For the second year, students in Susan Needham’s ethnographic field methods class will assist Cambodian artisans in presenting the 2nd Cambodian Arts & Culture Exhibition in the Long Beach community of Cambodia Town, Inc. which will take place on Saturday, Nov. 20 at MacArthur Park in Long Beach. Along with discovering a new culture, the students have found connections to their own experiences through learning how seemingly obscure traditions are preserved and nurtured for the generations to come.
Lillian Justice has been working with Dosokhum Roth, a former Buddhist monk, to present the art of yoan, sacred drawings that serve as protective talismans and prayers to be answered.
“[Yoan] are drawings that [Cambodians] carry on themselves or have tattooed on their skin,” says Justice. “A yoan could be on a bracelet or necklace or something they use for protection.
“The yoan master empowers it and the person it is drawn for believes in it,” she continues. “Khmer soliders have yoan tattooed to their skin because it’s a form of protection, like a bulletproof vest. Individuals will have them to bless and protect their homes.”
Justice, a senior majoring in anthropology, says that the yoan fulfill the basic human need to feel “safe in our own skin. This art form gives the people who receive it that sense of security.”
As Justice learned through finding that yoan can only be created by certain monks and artisans, Audrey Dollar learned that Cambodian culture emphasizes the performance of certain music for particular situations. While most Khmer music is learned and performed for social and religious ritual, she discovered the mohari ensemble through Bunsorng Tay, who runs the Homeland Community Cultural Center in Long Beach.
“The organization [Tay] works with provides the instruments for a mohari ensemble, which is a traditional Khmer music ensemble,” she says. “They are one of the only traditional groups that plays for entertainment purposes only.”
Dollar also learned about the resourcefulness of the Cambodian community, which has had to substitute readily available materials to construct their instruments.
“They don’t have the resources here to make the instruments in the way they are traditionally made in Cambodia,” says Dollar. “So they have to substitute a lot of the materials, like different types of bamboo, for what is used back home. The strings have to be made of something that is easier to get in America.”
Dollar also underscores the fact that mohari is taught purely through teachers handing down the largely undocumented music.
“The group that I’ve been working with are children [taking] music lessons,” she says. “The elders… teach them in an observational, mimicking kind of way. The students and teachers sit across from each other. The teacher will play something on his instrument and the student will just repeat it from watching and listening to him. They try to keep it as close to tradition as possible. Not much of it is written down, so they do it all from memory.”
The diversity of topics that the students are working to present includes sports and leisure. Greg Altounian, a senior majoring in anthropology is assisting community member Hean Pin with a demonstration of the Cambodian game of sey.
“It’s basically similar to hacky-sack or juggling,” says Altounian, who is a midfielder for the men’s soccer team. “It’s played with a shuttlecock. [Pin] makes them and it’s just like juggling. You keep it up with your feet, thighs, forearms, head, chest, but no hands, rallying back and forth with four players.”
Altounian says that his discovery of sey illustrated the basic drive of all cultures to have an activity “that can promote a healthy lifestyle. All cultures have a similar game, whether it is soccer or hacky-sack. It just shows how basic you can be with a sport.”
The students’ exploration of Cambodian culture extended to language. Richard Quilona is collaborating with Phylypo Tum, a software engineer, to present Tum’s Khmer language learning software.
“It’s kind of like Rosetta Stone, “ says Quilona, a senior majoring in anthropology. “It’s called Ream Khmer. Tum got into that because when he was transferred to the US from the refugee camp in 1988 with his family, he moved up to Stockton [where] he was the only Cambodian in his middle school. Because of that, whenever he heard Khmer spoken, he gained an appreciation [of the language] and a sense of belonging.”
While Ream Khmer is not the first Cambodian language software, Quilona says that it is the most advanced since the code it utilizes “reads” Khmer characters as the unique characters that they are, not adaptations of the Roman alphabet.
Quilona says that the experience of working to help preserve the Khmer language in the United States – and teach American-born Cambodians their parents’ native tongue – has made him more aware of the importance of preserving ethnic languages and culture.
“Through my anthropology classes, I know how important language is to a culture,” says Quilona. “Without language, a culture really dies. It’s made me more aware of people who contribute to their culture. This Cambodian exhibit is a key example of what that is.”
As a Filipino American, Quilona says that he wishes that his community was more proactive in preserving its native culture as well as adapting to the American mainstream. He says that the story of the violent abatement of Cambodian culture by the Khmer Rouge is an cautionary tale to all ethnicities.
“[Cambodians] went through this period with the Khmer Rouge, where the culture almost died out and where it definitely changed,” says Quilona. “That was only 30 or 40 years ago, so there are people who really want to preserve it. Any human right that you have, if it’s taken away, you’re going to value it more.
“It’s like me experiencing all this Cambodian cultural preservation,” It makes me want to take it back to my own community and say, ‘We really need to be preserving our own culture without having to go through some atrocity or loss of culture.’”
For more information on the Cambodian Arts & Culture Exhibition, click here.
For information on the anthropology department at CSU Dominguez Hills, click here.