About face: the Cambodian diaspora increasingly turns to its roots

Leading integration projects with senior executives on Wall Street as a 20-something is a far cry from receiving public assistance while growing up in Boston’s inner city. It’s the unlikely but true story of Nanda Neng, a business management professional by day who spent her nights behind the turntables at Scratch DJ Academy. In fact, she jokingly credits rapper Drake for putting her life mantra to music: “Started from the bottom and now we here.” And “here” for her now is Cambodia—in September 2013, she left her high-profile job to move to the motherland, hoping to positively make impact on a deserving people.

Those who can claim a multicultural or multinational background have a natural tendency to ask themselves about what life would be like on the other side of a passport stamp. Cambodian Americans have faced that question both involuntarily, in cases of deportation, and of their own will, to visit relatives, do sightseeing, or volunteer. But some are now choosing to relocate to Cambodia to pursue their own career development while also helping build capacity among the native population. It is a decision not just about cultural identity but the opportunity to make something of oneself while contributing to society.

Neng is a recent example of this trend. She recalls the exact moment it became clear she would leave her high-profile job and Brooklyn apartment, just minutes away from the metro and endless options for fine dining, entertainment venues, and shopping.

“When I looked up onto the stage, all of the women shared my face. For the first time ever, I understood what someone meant when they told me I had a typical Khmer face,” said Neng, who was attending a dance performance in New York City last year, part of a festival celebrating Cambodian arts. “I didn’t grow up in the Khmer community, so I didn’t know what was considered ‘typical Khmer’ anything.”

This reaction, a moment of recognition in something that has been in the background all along, is perhaps what drives many to “return” to Cambodia—except that they have only been there through the memories of their parents or other older family members. Still, stories from the past are powerful fuel for the imagination of individuals of Khmer heritage but living outside Cambodia. They can be called expatriates, returnees, or even aneakajun, the Khmer word for foreign-born Cambodians.

It is a phenomenon that spans generations of the Cambodian diaspora, from college students making philanthropic trips to retirees who find that the land they fled as refugees is now a different but still comforting place. There has also been some research about the experiences of voluntary returnees that found different trends based on the countries they immigrated to.

For Neng, as a second-generation Cambodian American, the lure of Cambodia is not only personal but professional as well. This is not the first time she has made such a big career-oriented move. While working at Harvard Business School several years ago, she got a call one Thursday afternoon about an opportunity in New York City. Three days later, she was headed there on the bus with a duffel bag in hand, calling local friends while en route to make temporary living arrangements. Having been born and raised in Boston, she had only visited New York briefly once before relocating there.

Little did she know that it would be the start of a series of analyst and management roles with top financial services firms like Morgan Stanley and AIG. More than ten years later, New York had become her response to every “Where are you from?” inquiry. Yet Neng is more interested in what she has found in Cambodia than what she left behind in New York.

“Cambodia is more than remnants of a land recovering from a brutal civil war. It’s a beautiful place waiting for but working toward the purge of corruption to make way for stability and replenish its previous beauty,” Neng said. “Cambodia is a country that births rare and innate heroes, many of whom have climbed over the highest walls of adversity to find success.”

Her first time in Cambodia was when she arrived for long-term relocation. At one point during seven months thus far of working with a nonprofit in Phnom Penh, a colleague there challenged her to address a need they both saw—better preparing Cambodian students for the workforce. In response, Neng and her co-worker are currently developing a business mentorship program, which would be a series of workshops and speakers to give local youth the knowledge they need to present themselves more effectively to employers.

This endeavor has not been easy, with challenges ranging from resource and partnership constraints to cultural differences in a land completely new to her. She is in the midst of obtaining support and sponsorship now but is unsure of its future. While the program, if launched, will aim to get the students to think harder about what they want out of their careers, Neng is also keen to get the diaspora community to see the country in a different, non-depressive light.

She would like to show them how it looks now and how its people live, and she wants others to consider it as a viable place to apply their skills in support of local development. If seeing is believing, then she hopes a special project produced in New York City with support from an international team will soon televise Cambodia so that people can get a look at life in Southeast Asia’s kingdom of wonder. She claims that this is her way of keeping Cambodia on people’s radar.

