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Camp Connects Cambodian-American Children to Their Heritage

Cambodian-Americans who volunteer to teach Cambodian adoptees about Cambodian cultures take group picture before the end of the Cambodian Heritage Camp at Snow Mountain Range, Colorado in July 2017. (Poch Reasey/VOA Khmer)
Camp Connects Cambodian-American Children to Their Heritage
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Every summer for the past 15 years, Cambodian-American adoptees and their families have come from around the country to gather in the state of Colorado.

The families take part in a special camp in the Rocky Mountains. It is called the Cambodian Heritage Camp. It is meant for people adopted from Cambodia as children as well as their adoptive parents.

Kunthia Porter and her sister Devin were adopted in 1999 by the Porter family of Spokane, Washington. Kunthia describes herself, her sister and other campers as “Khmericans.” They are people born in Cambodia but raised in America. They are shaped by their adoptive parents’ desire to have them know and understand both cultures.

Now 25 years old, Kunthia says she wishes she had stayed more in touch with the culture of her home country.

“Even though our parents really wanted us to stay connected with our culture, we soon learned English within a month and kind of left our culture behind and tried to get absorbed in the American culture. But as we grew up, we both kind of regretted that,” she said.

Each year, the Cambodian Heritage Camp has a different theme, such as the Mekong River. The camp’s classes are taught by Cambodian-American volunteers. The classes include subjects such as the Khmer language, history, dance, music and food.

Sar Titborey is a Cambodian-American volunteer. Titborey said identity is very important. “The most important word that we have been using for the past 15 years, even after the kids passed grade 12, is identity.”

Titborey added, “We want to make sure we do not forget our roots, so whatever we teach, we stress that.”

Connections continue as the years go by

The U.S.-Cambodia adoption program has been suspended since 2001. That means there are no longer young people who are the right age for the camp.

But when the organizers announced last summer that there would be no camp sessions in 2018, parents were unhappy.

Parents of Cambodian adoptees enjoy Cambodian foods under a big yellow tent during the Cambodian Heritage Camp at Snow Mountain Range, Colorado in July 2017. (Poch Reasey/VOA Khmer)
Parents of Cambodian adoptees enjoy Cambodian foods under a big yellow tent during the Cambodian Heritage Camp at Snow Mountain Range, Colorado in July 2017. (Poch Reasey/VOA Khmer)

The families and counselors had already built a close group on social media. And the group was planning a reunion and a project trip for volunteers to Cambodia.

Kimsua Chay, who first volunteered as a camp counselor in 2004, said, “Nobody wanted camp to end.” He added that the camp is a way of giving back “to our country, where our parents were born.”

He is now a United Airlines pilot based in Los Angeles. He serves as counselor coordinator. He is working on a program for the 2018 camp reunion.

Sharon Blender is one of the camp’s executive directors. She said the Cambodian-American counselors also learn about their heritage at the camp including rituals and traditions.

There are about 320,000 people in the Cambodian community in the United States. Those numbers come from the Center for American Progress. That is small compared to other Asian-American groups. Most are in California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Washington and Texas.

The State Department says 2,355 Cambodian children have been adopted by American families. Many know little about their culture, and live in places far away from immigrant communities.

The families try to learn about their children’s heritage and Cambodia’s recent history. This includes the conflict of the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge genocide in which between 1.7 and 2.5 million people died.

The Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families organizes the Cambodian camp. It also holds camps for 10 other adoptee groups including Chinese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese.

Attendees say the camp is a valuable resource that families would not have otherwise.

Kimberley Lanegran is an associate professor of political science at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She adopted two children, one of whom is from Cambodia.

She has attended the camp for many years. “It’s nice to be with people who…know some of the same experiences that I’ve gone through myself,” she said.

Lanegran said of her Cambodian-born daughter, “We can’t make her like us and she is not like us.” But she adds, “We just help her know that she is American and she is our daughter, but she was born in Cambodia.”

I’m Mario Ritter.

Mony Say reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

adopt –v. to legally become the parent of a child who is not your own

absorb –v. to become part of a larger group

heritage –n. the things that make up the history and traditions of a group

ritual –n. part of a formal ceremony that is done the same way every time

perspective –n. a way of looking at or thinking about something

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