Seeking to Understand Cambodian Americans

An article in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality outlines a study on "Folk Conceptions of Virtue Among Cambodian Buddhists and Christians: A Hermeneutic Analysis." Of the many immigrant peoples who have come to the United States in recent years, Cambodian American culture is a significantly understudied one--and there is much to be learned, as these folks display distinctive psychological and emotional needs. Many are familiar with death, tragedy and genocide as most first generation Cambodian Americans were resettled in the United States in the early 1980s when one million or more people died as a result of brutal Khmer Rouge rule. Now some of them find sanctuary, a safe haven in these United States, and I commend the writers of this article for bringing the scientific tools of psychology to bear on that great task noted by St. Francis of Assisi, "better to understand than be understood."

The researchers used a small sample size including 12 Cambodian-American Buddhist immigrants and 12 Christian immigrants. Lest you think these numbers are very small, let me point out that scores of hours were spent administering surveys, interviewing, learning about the small community from which the participants were drawn, combining quantitative/empirical with qualitative data, and in the end viewing everything through the hermeneutical and linguistic philosophy of Paul Ricouer--an approach that employs analysis in the service of advanced empathy and understanding. It is good to see psychology in the realm of intellectual discovery that America contributor Father Francis Clooney is doing over at Harvard. Some of the findings give us a better understanding of the Cambodian-American culture, both Buddhist and American:

Responses to the conscientiousness-based virtues were then explored. When asked about accepting one's portion in life, Cambodian American Buddhists believe one has a duty to accept the pain and suffering in this life, whereas members of the two Christian groups conceptualize acceptance in terms of their calling or as personal choice. As AT, a 75-year-old Buddhist woman, said: "It's Buddhist teaching. I accept my experiences." Their acceptance appears dutiful and passive but also communal. In this regard, the translator said of CL, a 77-year-old woman, that "she knows she is part of something larger."

When participants were asked about forgiveness, the Cambodians stressed their relationship with family and community and the importance of forgiving totally and forgiving everyone, whereas the Euro-American Christians stressed the importance of their individual relationship with God and the interference with spiritual growth that occurs when one is not forgiving. Cambodian American Christians also recognize the benefits of forgiveness to the family, but their forgiveness appears to be oriented toward an individual. One Cambodian American Buddhist participant mentioned revenge. PP, a 48-yer-old woman, said that "sometimes you don't want to forgive, but you have to, because according to the religion we don't want to have to get revenge."

When asked whether they value social justice, Cambodian American Buddhists believe that social justice comes from the government, is a good thing, and is not their responsibility, whereas Cambodian American Christians talked of their own responsibility to be just. It is noteworthy that all Cambodian American Buddhist participants received public welfare, and several, at some point during the interview, interpreted this as evidence of their ancestors having gained merit for them in earlier lives. When asked for a comment or example of social justice, however, only RR, a 55-year-old Buddhist woman, related her own experience of receiving welfare with the concept of social justice.

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Psychology of Religion and Spirituality is the official journal of Division 36 Psychology of Religion of the American Psychological Association.  (I have been a member of this Division for many years and am also a Fellow of the American Psychological Association.) There are over 50 divisions in the APA specializing in areas such as testing, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, teaching, private practice, neuropsychology, and many others. The editor of the journal is Dr. Ralph Piedmont of Loyola University of Baltimore. They are sponsoring an upcoming conference on psychology and spirituality--one which promises to introduce ground-breaking work in the field. For further correspondence on this particular article, you may write to Kaye V. Cook of Gordon College: [email protected].

William Van Ornum

 

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we vnornm
6 years 9 months ago
Hi David,

Your response intrigues me. I thought I would present material with the style and structure of my profession., a bit more formal and academic than in some of the other blogs. Interesting, interesting.

What really jumped off the page at me was that the people from this country lived through the years of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, where ONE MILLION died. Both the Catholc and regular USA press seem to take little notice of persons from this cultural background and experience, both those who come from Buddhist Cambodian and Christian Cambodian backgrounds.