There is a strong precedent for the notion that a nation’s community beyond its own borders should go to see it for themselves. Taglit-Birthright Israel is an organization that has sponsored free trips to Israel for thousands of young Jewish adults to encourage their connection to Jewish culture and history. A similar Cambodian initiative could be especially formative in increasing social and economic ties between the worldwide Khmer community.

Most informal first-time visits to the motherland focus on personal discovery, but many visitors are struck by a sense of wanting to do what they can to help Cambodians help themselves. Major areas of interest include protecting human rights and the environment, as well as reforming the administrative/political system to ensure fair prospects for all levels of society.

Statistics about expatriates in Cambodia are not available, and counting those of Khmer heritage is even more elusive. But there are a number of academic, medical, and youth groups that make the trip every year and bring some Cambodian Americans into direct experience with the country, so they can live it for themselves instead of vicariously. This, along with a generous visa policy for those with Khmer parentage, may in turn be priming for longer-term stays.

According to official data from 2010 and 2011, the largest Khmer populations outside of Cambodia are in the United States and France, with approximately 275,000 and 80,000 people of Khmer ethnicity, respectively. The Khmer Australian population is substantial as well, at 28,000. Although average standards of living are much higher in those countries compared to Cambodia, it seems that a pool of individuals exists, especially those in the early phase of their careers, who could benefit from Cambodia’s relatively lower barriers of entry into professional/business spaces.

This is not to imply that foreign qualifications should automatically be preferred over local ones in Cambodia. True engagement with native Cambodians is key in the sustainability of any endeavor, since expats may leave at any time, which can mean a complete loss of progress if there is no proper plan for handover to competent Cambodians.

Neng recognizes the dilemma and is confident it can be overcome. It’s why she wants to include leadership training in the mentorship program she hopes to create, along with speeches by inspirational Cambodians. Although some might only see the final outcome for such people and think success can happen overnight, Neng is not afraid of failure: “I can fail a thousand times and be okay, because I woke up and I tried.”

Given her success, those who do not know her might assume she’s had a privileged life, but according to Neng, her privilege is actually her education and experience, which have given her the cognitive flexibility to take what she has learned in one situation and apply it in a different one to make rapid progress. And success doesn’t really happen overnight—it takes careful planning and consistent hard work despite setbacks. Neng’s own transition from first-world luxuries to third-world realities has surprised her in terms of the difference in productivity levels. The professional infrastructure is clearly different, and therefore achieving her goals in this environment has been more difficult than it would have been previously.

For example, a major goal at Neng’s job in Cambodia has been to implement a new staff allocation system. As part of that, she found a software application to automate a cumbersome manual process for dealing with spreadsheets, creating an efficiency for the team. She has also taught the employees to think more strategically about their work process and tools. Neng believes that just the fact of her presence as a ranking woman in itself has sent a message to the office’s young female staff, who have seen her poise and self-assurance each day on the job.

Thinking about efficiency carries over into her everyday interactions as well. Usually, silence is not a form of negotiation, but for Neng, it is. She makes direct eye contact with tuk-tuk drivers, her head slightly tilts in skepticism, and she remains quiet until they feel compelled to provide a fair price. If not, she doesn’t waste time—she walks away, having considered whether it’s even worth negotiating to begin with. “Are we still talking?” she asks those who try to keep haggling after first quoting an unreasonable amount.

But that tough-minded approach is how she maneuvers through life and trains others to as well. As a mentor, she tends to favor the disadvantaged, and on some occasions she has even drafted communication for them to ensure a favorable outcome. This is the sort of skill she hopes to instill in the young business leaders of Cambodia, so they can be ready to compete with neighboring countries. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is set for regional economic integration next year, as Neng is aware, giving such training a greater sense of urgency.

Indeed, the economic picture in Cambodia and among the Cambodian diaspora is often overlooked, while cultural/artistic pursuits and historical studies are the focus of much attention. Returning to Cambodia to teach English, for instance, can be a meaningful experience for not only the teacher (who ideally has credentials in language education) but for locals, if what is emphasized is the importance of Cambodians being able to communicate internationally for their own advancement. If more returnees thought about their work as a potential way to address the country’s fundamental need for better economic opportunities, the results could be even longer-lasting.

