Weaving together the Cambodian diaspora patchwork

Commentary by Borin Pin

Migration is part of Cambodia’s modern history. After the many tragedies that afflicted our country in the last decades of the 20th century, many families, mine included, were forced into exile after experiencing the worst. They built new lives and new communities abroad.

Many of them had wanted to go back and contribute, in their own way, to the reconstruction of the country they so deeply loved. But difficult circumstances ranging from different kind of instability to safety concerns, long precluded them from doing so.

One generation later, many of us who grew up abroad and nurtured the same dream are finally able to fulfill it. Throughout the years, improved stability, and economic development have turned Cambodia into a land of opportunities, one in which it is possible to build life projects on the long term.

This is the context where Anvaya was created, an association built on the idea that those of us who have made the choice to live in Cambodia, whether permanently or on a part-time basis, could gather. What we have in common is a double-culture, a common history, and the will to reconnect with the country of our origins but for as much as we share; our community is also one of individual stories, projects, and aspirations.

A visit organized by Anvaya at the rice mill of Golden Rice, a company created 10 years ago by the Sok, a French-Cambodian family. Their rice was awarded twice best rice in the world.

We at Anvaya believe that Khmers who grew up abroad and Cambodians who never left, have much to learn from each other – the former contributing skills, and the different mindset that comes with growing up abroad, and the latter confronting them with their insights on the reality of life in Cambodia and modern Cambodian culture. Therefore for the next years, Anvaya is taking on new challenges. We aim to add a new dimension by turning our association into a platform built around three objectives:

  1. To build a window into modern Cambodia. We live in a swiftly changing and developing country that is no longer the land our parents were forced to leave and associated with so much pain. Indeed many of Cambodians of abroad, especially those from a younger generation are confronted by the questioning from their parents: “why go to Cambodia?”. We want to show those changes and bear witness to the development of Cambodia.

  2. To show what we can bring to modern Cambodia, whether it be as an entrepreneur, an artist or an athlete. We all share the desire to be closer to our roots, but many of us are also driven to come back by their desire to be part of modern Cambodia. There are no guidelines to follow, but by telling the stories of individuals within our diaspora community, and the many initiatives they have taken, we write our own and demonstrate what members of the diaspora who return can bring to the country of their origins and the impact they can have on the economy, the local art scene, culture, etc.

  3. To relate those individual stories to Cambodians. Our approach aims at being an inclusive one, and having crossed exchanges between the diaspora and Cambodians will be an important aspect we want to develop. The latest can get to learn what has been done abroad and what we can bring here, and we can learn from them about where they see Cambodia today and where they hope to see it tomorrow. The circle is complete.

Anvaya organized a dance show with the first gay classical Khmer dance company, Natyarasa, directed by the American-Cambodian Prumsodun Ok. His TED Talk cumulates more than 1 million views.

In recent months, Anvaya has featured movie directors, a photograph, dancers, an economist and an entrepreneur. Each of them has an unique approach towards his/her field; the sum of these individual stories shapes the patchwork that is the Cambodian diaspora. But whether they are Canadians, Austrians, or French, they all remain rooted in the Cambodian part of their identity. If we talk about art, key features of the Cambodian culture are always present in their work. When the culture they grew up with meets their parents’, new perspectives imbued with foreign influences appear that can sometimes challenge the traditional Khmer culture but also allow it to always be in motion. This we view as our greatest asset. As Barack Obama remarked in his 2009 inaugural address, a “patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.” Whether it be here in Cambodia or abroad, its recent history shows the Cambodian identity to be ever more resilient and diverse.

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