I am at fault for not doing a better job of all the pains the researchers went through to understnd the language and the other tools they used.  They really did a first-rate job and I hope they keep doing this immeasurably beneficial research.

bill

we vnornm
6 years 9 months ago
David,

I understand. thanks. bill 
6 years 9 months ago
I do appreciate David's comment.  If we use intellectualization as a way of avoiding getting close to others we do them no good and can do them harm.  On the other hand, I think studies such as this one can lead us to better understanding of a people whose culture and historical background are so different than ours and hopefully to a more emphathic response to them.   It is just impossible for me to imagine the horrible trauma the Cambodians, the Vietnamese boat people, the Lost Boys of Sudan experienced.  They all came to this country without outer resources and had to dig deep within to find the courage and resourcefulness to survive and sometimes thrive in this country.  Their faith, whether Buddhist, Christian or another, had to be a critical part of their adjustment.  It seems to me it is important to understand the ways their faith impacted their lives.  And perhaps learning from them we can appreciate more  the strengths our faith gives us.

We are fortunate in California to have had about half of the Cambodian refugees settle here.  Catholic Charities has played an important role in their settlement and adjustments.  Needing to make a living, many Cambodians went into the donut business, owning the great majority of donut stores in CA.  Now, this is interesting because donuts are a foreign food to them, but they found that niche and capitalized on it.  In the present economic recession, many of the stores are closing leaving the owners without their economic wherewhithall.  Another factor is the  younger generations being educated and going into other career fields.  (We have a few Cambodian social workers in the County Childrens" Services).  This is a resilient, resourceful people with strong family ties which will hopefully tide them over.  Faith can once again provide sustenance, courage and the will to perservere.
Marie Rehbein
6 years 9 months ago
Maybe I got this backwards, but my reaction to the study was to appreciate the way the two faiths hold up and serve people under the ultimate stress.  It might have been interesting if there were some atheist Cambodians so that we could see not only how each of two faiths help people get through tough times, but what people who have no faith conclude in order to carry on.  I am reminded of the fact that many Holocaust survivors became atheists, and I wonder, therefore, also, whether this might have happened to some Cambodians. 
Crystal Watson
6 years 9 months ago
Interesting what Janice mentioned about the donut shops = I'm in Calfornia too and there are indeed many Asian donut shops.  I've only known fairly well one person from Vietnam (a Buddhist) who came over here after the war, but he'd spent most of the war years in Paris, and while he hated communism and still had family back in Vietnam that he worried about, his religion and how it affected his views didn't really ever come up.
Marie Rehbein
6 years 9 months ago
You are probably right, David.  Asian Christianity probably cannot escape the influence of Buddhism, which is, of course, more a way of life than simply a belief.  The Jews, on the other hand, being the chosen people were apparently let down by God.  I am reminded of a book I just mailed to a friend called The Shack, which makes the case that God is not running the world, but is what supports us through the atrocities people inflict on one another in the exercise of their free will.  Even the concepts of omnipotence, onmipresence, and omniscience are more or less logical human conclusions about the nature of God and not necessarily the standard to which God can be held. 
we vnornm
6 years 9 months ago
Janice,

Very interesting to hear about the positive role of Catnolic Charities in helping those from Cambodia. I suspect there are many unsung heroes who work for the various Catholic Charities agencies across the country. I am glad to be leaning more about the people from Cambodia. The donut shops are interesting! amdg, bill
we vnornm
6 years 9 months ago
Marie,

That is an outstanidng idea about having another group to study. I suspect it was extremely difficult to get the samples used and another comparison group would have added a great deal of practical complexity but the results would be intriguing. amdg, bill
we vnornm
6 years 9 months ago
Crystal, David, Marie,

Thanks for the inteersting thoughts. bill
Crystal Watson
6 years 9 months ago
Marie, I read The Shack a while ago too.  I found that idea given in the book that God doesn't intervene to be really upsetting and actually unbiblical.

Interesting about Aian Christianity  -  the influence of the Jesuits in Japan  in the middle ages especially.
Marie Rehbein
6 years 9 months ago
Crystal, I guess the point of the book was to address those who lose faith when bad things happen and they think God should have intervened.  I don't think it is a complete representation of God, of course; as you say, it doesn't conform to what we know about God from the Bible.  I do think the book has value in encouraging people to turn to God more often than they feel entitled to.  There are religions that teach that if something bad happens to a person it is punishment from God, and I don't just mean the idea of Karma, but where it is taken as evidence that God is displeased with the victim.
Crystal Watson
6 years 9 months ago
Marie,  yes, you're right.   I think many if not most people do believe that God doesn't intervene because of free will issues - lots of theologians support that idea. 

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