Of course, there is room for all types of visits and visions, and they can work together to have an effect that would be impossible without creative yet critical thinking. Such was the case for a 2012 documentary called “A River Changes Course” that combined the art of filmmaking with a desire to show the daily struggles of average Cambodians, raising profound questions about modernization and the sustainability of old versus new ways of earning a living.

As for Neng, she has her own standard for a good livelihood. “Career success is maximizing yourself intellectually and/or creatively while also maintaining accountability for your personal life, as in finances and family. To achieve it, you get up every time you fail and surround yourself with those who are smarter or more skilled than you are,” said Neng. “We have a lot to learn from everyone else, and ignoring that opportunity inhibits success in any area of life, really.”

By that definition, it seems wise to stay close to people like Neng herself, a returnee whose perspective reflects the gratitude that many members of the Cambodian diaspora feel for the benefits they grew up with thanks to their citizenship. The resulting contributions and the personal satisfaction from a relocation to Cambodia are not guaranteed, but the paths are there, waiting for a few more bold travelers.


  1. Judy Yem

    May 19, 2014 at 8:45 AM

    YES GIRL Nanda Neng

  2. Marie Hy

    May 19, 2014 at 9:53 AM

    Great thing to do! I wish you much more success

  3. Marie Hy

    May 19, 2014 at 10:04 AM

    I would like to know more as you progress in your program. Sam Hy is my brother.

  4. Nanda Neng

    May 19, 2014 at 10:30 AM

    I know Sam.. I’m a fan of his work. 🙂 I’ll send you a note on progress Marie. Thanks for he support!!

  5. Tin Tran

    May 19, 2014 at 12:14 PM

    I knew this girl from waaaay back.

  6. We Care Your Health

    May 19, 2014 at 12:23 PM

    i support

  7. Tida Lam

    May 19, 2014 at 12:24 PM

    Go Nanda Neng!!!! What an inspiration to all women!

  8. Rich Valderrama

    May 19, 2014 at 12:32 PM

    Fantastic article, glad someone so eloquently captured you on print. So proud of you!

  9. Lita Cabreira

    May 19, 2014 at 12:33 PM

    Way to go,Nanda! It’s great that you love what you’re doing! Here’s to continuous n more success in life.So proud to know you

  10. Danica You-Hamilton

    May 19, 2014 at 12:34 PM

    Get it, girl! Way to go Nanda – so very proud of you!

  11. Phalline Svay

    May 19, 2014 at 1:21 PM

    Love it

  12. BboyPeanut Nam

    May 19, 2014 at 1:58 PM

    Nanda is my manager.. she go hard!!!! She is from the east coast.. she made me appreciate B.i.G. love u big sis

  13. Tanya SooHoo

    May 19, 2014 at 2:07 PM

    Love this!! So proud of you little!!!

  14. Erin Brennan

    May 19, 2014 at 3:15 PM


  15. Rachael Hodson

    May 19, 2014 at 3:40 PM


  16. Sochiata Dickey

    May 19, 2014 at 4:48 PM

    Get it girl!!

  17. Paulita Tina Rodney

    May 19, 2014 at 6:25 PM

    Congrats Nanda… You are amazing!!!! Good luck with your future endeavors!!!

  18. Mory Chhom

    May 19, 2014 at 9:20 PM

    One truly amazing human being!

  19. Corazon Arrogante Valderrama

    May 19, 2014 at 10:37 PM

    Congrats Nanda, a smart lady like you can do anything!!

  20. Nanda Neng

    May 19, 2014 at 11:50 PM

    Haha.. BIGGIE Forever. 😛

  21. Kandara Por

    May 20, 2014 at 1:52 AM

    Great work. I’m sure you’ll do very well anywhere you go.

  22. Myra Mendoza

    May 20, 2014 at 9:30 AM

    Nanda, this is amazing! You’re making such a huge impact in the lives of those around you and for the future of your country. Please keep up the great work.

