Hundreds of Cambodians who were born or grew up abroad are returning to their motherland. Marissa Carruthers finds out why they are returning to their roots. Photography by Dylan Maddux and Charles Fox.
During the Khmer Rouge regime’s rule and in its aftermath, an estimated one million people left Cambodia to escape conflict and political turmoil. The mass exodus led to a generation of children born in Thai refugee camps or abroad after their parents resettled. Too young to recall the country their families called home, for them Cambodia existed only as a place lived through their parents’ memories.
The tables are turning as the Kingdom welcomes home growing numbers of people rediscovering their roots. Reasons for stepping on Cambodian soil vary from wanting to help rebuild the country to launching a business venture or carrying out aid work. Whatever the impetus, they have one thing in common — a desire to connect with their homeland and find their identity.
“Over the years, more and more foreign born or raised Khmers are accepting the challenges of staying here to live, work and help,” says Cambodian-French Soreasmey Ke Bin, president of The Anvaya Initiative, which offers support and advice to overseas Khmers and those considering moving back.
“This is very different from the previous generation because we’re totally Western-educated and most of us have never lived here,” he adds. “It’s an exciting time and will help to move the country forward.”
Why We Returned
Cambodia remains close to the hearts of many. A member survey carried out by The Anvaya Initiative last year revealed that the top reason for moving was “because it’s my country.” Other causes ranged from helping their country of origin, family reunification and looking for an adventure.
Experts say that in recent years there has been a noticeable shift. The global economic crisis has taken its toll on the West, draining the job market dry and pushing people to turn to alternative markets. This has resulted in men and women, especially those in their 20s and 30s, flocking to the Kingdom to snap up job opportunities and build businesses.
“It wasn’t always like this,” Ke Bin says. “Because of Cambodia’s history, a lot of people who came back in the 90s had political motives. Then there was my time when people just wanted to rediscover their roots. Now you find a lot it’s because they can’t find jobs or there are no opportunities in Europe so they look to Cambodia, where there are a lot of opportunities to be had.”
One woman whose move was partly sparked by economic concerns is 33-year-old Marie, who was born in a Thai refugee camp and first set foot in her ancestral land during a holiday in 2010. A lack of job opportunities in Paris and the chance to add international work to her CV led to her quit an accounting role to move to Cambodia with her husband and son.
“It was important that I discovered my original country because I don’t know Cambodia,” says Marie, who asked to be referred to by her first name only. “But I also decided to move because in Europe there weren’t very many jobs for me or anything that was interesting. Also, in Cambodia, there is a lack of qualified professionals so I feel that’s where I can maybe help.”
A business deal that was too good to refuse led Kyoto, co-owner of Italian restaurant Le Duo, to move to Cambodia permanently in October after leaving for France at the age of two. “I fell in love with the country while I was here,” he says. “Then the opportunity with the restaurant came up and the chance to invest in my original country was too much to turn down.”
For others, the desire to learn more about Cambodia comes from the warm memories evoked by their parents. Kanha Paula, 34, had never visited the Kingdom until a backpacking trip four years ago, having been born in a refugee camp in Thailand before living in America.
“My parents would paint a very vivid picture of life there and they always spoke so well of it,” she says. “This made me really interested and I wanted to try and learn more about my culture.”
A Modern Identity
For the majority the return is a positive experience, but it can be coupled with challenges as they struggle to integrate into the traditional Khmer way of life. Despite feeling an affinity with their motherland and sometimes speaking the language fluently, they are often treated like foreigners by locals, which can lead to an identity struggle.
“We often find one of the problems is at first a lot of people try to hang around with locals,” Ke Bin says. “When I first came, I wanted to immerse myself in Khmer culture but found after a while I didn’t have that much in common with them, and that was difficult.”
Artist Anida Yoeu Ali was born in Cambodia and raised in Chicago, where she lived for more than three decades before returning to the Kingdom in 2011 as part of a Fulbright Scholarship. Now running Phnom Penh-based Studio Revolt, she recently took part in a conference in America on issues faced by those who choose to return to Cambodia.
“There’s the diaspora dilemma,” says the artist. “There is often a feeling of unbelonging and this sense of: where is home and what does it mean? After such a long period of disengagement, growing up in a culture somewhere else while longing for what it means to come back to your motherland. These are common issues.”
Marie was confronted with this challenge on the first day that she landed in Cambodia. Walking down the street, she was unnerved by the number of people staring at her and feared that they may be hostile towards her because her family had fled.
