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Strangers in a Strange Land

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The most traumatic national event during my youth was the Vietnam War. Approximately 60,000 Americans lost their lives at that time, a sad fact that is movingly commemorated by the memorial in Washington, D.C. (A film that comes as close to recreating all of the circumstances surrounding that war and culminating in a visit to the memorial by loved ones is "In Country," starring Bruce Willis.) I demonstrated against the war as a high school student, fought with my elders who were blithely indifferent to the implications of it, and was eventually drafted into it. That was a terrible experience for me, but the war was a disaster for all involved.

However, this is just the perspective of an American. The Vietnamese suffered a million and a half dead and their country devastated. That would have been bad enough, but in attempting to cut off outside aid getting to the insurgents, the US launched a secret war against Cambodia. That led to the fleeing of the leadership of that country to China, leaving a vacuum into which the murderous Khmer Rouge surged. As a result, more than two million citizens of that country were killed in purges. In addition, fighting spread into Laos, where even more died.

Eventually, many of the people from those countries fled to the United States. The Vietnamese set up a community in Westminster, California, which has grown and thrived. At least that is one good outcome from an awful beginning.

And besides that, Cambodians followed along to America. In their case, a large contingent ended up settling in the city in which I have lived for the past 30+ years, Long Beach. In fact, Long Beach is so important to Cambodians that its Sister City is Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia.

After becoming established here, that section of Long Beach came to be designated Cambodiatown. It has grown so successfully that for the last decade every spring a Cambodiatown festival has been held here. This is a great event that Cambodians come from all around to participate in. This year it was held on Sunday, April 8.

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Many dignitaries offered their congratulations to the Cambodian community over the mounting of the festival, starting with King Norodom Sihamoni, and including Congressman Alan Lowenthal of the 47th District of California, as well as Mayor of Long Beach Robert Garcia.

I attended the festival myself, arriving at around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The parking lot of the Mark Twain Library was packed with hundreds of people. There was a stage set up for acts, along with 15 or 20 rows of seats for the audience. When I arrived there were several young men playing a game of sey. This is similar to hacky sack, but uses a shuttlecock. Later there would be music and dance performances given on the stage.

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These are photographs from last year’s festival. The organizers told me that photographs from this year’s festival will be posted online soon at www.Cam-CC.org.

The booths that were set up all around the periphery of the venue area displayed all sorts of Cambodian products for sale. At some there were dishes for sale featuring meats that were grilled just outside the grounds of the festival. At others all kinds of traditional Cambodian clothing, like the krama, a Cambodian scarf, were displayed.

Other than that, there were booths where information of interest to the community was disseminated. One booth was sponsored by the Cambodian Coordinating Council (Cam-CC), where the organizers of the festival fielded questions from visitors and passed out literature explaining social services available. The Cambodian Association of America and the Cambodian Women Business Federation also had booths, along with several other groups. There was one for the local Buddhist temple, another for Khmer arts and still another was a Khmer bridal booth.

In regards to the community services, here is a flyer that was distributed:

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Of course, without an understanding of the Khmer language this kind of information is not very useful. So it is good that a translation was provided as well:

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It is wonderful that there are so many activities regularly held at the library that involve people in the life of the community. It makes for a vibrant social scene in Cambodiatown.

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One more thing: two major sponsors of the 10th Annual Cambodiatown Culture Festival were Oxley Holdings Ltd. and Worldbridgeland (Cambodia) Co., Ltd. Those corporations are the principals behind a major development project in Cambodia, the Peak. It is heartening to see that a country that suffered so much in the past is confidently moving into a prosperous future.

Those who wish to comment on the opinions expressed here may send their thoughts to info@GoWizardry.com. The most interesting responses will be addressed in future postings.

Robert J. Terry

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