Janet McLellan Cambodian Refugees in Ontario: Religious Identities, Social Cohesion and Transnational Linkages



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Cambodian Buddhists:
The struggle to establish and maintain Cambodian Buddhist temples has been exacerbated by the chronic shortage of Buddhist monks from Cambodia. Until November 1996, the Ottawa Cambodian Buddhist temple had the only permanent monk in Ontario. The Toronto temple (Cambodian wat) did not have a resident Cambodian monk, although several elderly nuns (Duan chee) would go daily to attend to the shrine and recite prayers. One or two learned lay men (achaa) would be available as well for some ritual and religious services. An elderly Kampuchea Krom monk associated with the temple in Montréal resided there intermittently between l983 to l995. To provide Buddhist ceremonies, the Toronto temple relied on inviting guest monks from Cambodian communities in Montréal and the United States, or requesting the services of Theravada monks from the Laotian community. In April l995, the Toronto Cambodian Buddhist community purchased a large house in Maple, just north of the Toronto city boundary. This has became a monastic institution, housing a permanent monk who arrived from Cambodia in 1996 (there were three but two disrobed soon after arrival); Khmer Buddhist monks who can stay only as long as their visitor visas allow (reflecting the continuing difficulties in sponsorship); temporary ordained monks; and Duan chee who live there short-term to cook, clean, and do temple maintenance.
For many Khmer, Buddhism remains their primary expression of the Cambodian way of life. Much of the traditional Cambodian culture still practised in Canada is through family and life rituals (weddings, blessings, funerals), traditional cuisine, language, and behaviour patterns (gender roles, age/status hierarchy) influenced by Buddhist beliefs and practices. Community gatherings are geared towards the ceremonial cycle of celebrations and commemorations, beginning with New Year festivities in April, all providing opportunities for wearing Khmer clothing and participating in traditional music and dances. Traditional leadership roles are maintained through the activities of the monks and achaas who provide temple services and rituals, and through men’s participation in temple organization and administration, financial accounting, fund-raising, and monastic sponsorship attempts. Achaas and monks are actively involved in numerous aspects of Cambodian community life, facilitating funerals, memorials, exorcisms, blessings, healings, merit-making, and life transition events (such as weddings). The chronic shortage of monks, however, severely restricts these activities. The continuing lack of social and economic capital among Cambodians, combined with bureaucratic indifference, makes sponsorship a very difficult process. To alleviate the shortage of ritual specialists, temple leaders invite monks from Cambodia to visit for a year and then apply to extend their visa. To this end, connections with temples in Cambodia and elsewhere are diligently maintained. Conversely, temples in Cambodia continually solicit donations to rebuild temples and train monks, most of whom are newly ordained. Canadian Khmer bring large sums of money with them when they visit Cambodia. The money is primarily to help their families, but also to re-establish temples in the home village, or to become recognized as a patron in the building of a new temple. Any kind of support for Buddhist temples and monks is recognized as meritorious and enhances social status and prestige in both Cambodia and Canada.
The transnational role of religion is also connected to that of the performing arts, such as music and dance, both crucial to the negotiation and expression of socio-cultural identity in Cambodia and the diaspora. Classical music and dance remain an integral part of Buddhist ceremonies and life-cycle rituals, distinct from the non-religious popular forms evident at large community dances and informal parties among family and friends. Cambodian religious, music, and dance traditions are actively retained within the community; their symbolic and institutional power providing strong historical and cultural links to Cambodia. Most Cambodians listen to classical and popular Khmer music in their homes, and many own hundreds of videos featuring a wide variety of dances and songs. Music and dance performances are especially elaborate during New Year’s celebrations, at traditional Cambodian weddings, or as an enhanced feature during social events, such as a fashion show. The influence of global transportation, mass-media, and communication networks is especially crucial for the re-creation and redefinition of Khmer music and dance in the diaspora communities. Since few experienced teachers survived the Khmer Rouge, many dance and music instructors are self-taught from videos, CDs, and the occasional travelling troupe of performers (McKinley 2003). In addition to classical and popular music and dance being transmitted via cassettes, videos, CDs, DVDs, Karaoke, and the internet, religious teachings from respected monks and laymen in Cambodia are increasingly becoming available in these forms. As they are shared among family and friends in the diaspora, transnational identities and connections between Cambodian Canadians and Cambodia are nurtured.
