’d like to admit.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I had decided that I wanted to be a gunsmith. I had, and still have to a lesser degree, an obsession with firearms. My parents, instead, wanted me to enroll in a prestigious school such as MIT and major in something related to computers. And they insisted on this quite heavily. Funnily enough, I decided to join the military and enlisted in the US Army, which threw a major wrench in their plans. Unfortunately, or fortunately looking back in hindsight, I was injured and discharged and found myself back home. And it all began again. I still wanted to be a gunsmith, my parents still wanted me to study something computer related, and we’d get into arguments about what I wanted to do versus what I “should” do. I ended up giving in to their pressure, applying for college, and majoring in information technology despite wanting nothing to do with it. To make matters worse, my parents had said they would pay for my college education—but after I spent all that time and graduated with the degree I never wanted, it turned out that weren’t going to pay for my tuition after all. I threw my degree in my parents’ faces, and needless to say, they were livid. A year after my graduation, miserable and bordering on suicidal working in an industry I never wanted to be a part of in the first place, I quit my day job to become a professional musical artist, much to my parents’ chagrin. My dad stopped trying and now instead encourages me to chase my dreams as long as I make enough to pay my bills, but my mom still tries to convince me to go back to working in IT. I’ve sworn that I’ll never work in the IT industry ever again, instead opting to use my computer skills to fuel my geeky obsessions and improve creatively and musically. The irony in all of this is that my dad is a professional drummer and my mom is one of the few still-living masters of Cambodian dance.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I’ve seen this happen to so many other Cambodian Americans in my generation. While I know it’s pretty messed up, I can’t really help them. It’s simply too late. While this is true to some degree in all ethnicities, I feel awful knowing that there are so many like me in the community who were heavily pressured to go to school to study something that they never wanted to do. Even those who are now actually doing what they love are saddled with the time they wasted and the crippling debt accumulated in the pursuit of degrees and certifications that ended up being meaningless to them. I’ve seen it escalate to the point where parents have disowned their own children for not following up their degrees with the accompanying careers, leaving the child resenting their parents the rest of their life. Of course in saying that, it’s those people I’ve had the good fortune to meet, because they embraced the things they loved and refuse to look back, feeling like they’re free to pursue what they love without abandon.

Don’t get me wrong—higher education is important and beneficial. But it doesn’t truly benefit the student if it’s in a subject that they don’t care about or outright hate. I unfortunately learned that the hard way.

Preserving Culture

Lastly—and this is the only point I actually agree with to a degree—is the fact that older Cambodians fear their culture will be forgotten in the following generations. While for some ethnicities, claims like that can be a little overblown, it’s a lot more justified in the case of Cambodians. The reason comes down to everything that has happened in the last 60 years: the terrible genocide and subsequent conflicts all but killed the culture in Cambodia, and now the country struggles with a cultural-identity crisis since a lot of documented history was almost destroyed. So the fear isn’t unfounded, and I agree that I really shouldn’t forget my people’s history, but I also shouldn’t constantly feel guilty whenever someone keeps telling me I should be spending time researching Cambodia’s history instead of composing music or watching anime. I do have pride in my heritage, but not obsessively so. To be clear, unlike the other things I’ve discussed here, this isn’t something my parents get on me about; they’re aware that they have enough stories to fill a lifetime of documentaries and books. The criticism for this actually comes from people outside of my family.

Another big reason I no longer go to Cambodian gatherings is that whenever someone who speaks a lot of English finds out I’m a geek and a nerd, they immediately go into a tirade that all the time I spent getting into the nerdy things I like could’ve been spent instead on immersing myself in the culture and relearning the language. This has happened so often that I have little desire to visit Cambodia despite my Khmer pride because I got so sick of people telling me that I had to go to Cambodia in order to never forget its history. When I politely state that I don’t desire to go to Cambodia, they immediately begin to criticize me for not caring at all about my culture and begin insulting me for being one of those “whitewashed nerds” who care more about Japan than Cambodia and are “too good for their own people.” Remember how I said I have pride in being Cambodian? Well, I’m ashamed to admit that I may have gotten physical a few times because of people saying things like that.

Related to not forgetting the culture, my grandfather on my mom’s side, Bun Loeung, was an internationally recognized master musician and one of the only surviving grandmasters of Cambodian music before his death. He received a large grant from the Bush Foundation and traveled all over the world, performing Cambodian cultural music and fusing it with Western styles. Upon his death in 2007, he was featured in an article on the front page of the local section of the Pioneer Press. Many people in the Cambodian community who had considered me a musical prodigy due to being his grandson asked me whether I was going to continue his musical legacy. I politely stated that I wouldn’t, that I instead wanted to focus on my own artistry, and it led to many of them going to my parents to say that I didn’t care about my own culture and that they should disown me or at least reprimand me. Of course this angered my dad, but not because I didn’t want to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps—he understood that I felt I could never be anywhere near as capable a musician as my grandfather, and I still feel that way. He was angry because he himself is a professional drummer well versed in modern Cambodian pop and Western drumming styles. It was at that moment that my dad began to understand my struggles being distinctly more American than Cambodian in the community and why being different has made my life much more difficult than he realized.

Author poses with a Taylor acoustic guitar at a Guitar Center.

I love making music and all my musical instruments, which I refer to as my “Tier Zero Waifus,” and they all have names and distinct personalities. It should also be noted this is the only selfie I’ve ever taken in my life.

I would also like to point out that I do love Cambodian musical instruments and plan on bringing some of that sound into my own musical artistry and I clearly stated this to the community. Unfortunately, this isn’t good enough to many Cambodians familiar with my grandfather’s music.

The Community of Geekdom

At the end of the day, though, I’m still a nerd and an artist in my own right. Despite the negativity, I do credit the difficulty of dealing with the Cambodian community with making me thick skinned enough to withstand haters throwing insults my way, which is especially necessary in today’s Internet-connected world. Those same kinds of harsh criticisms have also fueled my compassion for other nerds and geeks who’ve undergone similar treatment in their own communities or from their own families. I can empathize in ways that I didn’t previously realize I could. Thankfully, the geek community has been more accommodating to me than any other community I’ve been a part of and has allowed me to not only explore my creative avenues, but also open up to people for the first time in my life and show that underneath my quiet and oft-intimidating demeanor, I have my waifus and love for cosplayers and an unhealthy obsession with music. While it’s tough being a nerd from a community that places a lot of its value in making money, it’s made me who I am today. And now I find myself privileged to write for an awesome site like Twin Cities Geek.

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