  23. Chhumnoe Kong

    March 30, 2015 at 5:22 AM

    You think we can fit in srok Khmer ? We are look kinda different

  24. Sophirum Jay Hem

    March 30, 2015 at 5:57 AM

    It’s true

  25. Soumy Phan

    March 30, 2015 at 6:03 AM

    You actually don’t look different from us. You might have better clothes and look tidy than us, but you still have Cambodian look. This doesn’t change.

  26. Lee Tuon

    March 30, 2015 at 6:09 AM

    Why? Did she get deported?

  27. Leng Khoun

    March 30, 2015 at 6:22 AM

    I don’t think I can fit in. I do actually look a little bit different haha

  28. Khrystyne Im-Renshaw

    March 30, 2015 at 6:32 AM

    Hahahaha…, but funny though lol

  29. Roeuth Than

    March 30, 2015 at 6:32 AM

    Ive been here for about five years and she does not look like a typical Khmer girl here. Most of the Cambodians here are pretty, most American raised are rounder. Khmer girls here use allot of whitening lotion also wearing long sleeves and gloves. Its the norm here. She look like she is from the states and over weight. Most of the girls here are slender and petite. . this is from my experience and my surrounding. I live in PP.

  30. Roeuth Than

    March 30, 2015 at 6:35 AM

    Just go and search for all the girls that live in Cambodia on Facebook. Youll see what Im talking about.

  31. Loeung Sakona

    March 30, 2015 at 7:17 AM

    Sinara Sagn pls

  32. Sitha Lovem

    March 30, 2015 at 7:25 AM

    Les Pong

  33. Judyna Pres

    March 30, 2015 at 7:33 AM

    I’m a Canadian-born Khmer and got the opportunity to work and live in Cambodia for a year – let me tell you, I stick out – I’m tall, got an athletic build but with some extra meat on me, wore clothes from back home (nothing skimpy or extravagant though).
    Every local Khmer person would speak to me in English first, they would get really surprised when I spoke clear Khmer to them. Their initial guess was that I was Filipina. It was an interesting experience to take in and can’t wait to go back. I felt at home over there despite the sticking out bit.

  34. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 8:12 AM

    Haha. No. But you don’t have to get deported to want to give back. There’s a ton of people out there – you’d be surprised. Really surprised.

  35. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 8:15 AM

    I agree completely with you. Lucky for me, I would NEVER change who I am though and actually am very satisfied with my own beauty. And yes, I was massive in Cambodia but perfect at home, in America. To each their own. 🙂

  36. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 8:15 AM

    I shared the same experience. Agreed completely!

  37. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 8:17 AM

    Things are different and people will always judge. You take it with a grain of salt and just continue to represent yourself as best you can. People will always judge and fitting in is a mentality. I loved it but I belong in the states.

  38. Lee Tuon

    March 30, 2015 at 8:20 AM

    Well, this is a great thing you are doing Nanda Neng, I want to at least one day say that I even stepped foot on the motherland yet relocate there permanently.

  39. Soth ThaDolo

    March 30, 2015 at 8:20 AM

    I would moved to Cambodia if they have a new and improved government and a new Prime minister.

  40. Vosa Em

    March 30, 2015 at 8:20 AM

    I have been here for almost a month now (temporarily) and I stick out like a sore thumb! I thought I’d fit right into the mix and not even be noticed…NOPE! EVERYWHERE I go I get stared at. It got annoying after a while and I even lashed out at a few people. But all in all I still had a great time and possibly be moving to PP in a few years to teach English. Hope all is well!!

  41. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 8:20 AM

    Glad you feel that way. Hopefully that’s how it is in practice.

  42. Sacha Sok Chan

    March 30, 2015 at 8:21 AM

    Wow.. I guess you never met a pretty Khmer girl in the USA brotha!! Lol..

  43. Vosa Em

    March 30, 2015 at 8:23 AM

    What an asshole! You are not over weight. Roeuth Than is probably wayyyy over weight himself! Learn some manners dip shit!