The establishment of three new Cambodian Buddhist temples in Hamilton, London, and Windsor was primarily accomplished through the organization and commitment of Kampuchea Krom monks and lay people. Despite their significant involvement, the label of not being “really Khmer” has frequently been directed towards the Kampuchea Krom. In this regard they readily acknowledge their liminal status in Cambodian communities (McLellan 2003). Because Kampuchea Krom have lived generations in Vietnam and most speak Vietnamese as a second language, their identities as Khmer are different from the ethnic Khmer who were born and raised in Cambodia. Much of the suspicion directed towards Kampuchea Krom is rooted in the centuries old aggression and mistrust between Cambodia and Vietnam. Further, Kampuchea Krom were not subject to the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge and thus do not manifest the same degree of psychological trauma and distrust, or limited social capital. In Toronto and Hamilton, Kampuchea Krom feel they are not fully accepted by ethnic Khmer, and so tend to remain marginal to Khmer community networks and associations, keeping a low profile in leadership positions. The one exception has been their dedicated involvement in sponsoring Kampuchean Krom monks and in facilitating the purchase and support of the new temples. Although the Cambodian community directly benefits by the presence and activities of these temples, the Cambodian Khmer leadership is not entirely supportive, remaining suspicious of the Kampuchea Krom political advocacy and their innovations in Buddhist practice and organization. At the temple in Hamilton, for example, the Kampuchea Krom monk has re-introduced the traditional alms round, but since the surrounding neighbourhood is primarily non-Khmer, participating monks stop only at homes known to offer food. This monk is extensively involved in multi-faith and co-religious Buddhist activities (he is fluent in English, Khmer and Vietnamese); has organized annual summer ordination ceremonies for Cambodian youth, and extended the temporary ordination opportunity to young Khmer women; has ordained a young Caucasian monk who resides at the temple; and is the first monk in Ontario to open the Cambodian temple and Theravada Buddhist training to non-Khmer interested in meditation practice (McLellan 2003).
Some 130 Kampuchea Krom families live in Ontario (personal interview June 22/02 with the Director of the Kampuchea Krom National Association of Canada). In the early years of resettlement, relations with Cambodian-born Buddhist community leaders in Toronto were strong and joint activities common, but once the Toronto Cambodian temple stabilized financially and organizationally, changing attitudes of the temple board and leaders created difficulties (ibid). These attitudes caused many Kampuchea Krom to focus more on their own concerns. Some, however, continue to work on Cambodian Khmer committees. The availability and training of Kampuchea Krom monks also creates tension. Kampuchea Krom monks tend to be well-educated and speak English, making them attractive candidates to meet community and youth needs. For over one hundred years in Vietnam, Kampuchea Krom temples have actively retained a Khmer cultural and national identity through advocacy, education, community activities, and constant efforts to resist Vietnamese attempts to assimilate the youth. Vietnamese policies to rename Kampuchea Krom communities to dispel their Cambodian distinction were weakened when the name of the village temple became an informal identifier. Monks from the network of Kampuchea Krom temples in Vietnam are the crux of the Kampuchea Krom Khmer identity among those in diaspora. Monks are encouraged to go overseas for education to keep abreast of modern media technology in order to retain links with Kampuchea Krom outside of Vietnam. Kampuchea Krom monasticism is seen as a vocation, an essential calling to help support people to retain ethno-religious identity. It is not surprising that the Kampuchea Krom temples are said to be affiliated with the Thommayuth (reformist) movement (Director of the Kampuchea Krom National Association of Canada, June 02). In contrast, since the majority of Cambodian temples are Mohanikay (more traditional rural-based approach with an emphasis on ritual practices), they are not seen as “progressive” or “modern.” Becoming a monk in one of these temples is rarely a vocation, but more frequently a short phase for a young man previous to his marriage.
