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.

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