  44. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 8:23 AM

    The youth definitely are being vocal about this. Hopefully this generation makes the change and this dream comes true for you. It’s amazing there.

  45. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 8:24 AM

    But for real – when I first got there, people were trying to figure out if I was deported. Kinda funny stereotype BUTTT that’s not far from true. Sad but true

  46. Lee Tuon

    March 30, 2015 at 8:25 AM

    I wouldn’t have a problem fitting in physically, I’m more concerned of the different lifestyle that your accustom too and adjust to the living in Cambodia.

  47. Judyna Pres

    March 30, 2015 at 8:25 AM

    I’ve not watched the posted episode yet (I’m at work), but I love hearing about other Khmers born outside of Cambodia.
    Have you ever found yourself telling your family members in Cambodia or locals you were close to about how outside of Asia, people actually seek to tan and become darker? It made me sad when my cousin was asking me what diet pill I take bc I had lost tons of weight being in the country + training in Bokator… as if diet pills were the only option to lose weight and look healthier. And then the local staff who would put themselves down thinking they are not pretty because they are darker than what the beauty industry is setting as a standard. That broke my heart.

  48. Soth ThaDolo

    March 30, 2015 at 8:27 AM

    I hope so, cuz khmer ppl need to rise from poverty and living under a corrupt government that don’t care about the Khmer people rapes and killed and sell our young beautiful khmer women!

  49. Lee Tuon

    March 30, 2015 at 8:29 AM

    It shouldn’t be that way, but unfortunately that’s what comes to mind stereotypically to those folks in Cambodia. They’re probably thinking why on earth would you want to live here especially when your “American” raised and live in a land were your free.

  50. Wilson Jenning

    March 30, 2015 at 8:30 AM

    uhm,ohm..good luck…@

  51. Kim Po

    March 30, 2015 at 8:33 AM

    I guess I’m not the only person who feel that way. I haven’t been to Srok khmer yet but that is my ultimate dream. But until the country move in a better direction and til the government give two shits about MY people, I’ll be the first to step foot there! Sounds petty but oh well.

  52. Roeuth Than

    March 30, 2015 at 8:34 AM

    Being fat is being human dumbass. Truth is all what I said and witness here. I was with a few beautyful girl in America.

  53. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 8:36 AM

    By the way – Thanks khmerican for opening the dialogue about where we fit in and what our physical appeareance means for who we are based on where we’re bread. I expect a TON of critics on this but that’s the nature of the beast. I knew that being on TV would bring a shit load of critics, some love and some hate and both are cool – clearly, in creating a dialogue, I did something right. What I hope is that Khmer people (especially women) understand that fitting in is a mentality and beauty can also be maintained without conforming to societal expectations. I am who I am and am a beast at what I do which is living life. I’m proud of my Khmer heritage and am thankful for my American upbringing. As a race, we’re still racing — with ourselves because most of us are bi-cultural and first generation. If we feel like we fit in somewhere, that’s our choice – if we fit in everywhere, that’s just dope. Xx

  54. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 8:37 AM

    The episode comes on tonight so you have time but girl, we’ve got some serious conversations. There are so many of us out there… Let’s wrap 🙂

  55. Judyna Pres

    March 30, 2015 at 8:40 AM

    Ohh nice! I don`t have HGTV however 🙁 Hopefully it will be on rerun constantly – I can change the channel selections this week.

  56. Judyna Pres

    March 30, 2015 at 8:40 AM

    And yes! I’m keen on conversing 🙂

  57. Roeuth Than

    March 30, 2015 at 8:45 AM

    I like thick girls like her. This whole subject is comparison.

  58. Retna San

    March 30, 2015 at 8:46 AM


  59. Judyna Pres

    March 30, 2015 at 8:48 AM

    It’s funny you say that, Lee. I moved to Cambodia to volunteer for a legit NGO*… When I met my family in Cambodia, a few of them were wondering why on earth I would come work in the country without receiving any pay.
    They also thought I was coming to work for an orphanage and save babies which is another story and issue in Cambodia (shady orphanages and short-term voluntourism – look it up.)
    * No short-term volunteers accepted, mainly employ locals, child protection policies was really important, no visits during class hours.