In Ontario, Kampuchea Krom youth are active participants in maintaining the global Kampuchea Krom identity, constructing their own web-sites and posting networks. Kampuchea Krom monks in Ontario play an active role in the United Association of Kampuchea Krom Buddhist Monks, regularly attending and organizing the annual meetings in Australia, France, United States, Canada, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The issues raised through these transnational meetings extend beyond Khmer Buddhism to broader social interests, such as participation in interracial and interfaith forums (ibid). The largest transnational organization is the World (International) Kampuchea Krom Association, which involves monks, political leaders, professionals, academics, and interested individuals. Association activities include media broadcasts, websites, magazines, the production of videos and CDs, Dragon Boat races, political advocacy for the recognition of Kampuchea Krom (e.g., a delegate accompanied the Clinton Presidential visit to Vietnam in 2001), and participation in global organizations such as the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), which includes over fifty peoples such as the Tibetans, Taiwanese, and former East Timors (ibid). To maintain these international connections and keep informed of new developments, monks and laypeople from Canada also attend the World Convention of Kampuchea Krom, held every four or five years in different countries.
Kampuchea Krom in Canada recognize the important role of Buddhism in helping to retain a Khmer minority identity in their new country, and are willing to organize and work together with Khmer from Cambodia. The successful strategies employed by Kampuchea Krom to preserve an ethnic Khmer identity in Vietnam could be utilized by ethnic Khmer from Cambodia to help develop and maintain their Buddhist identity in Canada. Differences remain between the two groups, however, and the collective memories of each are quite distinct: Kampuchea Krom utilize the Thommayuth classical approach to Buddhism, while Khmer from Cambodia are more familiar with the ritualism of Mohanikay; Kampuchea Krom monks are more politically and socially active; and most importantly, the Kampuchea Krom never experienced the ultimate powerlessness, unrelenting fear, horror, and hopelessness of those who survived the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.
The lingering psychological trauma experienced by Khmer from Cambodia is an enormous challenge that has not been adequately addressed, either within the community or by psychiatrists, centres for Victims of Torture, Community Health Services, and Children's Aid in Ontario (McLellan 1995). The after affects of mistrust, apathy, and the lack of support to improve their lives relentlessly impact on the difficulties of Cambodians in resettlement, including their ability to seek help. Buddhist beliefs and practices continue to provide the only culturally appropriate modes of healing and intervention, through ritual practices or consultations with a Buddhist monk, and on occasion, a nun. Yet, most Cambodians are only willing to address and identify their deep lingering trauma and its consequences if the monk is “true” Cambodian and can thereby relate to their own experiences.
Christian Cambodians:
Christian Cambodians provide a different example of resettlement dynamics and transnational connections. Conversion to Christianity is evident within all Cambodian communities in Ontario, but primarily involves only those from Cambodia. Large scale conversion first occurred in the refugee camps where a Christian identity enhanced the opportunity for Cambodians to participate in Christian sponsored educational and vocational training, medical and social services, or resettlement opportunities. Written testimonials and personal interviews indicate that many Cambodians converted through psychological or spiritual need, finding in Christianity a mechanism to come to terms with their past actions (survival behaviours), and their enormous hatred and thoughts of revenge against the Khmer Rouge, who perpetuated so much violence and suffering. Several converts note that what fuelled their conversion and enabled them to live through acute depression was the opportunity to receive God’s forgiveness, then to develop their own forgiveness towards others (McLellan 2003). During the resettlement process, most conversion among Cambodians in Ontario occurred through ongoing contact with the private sponsors who brought them to Canada and provided them with one year’s support thereafter. Sponsors were recognized as “patrons,” and refugees felt it necessary to “pay back” their sponsors by attending church when they were asked to come. This identification of the traditionally understood patron/client relationship enabled the Cambodians to understand why strangers offered financial and other forms of assistance to them. Reciprocally, they as “clients” felt the need, in return for this assistance, to demonstrate obligations of loyalty (Mortland and Ledgerwood 1988, 294).