“I started talking to them and found out it’s just because they’re interested. I look Cambodian to them, but then I’m not Cambodian,” she says. “In France, people think I’m Asian, even though I think and dream in French and have spent most of my life there. That was when I said to myself I’m not Cambodian and I’m not French. I’m really a French person with something from here.”
Paula, who runs events company Seduction, has also been met with confusion from locals eager to find out more about her background.
“Cambodians think of me as a foreigner and I think I interest them because I look like them but don’t act or dress the same,” she says. “I will often get stopped when I’m in a shop or at the market and asked by locals where I’m from. They don’t mean harm, they’re just curious.”
Termed ‘anecachon’ in the Khmer language, the community has gone on to forge its own unique identity. In the Anvaya survey, 84 percent of those quizzed classed themselves as a “Khmer from abroad.”
As parents painted pictures of a lost land destroyed when the Khmer Rouge took control, many of the diaspora generation were submerged in Khmer culture as they grew up, fuelling their desire to discover more about Cambodia. For some, reality is far from the idyllic images conjured up by their elders, and can initially be hard to handle.
Varabott Ho, who is in his early 40s, moved to France with his family at the age of four. “My parents would always talk fondly of it and tell me stories of when we lived there, which made me feel like I knew it,” he says.
Desperate to discover his birthland, he came on holiday to the Kingdom in 2003 with his parents in a trip that left him with mixed emotions. “It was the first time we’d travelled to Cambodia since we left, so it was very emotional and personal. It was nice to hear stories and see where I lived,” he remembers.
“It was also bad because it wasn’t the image I had of Cambodia that my parents gave me. They were used to the Cambodia of the 60s when it was the dreamland. It has changed a lot since then and that dreamland was gone,” he adds.
Yet in some ways, the reality is better than the ugly picture often painted of a country still ravaged by war. “I thought because Cambodia is a developing country, and from what I had been told, it would be quite backwards,” Kyoto says. “I was really surprised. It’s a lot better than I imagined. There are great restaurants, shops, bars, clubs and people.”
Although returning is not always a choice, many feel that Cambodia brings with it a sense of opportunity.
Born in a Thai refugee camp and raised in America, poet Kosal Khiev was forced to rediscover his roots. After serving 14 years in prison for attempted murder, he was deported to Cambodia in 2011 — a country he had never set foot in before. “I’ve always had a definite sense of Khmer pride,” he says. “I was proud to be Cambodian without really having any idea what Cambodia was.”
When he first landed, Khiev was overwhelmed by the chaos of the capital and decided to seek solace in the provinces with long-lost relatives. “That came with its own problems because many of them saw me as a dollar sign and that was hard,” he says. “I decided to make my way back to Phnom Penh and that’s when I saw Cambodia’s potential. I suddenly felt I can be part of this. I am part of this.”
For others, stepping foot in the country felt like coming home. Varabott, managing director of investment boutique LMV Capital Asia, returned to Cambodia from France twice before moving permanently in March 2012.
“The first time I came back to Asia was to Singapore and it was like coming back home seeing Asian people. I got the same feeling when I came to Cambodia; that feeling of being home somehow,” he says.
Stephanie Seng has lived in Cambodia since moving from France in 2005 after an initial visit in 1999.
Now aged in her 30s and the owner of clothing boutique Couleurs d’Asie, she says, “I have a big family here who I’d never met and I got to meet them. We weren’t very close yet they welcomed me so much. It was beautiful. The people here are beautiful but I saw a country that needed help and felt it was up to me to do what I could.”
Life is also good for Kyoto, who has pledged never to return to France. As well as running a successful business, he claims the ease of life is enough to keep him here. “I never want to go back to France. It was very stressful,” he says, smiling. “I love it here. I love the warmth of the people and I love the way of life. It’s stress free and there’s much more freedom.”
Meanwhile, Khiev has inspired a new generation through his work as a spoken word poet and his pivotal role in the city’s thriving arts scene, which has seen him travel the globe to perform.
This artistic growth has helped strengthen his passion for Cambodia and his determination to help bring about change. “I always knew I could make a difference in Cambodia and that’s what I feel I’m doing. I think I can challenge this generation and educate them as well,” he says.
Along with Cambodians being curious about their overseas counterparts, many locals appreciate the benefits returnees can bring, with most being well-educated and possessing skills that are lacking in the Kingdom.
Vanra Ry, who was born in Phnom Penh and works in Siem Reap as a travel guide, says he welcomes back foreign Cambodians but fears many are put off by the country’s poverty. “I think they can fit into Cambodia easily because it’s a very welcoming place, but may find it difficult because they have adopted a different culture,” he adds. “In my opinion, if they move to Cambodia it can only help the country because they have a good education.”