  60. Lee Tuon

    March 30, 2015 at 8:57 AM

    Yeah I have a different outlook in this maybe because I find myself feeling more complacent and that I have a growing family of my own. That once adventurous mentality that I use to have just isn’t quite there anymore! Although I’m glad to see this movement with this generation and the next.

  61. Sothy Him

    March 30, 2015 at 9:06 AM

    All the time

  62. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 10:03 AM

    Oh yeah – one more comment from me. Having my life televised isn’t something I’ve strived for. When you’re out there, people tend to always provide unsolicited feedback. The goal of my episode comes in two folds: 1) keep the world (there are 2 million viewers of this show) thinking about Cambodia in a good/different light instead of being victims forever and 2) reminding us that we’ve all come from the same issues – what we do next is up to us because we’re raising mini us for tomorrow. Shit, if I can do it.. Anyone can.

  63. Vosa Em

    March 30, 2015 at 10:07 AM

    Well it’s a terrible comparison. Chose your words. There are plenty of others ways to get your point across.

  64. Jerry Decastro

    March 30, 2015 at 10:26 AM

    That would be very interesting. I’ll check it out..

  65. Sokin Seng

    March 30, 2015 at 10:27 AM

    But you can tell quickly the Cambodian girls that come to the states…they put lots of makeup on and have to wear their name brand clothes. Lots of makeup for a women is a turn off

  66. Samantha Yun

    March 30, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    Russel Orn Yun

  67. Sophie Simien, Realtor

    March 30, 2015 at 11:25 AM

    Nice! Got my DVR set!

  68. Ron Bryant

    March 30, 2015 at 12:31 PM

    Yes I have, and I’m not Khmer

  69. Chantha Kim

    March 30, 2015 at 1:56 PM

    Go Nanda!

  70. Lonna Long Hout

    March 30, 2015 at 2:07 PM

    Good luck to you!! And thank you for giving us Asian American the opportunity to share this experience with you. U0001f601U0001f44d

  71. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 3:34 PM

    thank you cuzzo. xo

  72. Buddhy Son

    March 30, 2015 at 3:46 PM

    Remember ! There is no justice & law out there.

  73. Chantha Khiev

    March 30, 2015 at 4:02 PM

    Good luck for you

  74. Lisa Anna

    March 30, 2015 at 4:49 PM

    i am interested in seeing more doctors and hospitals…

  75. Channa Billmeier

    March 30, 2015 at 5:03 PM

    I’d love to go back if the immigration officers would stop harassing us (overdressed, too much makeup, overweight Khmer Americans @roeuththan) for a few dollars!!!! Thanks!! U0001f60fU0001f60fU0001f60f

  76. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 5:04 PM

    PREACH! 😀

  77. Socheath Meach

    March 30, 2015 at 5:15 PM

    Hoping this episode ends up on YouTube

  78. Rachael Hodson

    March 30, 2015 at 5:51 PM

    Nanda! You are so inspiring! Sitting with kelsey reading your posts to her and talking about the importance of a positive self image! You are a great role model!

  79. Nanda Neng

    March 30, 2015 at 5:56 PM

    That’s the sweetest thing I’ve heard Rachel. That’s why Kelsey wants those selfies with me. Lol

  80. Chharith Oeun

    March 30, 2015 at 5:57 PM


  81. Abrahams Sreys

    March 30, 2015 at 6:04 PM

    Why wouldn’t you visit your homeland just because of a shitty government? Cambodia is such a beautiful country with all of our history and heritage. When you visit you not only see, experience and learn about Khmer people (our people). You see how they live in a daily basis, it’s such a wonderful experience, people that seem to have the least actually are the ones that will smile and greet you when they see you. Plus, when you’re here you can spend some money that will go into their pockets which I’m sure would definitely help them. Screw the government you’re not visiting them. Come experience Cambodia U won’t regret it.

  82. Toladette Kem

    March 30, 2015 at 6:10 PM

    I love the show! Can’t wait to see it tonight! Good luck in Cambodia!

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