Of the approximately five hundred Cambodians in Ontario who converted to Christianity, the majority have assumed a strong evangelical Protestantism. Catholicism, Christian Reform, Lutheran, and Seventh Day Adventist are other Christian affiliations. A few have also become Mormon. Evangelical delineations of beliefs and acceptable behaviours are frequently at odds with traditional Khmer cultural and religious practices. One Cambodian man noted that, as Christians, “we don’t smoke or drink so the other Cambodians feel uncomfortable with us” (personal interview 2002). There are no fewer than twenty evangelical Protestant Cambodian churches across Ontario, some of which are involved in national and transnational networks of faith. The Cambodian Evangelical Fellowships in Ottawa, Hamilton, London and Toronto, for example, belong to the Cambodian Christian Network of Canada (CCNC) and to the Cambodian Christian Services (an international organization). An annual conference of the Federation of the Cambodian Evangelical Churches in Canada has been held for over ten years, usually meeting in one or another Ontario location for a long weekend in July. Guest speakers include Khmer and non-Khmer pastors from the United States and Canada who have recently returned from Cambodia, thus blending Canadian-based issues with those of Cambodia. In contrast, although the American-based Seventh Day Adventists are active in Cambodia, and a Cambodian pastor is now working in the London area serving two non-Khmer congregations, church linkages between Ontario and Cambodia remain family oriented rather than institutional.
Christian congregations with Khmer speaking ministers try to preserve a Cambodian atmosphere during services and celebrations by reading from a Khmer translation of the bible, singing traditional Khmer tunes with new Christian words, serving Khmer food, and on occasion, encouraging Khmer dance. Christian pastors advocate steady employment, strong marriage commitment, educational achievement, reduced reliance on welfare, and avoidance of drinking and gambling. They consider strong Christian ethics and attitudes to be a more meaningful model for behaviour in Canada than the retention of Cambodian cultural traditions based on Buddhism. A few older Cambodians have found that Christian groups with an emphasis on communal prayer and Bible study meet their needs of isolation and loneliness. Often these individuals are women who have lost husbands, children, and parents, and have become marginalized in Khmer communities with little social or economic support. Religious differences among Khmer have led to some instances of community divisiveness and tension, but increasingly, people attempt to balance conflicts, especially during interfaith weddings and youth activities.
Several Khmer Christian lay people and pastors from Ontario are returning to Cambodia for missionary work. The medical, educational, and sponsorship benefits which these people received as a by-product of their conversion are now being used by them to convert others in Cambodia to Christianity in (Mclellan 2003). One pastor first returned to Cambodia in 1992 to visit his home village. His conversion attempts were so successful that he has returned numerous times and has built seven churches there. Evangelical churches in Ontario link Cambodians with one another and with non-Khmer from other countries. In 2002, a Toronto-based Korean Evangelical church sponsored several of their members, as well as a Khmer pastor in Ontario, to proselytize in Cambodia. Others return to Cambodia as part of a personal mission. One Ottawa-based Cambodian woman has worked for different Christian organizations in several Asian countries, and regularly returns to Cambodia in response to her inner beliefs and to advocate for women’s equality. These transnational linkages help Christian Cambodians facilitate a sense of global connection, expanding their identity beyond ethnic or refugee boundaries, especially when they belong to American-based Evangelical networks.
The activities of Christian group meetings, study sessions, women’s workshops, and youth counselling have provided such successful models that Buddhist Cambodians have begun to emulate them in recent years. A small number of Cambodian youth who attended these sessions have increased their commitment to Buddhism and found a sense of purpose and collective action in helping other Cambodian youth. They are active in the formation of Buddhist youth groups providing sports activities or field trips, and in creating opportunities for training in classical dance, community drop-in centres, or after-school homework clubs. The majority of Cambodian youth, however, tend to downplay any religious identity (Christian or Buddhist), and in their attraction towards materialism, popular images of power, and Canadian rather than Cambodian identity, often lack a clear perception of the value of religious belief and practice. Since Buddhist temples have been created in Hamilton, London, and Windsor, many Christian Khmer have also returned to participate in the ceremonies and festivities. This partially reflects the trend Douglas (2003, 174) observes among Cambodians in Seattle who search though religious institutions to “find what is good in both.” As a result, being a Buddhist Christian or a Christian Buddhist, or neither, all becomes part of their unique identity of being a Cambodian in North America. Among Cambodians in Ontario, sentiments downplaying religious particularism are becoming common, especially among Buddhists in general and those Christians who no longer attend church.
Transnational connections and linkages:
The most prevalent transnational connections and linkages with Cambodia and with other overseas Cambodians in France, Australia, or the United States are through family and friendship relationships. Affiliations with formal transnational organizations are rare, as people remain suspicious of structured associations, political parties and their representatives, organized activities and their organizers, and those who aspire to leadership. The legacy of the Khmer Rouge dismantlement of village-based social cohesion, experiences in the refugee camps, the years under Vietnamese occupation, and the extensive loss of close family relatives and loved ones heighten the importance of family and friends as the only reliable social unit to be trusted. Family and friendship ties remain as significant for the second generation born and raised in Canada, especially those who cultivate Khmer ethnic identity or those who participate in endogamous marriages. Unlike the Vietnamese or Tibetan refugees, Cambodians in Ontario have not affiliated with charismatic religious leaders or mobilized around issues and ideals of engaged activities (McLellan 2000). Individuals or family members may adhere to the teachings of particular monks and be willing to support their efforts of temple reconstruction in Cambodia, but will quickly back away if contention or division arises, especially if the monks become associated with political activities. Christian Cambodians who return to Cambodia to participate in conversion activities there will also change allegiance to their sponsoring groups (usually evangelical organizations based in the United States) if demands become too excessive on their time with family, or funding opportunities too scarce to justify their involvement.
Beyond the family and religious affiliations, other forms of transnational linkages are slowly being built. In the summer of 2002, the author interviewed several individuals in Cambodia to identify and assess the ability of Canadian Cambodians to maintain social, economic, and political ties with the homeland. Twelve of those interviewed were Cambodians who came to Canada as refugees, but later returned; two more were non-Khmer Canadians; four were Kampuchea Krom; and three were Cambodian nationals. Cambodians from Canada were involved in a variety of projects and activities; some were living in Cambodia full time, while others stayed as long as their participation in projects was necessary. Two of the Cambodians from Canada were members of the Cambodian parliament; four owned a business in Cambodia (engineering firm, investment consultant, hotel director, bank vice-president); one represented the Canadian government (Cambodia-Canada Legislative Support Project); and several worked with or had founded non-governmental organizations (Legal Support for Children and Women, Association Québec-Cambodge, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, non-affiliated Christian work). Six Cambodians from Canada returned to Cambodia for business or investment (which often included political participation); two returned as part of a Canadian or International effort (e.g., UNTAC); and four returned to develop or work within a non-governmental organization to help re-build the country and its people, or for religious commitment. The initial reasons for return were often different from the reasons why some of them chose to stay for longer periods of time.
All of the Cambodians from Canada interviewed in Cambodia, except for one Khmer woman from Ontario, were from Montréal. This points to the extent to which Cambodians from Québec have successfully developed transnational linkages beyond family connections. The reasons for the limited number of transnational linkages in Ontario communities can be found in the pre-migration status of Cambodians to Ontario. The social, political, educational, and economic status of individuals (or their families) before the Khmer Rouge regime determined the opportunities for resettlement in Québec and the rest of Canada. Montréal was the only city in Canada that had a Cambodian community prior to 1979; they were French-speaking university students, businessmen, professionals and diplomats. Their profiles are indicative of a wealthy class background that enabled them to attend French-speaking schools in Cambodia and beyond. Those who resettled in Québec after the Khmer Rouge regime tended to have family, business, and social contacts within the Montréal community who privately sponsored them; or they spoke French well enough for Québec government sponsorship. Significantly, when these Cambodians from Canada returned to Cambodia, their language skills (Khmer, French and English) enabled them to mediate between the different multinational government and NGO groups there (from Britain, France, United States and Australia). Also, the Cambodian-Canadian identity is seen as a valued neutral status. It is their pre-1975 socio-economic status and connections, however, that facilitate current personal networking in well-placed social, governmental, and economic spheres. Cambodians from Ontario do not have access to this networking since most are from rural-based agricultural backgrounds with little education or social status. This class distinction is recognized by both successful Cambodian Canadians in Cambodia and by Cambodians interviewed in Ontario who lament the difficulties they faced when returning to Cambodia and unsuccessfully trying to establish business links or political networks.
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